By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor/Columnist
April is Autism Awareness Month, and all over the world various advocacy groups, parents’ resource agencies and activists are “lighting it up blue” to build awareness of autism and related disabilities. This annual event was held on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day, and was marked by landmarks all over the world bathed in blue light to draw attention to the cause of finding treatments for autism.
For many families, though, autism awareness is a way of life. Once believed to be a rare condition, diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders have been on the rise in recent decades. In 2002, a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated the prevalence of autism in 1985 at about four in 10,000 children, or less than 0.04 percent, with males showing a higher rate than females. The Centers for Disease Control now estimate a diagnosis rate of 11 per 1,000 children, or one out of 88.
Chances are you probably know or are related to someone whose life has been touched by autism.
The economic costs are staggering. The CDC estimates that medical care for individuals with autism exceeds those without by over $4,000 per year. Additionally, therapies and treatment can cost up to $60,000 per child, per year. Most families don’t have access to that level of resources, so when treatments are available, the cost gets taken up by state and federal governments. This costs the country nearly $60 billion annually, just in medical care. That doesn’t even begin to factor in the lost wages and productivity incurred by parents who quit work or have to take time off to take care of autistic children.
The precise causes of autism are a subject for debate, even among experts. Some put it down to environmental factors; others blame mercury in vaccines; still others think there’s a genetic component. And some dismiss these statistics as the result of better diagnostic procedures. I find all these explanations overly simplistic and unhelpful.
Autism is a spectrum disorder. That means there are as many different expressions and varieties of autism as there are people who have it. There’s a saying in the community that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. Thus, the causes of autism are likely as varied and complex as the disorder is.
It would be easy as well to dismiss the rise in diagnoses as due to better identification, and some observers have done so. Autism isn’t really on the rise, they say; we’re just getting better at finding it. But that begs the question, why are we getting better? Scientific breakthroughs like that don’t happen in a bubble. There has to be a reason for it. If it weren’t getting more common, we wouldn’t have needed to develop better techniques. The fact is, we’re getting better at identifying autism because we’re seeing more of it.
We’ve had over two hundred years of industrialization, and throughout most of it we’ve poisoned the land, air and water with all manner of toxins, radioactive materials, endocrine disruptors and hormone analogues. We’ve used toxic chemicals as preservatives for vaccines and injected them into our children. We’ve added chemicals to our food, often with little regard for safety and with little monitoring. We shouldn’t be surprised that the consequences of our negligence and shortsightedness are being seen in the next generation.
The costs of autism, on the personal and national levels, are staggering. We need to do more than just treat the symptoms – we must solve the problem. We’ve got to clean up our act, do what we can to undo the damage we’ve done to the environment and prevent future abuses from happening. The “light it up blue” campaign isn’t just a one-day or even a one-month event. It’s a clarion call to action for future generations and ours.