Autism rates have risen to epidemic rates of 1:88, and 1:54 for boys. Joanna Schroeder investigates what we can do to help alleviate the problem.
That’s a staggering number. 1 in 54. It almost takes your breath away. When I was in high school there was one boy I knew with Autism; a sweet, earnest kid with an excellent singing voice. Other than him, I didn’t know anything about Autism.
When I first got pregnant in 2004, I had a plethora of concerns, but Autism wasn’t one of them. The day I peed on a stick and come up with two blue lines, I’d also had two Vodka and Sodas, an ungodly amount of sushi, a half pack of Marlboro lights, and at least one whole milk triple latte. For the duration of my heretofore-unsuspected pregnancy I’d been standing for eight hours in four-inch heels, climbing ladders, chewing tons of gum with aspartame, and barely sleeping—I was working 40+ hours a week and putting myself through college as an adult at UCLA.
I was obviously doing everything wrong. But the moment those two blue lines showed up, and Ivan ran into the bathroom with happy tears in his eyes, all that craziness stopped. We wanted to do all we could to protect our future baby from anything we could possibly control.
The last thing I was worried about was Autism, but the moment I went online to research due dates and maternity jeans, one thing kept popping up: Autism. What was causing it? Agricultural runoff in the ground water? Vaccinations? No one knew. It was terrifying to think of something we couldn’t control.
These fears multiplied when I found out I was having a boy, as boys are diagnosed with Autism at a much higher rate than girls, and no one really knows why. Our sons have not been diagnosed with Autism, but we know many children who have been.
Last week new data was released that puts the diagnosis rates for Autism at 1:88 for both sexes and 1:54 for boys. WebMD explains the following:
“The increase in prevalence is only partly explained by the broadening of the diagnosis, improved detection and more awareness,” he said. “A large proportion of autism, some 50%, remains unexplained.”
One hint comes from data showing that autism prevalence is higher in areas where doctors are better at diagnosing autism in kids with relatively high intellectual ability.
The CDC’s huge multi-year Study to Explore Early Development (SEED), begun in 2008, is exploring various autism risk factors. The very first results should start coming out later this year. But since SEED follows kids from the time of their mother’s pregnancy, it will take time for the study to mature.
It’s known that autism results from a complex interaction between genetic and environmental influences. But it’s not known which types of autism are most closely linked to which factors.
A neuro-biologist friend of mine and I were musing on correlational changes in the last 20 years, such as the extended use of birth control pills (imagine the 37 year olds having babies now have probably been on birth control for 20 years) or even the use of antidepressants during pregnancy, as approximately 6% of pregnant women use antidepressants while pregnant. But as of now, everything revolves around theories.
For now, our focus should be on getting Early Intervention for all children who land on the spectrum. As it stands, the wealthier the family, the better the treatment.
Mark Roithmayr, from Autism Speaks, explains that Autism diagnoses rising to 1:88 now ranks the disease as an epidemic. This fact is even more urgent and alarming when you consider how high the risk is for boys.
We are dealing with a national emergency that is in need of a national strategy. At 1 in 88, we now have over 1 million children directly affected by autism. According to a newly released study the annual cost of autism in the United States is a staggering $126 billion annually, more than tripling the cost analysis from six years ago.
Behind all these statistics are real families, real individuals struggling each and every day. Some with autism are struggling to find satisfying jobs where they can productively use their talents and abilities. Others with autism have extremely complicated medical and social challenges. Make no mistake though, wherever one falls on the spectrum, all with autism struggle each and every day. And it is clearly time we, as a caring society, commit to a National Strategy. A comprehensive National Strategy that substantially increases all efforts to date.
A call to action that:
- Funds more basic science uncovering the genetic underpinnings of autism.
- Funds more environmental research detecting the causes of autism.
- Accelerates the funding and development of effective medicines and treatments.
- Commits to a strategy where all children with autism from every background are diagnosed no later than 18 months of age.
- Commits to a National Training Corps recruiting more therapists and service providers as well as specially trained teachers and teacher assistants into the field.
We also need to address the growing issue of adults with autism specifically around continuing education, employment, housing/residential living and community integration. Here too, we need a focus on a National Training Corps to recruit and train professionals to work with our adults.
And that’s the bottom line: Early Intervention, education, opportunity, and hopefully—one day—prevention, for the sake of our boys who are suffering during this epidemic that most adults ignore or feel helpless against.
What do you think? Do you have any theories on what has caused this spike in Autism diagnoses? What can we do to help better understand and assist the boys and men in our society who have this condition?
Photo courtesy of SeRVe Photography