To say that autism is more common in this day and age might not be completely true, the statistics be damned. It would be more accurate to say that there is greater awareness of this affliction than ever before, and that its constant redefinition within the medical community over time has resulted in an increase in those diagnosed with it.

As of 2018, one in 59 children fell into that category. That’s a marked increase from just four years earlier, when one in 68 was diagnosed in that fashion, and a 30 percent jump over 2008, when the rate was one in 88. In 2000, it had been just one in 150.

This malady has been fully described as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which according to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interactions across multiple contexts.” It is four times more common among males than females, and 31 percent of the time is accompanied by intellectual disability. And while there is no test to determine whether someone is suffering from ASD — it can be diagnosed only by observation — research has shown that genetics is a factor. So too is the age of the parents, the father in particular.

This affliction was labelled “infantile autism” when it was first defined in 1943, at which point only the most severe cases were taken into account. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was mentioned in the DSM, and not until 1994 that Asperger’s Syndrome was considered to be part of the autism spectrum.

All of that no doubt contributes to the aforementioned rise in its incidence. The mean lifetime cost to support those suffering from ASD is $1.4 million, $2.4 million for those suffering from an intellectual disability as well. And in all, the annual cost in the U.S. to treat those suffering from autism has been calculated to be as high as $60.9 billion.

The challenge, then, has been to find time-saving, cost-effective treatment options for often-overburdened caregivers and healthcare professionals. And socially assistive robots (SAR) have shown increasing promise, particularly in eliciting target behavior (notably eye contact), which is not common among those afflicted with ASD. That was demonstrated in a 2019 study of 17 children between the ages of 3 and 7 who underwent month-long interventions involving SAR and also found to be true in earlier studies in New Zealand and the Netherlands of a parrot-like robot called KiliRo and a humanoid robot called NAO, respectively. Researchers have concluded that “rapid progress” has been made in treating ASD with SAR, but further study is still necessary, especially in the treatment of adults with this affliction.

In other words, there is great potential in this field, and in the years ahead it is expected that that will be fully realized.