In many ways, the journalistic journey I am taking into the world of autism reminds me of a mushroom experience I had deep in the Martin County woods in the late 1980s.

As some tree-hugger friends and I led a Washington Times columnist through a valley en route to a particularly egregious U.S. Forest Service clearcut, I noticed what, to someone who had never found a morel before, a specimen that seemed like a giant. Once I discovered the first one, they suddenly appeared everywhere, and I left the woods with a couple dozen in my backpack.

So it has been with autism. Since I started paying attention a month ago, I've realized it is everywhere.


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For example, I don't watch much television, and don't recall ever seeing a commercial about it, but at least once a week now I see an ad for an autism-awareness Web site. And one of my best students this semester proposed and wrote a profile story about an autistic Bloomington man.

"No database exists of the actual numbers of people on the autism spectrum (in Indiana)."
- Cathy Pratt, IRCA director

Then, tragically, I read the lead story in the Indiana Daily Student titled "IU student remembered for her love of acting" about the 20-year-old Bloomington woman who leapt to her death from the Seventh and Walnut parking garage on Nov. 15. The story said she was autistic.

***

The Centers for Disease Control says people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) "have significant impairments in social skills and communication. They often have repetitive behaviors and unusual interests. ... Symptoms of ASDs vary from person to person and range from mild to severe."

And research I have been doing for a freelance piece on the link between ASDs and toxic pollution has shown me that autism has risen dramatically in the past three decades, since Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement began rolling back environmental protection in America.

A study from the California Department of Health Services published in the March 7, 2001, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that the incidence of autism in 1980 was 0.44 cases per 1,000 live births. By 1994, it had increased 373 percent, to 2.08 cases per 1,000.

In 2007, the CDC published two studies that put the incidence of ASDs among 8-year-olds at 1 in 150. Comparing the CDC's data with California's, the incidence of autism has increased 1,422 percent since 1980 and 222 percent since 1994.

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The young Bloomington woman's death made me wonder if there was a connection between autism and suicide. And as with everything else I have found on this subject, the results are ominous but inconclusive.

In 2007, the 40-year-old daughter of composer Burt Bacharach and actress Angie Dickinson committed suicide. She suffered from a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome (AS), which spawned a flurry of media reports on the subject.

A spokeswoman for the United Kingdom-based National Autism Society explained in a Jan. 8, 2007, article in the London Independent where AS lies on the autism spectrum. "As you move up the spectrum you have high-functioning autism or AS," she said. "People with AS usually have a normal IQ but have problems expressing themselves."

"The young Bloomington woman's death made me wonder if there was a connection between autism and suicide."

The article cited "issues of psychiatric trauma and varying degrees of depression among young adults with AS, something that seems related to their awareness of their difference from others. One paper on the subject claims that five out of 22 young adults with AS had tried to take their lives."

***

Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center on Autism (IRCA), noted in an article on her organization's Web site that no one knows for certain how many Hoosiers are autistic. "No database exists of the actual numbers of people on the autism spectrum," she wrote.

But there are indicators that Hoosier families are hit particularly hard by the condition, and it's getting worse.

Pratt wrote that 2007-2008 Child Count Data collected from school districts across Indiana by the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), Center for Exceptional Learners suggests the incidence in Indiana is higher than the CDC estimates of 1 in 150.

The IDOE data says 8.8 in 1,000 students in Indiana have a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, which is up from up from the 7.8 in 1,000 students the previous year, Pratt said.

"In other words, last year 1 in 128 students were served under the eligibility category of autism spectrum disorders," she wrote. "This year's identification rate is 1 in 113."

As I said, autism is everywhere.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.