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Autism’s Costs to the Nation Reach $137 Billion a Year

April 02, 2012

New research estimates that autism’s costs to the nation have reached $137 billion per year. The figure expands on previous estimates by including indirect costs such as lost family income and productivity in addition to the direct costs of autism-associated care. For perspective, this national expense surpasses the individual gross domestic product (GDP) of 139 countries.

The researchers also estimated autism’s lifetime costs for one individual to be more than $2.3 million for a person with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability and $1.4 million for a person with ASD and no intellectual disability. Intellectual disabilities affect around 40 percent of those with autism.

The study, funded by Autism Speaks, was conducted by health services researchers David Mandell, Sc.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, and Martin Knapp, Ph.D., of the London School of Economics. They presented their findings in Hong Kong this past weekend as part of “Investing in our Future: The Economic Costs of Autism,” an international summit hosted by Goldman Sachs Hong Kong in collaboration with the Child Development Centre and Autism Speaks.

Drs. Knapp and Mandell calculated autism associated costs using the CDC’s 2009 ASD prevalence figures of 1 in 110. This past Thursday, the CDC significantly increased their prevalence figure to 1 in 88. (See our related news story here.)

“These figures make it all the more clear that our society as a whole needs to become engaged in solving this public health emergency,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “All of us are touched by autism and its economic burden. We need our national and state leaders – and political candidates – to rise to the challenge by making autism one of our top public health priorities.”

Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, adds, “Autism is a global public health crisis. The costs are staggering and will continue to rise as prevalence continues to increase. We know that early diagnosis and treatment are critical, so it is imperative that the U.S. and governments around the world step up their commitment to helping people living with autism today. The investment we make now is essential to reducing the long-term costs of autism.”

According to this and previous research, the majority of costs related to autism are incurred during adulthood, principally due to the cost of residential care as well as underemployment and unemployment.

“We are paying for the costs of inaction and the costs of ‘inappropriate action,’” says Dr. Mandell. “Social exclusion of individuals with autism and intellectual disability, and exclusion of higher-functioning individuals from employment opportunities are increasing the burden not only on these individuals and their families, but on society as a whole.”

The research also found that non-medical costs account for the majority of autism costs. These include behavioral intervention services and special education, special-needs childcare and adult residential placement. However, direct medical costs such as outpatient care, home care and medications contribute significantly to overall costs.  

Autism Speaks is providing additional funding to Drs. Knapp and Mandell to examine how autism therapies can reduce lifetime costs associated with autism. Their investigation will focus on intensive early behavioral interventions as well as vocational interventions that support the transition to independent adulthood.

Dr. Mandell recently published related findings showing having a child with autism severely affects a mother’s income. See our related news item here.  Please also see Dr. Mandell’s personal message to our community, in the Autism Speaks science blog.

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