MONDAY, Feb. 10, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The cost of services
for children with autism averages more than $17,000 per child each
year -- with school systems footing much of the bill, a new U.S.
Researchers found that compared to kids without autism, those
with the disorder had higher costs for doctor visits and
prescriptions -- an extra $3,000 a year, on average.
But the biggest expenses were outside the medical realm.
"Non-health care" services averaged $14,000 per child, and special
education at school accounted for more than 60 percent of those
Past studies into the costs of autism have mainly focused on
health care, said Tara Lavelle, a researcher at RAND Corp. in
Arlington, Va., who led the new study published online Feb. 10 and
in the March print issue of
These findings, she said, give a more comprehensive view. Her
team estimates that services for children with autism cost the
United States $11.5 billion in 2011 alone.
"The societal cost is enormous," said Michael Rosanoff, associate director of public health research and scientific review for Autism Speaks, a New York City-based advocacy group.
And the dollar estimates from this study cover only children
with autism -- not adults, noted Rosanoff, who was not involved in
He said the findings do give a clearer idea of the costs to
school systems, in particular. Now more work is needed to "dig
deeper" into the issue, Rosanoff said. Some big questions, he
noted, are whether school districts have the resources to handle
the needs of all students with autism, and whether individual
children are being well served.
In the United States, about one in every 88 children has an
autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. The developmental disorders vary widely in
severity. Some kids have "classic" autism, speaking very little,
and showing repetitive, unusual behaviors like hand flapping; they
may also be intellectually impaired. Other kids have average or
above-average intelligence, but have difficulty with social
For the new study, Lavelle's team pulled data from two national
surveys. They found information on 246 families with children
affected by autism spectrum disorders, ranging from mild to severe,
and close to 19,000 families with unaffected children.
In one survey, parents were asked about non-medical services for
their kids -- from special education at school, to autism therapy
sessions, to help with child care. Those costs turned out to be
much bigger than medical care, with special ed being the single
largest expense -- at $8,600 per year, on average.
There was one surprise in the findings, according to Lavelle:
Parents of kids with autism spectrum disorders reported no greater
out-of-pocket expenses than other parents, on average.
"That's inconsistent with previous research, which has found higher out-of-pocket costs," Lavelle said. She noted that this study had a fairly small sample of families affected by autism, and that might have prevented the researchers from finding substantial differences in parents' expenses.
Rosanoff agreed that the finding is surprising. But he said it's
possible that this latest study reflects progress in getting
insurers to pay for autism therapies.
As it stands, 34 U.S. states have now passed "autism insurance
reform laws," according to Autism Speaks. Several others are
considering such legislation.
"This study could suggest that autism insurance reform is working," Rosanoff said.
Lavelle said more studies are needed to see how families are
coping financially. As for schools, she said very little is known
about whether districts have the resources they need to serve all
their students with autism.
Rosanoff said one potential way to lessen the burden on schools
would be to improve early diagnosis and treatment of autism.
Diagnosing an autism spectrum disorder can be difficult, since
there's no simple test for it. According to the CDC, autism can
sometimes be diagnosed by the age of 18 months, but many children
do not receive a final diagnosis until they are much older.
The agency says that all children should be screened for
developmental delays during routine check-ups, starting at the age
of 9 months. Such screening could help in detecting an autism
spectrum disorder sooner.
If children can be diagnosed early, Rosanoff said, they can
begin therapy well ahead of school age. That might ease their
reliance on special education once they do enter school, he
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
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