By eliminating in-home therapy funding for children diagnosed with autism, the state will not save money and will make life harder for families struggling with the disability.
Last week I had the privilege of attending a meeting with parents whose children have been diagnosed with autism. Throughout the meeting I was struck by the parents’ knowledge of the disability and their obvious determination to do what it takes to help their children develop.
Governor Doyle’s decision to eliminate $8.3 million in state funding for the intensive in-home treatment of children diagnosed with autism is a bad decision in a number of respects, but as I listened to these parents I realized it is also politically unwise: They will not go away.
Autism affects the entire family. In-home therapy helps the child afflicted with autism and also supports family members as they learn how to cope with their child’s disability. I encourage Governor Doyle and those on the Joint Finance Committee to spend time talking with the parents of children with autism. Please listen to their stories and take note of their determination to do what is best for their children.
The governor is blaming his decision in part on the federal government’s decision to end its commitment to pay its own share. That cannot be an excuse for the state to turn its back on children afflicted with autism. Indeed, the decision to eliminate a program that serves almost 1,000 children with disabilities would perhaps come as no surprise in some states, but in Wisconsin we have a long, proud tradition of caring for the disabled.
I’m not going to say that we need to find another place to cut the $8.3 million, because eliminating this program will not save the state any money. Denying early intervention services for children with autism will translate immediately into increased costs and staffing needs at the public schools that will be forced to pick up the slack. This decision will also mean long-term costs for the state and federal government as the children who do not get treatment become adults who are not able to function without expensive public services. Early intervention will help many autistic children become independent adults.
The need for these services and the urgency to address this disability has never been greater. Although the exact number of autism cases is difficult to pin down, new National Institute of Child Health and Development studies suggest there has been a three-fold increase in newly diagnosed cases in just the last few years. According to recent studies, diagnoses of autism are almost 10 times more common today than they were in the 1980s. Experts now estimate that the number of diagnosed cases has increased from 4 in 10,000 just 10 years ago to 1 in 500 in some areas now. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Annual Report for 2002 shows a 701 percent increase in autism when comparing U.S. Department of Education figures from 1992-1993 to 2001-2002. In political terms, the parents of these children are what you might call a “growing constituency.”
Those making tough decisions about the state budget need to take a hard look at the children who face neurological challenges. They need to hear the worries and struggles of their determined, dedicated and informed parents. Our legislators need to read the research that clearly articulates the power of early intervention, and find a way to continue intensive in-home treatment for children diagnosed with autism.
We keep hearing that this is a budget of agonizingly tough choices. When it comes to the treatment of children diagnosed with autism, the choice is between guaranteeing that they will remain dependent into adulthood and providing proper support and early intervention to give them the opportunity to develop into participating members of our society.
Smart taxpayers and the families of autistic children would say that is no choice at all.
March 8, 2003
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Wendy Handrich livees in Oconomowoc and is an educational consultant who represents children with special needs.