WITH NEW OFFICE, STATE MAKES PLEDGE TO PARENTS OF AUTISTIC CHILDREN
By Michael C. Levenson
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, APRIL 12, 2004..By summer 2005, parents of children with autism will have an official clearinghouse to find information and support services, state officials said Monday. At a State House ceremony marking April as autism awareness month, parents cheered as Gerald Morrissey, the commissioner of mental retardation, formally announced the creation of a new Division of Autism Spectrum Disorders to oversee services and support for families.Morrissey said the office would respond to parents and legislators concerned that services are available only after hassles, barriers and battles with state bureaucracies.“We need a system that works for kids, families, and adults across the state,” Morrissey told members of the Statewide Coalition for Autism. “We can’t rely on parents finding a solution on their own.”
The office, now in the planning stages, is set to open in full by July 2005, the start of the 2006 fiscal year. Still to be determined are its funding and staffing, Morrissey said.
Rep. Barbara L’Italien (D-Andover), whose 13-year-old son has Asperger’s syndrome, was among the parents who applauded the announcement.
When the state split the departments of Mental Health and Mental Retardation in 1987, “it left people with Autism spectrum out in the cold,” L’Italien said. The new office, she said, “is going to recognize that, yes, kids with autism have a place to go. They have a place to access services for support at school, at home, and in their community.”
The Department of Public Health is working on a study, due out in December, on the number of children under 18 with autism in Massachusetts. No precise numbers are available now, but parents, advocates, and officials say the numbers have mushroomed in recent years. Morrissey described the increase as “phenomenal.”
The US Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in every 166 children will be diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder which can lead to repetitive movements and intellectual impairment, as well as problems communicating and socializing. Related disorders include Pervasive Development Disorders, Asperger’s syndrome, and Rett’s disorder.
Autism has no known cure and occurs four times as frequently in boys as girls. The next concern for policymakers, L’Italien said, is the development of services for people over age 22.
“Once you’re out of school, you sort of fall off a cliff, because in terms of services, there’s nothing,” she said. “There’s such a need for vocational training and workforce training to try and make people productive members of society.”