Epidemic in the making

February 11, 2007

It's an alarming figure that should have shocked parents across the country: A federal study of 14 states, including Maryland, has determined that one in 150 children has autism, a complex neurological developmental disorder that can be devastating to its victims and their families. And, as the figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make clear, it is a serious and growing public health issue as well.

But, in fact, an average autism rate of 6.6 per 1,000 children may not be so surprising because of the sheer size of the numbers themselves; what was once thought of as a rare and puzzling disorder now touches hundreds of thousands of Americans through their families, friends, neighbors and co-workers. With no cure in sight and varying theories on autism's causes, there is much that should be done to step up research and treatment efforts.

On the treatment side:

Maryland should provide more funds for its autism waiver program, which allows parents of severely disabled children to get individual support and in-home services, even if they would not ordinarily qualify for Medicaid. The program serves 900 youngsters, but there's a waiting list of 1,800 others.

The state's Infants and Toddlers Program, which provides treatment and care for developmental delays and disabilities, is badly understaffed at a time when the autism population is growing. Full funding to meet a federally mandated formula may not be realistic, but more money is imperative.

Pediatricians must be trained to screen every little patient for autistic disorders, and the littler the better. Study after study has shown that early diagnosis is key to helping an autistic child reach his maximum capabilities. Yet a recent study of Maryland and Delaware pediatricians indicates that only 20 percent screen patients for autism-spectrum disorders. A pilot program to train pediatricians in Maryland is in the works, and it can hardly start soon enough. But the pilot will train only 30 doctors; surely others could take the initiative to educate themselves in the meantime.

Many health insurance companies opt out when it comes to autism, leaving premium-paying parents with often severely disabled children and no coverage. The excuse that various treatment methods are "experimental" is generally bogus - there are medically accepted practices for treatment, and insurance should cover them.

Treatment is critically important, but the real key to facing up to the autism challenge is research. What are the causes, what is the scope of the disorder, how is it best treated in children and adults? Answers to those questions can help the thousands of children who have already been diagnosed, and will most certainly help turn back the tide for generations to come.

The Combating Autism Act, which President Bush signed into law in December, authorized nearly $1 billion over five years, primarily for research. It's a start, but just that. Because this is an investment we simply cannot afford not to make.

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