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Asperger and Autism, Part 3
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DeadManWalking56 posted:
Continued from part 2:

Now it's understood to be much more common - perhaps 20 times more. But according to local authorities, the picture in California is particularly bleak in Santa Clara County. Here in Silicon Valley, family support services provided by the DDS are brokered by the San Andreas Regional Center, one of 21 such centers in the state. SARC dispenses desperately needed resources (such as in-home behavioral training, educational aides, and respite care) to families in four counties. While the autistic caseload is rising in all four, the percentage of cases of classic autism among the total client population in Santa Clara County is higher enough to be worrisome, says SARC's director, Santi Rogers.
"There's a significant difference, and no signs that it's abating," says Rogers. "We've been watching these numbers for years. We feared that something like this was coming. But this is a burst that has staggered us in our steps."
It's not easy to arrive at a clear picture of whether there actually is a startling rise in the incidence of autism in California, as opposed to just an increase in diagnoses. One problem, says Linda Lotspeich, director of the Stanford Pervasive Developmental Disorders Clinic, is that "the rules in the DSM-IV don't work." The diagnostic criteria are subjective, like "Marked impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures to regulate social interaction."
"How much 'eye-to-eye gaze' do you have to have to be normal?" asks Lotspeich. "How do you define what 'marked' is? In shades of gray, when does black become white?"
Some children will receive a diagnosis of classic autism, and another diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, from two different clinicians. Tony Attwood's advice to parents is strictly practical: "Use the diagnosis that provides the services."
While diagnostic fuzziness may be contributing to a pervasive sense that autism is on the rise, Ron Huff, the consulting psychologist for the DDS who uncovered the statistical trend, does not believe that all we're seeing now is an increase in children who would have previously been tagged with some other disability, such as mental retardation - or overlooked as perfectly healthy, if quirky, kids.
"While we certainly need to do more research," says Huff, "I don't think the change in diagnostic criteria will account for all of this rise by any means."
The department is making its data available to the MIND Institute at the University of California at Davis, to tease out what's behind the numbers. The results of that research will be published next year. But the effects of a surging influx are already rippling through the local schools. Carol Zepecki, director of student services and special education for the Palo Alto Unified School District, is disturbed by what she's seeing. "To be honest with you, as I look back on the special-ed students I've worked with for 20 years, it's clear to me that these kids would not have been placed in another category. The numbers are definitely higher." Elizabeth Rochin, a special-ed teacher at Cupertino High, says local educators are scrambling to create new resources. "We know it's happening, because they're coming through our schools. Our director saw the iceberg approaching and said, 'We've got to build something for them.'"
The people scrambling hardest are parents. In-home therapy alone can cost $60,000 or more a year, and requires so much dedication that parents (particularly mothers) are often forced to quit their jobs and make managing a team of specialists their new 80-hour-a-week career. Before their children become eligible for state funding, parents must obtain a diagnosis from a qualified clinician, which requires hours of testing and observation.

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