Monday, April 16, 2012

As autism grows, funding for programs shrinks

By Ashley Griffin 

The number of autism cases is on the rise, but funding for autism-related programs in the state has been dropping and could take another hit under the budget for next fiscal year.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that nationally, one in 88 children under 8 years old have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The rate was determined with 2008 data, and the new figure represents an increase from one in 110 children living with autism in 2006. The report states: “Comparison of 2008 findings with those for earlier surveillance years indicated an increase in estimated ASD [autism spectrum disorder] prevalence of 23 percent when the 2008 data were compared with the data for 2006, and an estimated increase of 78 percent when the 2008 data were compared with the data for 2002.”

Experts believe that improved diagnostic methods and increased awareness of the disease has contributed to the increase. “Some of the increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served in their local communities, although exactly how much is due to these factors in unknown,” the report from the CDC said. 

Minority children saw the largest increases. Between 2002 and 2008, The number of African-American children diagnosed with autism increased by 91 percent, and the number of Hispanic children diagnosed increased by 110 percent. Caucasian children saw a 70 percent increase over the same time frame. “We suspect that some of this increase is due to greater awareness and better identification among these [minority] groups. However, this finding explains only part of the increase over time, as more children are being identified in all groups,” the study from the CDC said.

According to The Autism Program of Illinois,  30,000 children between the ages of 5 and 19 are living with autism in the state. Mark Schmidt, a spokesman for the group, says the number of cases could possibly be as high as 39,000 because without proper screening, many children do not get the treatment they need. Schmidt said his organization is seeing the CDC’s findings play out in the state as more families are seeking services for children with autism. “We are definitely experiencing what the CDC is reporting.”

Although an autism diagnoses does not include tangible medical evidence such as blood test, it requires an observational test performed by a doctor who studies a child’s interaction. This can make it more difficult to diagnose than some other conditions. The CDC recommends if a parent notices some behavioral problems by the child’s first birthday, a screening maybe necessary. Autism is almost five times more likely in boys than in girls.

As the number of cases have increased both nationwide and in Illinois, funding for some autism programs in the state have been on the chopping block for several years in a row. Schmidt says funding has decreased about 14 percent over the last four years. “We are going to see a tremendous decrease in the amount of services.”

In fiscal year 2012, The Autism Program of Illinois received $4.6 million. Under Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed budget for FY2012, the group would get $4.1 million. However, lawmakers are on course to pass even bigger cuts than Quinn called for, so the final funding level could be less. Schmidt said that the cuts would lead to less services being offered to families who have children with from autism. He said the cuts would also make it harder to keep staff numbers up and make sure that employees are properly trained. The cuts could also lead to fewer hours of direct treatment for patients with autism. According to Schmidt, the cuts would result in 1,800 children not receiving some of the services offered by TAP, such as speech therapy, group support and early intervention for families.

However, the Illinois Department of Human Services says the cuts are necessary to help the state regain control of its finances. “These are serious fiscal times, and tough cuts were made across all agencies. In order to move Illinois forward, we must reform and stabilize its Medicaid and pension systems ASAP. If we don’t tackle the task this spring, budget cuts will be much deeper and even more painful for programs and providers alike in FY 13,” Januari Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said in a written statement.

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