Home > Science > The Cost of Autism and the Value of a Meaningful Internship

The Cost of Autism and the Value of a Meaningful Internship

This post is by Alison Komorowski, an Autism Speaks intern. Alison is a senior at The College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass, majoring in Economics with a Pre-Medical concentration. For the third year in a row, Autism Speaks has participated in the The College of Holy Cross Summer Internship Program. The highly competitive program provides exceptional Holy Cross sophomores and juniors with an opportunity to gain meaningful career related experience in an area related to a student’s occupational goals.

This afternoon at a lunch to commemorate the end of my summer internship at Autism Speaks, a colleague asked me if this was the first internship I’d ever had. I told her no, that I had interned part-time with a wedding planning business during spring of my sophomore year and went home that summer to shadow a local family dentist. She, like many others who I’ve told this to, looked confused as she tried to find the common thread among wedding planning, dentistry and the work I have done this summer at Autism Speaks. I went on to explain that I have yet to discover what career field I want to be in, so every time something sparks my interest I do my best to expose myself to the realities of that profession. Naturally, the follow up question was what was it that “sparked my interest” to lead me to Autism Speaks?

The answer is quite simple. Last summer I followed Alice Simcoe-Matthews’ blog as she chronicled her experience as the science intern at Autism Speaks. Through her posts I was introduced to the organization and I fell in love. With two cousins on the spectrum, I have a personal vested interest in Autism Speaks’ mission and I was impassioned at the thought of working to give a voice to those who so desperately need to be heard. As spring semester rolled around I eagerly anticipated the e-mail from the Summer Internship Program with details on how to apply. When it finally came through my inbox I read the project description for this year’s intern: Etiology intern to complete a literature research project on the economic impact on autism on society, and how intervention may influence that costs. As an Economics major in the Pre-Medical program I literally thought “this would be perfect!” I had the opportunity to interview with the science team and a week later I received an invitation to join Autism Speaks as their etiology intern, which I was more than thrilled to accept.

I could not have imagined in the weeks leading up to my first day what my experience at Autism Speaks would be like. The very morning I arrived I began working on my project which involved hours upon hours of searching for literature, reading through articles and most importantly, absorbing, understanding, and analyzing all the information I came across. Thankfully, the members of the science team were amazing mentors who let me know from day one that they were always available as a resource if I needed them. Before I knew it, I was writing a report that may eventually reach the desks of senior scientists in the fields of public health, health economics, and autism services research.

The final product, The Cost of Autism: Improving our Understanding of the Economic Impact of Autism in the Context of Early Detection among the Global Autism Community, is intended to provide the background that will allow investigators in the field to make recommendations on how to approach future cost of autism studies. It highlights the gaps in information that currently prevent a comprehensive measure of the costs of autism and makes suggestions as to how we might address these issues. Today, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been dubbed an urgent public health crisis by the CDC. Autism affects 1 in 110 children and 1 in 70 boys in the United States[i] and the estimated annual economic cost of autism to society is a staggering $35 billion![ii] Now, more than ever, ASD demands the attention of both public and private sectors. However, current estimates of autism’s cost to individuals, families, and society do not measure the impact that early diagnosis and intervention may have on reducing such costs. With this important information, policymakers can further advocate for members of the autism community by making informed decisions about resource allocation to enhance access to appropriate treatments. My hope is that this report can indirectly serve as an instrument for the advocacy and betterment of individuals living with and affected by ASD.

A few weeks ago as I was on my way up to my cubicle on the third floor someone in the elevator looked at the Autism Speaks’ puzzle piece pin on my shirt and asked, “So, are you a piece of the puzzle?” Although I didn’t say it out loud, I thought to myself “I sure hope so.” I stepped out of the elevator and walked into work that morning smiling as I thought about all the people at Autism Speaks, the work they do each day and the amazing things this organization has accomplished in just five years. Am I a piece of the puzzle? I think we all are.  Anyone who visits the Autism Speaks website, attends a walk, organizes a fundraiser, or cares for someone with autism is adding a piece to the puzzle that was once missing. I feel so blessed to have been given the opportunity to contribute to the mission of Autism Speaks, not to mention an internship experience that may actually help me find the career path I’ve been looking for.


[i] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, MMWR. (2009). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders-Autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, United States, 2006 (58(SS10); pp1-20). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved June 9, 2010 from http://cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5810a1.html

[ii] Ganz, M. (2006). The costs of autism. In Moldin SO, Rubenstein JLR, eds.
Understanding autism: From basic neuroscience to treatment. Boca Raton, Fla: Taylor and Francis Group.


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  1. Justin
    August 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I would like to read this paper, is there any place we can take a look at it?

  2. Deb McKnatt
    August 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Alison, thanks so much for using your summer for this most important subject. Those of us, as do you, have an unrelenting heart for the information and the cure of autism for those we love. Our grandson, Luke, has our heart, beautiful, sweet, and we want so badly to unlock all those wonderful things he wants to share with us. Thank you for sacrificing your self and for the great job you did for more awareness. May God bless all you put your hand to.

  3. Jacob
    August 19, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks for all your hard work on this topic, Alison. As a sibling of someone with autism, I truly appreciate it. I’d also be interested in reading the paper, if there is a way to access it.

  4. August 20, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Alison/Autism Speaks – please post a link to this paper. The cost of autism is a huge issue for all of us dealing with autism directly and indirectly.

  5. karen hilyard
    August 20, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I am editing my comment before it is posted — please use this one.

    We absolutely must begin framing public outreach about autism — and particularly policy outreach to lawmakers — in economic terms. Every child who needs intensive early intervention but does not receive it will cost our society either in terms of lost productivity or in worst-case scenarios, lifelong economic dependence on taxpayers. Those of us who know the personal cost — emotional and financial — of not having insurance coverage for needed therapies, of dealing with school systems who either don’t know what to do or do the minimum they can get by with, and of not having affordable, accessible respite care and childcare facilities — we understand the cost of autism. But there are plenty of people who do not have that direct experience and have no emotional connection and who may see autism funding as an entitlement program. It is important that those lawmakers and taxpayers begin to understand that whether or not they “care” about the plight of families with autism, the autism epidemic affects THEIR pocketbooks, too. As a society, we can pay now for 40 hours a week of therapy for a preschooler during that precious window of time when early intervention can re-wire the brain — or we can pay for 40 years of dependent care for a child who never learned to communicate or do basic self-care.

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