13 May 2003
Autism Cases Nearly Double in 4 Years
* A state report documents the rapid growth of the neurological
disability. Scientists aren't sure what's causing increase.
number of autism cases has nearly doubled in California in the last
four years, and the rate of increase appears to be accelerating,
according to a study by the state Department of Developmental Services.
report, scheduled to be released today, found that the number of
people with autism who are receiving services from the department
rose from 10,360 in December 1998 to 20,377 by the end of December
2002 — a 97% increase.
findings follow a 1999 report from the department that found a 273%
increase in autism cases from 1987 to 1998. The increase was much
steeper than for other disorders, and well out of proportion to
the growth of the general population.
report is very significant," said Cliff Allenby, director of
the Department of Developmental Services. "Autism is continuing
to grow much faster than the population, much faster than any of
our other clients with disabilities — and it begs some review
and research to try and figure out why."
is now the fastest-growing disability served by the department,
according to the report.
and professionals involved in autism treatment and research reacted
with dismay at the new numbers.
amazing, that is a big jump," said Dr. Dan Geschwind, director
of the neurogenetics program in UCLA's department of neurology.
"Assuming the methodology is sound, I would say one has to
take that very seriously."
Rollens, who is the parent of an autistic child and was instrumental
in creating the MIND Institute for researching autism at UC Davis,
said: "This report is shocking and deeply troubling If this
sobering report does not give our national public policy leaders
a wake-up call, I don't know what will."
report offers no explanation for the steep increase. Scientist don't
even know what causes autism, a disorder in which children appear
socially cut off from the world and often have profound handicaps
in areas such as speech. Both genes and environmental factors are
believed to be involved, but scientists have few clues as to how
experts suspect that part of the increase in autism, which refers
to a spectrum of related neurological disorders, may be a result
of greater awareness by parents and doctors over the last decade.
In other words, more children are correctly diagnosed than in the
past, said Ron Leaf, co-director of Autism Partnership in Seal Beach,
which treats children with autism.
are also more effective therapies today, giving parents reason to
seek state assistance, thus increasing the state's tally of autism
others believe the increase cannot be explained away in this fashion.
The numbers from Department of Developmental Services included only
people with more severe autism, and did not count those with subtler
forms — the kind that would have most likely been missed in
the past, said David Amaral, research director of the MIND Institute.
study last year by the MIND Institute concluded that the increase
could not be explained by a change in the way autism is diagnosed
or by a migration to the state of autistic people seeking services.
are homing in on a number of genes thought to predispose children
to autism, which tends to run in families and affects identical
twins more often than fraternal twins. They are also considering
a range of environmental factors that may trigger the disorder in
those children genetically susceptible, such as exposures to viruses
or toxic materials.
parent advocates are especially concerned about a potential link
between autism and the dozens of vaccinations that babies and toddlers
receive, although studies do not support such a link.
clear is the disorder is very complex and there are probably going
to be a number of contributing factors to increased numbers,"
the cause of the increase, parents of autistic children and scientists
say the state report jibes with what has been reported in other
parts of the country and what they have seen themselves.
is terrible," said Portia Iversen, the parent of an autistic
child and co-founder of Cure Autism Now, a Los Angeles organization
that funds autism research. "It is such an unimaginable battle
trying to get the funding you need, trying to find the right place
to take your child. You can spend a year on a waiting list."
report counted only people over 3 years old who were professionally
diagnosed with autism and sought services through the Department
of Developmental Services, such as speech and behavioral therapies,
and assistance with daily living for adults.
3 and 18 years old, autistic children receive most services through
their local school districts. The state and the local school districts
are feeling an increasing financial strain from providing services
for people with autism.
costs are going up very rapidly," said Allenby of the Department
of Developmental Services. "But we are managing."