Autism is a developmental brain disorder that, according to a 2008 CDC study, affects 1 in 88 children, a number that is up 78 percent since 2002. Approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers are still trying to figure out why there has been a dramatic increase.
There are many variations of ASD that range from low to high functioning. That is why it is called a spectrum disorder. For example, 40 percent of autistic children with ASD do not talk at all, but the other 60 percent do.
The average age of diagnosis occurs around age five. Care for an autistic person requires a multidisciplinary team. It includes assessments, medications to treat cluster symptoms, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, vocational rehabilitation, nutritional therapy and behavior analysis. The estimated cost of lifetime care for an individual with ASD is estimated at $3.2 million. Sixty percent of those costs are in adult services. The burden on families is great.
Last week, I attended a free public forum on autism at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The room was filled with parents, child advocates and researchers. Drs. Stephen Deutsch and Maria Urbano from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences presented exciting new research on a possible breakthrough for people with autism.
The doctors are conducting clinical trials on a strain of mice that have trouble socializing. These mice have very similar symptoms to humans with ASD. The mice do not interact with other mice and socially isolate. But in the clinical trials, the researchers gave these socially challenged mice a drug used in tuberculosis treatment called D-Cycloserine. When the drug was administered, the mice became just as social as other mice. The change in behavior was astounding.
Dr. Urbano is developing human trials with teens and young adults (ages 14-25) who qualify for the study. If the drug has the same impact on people, it could improve their social skills and quality of living.
Currently, there are no medications to treat the social impairment that is part of the disorder, but this research is a step in that direction. As we are able to image the brain and better understand the neuroscience involved, a greater understanding of the autistic mind will lead to effective treatments.
With the number of people affected with ASD, we need to keep the research funded and continuously work on providing services and programs that make a difference. Families need the help and support. In fact, churches could partner with community services and offer respite care, special Sunday school classes and support to parents and siblings. Let’s add the faith community to the multidisciplinary team as a place of hope and compassion.