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Counting the ‘cost’ of autism

by on 2014/06/19

The media have paid significant attention to a study that was published recently which looked at the financial cost of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the U.S. and the U.K. Most of the media have lead with headlines referring to the high annual cost of ASD to the U.K. economy (£32 billion) and have compared this to the lower cost of cancer, heart conditions and strokes combined. So is this comparison fair?

The comparison is very crude – ASD is a life-long condition unlike (in most cases) cancer, heart conditions and strokes. As we have discussed previously in a Research the Headlines post (‘Growing out of autism?‘) many individuals with ASD continue to show significant impairment into adulthood. Children don’t tend to ‘grow out of’ the condition, although for some symptoms may wane into adulthood. So comparing conditions like heart disease and strokes to a life-long condition like autism, is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. While most of the media coverage did include quotes from the study researchers about the condition being life-long, this was mostly towards the end of the articles and the point made in the headline wasn’t appropriately placed in context. The Guardian coverage of the story however included reference to this in their sub-heading so readers who didn’t go beyond the headline would have been able to understand the context of the headline.

The study examined the cost of ASD by age and by the presence or absence of intellectual disability. Both factors are highly important and this shows up in the findings. Costs were much higher for example for individuals with an intellectual disability and medical costs were higher for adults than children. The study didn’t look at the presence or absence of co-occurring (known as co-morbid) conditions. Individuals with ASD commonly show symptoms of other conditions e.g. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which themselves are associated with costs.

Discussion of the ‘cost’ of ASD is likely to come across as insensitive to the families of individuals with this condition. In general though, the media handled this sensitively. Most referred to the small amount of money spent on research to help alleviate the condition in contrast to the high cost associated with caring for individuals with the condition. This lack of funding is particularly noteworthy in the U.K. and such reporting helps to highlight this problem. The latest stories are a vast improvement on previous media reporting on the economic costs of developmental disorders. For example, the media has previously run with headlines such as ‘Naughty child syndrome costs taxpayer £170 million’ and ‘Parent of a child with ADHD? Have a free car under £1.5bn taxpayer-funded scheme’ to refer to the cost of ADHD to the economy.  I really can’t believe that someone thought it was okay to use such headlines! We wouldn’t see the same headline ‘Have a free car…’ used for individuals with physical health conditions such as strokes, but mental health conditions are not always given the same sensitivity in media reporting. Fortunately, media reporting on this ASD study has been much more sensitive.

In general, the reporting of this ASD study raises important issues in the public domain – the need for more research funding in the U.K. and the importance of early interventions.  Such publicity should help to raise awareness of the need for funding to understand the condition better and to ultimately help individuals with the condition and their families.

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