The number of children with autism in California has nearly doubled in the last four years and continues to grow as researchers struggle to identify the cause of the incurable developmental disorder, a new report released Tuesday found.
The report by the California Department of Developmental Services found that 20,377 California children were receiving DDS services for autism as of December 2002 a 97 percent increase since 1998. The disorder is now more prevalent in California than childhood cancer, diabetes and Down syndrome.
Autism a lifelong neurological condition found mostly among males severely impairs a person’s ability to speak, communicate and interact with others. The report addresses only those with “classic” autism, the disorder’s most severe form characterized by severely limited speech, impaired social interaction, and repetitive behaviors such as finger tapping. Children under three years of age, and those with lesser forms of the disorder such as Asberger’s syndrome, were not included.
The report is the continuation of a study published by DDS in 1999, which showed a 237 percent spike in autism cases from 1987 to 1998.
Ron Huff, a psychologist who conducted both studies for DDS, said the latest numbers reflect an actual increase in autism in the state, not just improved diagnosis of existing cases.
“After we did the first report, we anticipated the numbers would go down,” Huff said. “Instead, they were actually increasing. It’s not just a matter of better diagnosis.”
Indeed, despite a broader awareness of autism and stepped up research in recent years, the DDS report said scientists have not yet pinpointed a cause for the disorder. A once-dominant theory, now discounted, that placed blame on cold and distant mothers for causing autism has given way to a more thorough investigation of the potential genetic and environmental factors that may increase a child’s vulnerability to the condition.
“We know that it’s a very complicated genetic disorder, but it’s also probably true that genes are not the entire answer,” said Dr. David Amaral, research director for the MIND Institute at University of California, Davis, which studies autism. “It’s most likely a combination of genetic susceptibility and an environmental disorder.”
DDS researchers are looking at range of environmental toxins that could make children more vulnerable, including PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead. They are also exploring the debated theory that childhood vaccines may be at the root of the problem.
While at least one large study has discounted the connection between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, Huff pointed to other research indicating that the mercury contained in thimerosal, used as preservative for many vaccines, has caused neurological problems in animals.
Advocacy groups and many parents have pressed for a closer examination of the autism/vaccine connection. Rick Rollens said his 12-year-old autistic son Russell was a normal baby until he suffered a violent reaction to a series of vaccines he received when he was seven months old.
“Getting researchers to look at vaccines has been like attacking the sacred cow,” said Rollens, who helped found the MIND Institute. “We’re dealing with a paradox of all the good vaccines do to control and often eliminate infectious disease, but may also add a burden to kids who may be genetically susceptible to autism.”
The DDS has released guidelines to promote effective treatment of autism throughout the state. “We have to look for ways to reduce stress on families and make access to services more palatable,” Huff said.