On March 29, the CDC announced 1 in 88 U.S. children -- 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls -- have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, which is a 23 percent increase since the federal agency's previous report in 2009. With the greatest escalations seen in the Hispanic and African-American populations, the CDC claims the increases were due to "greater awareness and better identification among these groups."
While a specific cause of developing an autism spectrum disorder has not been pinpointed, the CDC said studies indicate genetic and non-genetic factors both contribute. Along with prematurity, some of the at-risk components include older parents bearing children, and the mother using drugs, like thalidomide and valproic acid, while pregnant.
"I'm not surprised that the number is 1 in 88," said Lyn Herring, a resident of White, who formed Autism in Bartow in the early 2000s. "That didn't shock me. I feel like I saw that coming, [so] it didn't surprise me. My child was diagnosed 14 years ago, so I feel like I see it everywhere. I can go to the grocery store and see a child [exhibiting symptoms]. I feel like their parents might not even know but I see symptoms in people all over the place.
"[In the future] I hope that people [with autism] will find more acceptance [and others will] kind of learn to recognize that these are symptoms of autism rather than pointing a finger and saying, 'You're a nerd' or 'You're a bad parent because your kid is screaming in a restaurant,' things like that."
Autism -- a complex developmental disability -- generally materializes by a child's third birthday and affects their ability to communicate. Some symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder, which are posted on Autism in Bartow's website, www.autisminbartow.com, are opposition to change, difficulty interacting with others, trouble making eye contact, attachment to objects and a problem with self-expression.
According to Autism Speaks Inc.'s website, www.autismspeaks.org, the organization's president Mark Roithmayr voiced to the CDC on March 29, "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 numbers now showing that 1 in 88 children in the United States are being diagnosed with autism -- nearly a doubling of 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 strategy. At 1 in 88, we now have over 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. ... And it is clearly time we, as a caring society, commit to a National Strategy. A comprehensive National Strategy 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.
* We also need to address 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."
With autism spectrum disorders becoming more prevalent, Jennifer Brownlow believes acceptance is one of the keys to helping children with autism reach their full potential.
A resident of Kingston, she has two sons on the spectrum of autism. Ben, 5, who is autistic, has limited verbal skills, difficulty making eye contact, can be upset easily and has a tendency toward patterns, such as routinely playing the same game. Recently diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger Syndrome, 8-year-old A.J. is very intelligent but often struggles with social situations, like taking things personally and having trouble with sarcasm.
"I think that this issue needs to be addressed and we need to be educated on this because eventually everyone is going to encounter somebody with autism with the numbers going like they're going," Brownlow said. "I just feel like the community needs to get involved and get educated on this issue.
"I just want them to understand ... just because somebody's different doesn't mean that they're less of a person. And I feel like it's so hard -- even my children walk around knowing that they're different. At least my older son, he knows he's different and it kind of hurts if we feel that from somebody else, like they're kind of pointing it out or they say something negative. And I feel like if people were educated then maybe they would be kinder or be more understanding when they see someone with autism. Maybe they can learn like when they're playing with someone with autism don't scream in their ear because they might hit you because the sound is so loud. Little things like that can make a huge difference in our day."
For Brownlow and her husband, Jamie, parenting children with autism spectrum disorders has been a constant learning experience. Along with following a structured daily schedule, she also has found success with implementing a gluten-free, casein-free diet that is limited in sugars and artificial dyes. Her younger son also receives hyperbaric oxygen therapy once a week in Rome. Following this therapy in which Ben breaths in pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber, Brownlow said her son is noticeably more talkative.
Through their journey, Brownlow said they have found valuable assistance from Autism in Bartow, a volunteer-based nonprofit that provides resources and encouragement through its website and monthly meetings at Cartersville Medical Center. Since its inception, the group has grown from a handful of individuals to providing assistance to more than 100 families in Bartow County.
"It seems like there's a lot of misinformation out there. If you don't have an organization like Autism in Bartow or something like that to kind of guide you where to go next, it's really, really daunting," Brownlow said. "It's really confusing. ... It's good to get connected with people in the community. I find that I can get more information from them than I ever find on the Internet because on the Internet there's too many things to look at and you can get overwhelmed.
"[Autism is] sort of a disorder that tends to isolate people, parents especially because your child doesn't look special. Your child's not in a wheelchair. So you go out in public and your child does something strange and somebody's going to say, 'Well, can't you control your child?' There's always going to be something negative that your worried about that might happen. So I think parents of autistic children, they can get very isolated. It's so nice to go to the play dates with Autism in Bartow and know that everybody there understands. ... It's just been such a blessing to get to know those people and share resources with them."
For more information about Autism in Bartow, visit www.autisminbartow.com. The group meets on the first Thursday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m. at Cartersville Medical Center's Classroom No. 1.