In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families. In many states -- particularly those with large rural populations -- one problem is a shortage of high-quality behavior therapists.
The wait times for undergoing a diagnosis screening and starting therapy in Florida can range from 8 to 24 months, according to Elemy, a national autism therapy provider. Insurance companies require an official diagnosis before they’ll pay for applied behavior analysis, the most common type of autism therapy.
The average wait time for an autism screening at All Children’s Hospital is six months, but can take longer if the child is older or needing to be re-evaluated, Gardner said.
The COVID-19 pandemic aggravated wait times, forcing providers to shut down in-person services and delaying patient appointments as they transitioned to telehealth appointments.
Long wait times are exacerbated by a lack of providers diagnosing and treating autism in Florida, said Alicia Anthony-Zabala, co-owner of Missing Piece ABA, a Tampa Bay company that offers applied behavior analysis therapy to children on the spectrum.
The treatment — applied behavioral analysis — involves teaching new behavioral and language skills through positive reinforcement. Providers may challenge children to have a conversation about different colors or sit still for a length of time, Anthony-Zabala said. Then they’ll reward desired behavior with a matchbox car or time playing on an iPad.
She said low pay has pushed many providers out of the industry and kept others from joining it.
The average annual salary in Florida for registered behavioral technicians is $34,436, according to ZipRecruiter. That is nearly $7,000 less than the national average, and $2,000 below the state’s living wage for a single adult with no children, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator.