As we mark Autism Awareness Month this April, there is great hope that 2017 will become a banner year for adults on the autism spectrum. The optimism arises from the draft budget that Gov. Tom Wolf has submitted to the Pennsylvania Legislature, which includes significant changes to two major sources of government funding for individuals with autism and their families.
The funding is described in legislation known as a waiver, specifically the Person/Family Directed Services waiver and the Consolidated waiver. Historically, this waiver funding has only been available to individuals with intellectual disabilities. When children with autism turn 21 years of age and graduate from school, they are no longer eligible to receive any government-supported sources of funding. In other words, young adults are not eligible to receive most services that would help them train for and locate a job, live independently or even receive vital therapies or other supports. As autism has become the fastest growing disability in America, this means that thousands of young adults suddenly find themselves without the help they need.
The changes Gov. Wolf has proposed for these waivers, and the funding they provide, would expand the eligibility for services to include people with a diagnosis of autism who do not have an intellectual disability.
In essence, the waivers work by enabling Pennsylvania to receive federal funds that will match the amount designated by the state. This funding can then be used by the individuals and their families in numerous ways, whether by covering the costs of a job coach, of residential living arrangements, community-based services, and much more. Now, not only will people with an intellectual disability be eligible for this funding, but individuals with autism will as well.
You might be thinking that this change will affect only a small percentage of our state’s citizens, but what Gov. Wolf has tapped into is, in fact, a national issue. Currently, 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with ASD; an estimated 40% – 50% of these individuals do not have an intellectual disability that made them eligible for services under the current waivers.
I applaud Governor Wolf’s inclusion of these waiver expansions in his budget; he is blazing a trail I hope the rest of our nation will follow. Make no mistake, the efforts required to continue down this path are enormous. On one hand, we must strive to search for and make the most efficient use of our scare societal resources. However, we must continuously seek to grow and expand these resources as we prepare for the thousands of children with autism in our country who will soon be entering adulthood.
Being prepared to meet this need will require some creative and, more importantly, collaborative thinking across services and sectors in various service systems. One such example is Gov. Wolf’s proposal to create a Department of Health and Human Services that will combine the departments of Human Services, Health, Aging, and Drug and Alcohol Programs to streamline services and hopefully reduce costs.
Gov. Wolf’s budget will move Pennsylvania forward in this critical social issue, supporting individuals and families with autism, and leading to a real difference in the opportunities they will have in our state. Let’s show the governor our support by contacting our local legislators and encouraging them to vote “Yes.”