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Study Puts A Price Tag On Autism

Autism exacts a heavy toll on families across the country, but what is the financial cost of the disorder?

Image by Leo Reynolds via Flickr

Now we have an actual price tag:  the lifetime cost of supporting a person with autism ranges from $1.4 million to $2.4 million in the United States, depending on whether the person also has an intellectual disability.

That’s according to a report published by JAMA Pediatrics, based on a literature review of studies on individuals with autism and their families.

Those numbers add up to a total cost of about $66 billion a year for children and  $175 billion a year for adults. About 3.5 million people have autism in the U.S.  For kids, the biggest costs were for early education services and loss of income for their parents. For adults, residential care or living accommodations and loss of individual income were the biggest factors.

David Mandell, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and senior author of the paper, says the costs were much higher than he expected when he began the investigation.

“The only two health conditions I’ve seen with a higher cost estimate are coronary heart disease and cancer,” he said.

The cost of autism in adults is particularly striking. “We talk about autism of a childhood disorder, but the life expectancy of people with autism is about the same as typically developing adults,” said Mandell. “It begs the question – if we provided more effective and intensive early interventions, and we were able to change the trajectory of the disorders, what would that do to our overall lifetime costs?”

He cites residential treatment as another place to save money in the treatment of adults with autism. While it’s important to have high-quality residential options, “often it represents a failure of our society to offer more community-based alternatives to adults with autism,” he adds. “We need to have more creativity and flexibility in helping adults with autism stay in their community.”

As for children with autism, Mandell says more flexible workplace policies that are friendly to parents of children with disabilities such as autism would mean fewer parents would drop out of the workforce. The study found that lost productivity for caregivers of kids with autism was about $18,720 each year.

And as an added bonus, he says, “if we came up with processes that benefited children with autism, they would have substantial effects on all families.”

The study in JAMA Pediatrics was funded by the advocacy group Autism Speaks.