Wednesday, April 18, 2007

New Jersey Takes Action on Autism

The Canadian government has taken no specific action on autism. It did not dedicate a single penny toward the cause of autism, autistic persons or families with autistic loved ones. It does not display any sense of urgency, even little awareness of the autism issues confronting so many Canadians. Some provincial governments have made strides, with resistant bureaucracies moving when pushed by parent advocacy. But there is very little action anywhere in Canada to address the serious needs of autistic adults. Police forces and other first responders have little or no training in autism and how to deal with autistic persons.

In the United States governments at both the federal and state levels appear to understand the seriousness and scope of the autism health and life crisis and are taking action as this commentary by New Jersey Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. in the Asbury Park Press illustrates:

Legislation aims to better detect and treat autism
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/18/07


The diagnosis can be the most devastating, overwhelming and confounding words a parent might ever hear: "Your child has autism."

In an instant, all of a parent's joyous dreams are brutally crushed; the child's prospects for a normal life are virtually extinguished.

The child is in a neurologically compromised world, exhibiting poor eye contact, diminished communication skills and peculiar repetitive behaviors. The body is there, but the inner soul has vanished because the child's mind has gone haywire.

The emotional toll for the parents and other family members is incalculable. There are new challenges in providing care. There are financial strains from paying for costly therapies often not covered by insurance. There is enormous stress and a gnawing pain that comes from the fact that nobody knows why autism occurs and — for the moment, at least — nobody knows of a cure.

These private sorrows are the harsh reality of autism, a baffling, mysterious developmental disorder that appears to be on the rise in New Jersey and elsewhere.

A new study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently determined that one out of every 94 New Jersey children has some form of autism. Nationally, the CDC study determined one out of every 150 children is affected by autism spectrum disorder, with a new child being diagnosed every 20 minutes.

These rates are radically different from the nation's statistical figures from 10 years ago, when it was felt that one out of 500 children had autism.

Nobody is sure whether autism rates are rising. It could be that medical providers, parents and educators are doing a better job of identifying and classifying cases. But the numbers also could be rising because of something in the environment or in human genetics.

Whatever the reasons, autism has become a significant challenge for everyone. It is now the country's fastest growing developmental disability, more prevalent than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.

It's a problem that commands greater public awareness and greater attention by all sectors of society — in government, education, medicine, social services, scientific research and our public safety networks.

Recognizing this situation, the Assembly recently passed a seven-bill package aimed at improving the detection, treatment and public awareness of autism in New Jersey. These measures will help address some of the challenges being presented by increases in the number of children being diagnosed with autism and a corresponding surge of autistic young adults who are now aging out of the state's special-education system.

The seven measures would improve the state's autism safety net along the following lines:

Set a goal for detecting autism within the first three years of a child's life and provide training for pediatricians to better identify kids with autism. The earlier autism is detected, the better a child's chances of living a more productive adult life.

Create a new, separate task force on adults with autism so the state can better attend to their housing, job training and long-term care needs.

Provide special training of police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians to recognize and help autistic individuals.

Establish a centralized statewide autism registry to keep better track of diagnosis rates and help in identifying ways to provide assistance to families that have autistic loved ones.

Restructure the Governor's Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism to provide more diverse representation and views from the state's autism community.

Extend the funding mechanism the state created four years ago to finance grants for autism research and treatment programs. This will ensure uninterrupted assistance to help the state address autism past 2008.

Require the state education department to develop recommendations for raising autism awareness among current and prospective teachers and require teacher certification programs to include training on handling autistic children.

Complementing this package, Gov. Corzine recently proposed a significant increase — $5 million — in state support for autism-related programs and initiatives. And the Assembly has advanced another measure urging the state Department of Health and Senior Services to study whether ultrasounds may be a contributing factor to the state's rising autism rates.

While our state has long been on the cutting edge of diagnosing and treating autism, the families touched by autism command our compassion and a re-energized commitment to ease the long days until science unlocks the mysteries of this disorder and produces a cure.

Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden, is Assembly speaker.

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