Combating Autism

By Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA)

Each year, about 24,000 children are diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder in the United States. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability we face, increasing at a disheartening rate of 10-17% annually. My heart goes out to the parents and families of those struggling with autism–as the father of six, I know that there is nothing more important than the health of our children, and can only imagine the difficulties and heartache facing these parents. It is past time for the federal government to develop a thoughtful approach that will get these children, and their families, the help they need.

Frankly, there is so much we don’t know about this disorder. What we do know is that there is a tremendous need for things like early screening, diagnosis, and treatment. Right now, there is a considerable lack of coordination and dissemination of education and services, both for those diagnosed with autism and for those who wish to treat it. We need to change that.

Ideally, every child would be screened for autism between the ages of
18-24 months. In the United States, 17% of children have a developmental or behavioral disability such as autism. However, less than 50% of these children are identified prior to entering kindergarten. This delayed diagnosis means years lost in a child’s development. We need to do a better job screening America’s kids and ensuring that once a diagnosis is made, the necessary interventions are available. Early intervention will help every child to live up to his or her full potential. Our healthcare professionals do a tremendous job- but there simply aren’t enough trained healthcare and education professionals to help the nearly half-million American children with ASD.

Congress rarely works on, or passes, disease-specific legislation. In fact, the last disease-specific bill was signed into law in 2001. That we already have the bipartisan support of 39 cosponsors is very encouraging, and is a testament to both the importance of the bill and the impact that the autism community has had in making my colleagues here in the Senate aware of its importance. I am hopeful for committee action next month, and Senate passage soon after.

This bill is going to do so much for children with autism and their families. It emphasizes that, in recognition of the far-reaching effect of an autism diagnosis, we need a multi-disciplinary and family-centered approach to responding to it. My bill takes a look at the federal agencies already involved with autism research and services and both leverages and expands the resources currently available. In Pennsylvania we are blessed to have one of the National Institutes of Health Autism Centers for Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh, and we need more of these centers and the services they provide across the country. We need to invest more science in determining the potential causes or triggers of autism, and see where that science leads us. That means taking a more intensive look at things like environmental causes, neuroscience, specific treatments, and the role of genetics.

Due to the prevalence and scope of this disorder, most Americans probably know someone who has child with autism. I’m no different. I have a long-time staff member with a teenage son with autism, and she, her son, and their entire family have taught me a great deal about autism. I have learned about some of the challenges they face, the successes they’ve celebrated, and what we can do to ensure that those successes occur more frequently–not just for their family, but for the thousands of other families of children with autism across the country as well. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet and congratulate a young artist from Newtown, Pennsylvania-Connor-who was being honored for his award-winning artwork.

Meeting this ten year old autistic young man and his family reminded me how important it is that we do all that we can to ensure that all autistic children have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. The Combating Autism Act will approach each of the challenges, and more, that Connor’s family, and others, continue to face. America needs it, our children need it, and I am optimistic that we will be able to pass it this Congress.

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