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

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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.

"People don't appreciate how sensitive the developing nervous system is to outside influences," Miller said. "And some people may be more susceptible because they get a bigger exposure or they cannot detoxify some of these exposures as well as others. They don't know these exposures could cause problems. If I were pregnant I would want to know what's being suspected at this point in time and not wait for all the data to come in. Especially if you can make changes in your lifestyle and do things that are precautionary."

With so much research so slow to bear definitive causal links or new drugs, those on the front lines have little choice but to buckle down and continue serving affected families. The Autism Community Network on South Zarzamora is one of several recent arrivals where child assessments and parent trainings are held. "It's a long process," said ACN Executive Director Dr. Loree Primeau. "What [parents] hear on the day of the diagnosis is often difficult, but we can make it so that [autistic children] stay closer with their peers, if not catch up with their peers." Ultimately, about half of those diagnosed on the autistic spectrum are able to enter regular kindergarten, she said, though "that still isn't good enough."

And the demographic is getting older. In 2009, the Texas State Department of Aging and Disability provided assistance to an estimated 4,300 adults with autism. Another 4,000 applied for assistance but not receive it for lack of available funds. All told, the societal costs of the disorder nationally hit $126 billion in 2012, tripling just since 2006, according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

Because the CDC numbers are taken from just over a dozen locations that don't constitute a nationally representative sample, the agency warns against extrapolating them nationwide. Problem is, it's the best data going, and even the Texas Department of Health uses the one-in-88 figure to calculate the number of adults who may be living in the state with autism, a figure now just above 210,000.

Girasol De Luna didn't learn about autism until her own son, Ricardo, was diagnosed at six years of age six years ago. Since then she's become a parent education specialist with the nonprofit Brighton Center in San Antonio. Nearly every time she's out in public she's stopped with questions about her son. "Families come up and ask me, 'Is that autism? Is that what it is? Because my son was diagnosed. Where do we go?'"

Fortunately, with her training she's able to direct concerned parents to a source of assistance. And the earlier autism is identified the more likely the child is to keep up in school. But De Luna says a lack of Spanish-language brochures and public-service advertisements means Spanish-speaking families are particularly in need of good information. "I've heard stories where the parents say, 'Somebody told me just to give them up. Somebody told me to not have hope, that he's not going to be able to talk, he's not going to do this.' No, no. You will be amazed by what they can do if you just give them the right support. Yes, your child can move forward."

But stopping the climb in new cases will require calling the new cases what they are and not hiding behind the argument that they represent only better diagnosis in action, Palmer said. "You just don't miss kids who lose their speech at two, or 18 months, and then they start to hand-flap and do odd gestural posturing ... Did we really miss that? Or it fair to see we're finding more because there are more?

"These children are not defective. They're sick. They got sick."

With autism affecting more children each year than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined, finding out what made them that way remains a matter for the most urgent investigation. •

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