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    Autism Costs Average $17,000 Yearly for Each Child

    School systems bear the brunt, not parents, researchers find

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    For the new study, Lavelle's team pulled data from two national surveys. They found information on 246 families with children affected by autism spectrum disorders, ranging from mild to severe, and close to 19,000 families with unaffected children.

    In one survey, parents were asked about non-medical services for their kids -- from special education at school, to autism therapy sessions, to help with child care. Those costs turned out to be much bigger than medical care, with special ed being the single largest expense -- at $8,600 per year, on average.

    There was one surprise in the findings, according to Lavelle: Parents of kids with autism spectrum disorders reported no greater out-of-pocket expenses than other parents, on average.

    "That's inconsistent with previous research, which has found higher out-of-pocket costs," Lavelle said. She noted that this study had a fairly small sample of families affected by autism, and that might have prevented the researchers from finding substantial differences in parents' expenses.

    Rosanoff agreed that the finding is surprising. But he said it's possible that this latest study reflects progress in getting insurers to pay for autism therapies.

    As it stands, 34 U.S. states have now passed "autism insurance reform laws," according to Autism Speaks. Several others are considering such legislation.

    "This study could suggest that autism insurance reform is working," Rosanoff said.

    Lavelle said more studies are needed to see how families are coping financially. As for schools, she said very little is known about whether districts have the resources they need to serve all their students with autism.

    Rosanoff said one potential way to lessen the burden on schools would be to improve early diagnosis and treatment of autism.

    Diagnosing an autism spectrum disorder can be difficult, since there's no simple test for it. According to the CDC, autism can sometimes be diagnosed by the age of 18 months, but many children do not receive a final diagnosis until they are much older.

    The agency says that all children should be screened for developmental delays during routine check-ups, starting at the age of 9 months. Such screening could help in detecting an autism spectrum disorder sooner.

    If children can be diagnosed early, Rosanoff said, they can begin therapy well ahead of school age. That might ease their reliance on special education once they do enter school, he said.

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