By Senator Richard J. Ross
With the formal legislative session ending this past Thursday, I wanted to share with my constituents some of the things that I, along with my fellow members of the Governor’s Special Commission Relative to Autism, recently learned in developing a policy to address this all-too-common diagnosis. Each year, we learn more about Autism and the ways it impacts our families and society. Massachusetts has been a national leader in diagnosing and offering services to those on the Autism Spectrum, but recent legislation will help move us further than ever before.
This year, I had the privilege of attending an event that highlighted the excellent work being done in the Commonwealth. Autism Awareness and Acceptance Day at the State House, sponsored by Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts, brought together a number of leaders and members of the community to learn about the path to successful employment and to celebrate the impacts made in this area.
It was truly inspiring to hear directly from individuals affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder regarding the importance of employment, the supports available in the community, and the struggles and obstacles encountered on a daily basis. In hearing of their hardships, I am glad that we were able to address some of their concerns and hopefully put some of them at ease.
In 2010, when I was appointed to serve on the Governor’s Special Commission Relative to Autism, we were charged with evaluating the status of available services and supports, identifying areas in need of improvement, and making recommendations to better serve individuals living with Autism.
We found that families across the Commonwealth are struggling to access the supports and services they need to properly manage this disability. There was a critical need for a comprehensive approach, one that specifically supports individuals transitioning to adulthood at age 22.
Ensuring that municipalities and schools receive sufficient funding to provide the instruction and programs required for all students has always been a top priority of mine. Providing sufficient special education supports for students with Autism allows for a more cohesive school community, reduces stress on students’ families, and provides increased opportunities for students to succeed academically. We owe it to families, schools, and towns to see that the funding is distributed and spent wisely.
In fact, for the FY15 Budget, the Senate and House of Representatives passed a preliminary agreement declaring the amount of local aid and education funding that the cities and towns of the Commonwealth would receive. My colleagues in the Senate Republican Caucus and I fought to pass an amendment funding the Special Education Circuit Breaker so that at least 75% of costs are reimbursed. While this amendment unfortunately did not pass, the need for more complete funding of this program is paramount.
Frequently at issue in the call for more services is the better allocation of state resources through legislative action. I am proud to say that on July 31st, during the last day of the formal legislative session, the bill relative to assisting individuals with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities was enacted by the House and Senate concurrently.
This piece of legislation makes major strides in assisting those on the Autism Spectrum and assigns a commission to overlook the implementation of services centering on Autism. These services will range from behavior analysis screenings for low-income families with MassHealth to those ensuring that all teachers have training, and all residential and day-care services attain licensing, in order for them to further understand and cooperate with the needs of those with Autism.
Another leap forward is the research going into structuring job-seeking and training programs made specifically for those with Autism. As these children grow it is important that these services grow with them to assist in adult issues. That is why this bill addresses the “Achieving a Better Life Experience account,” or ABLE account, which will provide assistance in organizing private savings and qualified disability expense accounts.
Of course, this is only a piece of the puzzle. The need for change extends beyond our schools and into our communities and state government. From education to health care to community involvement, the opportunity to learn and grow is ever-present. As more are aware of this disorder, and diagnoses increase, it is our duty to continue studying and improving the services and opportunities available for individuals and families living with Autism.
Senator Richard J. Ross represents the Norfolk, Bristol & Middlesex District, and serves as the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. He is also a Wrentham resident.