06/30/2009 08:26 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Tidal Wave" of Young Adults with Autism about to Flood Cash-Strapped California

Broke California will begin the new decade with crushing debt and wholesale elimination of human services. Meanwhile, President Obama has rankled Congressional Democrats with plans to earmark millions of dollars in NIH funds to find the causes and cures of autism.

Are these two things related? You bet they are.

Barack Obama is not a stupid man. He sees the budgetary train wreck hurtling down the track towards the US Treasury. His Administration knows that the number of adults with autism in this country is about to explode. Parents can't foot the bill, so taxpayers will have to. The price tag will be stratospherical.

Isn't it better to earmark millions in autism research funds right now for NIH to identify the causes of autism - despite outcries from Rep. Obey, Sen. Harkin and others - in order to save hundreds of billions further down the road?

It's called frontloading the budget, and if we don't do it, the coming army of young adults with autism will march in and break the bank.

Anyone who thinks that a lot of people with autism somehow "grow out of their disorder" by adulthood should take a look at an important article published today in the Sacramento Bee.

Here, you will meet California residents such as Marlon Barton, a 6'2", 283-pound "strapping young man who flaps his hands and makes odd noises," according to reporter Cynthia Hubert. "No one knows quite what to do with him," she says.

Marlon Barton is 26 years old and "acutely" autistic. He scares people. My heart goes out to him, and to his amazing mother.

But they are hardly alone.

"As a tidal wave of these youngsters moves toward adulthood with complex behavioral and medical problems, society is largely unprepared," Hubert writes. "The futures of hundreds of thousands of autistic people in America cannot be ignored for long."

Dr. Robert Hendren, director of the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, concurs. "We don't have the programs. We don't have the research," he warns. "We have this very large adult population of autistics coming along, and we don't know how to deal with them. We just haven't come to terms with it."

California has certainly not come to terms with it - and I have no idea what will happen to the thousands of young people in need who will be showing up at state offices in the next few years, their parents desperately seeking services.

Currently, 81.7% of all autism cases in the state Department of Development Services system are under 18, but that ratio is about to change fast.

There are now 6,300 adult Californians receiving autism services through DDS. But over the next four years, more than 4,000 teenagers will join their ranks. By 2018, the total number of adults with autism will more than triple, to 19,000 people -- each requiring tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in care, education and support services, every year.

California cannot afford it.

Which brings us back to President Obama. By 2023, the US will have some 380,000 people who will need "extensive adult services," at the cost of billions of dollars a year, Hubert writes. "Care providers are just beginning to grapple with how to deal with the surge, even as governments slash social services to cope with budget deficits."

That may be one reason why HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama team, "is attempting a 'balancing act' of respecting science while trying to find cures for autism and cancer," according to The Hill newspaper in Washington.

Anyone still trying to lull Americans into complacently believing that autism is a genetic disorder that has always been with us in such staggering numbers (we just never noticed before) needs to stop doing that. Now.

It's time to stop pretending this isn't happening.

Autism's toll on children, families, friends and caregivers has been devastating. President Obama knows that the disorder will now exact its toll on taxpayers. I am encouraged that Federal health officials are finally moving to identify all possible environmental autism triggers - including vaccines - so we can finally learn how to slow this spigot down.

Why not spend money now to find the causes and cures for autism? If we don't, that tidal wave will just keep on washing over us.