Another school year is about to start.

Parents are preparing, getting the kids ready. New haircuts, new shoes, maybe new outfits or uniforms.

It also marks the day my eyes were opened. And it happened recently.

It was just three years ago when fellow writer Karen Cimms and I embarked on a unique project. We explored the plight faced by families impacted by the autism disorder spectrum.

To begin, I didn't even know there was such a thing as an "autism spectrum" until my friend Holly explained it to me. Holly deals with it daily, and so do many other parents.

So Karen and I traveled the TIMES NEWS coverage area and interviewed families who willingly opened their doors to their very personal lives and the joy and heartbreak of dealing with a special child.

Of course, all children are special. We know that.

But children with autism are in a league of their own. They have challenges with learning, behavior, moods, you name it.

"I wish I had a key that would unlock her mind," said one father. It broke my heart because I understood what he meant. His daughter is picture-perfect in every way. Yet what is it that causes her to be so different from other children?

One parent gave me a colorful puzzle pin in the shape of a ribbon. The Autism Awareness puzzle reflects the mystery and complexity of the condition. The various colors and shapes represent the diversity of the affected people and families. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope - hope that through increased awareness and through early intervention and appropriate treatments, people with autism will lead fuller, more complete lives.

I'm writing about this because the school year is about to start. Yet every day is a learning and coping day for families of those with autism.

I don't write about statistics. Statistics are boring. Besides, people want to read about people, not numbers. But I'll break from tradition to talk about one statistic.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control updated its estimate of autism incidence in this country to an eye-popping 1 in 88 (from 1 in 110).

The cause of autism remains unknown. Now they're suggesting environmental contaminants as a culprit. Dr. Phil Landrigan, Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Mt Sinai School of Medicine, suggests it in his peer-reviewed paper: 'What causes Autism? Exploring the environmental contribution.'

Also, a Stanford University study of twins points to environmental factors in 57% of cases.

But which chemicals might be the problem? Is it household cleaners? Disinfectants? Detergents?

In America, we don't monitor chemicals for neurotoxicity.

"It is bad news, indeed, that it is getting worse," says Andy Igrejas, Director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families. "As evidence accumulates that unregulated chemicals contribute substantially to autism, chemical policy reform becomes even more of a moral imperative."

As caring human beings, we need to support the passing of the Safe Chemicals Act, which would, for the first time, create a process for identifying the chemicals that contribute to autism and then apply appropriate restrictions.

The act would reform the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act and for the first time would give the Environmental Protection Agency the tools it needs to keep dangerous chemicals out of the products we use.

In the meantime, we need to do everything possible to support children and families impacted by autism. We need to solve the puzzle.

All of us are part of it and all of us need to work toward the answer.