Autism's Alarm Rings Loud

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 - 1:00pm

Despite all the headlines, the American public knows little about Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s a misunderstanding that has consequences, including a price tag that reaches far into the billions.


In a February 2007 report, the Centers for Disease Control said that autism affects as many as 550,000 people under 21 years of age—afflicting one in every 150 American children, and one in every 94 boys. The costs of supporting autistic children are just as staggering. The Autism Society of America estimates the lifetime costs of caring for one child with autism can exceed $3.5 million. The U.S. alone can expect to face almost $90 billion annually in costs associated with the disorder.

“We’re learning that, although autism is much more prevalent than anyone previously thought, it’s still very difficult for families and the autism community to get the resources they need to best care for and support those with the disorder,” says Linda Bambara, professor of special education and associate chair of the department of education and human services. 

A national leader in the study of developmental, social, and behavioral disorders, Lehigh has partnered with the University of Pennsylvania, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Drexel University on a new regional Autism Center that will assess current services and develop training models to support Pennsylvania’s fast-growing autism community. Bambara and Christine Cole, professor and coordinator of the school psychology program, are spearheading Lehigh’s effort.

The demand for autism services has grown significantly in the past 15 years in the common wealth. The number of individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorder has risen by over 2,000 percent, from two per 10,000 people to over 40 per 10,000 people.

“Autism is a frequently misunderstood disorder, so much of our focus will be on developing programs that benefit both young adults with autism and their communities,”says Cole. 

Lehigh’s role in the consortium will be to train and instruct professionals —caregivers, psychologists, educators— in behavior support models, which are sets of interventions designed to prevent behavioral challenges by identifying underlying problems. 

“We try to understand what might be frustrating a person. What is going on environmentally? What are the skills that we need to teach?” asks Bambara. 

“Problem behaviors for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities are often rooted in poor communication and social skills. So our goal is to teach.”