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New federal data shows autism rates are booming. Local researchers are finding industrial chemicals may play a role

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: Michael Brajas, License: N/A

Michael Brajas

Rafael Hernandez, here with his former teacher Tish Hernandez, volunteers two days a week at Any Baby Can.

Photo: Greg Harman, License: N/A

Greg Harman

Ray Palmer has drawn stark lines between ambient mercury exposure in Bexar County and local incidence of autism.

When Tisha Gonzalez first met Rafael Hernandez, the elementary school student didn't care much for other kids. And his body language suggested he didn't care much for his new teacher either. When he had to communicate, he did so only in the faintest of whispers — or by screaming. He avoided eye contact. "He didn't like to be around anyone," Gonzalez said. "He was pretty tense and not interested in interacting."

It was the early 1980s and Gonzalez was San Antonio ISD's lone autism specialist. Rafael, or "Rafa," was a newly diagnosed autistic student joining her small classroom of about six others for the first time.

Today it's hard to find a school district that doesn't have a team dedicated to autistic students, and Gonzalez has moved up the ranks to become the director of autism services at the San Antonio branch of the nonprofit Any Baby Can, offering families counseling and training post diagnosis. Rafa, now in his 30s, comes twice a week as a volunteer to stuff envelopes, collate in-house produced textbooks, and organize rooms for meetings. His affection for Gonzalez, and just about everyone else he meets, is obvious. His manners are impeccable ("It's good to meet you," he says, shaking hands with a visitor. "I'm making coffee. I make really good coffee."), and he can navigate small errands by city bus, but he may never be truly self-sufficient. He still lives at home, cared for by his mother.

In the years to come, San Antonio — and the rest of the country, for that matter — will be dense with folks like Rafa. New numbers released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control in late March show the scope of the epidemic: one in 88 children in a handful of communities being tracked are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by the age of 8. The numbers are based on information compiled in 2008 and represent an increase over one in 110 that were being diagnosed in 2006 and a 77 percent increase since 2002. Consider that when Gonzalez first got involved working with autistic children the number was roughly one in 10,000. Needless to say, the new figures have shocked advocates, parents, and researchers, and contributed to a tug-of-war over where to cast the blame.

Autism — or autism spectrum disorder, which has come to include Asperger's and Rett syndrome — is classified as a complex neurobiological disorder with its root in early brain development. Walk into a classroom or schoolyard and autistic students are typically easy to spot. Frequently, they'll be the ones walking the fence perimeter by themselves while other children play, Gonzalez said. They typically don't socialize or communicate well. Autism spectrum disorders appear before the age of three, according to the CDC, and can last throughout a person's life. Gonzalez and others interviewed from area school districts attested to the rise in the condition locally, but also point out that school districts are getting better at spotting — and assisting — autistic students today. "Now with the better screeners and more awareness, we've gotten so much better at picking kids out," Gonzalez said.

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