In 2000, one in 166 children was diagnosed with autism. In 2007, one in 110 children was diagnosed with autism. And in 2014, one in 68 or 50 children has been diagnosed with autism (the number varies depending upon the source you read).
What is happening? This is a question that is frequently asked. And the reason being given most commonly is that practitioners are better able to identify these kids now than they were previously.
This may be true in a few cases, but logic would dictate that many of the practitioners diagnosing in 2000 are still practicing in 2014. And while diagnostic tools may be improved and continuing education sharpens everyones skills, the difference should not be as significant as the numbers would dictate.
If you want to know the true picture of what is happening, ask your local teachers. I talk to teachers about this all the time. And what I hear is that, compared to 10 or 20 years ago, there are just more children with problems and the problems are more severe than they were.
It has long been described in medical journal articles that autism is the result of environmental and genetic factors. The very good news is that some of these genetic factors have been identified.
Is there a specific gene that causes autism? None has been found thus far. But a genetic pathway has been identified, and there is treatment available if one has a problem in this area.
Many individuals with autism have gut or stomach problems, and decades of research have discovered what many of those problems are and how they can be addressed. Almost two decades of research have gone into some specific neurological issues associated with autism. It appears that most individuals with autism have a problem with the mitochondria cells in their bodies, and again there is a treatment available for this problem. In fact, medical treatment for autism is now more readily available than at any time previously.
The Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs (www.medmaps.org) now offers a fellowship program for physicians as well as membership and training for other health care professionals. More health care providers are getting training in this area than ever before. Our hope is that someday every community will have at least one person who has received the training to address the specific medical needs of children and adults with autism.
The implications of the numbers are frightening. The personal and family suffering is sometimes overwhelming. The cost of educating children with autism is very high, and the problem of what to do with individuals with autism who cannot fit into society after they leave school is one that is just beginning to emerge. But with these problems, medical answers and societal answers are also emerging. Though the current numbers look frightening, if we work together we can find the answers. But we have to hurry; we are losing children every day.
Katherine E. Robertson
The writer is director of the NNY Autism Foundation in Watertown.