Autism can affect any family, regardless of our skin color, wealth or religion. During the past 15 years, the rate of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has grown from affecting 1 in 166 children in 2004 to 1 in 54 today. Boys are four times as likely to be diagnosed with autism as girls are.
There is no evidence that autism prevalence differs across race or ethnicity, but Black and Latino children and those with limited resources are often underdiagnosed and diagnosed later than their counterparts. This makes it more likely that the services they need will be accessed later and that opportunities for early intervention will be missed.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Beyond raising awareness, the designation should remind us that accepting and including people living with autism will remove barriers, reduce misconceptions and help us truly appreciate the contributions they make to our world.
People with autism add to the diversity of our communities, and we need to understand better what they contribute and how they and their families can be supported. They also have many strengths that can benefit communities and employers. Social and occupational isolation are but two of the many challenges facing persons with autism.
We don’t have enough providers who can diagnose autism, and many that can don’t accept insurance. The national average for time on a wait list prior to being diagnosed is more than one year. People with autism experience many co-occurring challenges such as intellectual disability, epilepsy and mental health problems. There are also health disparities among people with autism that may contribute to shorter life expectancies. Their life expectancy is shortened by 20 to 36 years compared with the general population.
With any lifelong disability or illness, research and services must take a life-span perspective. What does this perspective look like? Here in Texas, medical researchers continue to study the brain and biology of autism. Neurologists, psychiatrists and neuropsychologists are tracing its origins and improving the ways to diagnose it early.
Behavioral specialists and educators study and design educational approaches for children with autism. Others are focusing on young adults entering college and the labor force, and attending to the “aging out” of youth services and entitlements. In adulthood, there are issues of education, training and employment. In old age, there is the need for care and services. Social workers and disabilities specialists support persons living with autism as well as their families, friends and communities.
We don’t truly know why and how autism happens to so many of us. Science has more work to be done. But until we can prevent or cure it, science and services must come together seamlessly to improve the lives and futures of persons with autism and their families. Texas can lead the way by providing comprehensive opportunities for individuals with autism and their families of all social strata to have equitable access to services.
Texans need to continue to support these services and build on them. Specifically, we can create autism awareness campaigns to reduce stigma and foster acceptance of people with autism in society. Lawmakers can make sure that funding is available for important services. Professionals can develop interdisciplinary teams to diagnose autism early, especially in underserved and low-resource communities. Schools can ensure that teachers and staffers have expertise in evidence-based learning practices for people with autism. Employers can learn how to make accommodations for youths and adults on the spectrum.
More work is needed to better support people with autism who have these challenges. We can do better. Working across disciplines and society, Texas can lead the way.
Luis H. Zayas is the dean of the Steve Hick School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
Clay Johnston is the dean of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News and the Amarillo Globe News.