According to the latest estimate from the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 88 children in the United States has autism, almost double the rate ten years ago. In this week's Health & Wealth update, while more children are being diagnosed with the disorder, more parents are getting the help they need to treat it.
The CDC monitors autism rates in 14 states, including Missouri, and from those results makes a national estimate. In Missouri, the rate is slightly higher than the national number, with 1 in 72 children identified as being on the autism spectrum.
Janet Farmer, director of academic programs at the MU Thompson Center for Autism, said nobody knows for sure what is behind the upward trend in autism diagnoses. But she said there are plenty of guesses:
"Among them, increasing public awareness about autism, so more parents are coming forward sooner. Better record keeping by schools. Some of it may be the fact that diagnostic criteria actually expanded and more mildly affected people are included now."
While more kids are getting diagnosed with autism, they are also getting diagnosed at an earlier age. Farmer said that can be important for a child's development. According to the CDC, 18 percent of children are diagnosed by age three, but 40 percent are not diagnosed until after age four.
Parents Scott and Tara Shade got the official diagnosis that their son Rye is autistic when he was four.
"My wife and I kind of joke about it being a relief," said Scott. "We kind of instinctively knew that there was something going on. But once we had that official diagnosis, then we could really get on the books for therapy, for behavior therapy, for occupational therapy, for speech and language development and therapy."
Now Rye is eight years old, and treatment still takes a lot of time and energy. The Shades blog about their experience at autismpirate.com: "Autism in our world is a lot like piracy. It robs. It hijacks," they write. "Autism also presents you a world of discovery, hidden treasure, and challenges you realize you're up for."
"It's a huge commitment," said Shade. "But we don't feel like we have a choice. It's in his interest so we do what we have to do."
Treating autism can also be expensive. According to the CDC, medical expenses for a child with autism are five times greater than those for children who are not on the autism spectrum. On top of those expenses, intensive behavioral interventions cost an average of $40,000 to $60,000 a year.
The good news is, starting last year, a new Missouri law requires most private insurance plans to cover treatment for autism, up to $40,000 per year. In 2011, 4000 Missourians with autism were insured under the new mandate.
April is national autism awareness month.