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Autism: The Mystery Among Us

Autism diagnoses are on the rise. The reasons are elusive, but understanding the disorder doesn’t have to be

Photograph by Mathieu Young

If you live in Los Angeles and autism hasn’t yet made an impact on your life, it will.  There is a 1 in 110 chance that a child born today will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder—make that 1 in 70 if that child is a boy. A child born in L.A. County is more likely to be diagnosed with an ASD than anywhere else in California; recent studies have pegged the local diagnosis rate at two to four times the state average. In 2000, there were about 2,800 autistic students in the Los Angeles Unified School District; last year there were more than 9,400. 

It could be a boy in the neighborhood, a coworker’s daughter, a nephew, a friend’s toddler. Or maybe your own child. Gradually you come to realize all that odd behavior—the hand flapping and jumping, the delayed speech or avoidance of eye contact, the obsessive repetition, the fear of loud noises, the social isolation—is more than mere eccentricity. And suddenly, with a single word, the entire future you envisioned as a parent is turned on its head. L.A. isn’t just home to staggering numbers of ASD cases. It was on the campus of UCLA in the 1960s, when little was known of the disorder, that psychologist Ivar Lovaas developed applied behavior analysis, a 40-hour-a-week approach of carrots and sticks that has become the dominant autism therapy in the Western world. From USC to Childrens Hospital to Cal State Northridge, researchers continue to study treatments and offer pioneering early intervention programs. The city is also home to the Help Group, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of autism education, with campuses in Sherman Oaks and Culver City; the movie industry, which has informed the world’s popular conception of the disorder (it’s not all Rain Man); and those famous parents of children with autism who speak out on talk shows and in best-selling books.

In the pages of our Autism package you’ll hear from mothers and fathers transformed by autism and adults who have wrestled with it for decades. You’ll find tips on schools, what’s OK—and not OK—to say to the parent of a child with autism, and where to begin if you’ve just received a diagnosis. What you won’t find are definitive answers about causes and cures—there are none. But we do tell you what it’s like to live with the disorder. To those already living with it, we say this: You are not alone.