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April 6, 2011
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Student researches financial implications of autism

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – While the cause of autism remains the subject of heated debate, Slippery Rock University student Justina Cerra recently completed a research project that focuses on another aspect of the disorder – the cost of treatment.
         Cerra, a communication major from Apollo, said she found it will cost $3.5-$5 million to care for a child with autism over the course of his or her lifetime. Cerra presented “Crunching the Numbers: A Look at the Financial Side of the Autistic Community” during SRU’s Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity.
      Her research corresponds with Autism Awareness Month sponsored by the National Autism Society and SRU’s Autism Week program. SRU’s program culminates with the SRU Council for Exceptional Children Walk at 10 a.m. Saturday starting at Morrow Field House. The program included speakers, discussions and movies during the week.
        Cerra said she researched how families spend money in relation to the disorder, what insurance covers and compared treatment and costs in the U.S. to Sweden. For sources, Cerra said she read academic journals and other literature on autism, studying the topic for five hours a week for more than six months.
      “When we talk about the financial side of the autistic community, we are basically talking about how the finances of a family with an autistic individual differs from those without an individual with autism,” Cerra said. “Some of the things that families must learn to budget for are medical visits and prescriptions, speech or physical therapy, and travel expenses to visit experts or doctors. There are grocery bills to provide a special diet because of the gastrointestinal disorders that many children with autism develop, the costs of schools and camps and the income losses suffered by parents.”
       Cerra said Medicare and Medicaid provide only “pocket change” coverage compared to the totality of treatment expenses.
      Autism is a disorder characterized by impaired communication and social interaction. It is one of three disorders in the autism spectrum, including Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. About nine of every 1,000 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
        In Sweden, Cerra said families could expect to spend $76,000 providing treatment, according to a study she examined involving more than 30 Swedish families with autistic children. Sweden has socialized medicine.
        Cerra said she was surprised to learn that many of the treatment costs in the U.S. are unrelated to medical expenses. “I found that the majority of costs are dispersed for special school and community support, such as certain camps the children or family may attend to learn about the disorder and foster their development, as well as income losses suffered by the family for example when they need to take off work to care for their children,” she said.
       She added that families with an autistic child are impacted financially in ways they could not have imagined. “To me, this is absolutely heartbreaking,” she said.
       Cerra said she first became interested in autism three years ago when she began teaching swim lessons to a toddler with autism.
        “It was the first time I had heard about or been exposed to autism, so I quickly had to learn about the basics of the disorder and how to interact with him in a small-group setting with other children,” she said. “His mother actually did an interactive presentation at SRU about what it is like to have a child with autism, and I became really interested in the topic and started learning more on my own.”
       Cerra said she discoverd a lot of confusion exists about autism because experts disagree about its causes. Some researchers believe autism lies within the human genome, while others believe it to be triggered by environmental toxins.
      “We have a long way to go with the research,” she said. “What is even more confusing is the fact that each person with autism is affected completely differently than others. What treatments and therapies work to lessen the symptoms of one individual may make no difference in another.”
      Cerra said the research expreience helped her grow as a scholar and gave her the opportunity to present at the National Collegiate Honor’s Council conference in Kansas City earlier this year.
    “I didn’t do any of my research for a class. I did it all voluntarily, so the reward for continuously learning outside of the classroom in this way is immeasurable and will carry on to the future not only in my studies of autism but in other areas of study as well,” she said.
     Cerra said she was ecstatic when SRU’s College of Education organized Autism Week.  “We have a ton of students here that come specifically to SRU for our highly esteemed education programs and advocating for a topic that is so hot right now in the education field is a way for students to get to know a disorder that they are very likely to be confronted with in the classroom,” she said.    

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.