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Autism (AU) and Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impaired social interaction, decreased verbal and non-verbal communication capabilities, and stereotypical repetitive behavior patterns. In general, the symptoms are manifest within the first two to five years of life and persist into adulthood. While the severity of the symptoms varies widely among affected individuals, in most instances these disorders lead to severe cognitive, communicative and social disabilities, and can be devastating to those children afflicted with autism and to their families.
During the last decade, a dramatic rise in the incidence of autism in the western world has been observed. The recent estimates published in October, 2009, by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) indicate that 1% of children in the US 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health have an ASD. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concurs with that finding and published similar data in December. It is also estimated that 1 in 88 newborns will be diagnosed with AU or ASD. The overall diagnosis of AU or ASD is more than diabetes, Down’s syndrome, and cancer combined. Although part of this increase can be attributed to increased awareness of the disorder among pediatricians, other studies have indicated that the increase in the incidence cannot be completely attributed to increased diagnosis. It is clear that there are unidentified factors that contribute to the dramatic increase of the disease.
The average age of diagnosis is 4.5 years, which is well past the window of opportunity for effective early intervention. If physicians could diagnose the disease earlier, and begin early behavioral intervention, 20% to 50% of children with AU or ASD would be able to attend mainstream schools.
This could reduce the average incremental societal cost of AU/ASD which is estimated at $3.2M per child, by as much as 66%.
A variety of factors have been implicated in the etiology of autism, including both genetic and environmental factors. Given the fact that ASDs are highly heterogeneous and the degree of severity varies considerably among those afflicted, it is highly likely that there are multiple causes of the disorder. There is a need for better diagnostic and prognostic tests that can identify children with autism at an earlier age, such as: 1) tests to identify subgroups among those children, 2) tests to identify children at risk for developing autism and 3) tests for identifying adults who are at risk for having children with autism.