Gov. Matt Blunt let a local parent do the talking Thursday when it came to touting the importance of millions of dollars in increased state funding to fight autism.
"Early diagnosis and early intense therapy can give these kids a better chance at living an independent, functional and happy life," said Kim Daniel of Cape Girardeau, the mother of 4-year-old twin daughters diagnosed with autism.
Blunt held a news conference at Southeast Missouri State University Thursday afternoon. More than 60 people -- including Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, university officials, state lawmakers and families of autistic children -- attended the news conference.
The state's newest budget includes $3.9 million in additional funding to focus on improvements to treatment and diagnosis of autism, plus another $2.6 million that will allow Southeast to construct an autism center.
The $3.9 million includes $2.4 million to expand staff and training to reduce the waiting time for children to be diagnosed.
The new center would provide diagnosis and treatment of autism for families in Southeast Missouri that now have to travel to St. Louis, Columbia, Mo., or Kansas City for such services.
Plans call for the center to be built at the university's new research park bordering the Interstate 55-East Main Street interchange.
The Southeast center offers "tremendous possibilities" to help autistic children.
Today one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism, Daniel said. Every 20 minutes, another child is diagnosed with autism, making it the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, she said.
Daniel said her twin daughters were diagnosed with autism when they were 2 years old. "Before treatment, they could not speak. They could not control their frustrations. They had constant, repetitive nonfunctional behaviors, and they had no social skills or meaningful personal interactions," Daniel said.
But after thousands of hours of intense and specialized therapies, Daniel said, her twin daughters are improving.
"They can now talk, express their wants, needs and emotions," she said. They laugh and play and eat without help.
Blunt said increased state funding is vital to dealing with the disorder. "We know Missouri is not immune to this national epidemic," he said.
Missouri families typically have to wait six to nine months to have their children diagnosed at an autism center.
State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, helped get funding to build the new autism center.
The state, he said, must continue to provide a helping hand to those with autism.
"We can dramatically improve the quality of life here," Crowell said after the meeting.
Both Crowell and university president Dr. Ken Dobbins said it's important to involve parents of autistic children in determining what programs need to be offered at the center.
The university plans to meet with families of autistic children this fall as part of the planning process for the new center.
Construction of an 11,000-square-foot center along Interstate 55 could start by next spring.
Crowell said the state funding applies only to construction of the center. The Missouri Legislature would have to appropriate money to operate the center.
If that happens in the next legislative session, Dobbins said, a center could be up and running later in 2008.
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