Some lawmakers and activists are asking if the federal government should step up its efforts to underwrite research and give better guidance on the possible links between autism and environmental factors.
Two bills pending in Congress would authorize more federal funding for autism research and attempt to better coordinate research efforts. A general agreement on this fiscal year’s budget also contains a nonbinding House resolution urging appropriators to provide more funding for researchers.
And, in Washington last week, some lawmakers renewed their calls for more study and awareness of the condition. At a House Commerce Committee hearing Oct. 12 on children’s health issues, actress Rene Russo made a plea for the cause.
The Autism Society of America, a parent-advocacy group with 24,000 members based in Bethesda, Md., has been lobbying Congress for more funding for investigation by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Autism funding is spread among many federal entities. The National Institute of Mental Health, one of several NIH institutes that support autism research, increased its funding for autism work from $8.7 million in fiscal 1997 to $9.6 million in fiscal 1998, the most recent year for which data are available.
Autism Society Executive Director Joan Zaro said her organization was particularly concerned about the lack of knowledge about the causes of autism, and would like to learn if there are ways to prevent the condition.
“These are serious issues being raised that have not been adequately addressed by the federal government,” Ms. Zaro said.
In addition, Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, is asking whether states should continue to mandate certain childhood vaccinations and whether more research is needed on possible side effects. In recent months, media attention has focused on the safety of vaccines and their possible links to autism and other health problems.
Other environmental factors are also being considered. In the historic seaside township of Brick, N.J., the CDC recently homed in on what some parents assert is a suspicious “cluster” of children diagnosed with autism.
Brick Township Public Schools Special Education Director Maureen Zolkiewicz said in an interview that her district was one of the first in her state to offer services for autistic students and that it continues to provide an array of education supports to such youngsters.
Autism clusters are particularly difficult to define without a national database of the exact numbers of children identified, said Arthur Block, a senior regional representative for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal agency that is undertaking the preliminary investigation in Brick. Clusters for other diseases, such as cancer, have been identified and in some cases traced to environmental factors.
Based on an extensive review of existing research, “autism has not been associated with environmental exposures,” he said. Mr. Block’s agency is studying Brick’s water supply, but does not expect to find any contaminants.