2010-04-08 / Guest Column

Autism: A Growing Problem That Needs More Attention

By State Senator John L. Sampson
Majority Conference Leader
New York State Senate

Just over two decades ago autism was considered a rare disorder that afflicted only a very tiny segment of the population. But by the late 1980s medical professionals and doctors began to see a disturbing trend: the numbers were rising at a relatively sharp pace with about 1 in every 10,000 children afflicted. By the mid-1990s that number had risen to 1 in 500 and in December of 2009 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control publicly stated that autism now affected 1 in 110 8-year old children. These statistics compel us to pause and take note of a health condition that was not so pronounced – even non-existent - 20 years ago.

April is Autism Awareness Month and I am urging all New Yorkers to become educated and informed about this disorder and get involved in advocacy, support and other important work that will ultimately help us to combat this growing and creeping mental health problem. As autism continues to grow at an alarming rate it demands our collective attention throughout the year.

For many people the question is this: what exactly is autism?

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that begins at birth or within the first two-and-a-half years of life. Most autistic children are perfectly normal in appearance, but spend their time engaged in puzzling and disturbing behaviors which are markedly different from those of typical children. Less severe cases may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Dis-order (PDD) or with Asperger’s Syndrome (these child-ren typically have normal speech, but they have many “autistic” social and behavioral problems).

Today, that disorder affects 1 in 70 boys and is now more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. It is a major health and mental chal-lenge in our time. You can’t look at these numbers without wanting to ask a lot of questions. How does a childhood disorder go from virtual obscurity – with many doctors admitting never seeing a child with au-tism 20 years ago – to 1 in 70 boys? Most health ex-perts agree there is no such thing as a “genetic epide-mic.” But our genes simply do not change fast enough to explain this tremendous increase and studies have suggested environmental exposures may provide a better explanation. Research is still ongoing and the jury, as they say, is still out on the autistic score.

On the other hand, others suggest the increase is the result of a broadening definition of autism, other-wise known as the “better diagnoses” theory. While this may explain a small percentage, several studies have confirmed that the increases we see today cannot be explained by the “better diagnoses” hypothesis. Moreover, this mental disorder comes with it an accompanying bill that now runs in the billions of dollars. It is estimated that the cost to the American taxpayer for autistic children entering adulthood over the next 10 to 15 years will be about $27 billion an-nually.

In real laymen’s terms this is a mounting mental health and financial challenge that we must begin to confront now. In pure anecdotal terms if a town was created to house all autistic children in the United States this population would exceed all but six US cities. And if this community were formed into a state in the union it would have four electoral votes. So no matter if your family is directly affected or not, autism is an issue that has far reaching consequences for our society.

But there is good news. Medical research and ad-vances in behavioral science has widened the understanding of autism. From this knowledge many treatments have been created and perfected. Doctors now have many more tools than they did 20 years ago and each day more breakthroughs are happening. It used to be that autism was a fate that families accepted, and resigned themselves to a life of caring for a mentally disabled loved one. Today, some of these treatments can lead to great improvements in the quality of life of individuals suffering from autism. Early intervention and diagnosis are proving to be a great, effective tools in combating this mental disorder.

This April as we seek to bring more awareness to the disorder and to the sufferers of autism we must become more involved in a battle that rages around us. We must become advocates in the war against autism – nothing less is acceptable. Autism affects not only the sufferer but also the family, friends and ultimately the community.

[Senator John L. Sampson represents Brook-lyn’s 19th Senate District that includes Flatlands, Canarsie, parts of Brownsville and East New York.]



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