Ask the Expert- Why is Autism So Common Now?

Q. My ten year old son, Cole, was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when he was six. He is in a class of 20 children and there are two other boys and a girl who also have an ASD, all ranging in severity. These children spend half the time in the typical class and half the time in special education. When I was growing up, the only person I knew with autism was my friend’s brother, who didn’t talk and was very anxious about being around others. Why is ASD so common now, as opposed to 30 years ago, and what can I and other parents do to plan for our special needs children?

A. Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASD affects each person in different ways, thus their impairment can range from mild to severe, but all those afflicted with autism share problems with social interaction.

What we know now is that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type. Different genes increase the probability of a child developing autism. We know that children who have a sibling or parent with autism are at a much higher risk of also having the condition or another developmental disorder. Genes may be affected by advanced parental age at time of conception.

But why is autism’s prevalence increasing? Thirty years ago, the rate of autism was typically quoted as 4 in 10,000. The most recent rate reported is 1 in 50. This is an alarming increase from one in every 88 children reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just four years ago.  Factors that have brought the startling levels of autism to our attention include:

  • Better Understanding: Thirty years ago, autism was first introduced as a separate diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-3). Prior to that time, clinicians using the DSM applied other categories such as childhood schizophrenia.
  • More Awareness: Since the early ‘80’s, there has been extraordinary growth in awareness – both for professionals and parents. Pediatricians now screen for early warning signs, as do parents. These actions have all led to a much greater awareness of the symptoms of autism which has translated to more diagnoses being made. In addition, the increased awareness has permitted older kids to be diagnosed when the signs earlier in life were not recognized as autism.
  • Expansion of the Symptoms: Diagnostic changes that recognized autism as a spectrum, now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), have helped capture the wide range of symptoms that go beyond “classic” autism. These symptoms can include social, communicative, and repetitive/stereotyped behaviors. Since autism became a spectrum disorder, many youth were diagnosed who would not have been in past years.
  • Changes in Etiological Factors: Less understood is the role of new causative factors that increase the risk for ASD. Much attention is being given to environmental factors and there is the suggestion that specific genetic mutations may be linked to autism.

Autism has come a long way in the past 30 years. We know now that autism is very common and that it may be influenced by genetic and environmental risk factors that are not well understood at this time. For these reasons, it is important for doctors, scientists, and awareness groups to keep researching the causes of autism, and to continue to promote awareness of the early signs and symptoms in order to support early diagnosis and intervention.

How can you plan for your son? More than $13 billion a year is spent to care for individuals with autism.  For the average affected family, this translates to $30K per year.  Many parents believe that needs-based programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid will be enough to take care of their family members with special needs when they are gone.  This is a common misconception.

SSI is the federal needs based program that many special needs children and adults may be eligible for if they meet certain income limits. Many special needs children and adults may also get Medicaid to pay for hospital stays, doctor bills, prescription drugs, and other health costs.  However, once a person with special needs exceeds the $2,000 a year resource limit, he or she is no longer eligible for SSI or Medicaid.

Twenty million American families have at least one member with special needs, such as ASD, cerebral palsy, mental illness, blindness, and others.  Parents of those with special needs are tasked with planning for their children throughout their lifetime, as many of them will outlive their parents but might not be able to support themselves and live independently.

We here at The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firms of Evan H. Farr, P.C., know that the majority of American families who have a loved one with special needs require a Special Needs Trust.  These families typically have very little in tangible assets, second mortgages on their homes, and little to no savings (likely due to paying for the costly therapies). As a parent or guardian, you want to ensure that your child with special needs will remain financially secure even when you are no longer there to provide support.  A Special Needs Trust is a vehicle that provides assets from which a disabled person can maintain his or her quality of life, while still remaining eligible for needs-based programs that will cover basic health and living expenses.

In your situation, you can create a Special Needs Trust to benefit Cole that provides instructions as to the level of care you want for him. After you are gone, the people you have chosen to manage the trust (trustees) can spend money on certain defined expenses for Cole’s benefit without compromising his eligibility for needs based programs.

We invite you to call 703-691-1888 to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation with The Fairfax Elder Law Firm of Evan H. Farr P.C. to learn more about special needs planning.

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