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World Autism Awareness Day Monday, more research essential

Published: Monday, April 2 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Christopher Astacio stands in the doorway watching, as his daughter Cristina, 2, recently diagnosed with a mild form of autism, plays in her bedroom on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in New York.

Bebeto Matthews, AP

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According to striking new figures released by the CDC last week, 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism. That represents a 78 percent increase over just one decade.

In Utah, it's even more stark: One in 47 children, including 1 in 32 boys, has an autism diagnosis.

True, this increase is due at least in part to broader screening and better tools for diagnosis, according to experts, especially among minorities. But they hasten to add that the cause of autism is unknown — and since it is likely a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors, there may in fact be something triggering an increase in cases of autism.

More research on this topic is essential. Revisions to the manual doctors use to diagnose autism were last made in 1994. In light of these new statistics, it seems that an update would be timely.

Early diagnosis gives kids the best chance to reach their potential. Or, as one doctor put it, right now it may be their only chance. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening for all children at 18 months and again at 2 years, but it's up to parents to watch for signs and make sure the screenings happen.

Autism can't be cured, but therapy and other interventions can make a tremendous difference. Many children and families need help, some desperately. Stories of families selling homes or cars or dipping into retirement funds to get their kids the help they need are heartbreaking and illustrate the many levels on which a diagnosis of autism can be devastating. Schools also face challenges to educate teachers and provide support for an influx of autistic students.

The state of Utah will begin paying for therapy for several hundred children later this year, but private insurance also should bear some responsibility for providing care. Currently, 29 states require insurance companies to cover treatments for autism, but Utah is not among them. The increase in diagnoses should be accompanied by an increase in access to treatment, and the new CDC figures show just how urgent this is for families, schools and society.

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, established in 2007 by the United Nations General Assembly to call attention to a worldwide challenge.

In an address last week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon encouraged the global community to recognize the challenges posed by autism throughout life, not just in early childhood, and called for research and measures to help autistic people reach their full potential and cultivate their talents.

Striking the same hopeful note, the U.N. News Service reported on a process to select images for three commemorative stamps from among artwork by artists diagnosed with autism. Because the art was so compelling, the judging committee chose eight images instead of three. The stamps, said Ban, will send a "powerful message to people around the world that talent and creativity live inside all of us."

We, too, encourage leaders in the public and private sectors to observe Autism Awareness Day by supporting efforts to understand this growing epidemic and to empower the individuals and families affected by it.

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