Michigan can create a 'new landscape' for people with autism

By Lt. Gov. Brian Calley | April 01, 2013

As we approach April, which is Autism Awareness Month, I have been reflecting on the state of autism in Michigan.

We are on our way to improved care and outcomes for persons with autism and their families. In the past year, we have seen the passage of autism insurance legislation, the creation of a new Autism Council, adoption and release of the MI Autism State Plan, and we are racing toward implementation of a Medicaid benefit that will cover early, evidence-based treatment for young children. I am proud of these accomplishments, but our work has just begun.

I continue to be concerned about many areas that families with autism are facing. The first is access to treatment. We are experiencing a shortage of qualified professionals who have proper training and qualifications to diagnose and treat this complex disorder. However, progress is being made as more specialists come back to our state and graduate from our exceptional universities.

Second, we need more teachers trained to work with children on the spectrum. With proper interventions now covered by insurance, children will have their best shot at entering regular education in the earliest elementary years.

However, without trained teachers who can support these children in regular education classrooms, the struggles around socialization and behavior will preclude an academic experience where children are truly integrated into their classrooms, community and, eventually, the work force.

We must continue the work beyond early therapies; mainstreaming children with autism into our classrooms and community requires vigilant training and understanding of the disorder. We can do this. I have high hopes our universities will step up to this challenge of educating our teachers to work more effectively with this population.

We also need to focus on adult services like unemployment and housing. I am seeing some early momentum in this area and my hope is that more opportunities for competitive employment and safe, high-quality residential options become available for the lowest to highest functioning persons with autism.

Unfortunately, many in our community continue to view persons with autism as incapable of performing in the jobs available to the rest of the population. Studies now show that persons with autism are some of the best employees.

The "hidden" skills and talents of persons with autism have yet to be recognized by employers and we are missing the boat on the potential benefits of a work force integrated with persons on the spectrum. I would like to see Michigan lead the nation in creating the best community models for adult services.

Coordinated, multisystem, multidisciplinary, multiregional initiatives will be required to produce the outcomes necessary to improve the quality of life for this unique, talented subgroup of our community. We now have a MI Autism State Plan that provides the roadmap for our work. Learn more about the plan by visiting michigan.gov/autism.

I encourage all citizens to embrace this plan, participate in the committees which will implement these much awaited initiatives and, together, create a new landscape for autism in Michigan.

Cross-posted from MLive