CINCINNATI—A recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report on the prevalence of autism in the United States triggered a strong public reaction with the news that one in 68 children aged 8 has an autism spectrum disorder. But lost in the chatter on social media and the headlines in print and broadcast outlets was recognition of the large number of adults with autism.
"There are far more adults with autism than children with autism, yet it’s sort of the forgotten group,” says Craig Erickson, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine and director of research at the Kelly O'Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
"Individuals with autism have essentially a normal life expectancy, but no one talks about what happens after they finish their schooling and reach adulthood. A key time is the transition-age period that we’re really trying to focus on with both expanded clinical care and research.”
The CDC report, released March 28, received widespread attention not just for showing the prevalence of autism but also for documenting its rise in the past decade from one in 150 children to one in 68. (The numbers are drawn from nationwide surveillance sites that do not include Cincinnati.)
In one more decade, the current 8-year-olds will be facing the transition to adulthood. While they face the prospect of losing a school-based support system unless they are able to continue their education in college, Erickson emphasizes that help is available.
"The Autism Adolescent Assessment Clinic at the Kelly O’Leary Center led by Amie Duncan, PhD, at Cincinnati Children’s is geared toward people who are ready to launch into the adult world," he says. "Some people with autism may not have been looked at in a detailed way since they were first diagnosed as a toddler, so we do an additional full assessment to try to help them with adult service planning.
"The system just changes once someone with autism reaches adulthood, because everything is school-based when they’re in school, then developmental disability service-based afterward—and that’s a difficult transition because it can mean everything from a care provider in the home to no support at all.”
Erickson says problems faced by adults with autism include school failure, with higher-functioning people who otherwise could have gone to college failing because of social deficits, and co-morbid mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression that frequently occur as people get older.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says persons who suspect they might have a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome should seek a diagnosis from a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. They might have been misdiagnosed previously, NAMI says (with schizophrenia, for example), and a firm diagnosis can help them understand for the first time why they are having difficulties with social interactions.
The Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati, a chapter of the Autism Society of America, sponsors several support groups and programs geared toward different needs, including those of transition-aged adolescents and young adults. More information is available at www.autismcincy.org or by calling 513-561-2300.