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Rapid spread of autism baffling

Increase creates a big financial burden for state, summit is told.

By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau

Published 2:15 am PST Friday, November 21, 2003

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WASHINGTON -- Autism, the perplexing brain disorder that has been the personal tragedy of thousands of families, is spreading so fast that it is creating a huge financial liability for the government, California experts told a national summit here Thursday.

Rick Rollens, co-founder of the UC Davis MIND Institute for research into autism, told the first-ever Autism Summit Conference that since January the state has been adding an average of 11 a day to its list of severely autistic children qualifying for state-financed services.

At an average lifetime cost of $4 million each, Rollens said the growth rate represents $44 million a day in long-term state liability.

"In the first nine months of 2003, over $1 billion in taxpayer liability has been added," said Rollens, the former secretary of the California Senate who now is a leading national advocate for the autistic, including his 13-year-old son, Russell.

Autism typically affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the external world. It has a wide range of symptoms, sometimes so mild as to allow a child to function in a regular classroom with special services and at other times so severe that a child cannot speak and is institutionalized. It is three times more prevalent in males.

Four years ago, Rollens shocked Congress in reporting on a state study that found the incidence of the disorder was up 300 percent in a decade. Its spread has more than doubled since then, he reported Thursday.

Rollens spoke at the national summit on autism that drew people from around the country. Among the speakers were Education Secretary Rod Paige and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

But in sessions dealing with the grim details of the worldwide epidemic, researchers said they were no closer to knowing why so many more children are being afflicted with the disorder now than a decade ago, a year ago and even a few months ago.

Rollens' figures from California show a continuing upward trend just since December when there were 20,377 receiving assistance for the severest form of autism through the state Department of Developmental Services. Today the number is over 22,000.

Judith Grether, a Berkeley researcher for the state health services department, told the conference that what's happening in California appears to be a phenomenon throughout the industrialized world.

But she said there is no scientific certainty behind any of the numbers because there is no single source for the data.

The MIND Institute in Sacramento is one of the leading centers studying autism. The name is an acronym for the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Grether said the institute has begun a large study that will help identify what may be behind the escalating numbers, but that task is complicated because it is unknown whether autism is prenatal, triggered by environmental factors or neither.

A leading suspect is preservatives in serums used in inoculations against childhood diseases, but Rollens said the evidence for that is mostly coincidental because the rapid increase in autism began about the time the state began requiring proof of inoculations before children could enter public schools.

The cause also could be linked to household chemicals or chemicals that make their way into common foods. And although there is agreement that the earliest intervention by behavioral psychologists can make a dramatic difference in a child's prognosis and future care needs, in some children the first evidence of the disorder doesn't appear until age 4 or 5.

"We have to develop tests that can be given at birth that tell us to start treatment now," said Kathleen Berry of Elk Grove, an advocate for Families of Early Autism Treatment with two autistic children of her own.

About the Writer

The Bee's David Whitney can be reached at (202) 383-0004 or The New York Times contributed to this report.

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