Fairfax: Autism, not ‘baby boomers,’ biggest future health challenge

The wave of aging “baby boomers” needing public health services in Northern Virginia — once thought to be the greatest healthcare and fiscal threat facing local governments in the coming decades — will be far outnumbered by the skyrocketing percentage of young adults with autism diagnoses, Fairfax County human services officials said Tuesday.

According to statistics compiled by the Fairfax County Public Schools, 1 in 83 enrolled students are now diagnosed with some form of autism, an 846 percent growth since 1997.

“That is a niche that’s not being covered and those families are struggling,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D).

Pat Harrison, a deputy county executive in Fairfax overseeing human services programs, said the county’s 65-and-older population will reach 138,000 by 2020, but that the population of young adults with autism is growing at a far faster rate.

To help, Fairfax is partnering with the state and private agencies to create a pilot day program for young adults with autism. But respite services, reliable transportation, housing and recreation and vocational training programs are in dire need, officials said.

“The autism wave is going to be far more challenging. … We need to begin to have discussions on how to deal with it now,” Harrison said.

Many Northern Virginia communities with high numbers of children have rallied together in recent years and lobbied lawmakers in Richmond to mandate state health benefits for sometimes-pricey autism treatments.

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