America’s Continuing Autism Epidemic

by Kevin Brockel

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines autism as: “a variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by repetitive behavior patterns.”  On April 26th, 2018 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released its most updated autism prevalence estimates for America’s children.  These estimates are pulled from data in a biennial report based off of the evaluation of medical and education records.  1 in 59 children are now estimated to have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Let that sink in.  1 out of every 59 children.  This new ratio is an increase of 15% from the last reported estimate in 2016.  This most recent increase in prevalence continues the trend that researchers have seen over the last twenty plus years.

When I began my career in the mental health field in 2004, the autism prevalence ratios were estimated to be 1 in every 166 children.  Throughout my career, I have witnessed this drastic increase in autism cases create the need for a plethora of new services and supports for children to address the social and behavioral needs associated with autism.  Many providers decided to implement autism specific variations of existing mental health programs.  One of the most popular of these services is Behavioral Health Rehabilitative Services or commonly referred to as BHRS.  BHRS services are intensive mental health therapies that are provided in the child’s home, in community settings and occasionally in the classroom.  These services are focused on identifying interventions to help achieve a child’s behavioral treatment goals and to transfer those skills from the provider to a parent, teacher, etc.  The increase in autism diagnoses has also created the opportunity for providers to create new programs to address this need such as afterschool groups that focus on improving social skills.  They have also begun to create support groups for parents and siblings of those with an autism diagnosis.

The mental health and developmental disabilities fields have successfully evolved and adapted over the years in an attempt to meet the growing needs of children diagnosed with autism.  There are additional supports in the home, community and the classroom for these children.  There are also government and private grants available to families to help manage the additional cost of needed sensory and adaptive communication devices for these children.  But what will happen to these children when they grow up, or “age out” of educational and children’s mental health services?  What supports are available for adults diagnosed with autism?  What supports are available to families to help with their adult child with an autism diagnosis?  The answers to these questions are pretty alarming.  Depending on your location, there are very few if any supports tailored to adults with autism in these fields.

For our nation to fully manage the continued autism epidemic; there will have to be some significant changes in our government and to the adult mental health system.  Our legislators and representatives will have first to acknowledge that the lack of supports, services, and funding for adults with autism is a current problem.  Second, they will have to acknowledge that the problem will only get worse in the future as the ever-increasing ratios of children with autism age out of services.  These adults will need assistance with housing, life skills, employment supports, and socialization.  Our legislators and representatives will need to increase funding for mental health services to allow providers to develop programs to meet the needs of these adults.  Providers will need to step up and use the increased funds to develop new programs, thinking outside the box to support this unique population.  Staff in these fields will have to become more educated on providing supports to adults with autism.  They say it takes a village to raise a child.  In order to support individuals with autism throughout their entire life, not just their childhood, we as a society will have to pull together to help our nation manage this continuing autism epidemic.

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