The following column, by State Reps. Ben Frederick and Julie Calley, first appeared in Bridge Magazine on Oct. 16:
Over the next year, thousands of Michigan families will have their lives forever changed by an autism diagnosis. As parents of special needs children, both of us remember the fear and uncertainty we felt when our own kids were diagnosed.
Fortunately, families in Michigan have a great place to turn for answers. Since the Autism Navigator program started, its specialists have connected thousands of families with resources. They work with people in all stages of their autism journey, from parents who need help answering insurance questions and identifying education resources to adults with autism who need assistance finding housing and jobs.
The Autism Navigator program, along with other critical autism support services, have always been met with widespread enthusiasm. Helping families of children with autism is not a partisan issue. It’s simply the right thing to do. That’s why we were so surprised to see these programs gutted by the governor’s budget vetoes.
Gov. Whitmer was wrong to use our most vulnerable residents as leverage in the road funding debate. Now that she’s had some time to reflect on her decisions, we hope our governor will be willing to admit her mistake and restore funding for these vital services.
To give her a second chance, we introduced a proposal this week that would restore funding for the autism services she cut from the budget.
This includes $1.025 million for the Autism Navigator, as well as the $100,000 stripped from another successful and well-established program called Train the Trainer. This funding is used to help schools train teachers to be able to identify and assist children with behavioral health concerns.
It also includes $350,000 the governor vetoed for a new autism intervention program called the PLAY Project. The pilot program would have provided specialized training to at least 60 providers of Early On Michigan, an intervention service for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.
Research has shown that 10 to 20 hours of one-on-one therapy a week markedly improves the development of children with autism, especially when provided early in life.
Unfortunately, medical providers in many communities have long wait lists, leaving young children waiting to receive treatment. The most critical period of development occurs when a child is between 18 months and 3 years old. A six to 12-month delay for treatment during this period can affect a child’s entire course of life.
Through the PLAY program, Early On providers would receive special training specifically designed to address the needs of families and empower people to help their children using evidence-based, parent-implemented models of intervention.
The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders is increasing, with 1 in 59 children affected, making it the most common severe disability impacting children in Michigan.
We can’t let the governor’s cuts hurt these kids. We’re committed to working together with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to restore funding to these important programs.