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Students send a stern message to President Trump on guns. Also on our nationwide rundown: One expert's view of why canceling student-loan debt would boost the economy; plus the Trump budget calls for a 90-percent cut to a decades-old public lands program.

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Autism in Maine: Dramatic Rise in Cases

April 25, 2011

AUGUSTA, Maine - April is National Autism Awareness Month, and in Maine many strides have been made in terms of identifying the condition earlier, treating it, and educating families, health care providers and schools to better understand the needs of children with autism.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done, says Nancy Cronin, PDD systems change coordinator for the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council. She says the rise in autism cases in Maine and around the country has hit epidemic proportions. In 1984 there were fewer than 40 cases in Maine, but in 2009 more than 4,000 cases were being treated under Mainecare.

"Of those 4,156, about 80 percent are under the age of 18, which is significant, especially when you're looking at, 'How are we going to have to adjust and change our adult systems to be able to support this changing population?'"

Cronin says little is known about what causes autism and why there has been such an increase in cases. Because autism and other pervasive developmental disorders or PDDs, affect the way a person communicates, comprehends, and relates to others, she says it's extremely important to diagnose as early as possible.

Cronin says an initiative in Maine that began in 2008 has helped agencies around the state streamline the process of diagnosis and treatment, and also led to grants related to autism treatment. In the past, it fell primarily to schools, but more than 50 percent of kids also have medical issues associated with autism, such as seizures.

"So there's definitely a medical component in this - it's not just educational - in which doctors need to be overseeing this. So what we're doing here in Maine is we're trying to shift that responsibility back to the doctors, which is where the families and the doctors want it to be."

Cronin advises parents who suspect their child may have autism to be sure to ask a doctor for an autism assessment or a referral to a developmental pediatrician. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, autism spectrum disorders affect one child in 110, and male children are four times more likely than female to be affected.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - ME