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How Can We Meet the Challenges of Rising Autism Prevalence?

 

 This week’s “Got Questions?” post is from Michael Rosanoff, M.P.H., Autism Speaks associate director of public health research and scientific review.

Yesterday’s announcement of the CDC’s new autism prevalence figures  - 1 in 88 U.S. children – has understandably generated many questions in our community. In our related science news story, we addressed the all-important question of what might be driving this dramatic increase. As mentioned in that news story, we are funding a number of studies exploring possible environmental, or nongenetic, influences that may be contributing to this increase.  

In today’s “Got Questions?” post, I’d like to address a question related to the increased need for autism-related services: Are we – as a nation – equipped to handle the growing need for screening, treatment, educational support and related services across the lifespan?

The good news is that our sustained investment in research has produced clear advances in the diagnosis and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). We have a better understanding than ever of what interventions work best to address needs and improve outcomes. For instance, we now know the importance of early diagnosis and intensive early intervention in improving language, sociability and cognitive function and in relieving challenging behaviors that interfere with daily function, education and quality of life.

But it’s not enough to develop quality interventions with proven benefits. We must become better at delivering these services. The Combatting Autism Act and its recent reauthorization helped ensure that autism remains in the forefront of public health issues, and that financial resources are allocated to address these needs.

Still, many families continue to face tremendous challenges in getting adequate and timely services. Hurdles include shortages of service providers and poor or non-existent coverage of autism services by health insurance providers. Ethnic minorities and low-income families have been hardest hit in terms of inadequate access to early diagnosis and intervention. These challenges may become greater with the increasing prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Our Move the Needle initiative aims to address these needs by lowering the overall age of diagnosis and access to quality early interventions in all communities. Related needs include:

* Improved screening and diagnosis in all our communities with the broader use of validated diagnostic measures with mandated insurance coverage for testing;

* Increased access to services, including mandated coverage of autism-related services by health insurers in all states;

* Increase services for children who “age out” of the system and are no longer eligible for school-based services, including Medicaid allowances for services that can serve as alternatives to institutional placement.

We must also ask how our schools are handling and will handle the growing influx of students with ASD. With teacher layoffs and program cutbacks, our school districts are already struggling. Yet these same schools are enrolling record numbers of students with autism and face a corresponding increase in the demand for intensive interventions in the school setting. Our schools need additional funding to support these needs and demands. As an organization, we support a number of efforts aimed at increasing access to ASD services for students.

With autism prevalence increasing, it’s clearer than ever that our nation as a whole needs to become engaged in overcoming obstacles to vital services that can improve outcomes. More than ever, all of us are touched by autism and its economic costs. We need policies that allow individuals with autism to achieve their greatest potential and become a respected and valued part of our society.

For more information, see these recent blog posts and news items: “Autism Prevalence Rises to 1 in 88,” “New Perspective on Rising Prevalence,” “Reflections on Autism’s Rise,” “Costs of Autism Summit,” “Autism Care Slams Mom’s Income” and “Autism and Family Income: A Mom’s Story.”