EMILY LE COZ: Autism merits focus in Jackson

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

The Legislature is back in session again, and this year it’s imperative it address the topic of autism.
Affecting an estimated one in 110 children born today, autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and socialize. Those with autism often have very limited interests and engage in repetitive behavior like rocking, humming and hand flapping.
Symptoms range from mild to extremely severe.
There is no known cause and no known cure. But early and intensive behavioral-based therapy is proven to significantly lessen the effects of autism for a great many children – if they have access to it.
Unfortunately in Mississippi, few children with autism have access to this therapy. Our state is among a couple dozen nationwide that doesn’t require health insurance providers to cover behavioral-based therapy for children with autism. With no insurance coverage, most families cannot afford this very expensive therapy. And with few families able to afford it, few autism specialists locate here.
Imagine trying to treat a child with cancer without health insurance and without specialists nearby. Now image that one in every 110 children had cancer. That’s the state of autism in Mississippi.
An estimated 8,139 Mississippi children have autism, and that number is expected to grow.
Without therapy, these children will enter our schools unprepared to learn at best – unable to learn, at worst – and they will face teachers unable or unprepared to educate them. Mississippi doesn’t require its teachers be specifically trained in autism best practices, despite the disorder’s staggering rise over the years.
The rate of autism has grown an estimated 368 percent in Mississippi in the past decade alone.
This isn’t simply a problem for children and families dealing with autism – or the schools tasked with educating them. It’s a community problem. Children with autism who fall through the cracks become adults with autism who require taxpayer-funded aid the rest of their lives.
Children with autism who receive early and intensive therapy have the best chance at becoming children who do well in school, especially when paired with teachers who are trained to educate them. And these children, in turn, have the best chance at becoming independent adults who contribute to the state economy.
As the mother of a 5-year-old son on the autism spectrum, I know too well the difference between hope and despair. Fortunately, small efforts are being made on the local level to help these children – my son included. But these efforts need to be statewide.
This is why I believe the Legislature this year must deal with this issue. It must look at health insurance coverage for behavioral-based therapy, mandatory autism training for teachers, and a host of other issues related to helping this growing segment of our population.
If not for the children, then for our own future.
Emily Le Coz is a staff writer for the Daily Journal and chairperson of the Mississippi Autism Advisory Committee. Contact her at (662)-678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.