Autism costs to the United States as a whole are expected to reach nearly half a trillion dollars annually in the year 2025, according to an analysis from health economists at UC Davis Medical Center.
Researchers looked at medical, non-medical and lost productivity costs. They said costs for 2015 total $268 billion and in 10 years will reach $461 billion. Researchers said their estimates were "conservative," and that it was the first time the economic burden for the U.S. had been calculated.
And while these costs are very high, research funding lags, he said.
"The economic burden of autism is on par with the costs of diabetes," Leigh said. "And yet the federal government is funding diabetes [research] at about five times the rate that it is funding research into autism."
The study was published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Leigh says more intensive services that can help people with autism to have jobs and live independently can reduce societal costs later.
"There are definitely cost-effective interventions for children and adults," Leigh said, "and these can yield big dividends in a few years ... when people with autism become functional and compete in the workforce."
Kristin Jacobson, executive director of Autism Deserves Equal Coverage, an advocacy group, said the study's findings validate what the autism community had long known.
"Autism is one of the largest and the fastest growing health crises in the United States and the world," she said by email. "Unfortunately it still remains dramatically underresearched and underfunded. If California and the U.S. continue to underinvest in research and therapy, the financial and social costs will be catastrophic."
She noted that her own organization had previously calculated that California could save $46 billion to $64 billion over 10 years by providing behavior health treatment to individuals with autism.
"If the state and federal government does not wake up and significantly invest in understanding ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] and making ASD treatment accessible, the societal and financial burden will be devastating," she said.
In the study, Leigh and co-author Juan Du called for research into possible "modifiable causes" of ASD at a level "as great as other major diseases," as well as new research into the cost effectiveness of different therapies.