By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
We have a medical condition spreading in our society that in the space of 20 years has gone from hurting 1 in 3,000 kids to hurting 1 in 88. This is astounding on two counts — the sheer speed and reach, and the silence.
Before the 1980s the rate of autism in the United States was somewhere around 3 in 10,000. By the 1990s, it was reported to be about 34 kids per 10,000 — 10 times more. Growth was alarming educators and scientists as reports of more and more diagnoses trickled in. A more comprehensive reporting system put in place in 2000 found the rate had risen to one in 150 kids.
Public attention was called to the possibility that mercury in vaccinations might be the cause. By 2002, mercury had been removed from vaccinations. The rate of autism continued to rise. Back to the tear-stained drawing board.
By 2006 the national monitoring system reported 1 in 100 kids with autism. And in March 2012 solid research found 1 in 88 kids were diagnosed as autistic and that among boys, the rate is now 1 in 54 — on our watch.
As a futurist, this issue is actually easier to see forward on than others I write about. The future is grim unless we do something.
These numbers are not without controversy. Some folks believe that if you fund treatment of something, you are going to get more people claiming to have the disease. Some feel that increased public awareness leads to more reporting. Some feel that the reporting methods years ago were bad, and that the rate of increase is not as bad as reported. It is likely there is some truth in all of these perspectives — but even if all were true, that does not explain away 1 in 88 and rising.
Americans are very fond of a “single cause” mindset. We like to think that if something bad happens, it has a specific, identifiable cause.
Life is more complicated than that — you can have an auto accident because you did not sleep well, failed to eat breakfast, put in a hard day, got a cell phone call and were trying to quiet the kids in the back seat — all at once. You just get overwhelmed. Crash.
And like car wrecks, the brain breakdowns are not all the same — some are fender benders, some are rear enders. And some are devastating. That is why healthcare professionals call it autism a “spectrum of disease.”
Surprisingly, many autistics have bigger brains than the rest of us. And like car accidents, autism appears to have many contributing factors, including genetics, issues during pregnancy, poor nutrition uptake (both mother and child), over active immune systems, and various cumulative forms of pollution.
This means that the research into “cause” must take into account many possible combinations at a time when research money is being cut.
In spite of less-funded research than the size of the problem might suggest would be a good idea, some progress is being made. Many studies have found that autistics commonly have low levels of vitamins and minerals in their system. (This does not necessarily mean that they are not eating right; it may have to do with how their body absorbs the food.) One interesting finding is that women who participate in the Woman, Infants and Children program had lower autism rates. Other studies are finding that the way the body fights threats gets broken — it may produce more defenders than is needed, hurting the brain in the process.
So, we have a mess on our hands. Until we can be clearer on how to prevent this problem, we can take comfort from more than 500 studies showing that early intervention is very helpful to these children and pays a cost/benefit of between $6 and $21 saved for each dollar of treatment given.
One program that shows us a path forward is the Early Start Denver Model, where they found that spending 20 hours a week with 18-to-30-month-old diagnosed autistics resulted in an IQ gain of 18 points.
We need to support these tortured parents, and overwhelmed school systems. Early intervention costs are not trivial — but they are a lot less than caring for these youngsters for the rest of their lives.