Number of Autism Cases Treated at State-Funded Centers Increases
The number of people treated for autism at regional centers throughout the state operated by the Department of Developmental Services increased by 13% from 2003 to 2004, and autism now accounts for about half of new cases handled at the centers, which treat a number of developmental problems, according to state data, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
The state sees an average of nine new autism cases daily, most in children ages 13 and younger. Overall, the number of autistic people receiving services at the DDS centers has increased from 5,000 in 1993 to more than 26,000 currently.
The increase is straining resources across the state, with treatment programs forced to maintain "long waiting lists" and schools working to hire specialists to develop autism curricula, the Chronicle reports.
Ron Huff, a psychologist at DDS, added, "I was expecting (the numbers) to level off. I don't see any of it diminishing."
Scientists are working to explain the increase, but despite a number of theories, they have been unable to agree on the driving force behind the increase in the number of cases.
Most researchers believe that genetics plays a role in causing autism, which is characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming social relationships. However, other theories explaining the increase in autism cases -- including improved and earlier diagnoses, childhood vaccines or other environmental factors -- have not been proved or ruled out, the Chronicle reports.
Robert Byrd, a pediatric epidemiologist at the University of California-Davis, said, "There is no answer that says we can explain what we're seeing," adding, "We're still looking at these numbers with lots of questions."
Huff added, "Some people who were skeptical of the original Department of Development Services report (looking at the 10-year increase) now believe this is a serious public health policy concern, that the increases are legitimate beyond just better diagnosis."
The Chronicle reports that the number of schoolchildren with autism nationwide increased by 1,700% between 1992 and 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Education (Seligman, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/4).