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Autism Is a National Epidemic That Needs a National Plan

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Merriam-Webster defines the word 'epidemic' as "Excessively prevalent. Affecting a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time."

With the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) numbers now showing that 1 in 88 children in the United States is being diagnosed with autism -- nearly doubling the prevalence since the CDC began tracking these numbers -- autism can now officially be declared an epidemic in the United States.

We are dealing with a national emergency that is in need of a national plan. At 1 in 88, we now have more than 1 million children directly affected by autism. According to a newly released study, the annual cost of autism in the United States is a staggering $126 billion annually, more than tripling the cost analysis from six years ago.

Behind all these statistics are real families, real individuals struggling each and every day. Some with autism are struggling to find satisfying jobs where they can productively use their talents and abilities. Others with autism have extremely complicated medical and social challenges. Make no mistake though, wherever one falls on the spectrum, all with autism struggle daily. And it is clearly time that we, as a caring society, commit to a National Plan. A comprehensive National Plan that substantially increases all efforts to date. A call to action that:

• Funds more basic science uncovering the genetic underpinnings of autism;

• Funds more environmental research detecting the causes of autism;

• Accelerates the funding and development of effective medicines and treatments;

• Commits to a strategy where all children with autism from every background are diagnosed no later than 18 months of age;

• Commits to a National Training Corps recruiting more therapists and service providers as well as specially trained teachers and teacher assistants into the field;

• Addresses the growing issue of adults with autism, specifically around continuing education, employment, housing/residential living and community integration; here, too, we need a focus on a National Training Corps to recruit and train professionals to work with our adults.

As the nation's leading science and advocacy organization, Autism Speaks calls on the entire nation -- from President Obama to each of the Republican candidates for president to all Members of Congress -- to commit to this National Plan, a true public-private partnership.

We desperately need further commitments from the CDC and Dr. Thomas Frieden, whose very funding of this prevalence study is in jeopardy of being cut going forward. The backing of Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health are also essential.

And it is not the federal government alone we call on. We need the private sector to step up, as well as state and local governments to be part of this National Plan:

• Right now insurance companies and the majority of self-funded plans under ERISA discriminate against families with autism, denying reimbursement for the basic, evidence-based services that can often dramatically improve the quality of life for their children with autism.

• There are pharmaceutical companies that can speed the process of effective medicines for people living with autism to improve communication, socialization and behavior, the core symptoms of autism.

• We need companies across all industries to commit to hiring the 74% of adults with autism who believe they have the potential to be employed if just given the opportunity.

• We need employers of all parents who have children with autism to become much more family-friendly. Too many mothers of children with autism have had to stop their careers to be able to care for their loved ones because their work environments could not find a way to accommodate their schedules.

• We need local school systems to deliver individualized and quality-driven plans to meet autism's ever-growing demand for appropriate special education services.

• We need faith-based and community-based organizations that can provide respite services for parents and caregivers, as well as recreational and community integration opportunities for people with autism.

• And the list goes on to include siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors. At 1 in 88, we are now hard-pressed as a nation to find anyone who is not touched by autism.

Ultimately the question we need to ask ourselves is why, over the last two decades, has there been such a tremendous increase in autism? Dr. Peter Bearman of Columbia University was funded by the NIH to answer this very question. His findings have revealed that the increase in prevalence is only partly explained by a broadening of the diagnosis, improved detection, and more awareness. A large portion of the increase -- some 50% -- remains unexplained. That is why we must aggressively fund research, including the critical study of potential environmental factors involved with autism. We need to find the answers.

At 1 in 88, the United States is experiencing an autism epidemic.

This is a national emergency. We need a national plan.