For a number of reasons, autism prevalence figures are growing. The definition of autism has been expanded along with a better diagnosis of the disorder. Autism is a spectrum of behaviors, and every autistic person is different in terms of onset, severity, and types of symptoms. People with autism have issues with non-verbal communication, a wide range of social interactions, and social activities. Autism is a growing global health priority, and April is National Autism Awareness Month. The objective is to increase knowledge and understanding of autism; recognize the talents and skills of people with autism, and; generate awareness to the needs of all people with autism.
We know boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism. The CDC released data on the prevalence of autism in the United States. This surveillance study identified 1 in 68 children – 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls – have some form of autism. Whether this an accurate assessment or not, Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said by 2025, half the children born in the United States will be diagnosed with autism. If that figure is even partially accurate, society better begin to prepare in earnest. The Autism Society estimates that the United States is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism. Autism costs a family $60,000 a year on average. More importantly, there is no medical detection or cure for autism.
While significant, the data is more than just numbers, it is about real people, real families and our need as a society to address any challenge we meet head on. We are improving in identifying autistic people, as well as accepting them. Imagine the impact we can have on those whose lives are touched by autism every single day. We must recognize that all children are created in the image of God and have potential. However, as a culture, we must make certain the support and resources they need to realize that potential is available to educators and parents.
Autism is treatable. However, children do not “outgrow” autism. Studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to significantly improved outcomes. The CDC believes we must promote early identification of children with ASD. That burden is likely to fall on pediatricians, children’s hospitals and ultimately on public schools. We will need to design services for children and families affected by ASD and increase professional learning and development for the professionals who provide services. Research will continue to be needed in this emerging field, as well as developing policies that promote and align with improved outcomes in health care and education for individuals with ASD.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Blue is the color. Light it up blue.
J.C. Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.