By JACK TIMOTHY HARRISON
Capital News Service
LANSING – State health agencies and advocates are providing more resources to address Autism Spectrum Disorder, which is the nation’s fastest-growing developmental disability.
“We are encountering people more and more who have a diagnosis of autism on this scale,” said Jon Hart, vice chair of the Disability Network of Michigan. The increase is particularly noted among young people, he said.
The definition of autism has broadened, encompassing more people who fall on the spectrum, he said. That could explain the increased diagnosis of the disorder.
5.4 million Americans have autism and about 50,000 are in Michigan. In 2000, one in every 150 children had autism and by 2018, the rate increased to one in every 44 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is also more awareness of the characteristics of autism.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies in declaring April Autism Acceptance Month.
The health agency serves over 10,000 autistic children through the Michigan Medicaid Program, said Lindsay McLaughlin, director of the agency’s Bureau of Children’s Coordinated Health Policy & Supports.
The bureau provides resources for children’s behavioral health, including autism spectrum disorder and intellectual development disabilities, McLaughlin said.
“The sooner we work with folks with autism spectrum disorder, the sooner that they receive the support they need, and usually that’s in adolescence,” McLaughlin said.
More screenings and better access to healthcare for younger people can explain the increase in diagnosis, she said.
The bureau is supporting evaluations by reducing wait times for autism spectrum evaluations, providing more training to those doing evaluations and expanding the evaluations network with more clinical partners, McLaughlin said.
It is bringing more standardized systems of eligibility for treatment and access to services, and it is creating a directory, so families are better aware of their options for therapy, she said.
McLaughlin said ensuring there are systems in place to support those with autism moving into adulthood is also a priority.
The best advocacy centers on education, respect and the presumption of competence of all persons, said Kathy Johnson, the board president of Autism Support of Michigan.
“There is no ‘epidemic of autism,’” Johnson said. “Instead, what we face is an epidemic of need. The main reason we are finding more autism is simple: Clinicians are getting better at spotting what was always there.”
The state funds the Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) Project at Grand Valley State University’s Autism Education Center to support those with autism.
It was first funded in 2001 to serve students from preschool up to age 26, according to the project’s director Amy Matthews.
“Our goal is to build the capacity of staff within the schools to support their own students.” Matthews said.
The program is connected statewide with every intermediate school district and serves public schools and private schools with training, peer to peer support, and resources to educators who serve students with autism.
The Disability Network of Michigan is the association of all 15 centers for independent living that receive state and federal funding to provide community-based support to promote independence and self-determination for those with disabilities.
Their priorities include eliminating autism’s stigma, building self-belief and addressing discomfort in communication, said Hart, who is also executive director of Jackson’s Disability Connections Center for Independent Living.
Disability Network of Michigan is working on a youth leadership development program to support youth with disabilities, including autism, and to help them secure and preserve jobs into adulthood.
“People with disabilities can work, they do want to work, and are under employed,” Hart said. “If we really want to fully staff our businesses, (then) learn how to work with people who have disabilities with autism and put them in places where they can succeed.”
There is a shift to autism acceptance instead of autism awareness, Matthews said.
“People are aware we need to kind of move into acceptance, and really listen to the voices of people with autism,” Matthews said. “We’ve done a lot of things without listening to them.”