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Autism costs society an estimated $3 million per patient
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Each individual with autism accrues about $3.2 million in costs to society over his or her lifetime, with lost productivity and adult care being the most expensive components, according to a report in the April issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a theme issue on autism spectrum disorders.

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Autism costs society more than $35 billion in direct and indirect expenses each year, according to background information in the article. Relatively little is known about when these costs occur across the lifetime of an individual with autism.

Michael L. Ganz, M.S., Ph.D., Abt Associates Inc., Lexington, Mass., and Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, used data from the medical literature and from national surveys to estimate the direct medical and non-medical costs of autism, including prescription medications, adult care, special education and behavioral therapies. Approximate indirect costs, including lost productivity of both individuals with autism and their parents, were calculated by projecting average earnings and benefits at each age, adjusted for the fact that some autistic individuals can work in supported environments. Only costs directly linked to autism, and no medical or non-medical costs that would be incurred by individuals with or without autism, were included.

These costs were projected across the lifetime of a hypothetical group of individuals born in 2000 and diagnosed with autism in 2003. Costs estimates were broken down into age groups at five-year intervals, with the youngest group age 3 to 7 years and the oldest age 63 to 66 years.

“Direct medical costs are quite high for the first five years of life (average of around $35,000), start to decline substantially by age 8 years (around $6,000) and continue to decline through the end of life to around $1,000,” Dr. Ganz writes. “Direct non-medical costs vary around $10,000 to approximately $16,000 during the first 20 years of life, peak in the 23- to 27-year age range (around $27,500) and then steadily decline to the end of life to around $8,000 in the last age group. Indirect costs also display a similar pattern, decreasing from around $43,000 in early life, peaking at ages 23 to 27 years (around $52,000) and declining through the end of life to $0.”

Over an individual’s life, lost productivity and other indirect costs make up 59.3 percent of total autism-related costs. Direct medical costs comprise 9.7 percent of total costs; the largest medical cost, behavioral therapy, accounts for 6.5 percent of total costs. Non-medical direct costs such as child care and home modifications comprise 31 percent of total lifetime costs.

Because these costs are incurred by different segments of society at different points in an autistic patient’s life, a detailed understanding of these expenses could help planners, policymakers and families make decisions about autism care and treatment, Dr. Ganz notes. “Although autism is typically thought of as a disorder of childhood, its costs can be felt well into adulthood,” he concludes. “These results may imply that physicians and other care professionals should consider recommending that parents of children with autism seek financial counseling to help plan for the transition into adulthood.”
(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161:343-349.

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