Blunt seeking $12.4 million for autism services

Saturday, January 5, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt wants to more than double state funding for autism services for the second year in a row.

Blunt said Friday he is seeking $12.4 million in new funding next year for help with the complex developmental disorder that is being diagnosed in a rising number of children.

That would bring the total next year for autism to $19.7 million, including $5 million for capital improvements at Columbia's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

The Southeast Missouri Autism Center would see $480,000, nearly half of the $1 million that would go to specific centers for treatment.

"You are the difference that has made all the difference in the world," said state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, who strongly backed funding for the center. "I have dealt with previous administrations, and until you came into office, every effort was met with roadblocks," he said.

Before a news conference at the H&H Building in Cape Girardeau, Blunt toured the downtown area with Crowell and Mayor Jay Knudtson.

"I am pleased to see the DREAM Initiative is a success in Cape Girardeau," Blunt said. The initiative, which stands for Downtown Revitalization Economic Assistance for Missouri, provides state money to cities to redevelop their downtown areas.

Blunt continued to say that the increase in autism funding will allow for better care and treatment. This year, the budget for autism programs was more than doubled to $7.3 million.

Blunt said the new money next year will shorten waiting times for existing autism services and expand treatment and diagnosis opportunities, including $100,000 to help start a new autism center at Burrell Children's Center in Springfield.

"Today, some consider autism an epidemic," Todd Schaible, president and chief executive of Burrell Behavioral Health, said during a news conference with the governor.

Another $100,000 would help expand a pilot school for autistic children at Joplin's Ozark Center. The school provides preschool children with one-on-one behavioral therapy five days a week.

Autism is characterized by a wide range of behaviors, including difficulty communicating.

No single cause has been identified. The prevalence of autism has shot up from just a few cases per 10,000 children before 1980 to an estimated one in 150 children, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Blunt toured the state Friday to present his funding proposal as part of what he called a budget that is "family centered".

"This money is coming from a growing economy" rather than tax increases, he said.

The money will help shorten waiting periods that can be as long as a year for diagnostic services, Blunt said. A formal autism diagnosis is usually required before parents can enroll in treatment or therapy programs, which often have their own long waiting periods.

Missouri contracts out many of those services, and Blunt said the money will allow contractors to hire more staff, rather than increasing the number of state employees.

The money was welcomed by Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, which is based in Nixa, near Springfield.

"This is a step in the right direction," she said. Shreffler said southwest Missouri is underserved in autism diagnosis and treatment, and she welcomed Burrell's move to open the first autism center in the state's third-largest city.

Staff writer Lindy Bavolek contributed to this report.

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