Monday Medical: The aging of autism

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Jack is smart. Everyone who knows him agrees. His language skills are limited. But if pushed, he will speak in sentences. Jack loves to dance. He is a sweet boy, his mom says.

He loves school and being around the other kids. Jack needs continuous supervision and constant cues to stay on task. Safety always will be an issue.

Jack will be 14 in September. He has autism.

There are more and more children like Jack these days. A new survey has revealed that as many as one in 50 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder this year. This is a 78 percent increase since 2007.

What this means is that we are in for a vast number of adults on the spectrum who will “age out” of our system at 22. By 2020, an estimated 1.5 million individuals on the autism spectrum will need help with basic living services.

Jack’s mother is just plain scared. Rightly so, as she questions her son’s future. Where will he live? Will he be able to work based on his disability? And the worst nightmare, as she calls it, is what will happen to him when she and his father are unable to care for him? Will care fall to his older sister?

Although some of children on the autism spectrum have health issues, there is no limit in life expectancy. This family can expect to care for Jack for a lifetime.

The hope is that Jack will be able to live in a supported living arrangement, whether that is in a group home setting or independently with additional support.

Here is where his mom says it really gets scary: Will there be enough money or resources to help Jack live as independently as he is able? Where will the family go for help?

The Yampa Valley Autism Program is doing its part to address the challenge. Our Community Cultivation program is providing work-ready skills for young adults with autism beginning at age 15. This horticultural program increases participants’ opportunities for future employment.

The five raised-garden beds at the Yampa River Botanic Park and our new greenhouse are the tools we use. The clients plan, plant, tend and harvest produce that they sell at the Mainstreet Farmers Market and this year to local restaurants.

They are learning how to manage money, work within a group and focus on the task at hand. The result is newly found self-esteem and independence that will translate to their everyday life and the workforce.

However, a growing number of families are finding that there are no easy answers to the puzzle of autism. The economic impact on our economy is just being recognized. Combined local and state services for one individual on the spectrum can reach as much as $50,000 per year.

Our society largely is unprepared to deal with this health crisis. Funding and research dollars are focused on early intervention and identifying a cause. As a society, we have not addressed the train that is coming down this track.

The first thing you can do is to become informed. Autism might not directly affect your family, but without vital services to provide for this growing population, we will all end up paying more for their lifetime care.

We can urge our congressional representatives to support the legislation that funds developmental disabilities, including autism. We can support local agencies that provide these resources.

April is National Autism Awareness month. We encourage you to get involved and learn more at www.yampavalleyautism.org. We cannot afford to wait.

Lu Etta Loeber is executive director of the Yampa Valley Autism Program. She can be reached at lloeber@yampavalleyautism.org.

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