Autism is one of society's most common developmental disabilities, yet a lack of research funding has greatly impeded progress toward a cure and has often left researchers with more questions than answers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism and its associated behaviors occur in an estimated 1 in 500 individuals. Since it was first identified by Leo Kanner more than 50 years ago, great strides have been made in our understanding of the disorder.
Researchers now know that autism is:
* a neurological disorder that affects the normal development of the brain involved with social and communication skills,
* that boys are affected four times more often than girls, and
* that autism is a spectrum disorder with symptoms that range from mild to severe.
People who have autism may have difficulty in communication, social interactions, and participating in leisure activities. Some may exhibit bizarre behavior such as repeated body movements (hand-flapping or rocking), attachments to objects, and resistance to change. In some cases, aggressive and/or self-injurious behavior may be present. Individuals may also be over- or underreactive to any or all of the five senses.
Despite this knowledge base, fundamental issues about autism--such as its causes, effective treatments or cure, prevention, and even accurate prevalence rates in the United States--am still unknown.
This could soon change, however, thanks to three new bills currently before the United States Congress. The bills--two in the House and one in the Senate--call for $7.5 million annually to assess the incidence and prevalence of autism nationwide, and $39 million annually to establish five autism research "Centers of Excellence" that would combine clinical and basic research in autism, attract the country's top scientists, and create a network for the dissemination and replication of research findings to health professionals and the public. The proposed funding, which would be funneled through the CDC and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would more than double the funds currently available.
About the legislation
The proposed bills recognize that autism is considered by many scientists to be one of the most heritable of all the developmental disorders and the most likely to yield to the latest scientific advancements in genetics and neurology. Furthermore, additional research on autism may also help researchers understand other disorders, ranging from learning problems to hyperactivity, that affect millions of Americans.
The autism advocacy community has played a key role in the development of these three bills and is actively calling on the public to contact their US Senators and Representatives to urge their support (see "What You Can Do To Help"). Three national parent organizations, the Autism Society of America (ASA) and its Foundation (ASAF), Cure Autism Now (CAN), and the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR), have joined forces to raise public awareness about the bills, since at least 100 cosponsors of the two House bills (H.R. 997 and H.R. 274) and 35 cosponsors of the Senate bill (S. 512) are needed to buoy their passage.
While enactment of this legislation would be a great stride forward in autism research, passage of these bills does not guarantee immediate funding, but rather gives the NIH and the CDC the ability to request additional funding for autism research.
Below are summaries of the new bills currently before Congress, and some tips on what autism advocates can do to increase the chances that these bills are passed. There is also additional information regarding autism.
H.R. 997: "Advancement in Pediatric Autism Research Act" H.R. 997 calls for a significant increase in the amount of funding at the NIH for autism biomedical research and the coordination of research. …