Autism Services Fall Short in Virginia, Study Says

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Public services for Virginians with autism suffer from poor organization and limited resources and fail to offer help early enough. Many school systems also are unable to meet the needs of their autistic students, according to a report released yesterday by the General Assembly's lead audit review agency.

The study, by the Joint Legislative Review Commission, assessed services for Virginians with autism spectrum disorders and also found that many parents of autistic children waited more than a year to seek help for their children after noticing possible symptoms.

"To date, there hasn't been a central agency in Virginia that has handled autism. Autism systems in Virginia tend not to be coordinated, which makes it difficult for parents and families to figure out how to get help," said Nathalie Molliet-Ribet, project leader for the study. "And many in the school system lack adequate training to fully meet the needs of children who might require extra help and assistance."

Autism is a brain development disorder that typically reveals itself before a child's third birthday. Symptoms can include repetitive or obsessive behavior, communication problems and impaired social skills. The disorder affects about one in every 150 8-year-olds -- a tenfold increase in the past 20 years.

More than 11,000 people received autism-related services in Virginia last year at a cost of $271.5 million, according to the report.

Although research has shown that early intervention can ease the impact of autism, parents in Virginia waited, on average, five months to seek professional help for their children after noticing possible symptoms. On average, families did not begin professional counseling for their children until one year after alerting a medical professional to the child's condition, the study found.

"What we found anecdotally is that there may have been a lack of acceptance on the parent part about what might be wrong," Molliet-Ribet said. "In many cases parents are told, 'Well, maybe your kid will grow out of it.' So, they wait."

The report found that, in many cases, early intervention could save the state money. Some states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, have saved $187,000 to $207,000 per child per year in education and other costs because early intervention reduced the need for intensive services when the children got older.

"There really isn't adequate information about what is available and what families can do immediately to have their children diagnosed," said C. Lee Price, director of the office of developmental services for the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, one of the state agencies responsible for providing services to people with autism.

Although many of the study's conclusions are mirrored across the country, the commission's review found that Virginia does not have a specific mechanism for drawing down federal money for people with the condition. Some lawmakers said the state must look at private-sector alternatives.

"I didn't hear much about what public-private partnerships we can create to help these families and develop programs," said Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), who is vice chairman of the Joint Commission on Health Care. "This is a problem that we need all kinds of solutions to, from both the public and private sector."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company