A new federal strategy to attack the rising number of cases of autism, a mystifying childhood developmental disorder, was unveiled at a national conference here last week.
An expert panel of scientists devised the plan to be a 10-year road map for clinicians, researchers, and several federal agencies. The plan calls for more biomedical research on autism, early screening and diagnosis, and improved access to autism services. It includes both short-term and long-term goals.
“We needed to do a better job in the federal government of finding out what is going on with our children,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said at the Nov. 19 conference. “The number of children with autism is growing, and it’s not just a result of better diagnostic ability. I believe something else is going on.”
Some 650 researchers, educators, policymakers, advocates, and parents attended the conference.
Autism typically appears in the first three years of a child’s life. The disorder, which has a spectrum of severity, afflicts a child’s ability to communicate and connect with the outside world. About 1.5 million Americans, adults and children, have some form of autism, experts say.
During the fiscal 2003 appropriations process, Congress requested an explicit set of priorities for research and other activities concerning autism over the next several years.
The plan, a wish list of sorts, offers broadly stated goals and research projects without price tags.
For example, within seven to 10 years, as many as 25 percent of autism cases would be prevented through early identification and early behavioral treatment; methods would be established and put into place to allow 90 percent of individuals with autism to develop speech; and genetic and environmental causes would be identified, it says.
U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said at the conference that schools need to do a better job of educating students with autism. But that’s not an easily achieved prospect.
In schools, about 150,000 students with autism receive special education services. Students with autism have a range of accommodations, allowing some children to participate in regular classes. Others with more severe symptoms may attend self-contained programs.
“The number of children with autism is rising,” Mr. Paige said. “But the number of teachers trained to work with them is not.”