When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I don't recall ever hearing about autism, or knowing anyone who was autistic. Clearly, the rate of autism back then was much less severe.
Copy and paste to read autism statistics tables: http://www.autismfacts.com/services.php?page_id=137
But today, I read in Science Daily (December 18, 2009 article, "Rate of Autism Disorders Climbs to One Percent Among 8 Year Olds") that the autism rate has inexplicably increased to one in 110.
This shouldn't surprise me. When I curl up with current issues of my college alumni magazine, I am nearly always saddened to read about a classmate's struggle to find help for her or his severely autistic child.
It seems that I know far too many people whose families have been slapped by autism, driven into debt, marriages strained, other children ignored because of the endless need to try to rehabilitate a child with autism. Shockingly, there are also many parents who have multiple children with autism. I can't even imagine how hard that is.
Several of my colleagues now have grown children about my age whose own babies have been diagnosed with autism. A good number of my friends have autistic children, too.
Autism feels like an absolute epidemic, and it frightens me. What is in the water, in the air, in our bodies, that is making this developmental (brain) disorder so pervasive? Is there hope?
I am glad to see articles in various sources touting newfound "cures" for some diagnosed children, but what will stop the rate of autism from climbing even higher? Will it, like so many other things, have to get worse before it gets better?
I am, let me say now, not trying to argue that an autistic child's life is without worth. I have read Temple Grandin's books, and I was impressed. I assign Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" to my high school literature classes every year. I also think I know some very smart adults who, while not overtly diagnosed, strike me as being somewhere on the spectrum.
Perhaps autism has always been with us. Perhaps autism makes the world go 'round. Perhaps we are now just much more conscious of any differences in brain processing. Maybe it's not really as bad as--some days--I think. Still, statisticians tell us that the rate of autism is, in fact, increasing.
This is scary.
I think of the tremendous effort it must take to try to do everything one can to help an autistic child. It is a concept that nearly overwhelms me. Children without development disorders are already challenging. How does a parent cope with a child who may not be able to respond, who can't see how to make sense of much of the world?
I understand that autistic children themselves may not realize there is anything "wrong" with their perceptions or thought-processes. And an autistic child can certainly be a productive member of society--perhaps brilliant in unexpected ways that enhance others' lives.
Still, knowing what is missing from an autistic child's life makes me sad for him or her. Mostly, though, I am sad for parents and grandparents who must often feel helpless in the face of the stony silence or screams or just plain everything-much-harder-than-usual caused by autism.
I am also perturbed by the fact that the causes of autism haven't been pinpointed yet. Mercury in vaccines has been widely discounted by the CDC and certain scientists (though some believe it is the problem, and I can certainly see their point). Diet cures and other health treatments have been both promoted and criticized. Intensive--and, I am sure, very expensive--therapy seems to be the only thing upon which the warring factions will agree.
Maybe this is because going for therapy means one doesn't have time to point fingers at polluters or the possible problem of government-mandated vaccines or widespread viruses. Maybe everyone saves face if we just keep saying, "We don't know what causes autism, and it almost doesn't matter. Let's just work on reversing it with early treatment."
But I wonder: wouldn't we as a nation save much of our healthcare money if we could stop the cause of autism? Aren't we always told that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?
I think we owe it to ourselves and to our children to figure out now what causes autism and fight to make sure that more children aren't afflicted.
I'd really like to stop reading about the rate of autism climbing. It has climbed far enough.