Two recent government studies have called attention to the rising number of U.S. children with autism disorders.
Once thought to occur in 1 in 150 children, the new data suggest the rate is closer to 1 in 100 children.
That would mean about 1,600 children ages 17 and under have autism in Stanislaus County.
"My hope is that these studies will cause parents who have young children to look at the signs," said Michelle Rodriguez of Riverbank, an organizer of Central Valley Walk Now for Autism Speaks, scheduled for Saturday at the Modesto Junior College West Campus. "People tend to pay attention only if they know their children have it."
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Some experts fear a growing health problem is revealed in the study results released this month, and the trend is reflected in the number of families seeking services for autistic children in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothills.
The Valley Mountain Regional Center saw new autism cases grow from 427 in 2005 to 714 in 2008. The agency had 434 new cases in the first seven months of this year, already more than the number for all of 2005, said Paul Billodeau, a deputy director for VMRC.
"It has been a steady increase," he said, adding that he doesn't think it's because of population growth in the region. "We've always had people moving here from the Bay Area. I think there are just more kids that happen to have autism and the experts don't seem to know why."
The increased caseload has a social cost. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to provide intensive therapy for a child with autism. Those who don't become functioning adults will be dependent on family or social services for life.
"It makes me nervous that we don't have real good budget years ahead and I'm not sure we will be able to provide all of the services needed," Billodeau said.
2 studies found higher rate
The study results have spurred debate since their release. One study was based on the 2007 National Survey of Children's Health, a telephone survey asking more than 78,000 parents if their children had ever been diagnosed with autism. It revealed a rate of 1 in 91 children, although many parents said their child had a mild case or no longer had the diagnosis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked at education and health records in selected cities, announced preliminary findings of about one case in 100 children. Federal health officials said greater awareness, broader definitions and earlier diagnosis of children could explain some of the increase.
Children with autism don't socialize with others, often have speech delays and learning disabilities, exhibit repetitive behaviors and may have obsessive interests. Some of the children are able to function better than others.
Early diagnosis is essential so these children can receive intensive training to teach them language and social skills before starting school.
Rodriguez said the former rate of 1 in 150 was bad enough and the rising numbers cry out for more research into the causes of autism.
"It is not a rare disease," she said. "It is something that could very well happen to your child or someone you know."
Her 6-year-old son, Ryan, was diagnosed at age 2, enabling her to apply for services and to have tutors come to their home for as many as 40 hours a week. Today, Ryan attends the second grade without a tutor.
She is relieved her two younger daughters, ages 3 and 14 months, have shown no signs of autism.
Misdiagnosed for years
Janice Bradshaw of Turlock said her grandson was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder for six years before he started treatment for autism this year. The 8-year-old is attending a special school in Turlock.
"If he had been diagnosed correctly, he could have gotten training and he would have been schooled differently," Bradshaw said. "I think these studies show we need awareness and help for our children."
About 2,000 people attended last year's autism walk in Modesto, most of them part of a growing community of families affected by the disorders. Saturday's fund-raising walk will be held on campus, because autistic children are sensitive to noise and may bolt without looking for cars, Rodriguez said.
"We all walk together and if your child throws a tantrum then the other parents understand," she said.
About $85 million in federal stimulus funding is going to autism research in the next two years to look for answers for parents such as Ali Hernandez of Modesto.
"It is appalling that the numbers continue to rise," said Hernandez, who has an 8-year-old daughter with autism. "The government can't ignore these numbers. ... We need to find out what is causing it, so we can eliminate as many factors as we can."
Researchers believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors leads to autism. The Hernandez and Rodriguez families have been involved with the autism research of the MIND Institute at University of California at Davis. Family members give saliva and other test samples in hope of detecting physiological differences in autistic children or evidence of environmental triggers.
"I would like to know in my lifetime what causes it," Rodriguez said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.