Autism has high costs to US society

April 25, 2006

Boston, MA - It can cost about $3.2 million to take care of an autistic person over his or her lifetime. Caring for all people with autism over their lifetimes costs an estimated $35 billion per year. Those figures are part of the findings in the first study to comprehensively survey and document the costs of autism to U.S. society. Michael Ganz, Assistant Professor of Society, Human Development, and Health at Harvard School of Public Health, authored the study, which appears in a chapter titled, "The Costs of Autism," in the newly published book, Understanding Autism: From Basic Neuroscience to Treatment (CRC Press, 2006). Ganz hopes his research will help policymakers allocate scarce resources to its treatment and prevention as well as provide a useful reference for policymakers and advocates to help them more fully understand the financial impact of autism on U.S. society.

Ganz's analysis of the costs includes direct and indirect medical costs associated with the disorder. But he believes the $35 billion annual societal cost for caring for and treating people with autism likely underestimates the true costs because there are a number of other services that are used to support individuals with autism, such as alternative therapies and other family out-of-pocket expenses, that are difficult to measure. In addition, Ganz believes that the level of cost could be higher if there were more useful and widespread treatment options available. "Given that the federal autism research budget has been historically less than $100 million per year and given that research budgets for other conditions with similar numbers of affected individuals are sometimes orders of magnitude higher, I hope that my research can help focus more attention on directing more resources toward finding prevention and treatment options for autism," Ganz said. (For comparison purposes, he notes estimated annual costs of other conditions, including Alzheimer's disease ($91 billion); mental retardation ($51 billion); anxiety ($47 billion); and schizophrenia ($33 billion).)

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) that involves severe deficits in a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Children with autism often have trouble using their imagination, have a limited range of interests, and may show repetitive patterns of behavior or body movements. The disorder is often associated with some degree of mental retardation. Autism is the most prevalent PDD and the most common of all serious childhood disorders. It affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans and is increasing at a rate of 10-17 percent each year. It is four times more common in boys than in girls. The exact cause of autism is not known and there is currently no cure for the disorder.

Ganz broke down the total costs of autism into two components: direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include direct medical costs, such as physician and outpatient services, prescription medication, and behavioral therapies (estimated to cost, on average, more than $29,000 per person per year) and direct non-medical costs, such as special education, camps, and child care (estimated to annually cost more than $38,000 for those with lower levels of disability and more than $43,000 for those with higher levels).

Indirect costs equal the value of lost productivity resulting from a person having autism, for example, the difference in potential income between someone with autism and someone without. It also captures the value of lost productivity for an autistic person's parents. Examples include loss of income due to reduced work hours or not working altogether. Ganz estimates that annual indirect costs for autistic individuals and their parents range from more than $39,000 to nearly $130,000.

Since people with autism receive services from a wide variety of sources, Ganz believes future research efforts should focus on identifying those sources and linking those costs to non-financial data about the burdens of autism. These complementary sources of data can provide a richer picture that will be useful to policymakers in the future to assist them in devoting resources to address the financial and non-financial effects of autism.
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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

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