Utah has one of the highest rates of autism among 14 states, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among Utah boys, the rate is one in 79, second highest in the nation. Overall, the rate is one in every 133 children in Utah, a phenomenon researchers call "an urgent public health concern." Moreover, Utah's rate of autism is 20 times higher than two decades ago, researchers said.
Obviously, medical science needs to get to the bottom of this brain disorder, which is associated with a range of developmental problems, mainly in communication and social interaction. The severity of symptoms varies greatly. The new research suggests that autism is far more prevalent that previously believed. There are roughly 50,000 more children and young adults who have autism than previously thought, although some of the increases may be attributed to better diagnosis methods or, in Utah's case, good record-keeping.
In any event, these numbers speak to the need for more intensive special-education services early in life, because the first signs of autism appear before age 3. With early diagnosis, treatment and the proper supports, some children with autism can become independent, but many school-based programs have waiting lists.
These numbers also suggest that the Legislature needs to get serious about dealing with the Division of Services for People with Disabilities waiting list, which includes people who are multiply and severely disabled, and people who need minimal supports such as a few hours a week of respite care for caregivers. There has been some success in recent years in reducing the list, but some people on the list are adults with autism who have grown too old for services provided in the public school setting. The new research suggests many more cases of autism are looming.
These findings should also spur more federal spending for medical research, which has become very limited. Scientists are focusing more on possible genetic causes for the brain disorder, but the cause remains unknown. Some advocates blame the vaccine preservative thimerosol, but many researchers say science does not support a link to vaccines.
While that debate rages, this new research should revitalize public policy debates on providing additional funding for research. Absent better treatments or even a cure, there's a larger-than-realized need for services for people ranging from the newly diagnosed to adults who have this brain disorder.