Autism Carries Enormous Costs for Us All

Article excerpt

Byline: Doug Richards For The Register-Guard

April 2 was the United Nations' second international Autism Awareness Day, and in Lane County it seemed to pass with little fanfare. We all lead busy lives, and isn't there some sort of U.N. awareness day for everything?

Well, not for health-related issues; only AIDS, diabetes and now autism have that dubious distinction. Sixty-seven million people have been diagnosed with autism worldwide, but tens of millions more live with it each and every day as the parents and caregivers for those living on the autism spectrum. Society will pay for this challenge for decades to come.

According to the textbooks, autism is a lifelong neurological condition then affects how a person relates to the world. Because it is a spectrum disorder, meaning that its effects can range from mild to severe, some people with autism exhibit only the most subtle differences from you or me and may be thought to be nothing more than a bit quirky. Other people with autism may never break through the bottleneck that keeps them from participating in our world and may have extreme behavior challenges.

To date we are not exactly sure what causes autism, and there is still more than a little controversy surrounding this mystery. We know that in some cases there is a genetic component, and it has been suspected that there is some sort of environmental trigger or triggers. We do know that most children with autism are not mentally retarded. In the past it was thought that nearly 75 percent of children with autism were mentally retarded; today we know that nearly the opposite is true.

Autism carries some enormous social costs. Sadly, children with autism are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives than neuro-typical children. The incidence of divorce among families who have a child with a developmental disability such as autism is more than 50 percent higher than the national rate. Because of an inability to understand social situations, consistent rewarding employment can be elusive for people with autism. We will all pay for the autism epidemic in some shape or form.

Today many children, not just ones with autism, are not getting the right structure and support they need to reach their full potential. Children with autism have myriad treatment needs and educational challenges, ranging from sensory and social to behavior issues and learning skills. These are all interconnected, and addressing them can be complex and expensive - but we know it does pay dividends.

These dividends come in many forms that may be off in the distance (reduced incarceration, lower divorce rates, more productive employment) but this does not make them any less real.

However, because these dividends are off in the future it is easy to focus on very real financial challenges today and let the long-term costs of autism be someone else's problem. This is a fine tradition in American policymaking - look at Social Security and Medicare.

With more than $50 trillion of wealth vaporized in the current financial downturn, there are many voices that are louder than those of families living with autism, many of whose children don't speak. Having attended a school board meeting, it was obvious that the stark economic realities have been present for educators for some time, and they are bracing for more. Difficult decisions are being made around the nation with respect to cutting programs and staff, delaying maintenance and improvements to schools, and just trying to ride out the storm.

Autism also comes with a pretty grim economic reality. Harvard researchers estimated several years ago that the lifetime costs of treating and caring for a person with autism might reach $3 million; given the number of people diagnosed with autism globally we face a challenge that through this century will be measured in the tens of quadrillions of dollars - yes, quadrillions. …