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Backers Seek to Save Autism Program

November 20, 2002|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Parents and scientists appealed to the Legislature on Tuesday to protect from state budget cuts a pioneering California program aimed at reversing a statewide epidemic of autism among children.

They testified at a hearing of the Assembly Health Committee about the newly verified disclosure that California saw a 273% increase in autism cases -- an average of nine diagnoses each day -- from 1988 to 1998.

Scientists do not know what caused the dramatic surge in the neurological disorder, which typically afflicts children before age 3. But a study released last month by scientists at UC Davis discounted such potential causes as migration to the state, a relaxation in criteria used to diagnose autism or improved diagnoses.

Autism affects more boys than girls, and sufferers typically shrink into their own worlds of isolation, do not communicate with parents or family and do not develop social skills. No cure has been found.

However, using a combination of private and public funds, California has launched a campaign to discover the cause of autism and to provide special therapy and education programs for autistic people.

Witnesses at the hearing Tuesday acknowledged that California faces a $21.1-billion budget shortfall for 2003-04 and that severe cuts in services may be required. But they appealed for protection of regional diagnostic and service centers run by the state Department of Developmental Services.

"We are adding an average of nine children a day, seven days a week [to the rolls of autism]," warned Rick Rollens, the father of an autistic son and co-founder of a public-private research center known as the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at UC Davis.

"This is truly a public health crisis," he said. "We cannot, as a state, afford to lose a generation." He said the regional centers were "overwhelmed by these new cases."

Last year, the Davis administration added $17 million to the budget to help cope with the epidemic of autism. California law requires that services must be provided to those with autism or mental retardation.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer (D-Los Feliz), chairman of the health panel, said he plans to seek additional funds for research, but probably not from the state general fund.

"I'm certainly going to be an advocate for more money, but in this budget year, our focus is going to have to be on Washington and private sources for more funds," he said.

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