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High Cost of Autism to California

The incidence and societal cost of autism has risen dramatically in recent years and will cost California about $40 billion in 2015, according to study results released on Tuesday by researchers at UC-Davis.

Nationally, the costs associated with the disorder could rise to $1 trillion by 2025, researchers said.

“If the prevalence rates continue the way they’ve risen in the past 10 or 15 years, then I would say by 2025 they’ll rival or exceed heart disease [in terms of economic cost to society],” said Paul Leigh, study senior author and economics researcher with the Center for Healthcare Policy and Research at UC-Davis.

If prevalence rates even out a bit, as Leigh suspects they will, the study still offers its conservative national estimate for autism cost this year at $268 billion and in 2025 at $461 billion.

“A significant part [of the estimate] is non-medical spending and lost productivity, not medical expense,” Leigh said. “This is the only disease I’ve found, really, where most of the spending is not medical. Most of the cost is not part of the equation of figuring health care costs for the nation.”

For instance, he said, untreated autism means many years of lost productivity by people who could’ve worked if they’d had proper autism therapy treatment, or who are under-employed for the same reason. The productivity equation also includes parents who often need to skip work or to work fewer hours so they can be home to care for an autistic child.

Pointing to the relative lack of medication or hospitalization required by those with autism. Leigh said most of the medical cost is therapy — something that wasn’t covered in California by Medi-Cal for children until September last year and still is not covered for Medi-Cal adults.

“I’ve never seen a disease quite like this in that way,” he said, “where so many of the costs aren’t strictly medical.”

California may be a little ahead of the curve in terms of dealing with those with autism spectrum disorder, since it does have a governmental agency tasked with handling autism and other developmental disabilities.

“California is one of the few states with a developmental disability department,” Leigh said. “But of course, you could certainly argue that department is not getting enough, given these [high autism cost] numbers.”

As an economist, Leigh said the strong progress shown by autism therapy “makes it a good economic investment,” he said. “It costs more money now, but you spend so much less on them when they get into middle school and high school.”

As a researcher, Leigh was astounded by the lack of research on autism — in particular, a dearth of literature on cost-effective treatments and the likely causes of autism.

“I must have found 200 studies on diabetes, but on autism I found less than 10. There just weren’t many studies on cost-effective treatment,” Leigh said. “I almost fell off my chair when I saw that.”

And one last thing, Leigh said. His research showed little care offered to adults with autism across the country, he said. “I would like to see more attention to adults with autism, so they can be employed and stay employed,” he said.

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Capitol Desk Public Health