Is there an autism epidemic?
Frank Viti, chief executive officer, Autism Speaks Canada:
Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in the world, with the prevalence of diagnosis having increased by 600 per cent over the last 20 years. In 1975, the prevalence number was 1 in 5,000; in 2001 it was 250; in 2012, the prevalence number has jumped to 1 in 88. As Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, was quoted as saying, “We have an epidemic on our hands. The costs are staggering and will continue to rise as prevalence continues to increase.”
In the U.S., autism costs society $126 billion per year, which has more than tripled since 2006. With the new prevalence number of 1 in 88, this will jump to $137 billion.
Although there are some positive signs that show an increase in awareness of autism spectrum disorders, as well as better detection and reporting of autism, these positive signs come with a need for programs and services to assist those affected by autism. There is also a greater need for access to treatment as the prevalence numbers increase. With this extra awareness, detection and reporting comes an increased need for funding.
Accessibility is also a problem. There are long wait times for diagnosis, and then it is a struggle to secure the appropriate educational services and therapies such as speech, behaviour and occupational therapies that are important to the development of someone on the spectrum. There is also a greater need to make ABA and IBI therapies more accessible. Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology reported that in 2007, families were paying more than $60,000 a year on autism therapy.
We all must keep in mind that autism is not something you grow out of. There are thousands of adolescents and adults living with autism and there are not enough resources to help them find housing and employment so that they can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives with the same opportunities that their typically developing peers have. In 2007, the Standing Senate Committee reported that there were more than 144,000 Canadian adults on the spectrum and 48,000 Canadian children. As these young children with autism grow up, they will contribute to the increasing number of the already underfunded and under-resourced adult population on the spectrum. Much more attention needs to be paid to developing programs and services that will help those adults on the spectrum now and to prepare for those who will enter adulthood on the spectrum down the road.
Autism places a tremendous financial and emotional burden that families must confront on a daily basis as they battle this disorder. They need resources to help lessen the constraints that they face in accessing diagnosis, treatment, programs, services and therapies. Costs need to be reduced and access increased, and until there is more substantial evidence that this is happening, autism will be an epidemic in our society.