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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Autism in Mississippi

Unlike most other children his age, 7-year-old Austin Carter can't tell his dad about his day in school.

"I don't have the luxury," said Chris Carter, 32, of Jackson. "I can't wait for that day to come."

How long that will take is unknown; Austin's language problems stem from autism.

A range of socialization and communication disabilities affecting different children in different ways, Autism Spectrum Disorders are being detected in Mississippi in ever greater numbers.

A report released July 1 refers to it as a multi-billion dollar "ticking time bomb," and the means to disarm it have been as hard to come by as words are for Austin.

"The statistics are mind-boggling," said Emily Le Coz, parent of a son with autism, and author of the report prepared by the Mississippi Autism Advisory Committee.

Appointed this year by state lawmakers to produce an annual plan to educate and train students with autism, the brain trust estimates 8,139 Mississippi children have it.

Over the past decade, that's a 368 percent spike.

Yet, the state does not require autism training for teachers to get a license, nor is it required as part of a teacher's continued professional development.

That leaves many parents desperate to find adequately trained teachers for their children, or affordable services elsewhere.

"We would try voodoo if we thought it would work," said Carter, who has joint custody of Austin with ex-wife Ruth Dixon of Brandon.

Only early, intensive intervention has been shown to help these children improve and, in many cases, overcome the debilitating effects of autism. Yet early intervention services, which are plentiful in most states, are sorely lacking in Mississippi. This is partly due to the fact that few families here can afford the cost of these services without insurance reimbursement, and Mississippi currently doesn't require health insurers to cover early intervention. Because few families can afford it, early intervention specialists don't locate in Mississippi.

Without the proper intervention – either as preschoolers or within the school system – this population has little chance of gaining independence or becoming contributing members of society. Few resources exist in Mississippi to help these children transition out of school and into adulthood, and as a result, they tend to drain money from state and local coffers instead of contributing to them.

It's estimated that each person with autism, if not rehabilitated, will cost society $3.2 million over their lifetime. Most of that cost comes from adult care and lost wages.

If none of the state's 8,139 children currently living with autism overcome their challenges by the time they reach adulthood, it could cost Mississippi taxpayers more than $26 billion over the next 50 years. And that's if this population doesn't expand; mostly likely it will. If so, it will strain the Department of Education, the Department of Mental Health, the vocational rehabilitation centers and the families and communities caring for them.

Yet if we begin to address this crisis today, we have the potential to rehabilitate a generation of children and save the state billions of dollars in the end.