Experts: Prepare now for autism’s rising flood

As the number of school-age children diagnosed with autism continues to rise at an alarming rate, parents and special-education teachers are trying desperately to make school leaders aware of the often-overlooked education needs and costs associated with the condition.

Autism typically appears around age three and is a neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. While it is defined by a certain set of behaviors, it is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and to different extents. For unknown reasons, autism is four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.

Signs that a child might be autistic include a lack of or delay in spoken language, little or no eye contact, lack of interest in friendships, repeated motions or words, fixation on parts of objects, and lack of spontaneous or make-believe play.

The Autism Society of America (ASA) estimates that families could spend anywhere from $3.5 million to $5 million caring for a child with autism over the child’s lifetime. National costs, including research, educational spending, and insurance, reach nearly $90 billion each year.

Nationally, one out of every 150 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The federal government estimates that autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent each year and could affect 4 million Americans in the next decade.

“When you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,” said Brenda Smith-Myles, ASA’s chief program officer. “No two children on the autism spectrum have the same needs.”

Given the explosive growth of the disorder, the fact that no two cases are alike, and the resulting strain this puts on education systems, experts are sounding an alarm and warning school stakeholders to prepare now for what could be a flood of challenges in the coming years.

There is no known single cause for autism, and the debate over potential causes has ignited a media firestorm. However, most people acknowledge that autism is caused by abnormalities in the brain’s structure or the way it functions. Researchers are investigating links between autism and genetics, environmental factors, and other medical problems.

Laura Ascione

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