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News Roundup: Autism and Society

In light of a recent glut of news stories taking a closer look at the ever-increasing diagnosis rates in children with autism, this week we’re going to survey some recent news stories that reflect how towns and cities throughout the country are taking steps forward to better represent and care for individuals in their communities.


But first, in a piece of news that will unlikely surprise anyone who’s been keeping an eye on this space for the past year, a new study from Penn State has found that the rise in autism diagnoses over the past decade—currently at the rate of 1 in 68 children—is the result of the reclassification of children with intellectual disabilities as being autistic.


This study puts to rest any theories about there being a rising epidemic of autism, as Santhosh Girirajan, who helped author the study, has attributed the rise in diagnoses to changes in how we understand and classify certain neurobiological conditions.


“Because features of neurodevelopmental disorders co-occur at such a high rate, and there is so much individual variation in autism, diagnosis is greatly complicated, which affects the perceived prevalence of autism and related disorders,” said Girirajan. “Every patient is different and must be treated as such. Standardized diagnostic measures incorporating detailed genetic analysis and periodic follow-up should be taken into account in future studies of autism prevalence.”


One way that researchers are coping with this rise in autism diagnoses is to develop new tests that will help to diagnose children at even earlier ages, thus giving them a leg-up on their treatment. One such test developed by Dr. Roula Choueiri at UMass Medical Test could help diagnose autism in children as young as 18 months, when currently the average age for diagnosis is 4 years of age.


To help parents gain earlier insight into developmental issues in their children, Choueiri developed RITA-T, which is an interactive screening tool that identifies ASD in toddlers between 18 and 36 months old. “It gives us a better understanding of yes, we have real concerns for ASD, autism spectrum disorder, because there is a delay in eye contact, in social awareness, in answering to name,” said Choueiri.


So how are local governments and communities handling this increase in diagnoses and an increased ability to diagnose autism? California state, for example, has just promised to spend over $71 million on care and rehabilitation programs for children with autism, which experts argue could improve learning in local schools during the upcoming school year. This amount represents the state government’s recognition of the need for increased care of children with autism, as it is nearly a 500% increase over the previous year’s spending of $14 million (with only $4 million spent in 2013).


Furthermore, the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama has just announced the launch of its Wings for Autism program. Based on similar programs held at other airports, the program will allow participants and family member to get practice going through the process of boarding a flight, all the way from ticketing to actually getting on a plane. For parents in the area, this will likely open up a whole new area of travel as many families with a member with autism find autism simply too daunting to even try.


So while the rise in autism diagnoses is at first blush a cause for concern, this increase is also helping to raise societal awareness about autism and motivate communities to invest in the families in their area who have been overlooked in the past.