Thursday is World Autism Awareness Day, and although every day of the year seems to be dedicated to one or another ailment, I particularly wanted to note this one because of how fast the diagnosis is growing in the United States and how much confusion there is in the health care field about just what it is and how to care for individuals who have it.

The Autism Society says it is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pretty shocking. The CDC reports that prevalence of autism spectrum disorder increased a whopping 119.4 percent among Americans in the first decade of this century, from 1 in 150 in 2000 to 1 in 68 in 2010. More than 3.5 million Americans now live with the disorder.

The annual U.S. cost of autism is estimated at between $246 billion and $262 billion, and is forecast to reach $400 billion in 10 years. That includes nonmedical services, such as special education, as well as lost productivity like lost work time by caregivers. The Autism Society says the cost of lifelong care can be reduced by two-thirds with early diagnosis and intervention.

All of this makes an urgent case for the health care field to hurry up and get with it. As Leslie Phillips notes in an excellent blog posted March 2 by the National Autism Association, finding proper medical care remains one of the most challenging aspects of being a caregiver for an autistic individual.

Phillips’ blog, “Six Steps to Getting the Best Medical Care For Your Child with Autism,” obviously is written with the family in mind, but it contains urgent lessons for physicians and hospitals as well.

For one thing, doctors too often dismiss certain medical conditions as “it’s just the autism,” even though, Phillips writes, the conditions “are often treatable and, when properly addressed, can improve core symptoms of autism, as well as immediate health concerns (such as pain) and long-term health outcomes.”

I won’t go into all of Phillips’ six steps, but they’re eye-opening and worth reading. I especially like this advice to parents who bring their autistic child in for medical care: “If the provider rolls their eyes and says, ‘It’s just the autism, take them home and love them,’ find another provider. None of us needs to be told to love our children or grandchildren. We find an overwhelming majority of caregivers do an exceptional job of this.”

And in case you’re wondering about the photo accompanying this blog, it’s the Royal Park Bridge in Palm Beach, Fla. An organization called Autism Speaks says the bridge was the first of many landmarks across the world to take part in the Light It Up Blue campaign leading up to Thursday’s United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day.