On April 2, 2019, Montana Senators Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R) announced their bipartisan support of the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education, and Support (CARES) Act to fund research, training, and services and supports that improve the lives of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental and intellectual disabilities. This includes diagnostic services, training for healthcare providers and family members, and community training events. The reauthorization of the Autism CARES Act will be a crucial step in addressing the needs of those with ASD.
When I was training to be a special education teacher 30 years ago, a common response to the mention of autism was, “never heard of it.” We didn’t learn much about it, we didn’t prepare to teach children with autism, nor did we have kids in our classrooms who were identified as autistic. It was another 10 years before educators started talking about a new wave of student behaviors and challenges in the classroom. Autism information began to flood our mailboxes and school staff meetings. It wasn’t long before our education and family-focused social service systems were overwhelmed. We didn’t see it coming and we weren’t prepared for it.
The number of autism diagnoses has been steadily rising in the United States. Three decades ago, about 1 in every 150 children was diagnosed with autism. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 68 children had autism. In 2018, the estimate was 1 in 59 children. Closer to home, recent data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction indicates that the number of students with ASD increases by more than 10% every school year. This growing trend in Montana and across the nation has been consistent for over a decade.
In response to this trend, several state legislatures have established offices to coordinate statewide efforts to meet the demand. Though Montana hasn’t created an office dedicated to autism, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) has an autism resource page. In 2015, with a small grant provided by the Autism CARES Act, the University of Montana and the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities established the Montana Autism Center to provide information and training resources to families and professionals. Over the past five years, the Center has worked with hundreds of teachers and daycare providers, and dozens of families and children. The Center has provided autism training and information to Montana libraries, schools, health departments and tribal health centers. Thanks to Federal laws such as the Autism CARES Act, education and social service systems are able to better address the overwhelming need for ASD information, research, services and training.
The Autism CARES Act also funds a regional five-state training program called the Utah Regional Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and related Disabilities (URLEND). Montana is part of this innovative program which provides family-centered education for healthcare providers. Forty graduate students and Montana parents have participated in this intensive education experience through the University of Montana Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities.
The good news is that the Autism CARES Act focuses on understanding autism and what causes it. It also helps families and service providers learn how to support and assist children, youth and adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum to be successful at home, school, on the job and in the community.
April is Autism Awareness Month. We recognize the many Montana families who support and assist each other in many different ways. Together we are dedicated to improving the health and quality of life outcomes for those who experience and live with autism and related developmental disabilities in Montana.
Martin Blair, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana.