By developmental-behavioral pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks’ senior vice president for medical research.
Like many of you, I read Sunday’s New York Times article “The Kids Who Beat Autism” with great interest and emotion. Stories of children who appear to overcome the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder are so compelling. For the many families whose teenage and adult children continue to struggle with severe social and communication disabilities and autism-associated medical problems, these accounts can seem too good to be true.
As we highlighted in our Top Ten Advances in Autism Research for 2013, science clearly shows that a subset of children with autism achieve optimal outcomes. They overcome their autism-related disabilities by the time they reach adulthood.
What allows some individuals to achieve optimal outcomes when others do not? While no one can predict how much progress any one child will make, the new research reinforces what we’ve long seen: High-quality early intervention increases function, quality of life and the chance of that optimal outcome.
This is why Autism Speaks has long fought to decrease the age of diagnosis while increasing access to high-quality, evidence-based therapies for all on the autism spectrum.
The fight continues. Currently, only 37 states mandate that health plans provide some level of coverage. And public early intervention programs tend to be woefully inadequate in the face of the huge and growing need for autism services.
Early intervention more than pays for itself; it’s an investment in our children and our future.
This is the message we must convey to legislators and policy makers: It’s not just families but our entire society that benefits when we invest in effective intervention for all children with ASD, and do so as early as possible.
High-quality behavioral therapies for autism are expensive. We know that out-of-pocket expenses run up to $60,000 a year. Few families can afford this expense.
Yet it makes dollars and “sense” for society as a whole to invest in high-quality early intervention. Cost-benefit research supported by Autism Speaks shows that early intervention saves money in the long run – by reducing the need for life-long support services. (See “High-Quality Early Intervention More Than Pays for Itself.”)
Investing in medical research and care
At the same time, our investments must go beyond behavioral therapies to address the medical issues that can complicate autism and compound its disabilities. Sleep disorders, painful gastrointestinal dysfunction and seizures are among the serious conditions being addressed through the “whole person” approach of the Autism Speaks Treatment Network (AS-ATN).
Our AS-ATN specialists are working at centers across the United States and Canada to develop the comprehensive treatment guidelines that can enable our children to achieve their individual optimal outcomes.
Medical advances for autism also require investment in genetic research to identify the many underlying causes of autism – so we can develop medicines that best address each of these subtypes. This is what our AUT10K program is all about.
We continue to increase our investment in medical research at all our AS-ATN centers and beyond. We are grateful for the federal funding we receive to help with this work. But we call on the National Institutes of Health to increase this investment through not only the AS-ATN but other autism research centers across the nation.
We all share the goal of helping individuals with autism achieve the highest possible quality of life – to become valued and valuable members of our society. As stories of optimal outcomes illustrate, some of our children are achieving this goal. We must ensure that every individual with ASD gets that chance.