Astronomical Spike Expected in the Cost of Treating Autism in the Next Few Years

Autism is a surprisingly expensive condition. It currently costs about $268 billion a year to accommodate all those with autism spectrum disorder in the United States. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, these costs are expected to expand to nearly $500 billion by 2025 at least and could reach $1 trillion. What makes autism so expensive?

This figure isn’t just about providing treatment for adults and children who are on the autism spectrum. It also includes loss of productivity due to medical and non-medical reasons, so there is some error and estimation involved. The senior author, Professor Paul Leigh, started by calculating the per-person cost of autism, which includes various forms of care, education, support and loss of productivity, and then scaling up. For 2015, Leigh estimates that the cost of autism spectrum disorder should be somewhere from $162 billion to $367 billion, with the most likely estimate falling somewhere around $268 billion. This is about the same cost as diabetes.

Image by Stephen Luke via Flickr
Image by Stephen Luke via Flickr

Unlike diabetes, stroke and hypertension, the amount of research into autism spectrum disorders is relatively low. For every $5 spent on diabetes research, the National Institutes of Health spends $1 on research into autism spectrum disorder. That is not enough, given the scale.

Part of the problem are the unique challenges that autism poses. Children with autism tend to have difficulties with socializing and communicating. Those with very severe forms of autism spectrum disorder find it extremely difficult to create a daily routine and maintain employment. In some cases, autistic children suffer from learning disabilities and need substantial care to cope with everyday life.

Leonard Abbeduto, director of the UC Davis MIND Institute, states, “We need more funding for research to understand the causes of, and develop treatments for, ASD.” In addition, he states that early intervention improves the ability of those with the condition to function in everyday life; this includes school-based interventions as well as regular support throughout their academic years and extra support for vocational training. “This approach would ultimately save money that otherwise would be spent on expensive custodial care,” states Leigh.

Image by Pictures of Money via Flickr
Image by Pictures of Money via Flickr

The key word here is “support,” particularly throughout developmental years. Many schools are ill-equipped to deal with ASD students, and some choose to try to treat those students as they would treat neurotypical students, which doesn’t work in many cases. Specialist schools that cater to children with ASD often produce good results with those who are low-functioning, but even these programs are often underfunded. Many state programs for children with autism are reduced as surplus to requirements despite the ever-growing number of children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. Adequate support is decreasing in availability.

Illinois in particular has seen deep cuts to its autism support programs, with Governor Bruce Rauner freezing $1 million in April 2015; the Chicago Tribune states that it is likely that the governor plans to eliminate the support program’s $4 million budget in 2016, despite the program producing around $7 of benefits for every dollar spent. This elimination of resources is shortsighted and contrary to good practices.

Ultimately, this research by UC Davis shows that autism needs further research that is on par with diabetes. In addition, focused support from an early age should deliver definite and measurable benefits to people who are on the autism spectrum and to those around them. This ultimately results in fewer children and adults in care and lowers the overall costs to the state.

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