New services coming for low-income Minnesota kids with autism

Money from the federal government will soon be available to help kids from low-income families deal with autism at an early age.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services announced Wednesday that new federal funding will help the state pay for autism services for families unable to afford them. As part of what's known as "early intervention strategy," such services show promise — but they can be expensive.

Dawn Brasch's son has autism. He's now in his 20s, but when he was younger, his mom and siblings used a simple tool to teach him to interact with them.

"I would pull the swing and I would say 'Ready, set,' and then the kids would say 'Go!' And I would let him go," she recalled. "And it was teaching him how to respond, how that question at the end requires a response, how I could teach him to look at them. And it teaches them that somebody wants a response from you."

Brasch, a director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, said that kind of early education really helps children with autism, but therapy based on that one-on-one interaction is not always available to low-income families. The new money, she said, will help "close the gap and bring everybody on the same platform."

"It gives lower-income families the same opportunities as middle- and higher-income families who can afford full coverage for things that are not covered by medical assistance," Brasch said.

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One method, called "applied behavior analysis," can cost around $100,000 per year, she said. The therapies aim to improve kids' social interaction and to regulate behavior.

In total, the new benefit program will cost around $15 million per year, which will be split between the state and federal government. The state funding has been budgeted since 2013. It's also in the governor's current budget proposal.

Lucinda Jesson, human services commissioner for the state, said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children with autism across the United States, especially in Minnesota.

"We knew we needed to do more to reach these children early, to provide them the services they need so that we could really change the trajectory for much of the rest of their lives," she said.

According to a study from the University of Washington, early intervention programs involving toddlers with autism have been shown to increase a child's IQ, language ability and social interaction skills. Last year, the federal agency that oversees Medicaid said states had to cover applied behavior analysis.

Jesson said the investment in the therapies will pay off.

"They're going to be taxpayer dollars well spent. Because if we can help serve these children at a very early age, they're going to be better off and they're going to need less extensive services in the long term," she said.

Beginning July 1, the state hopes to cover about 325 individuals this year and reach 1,000 by the second year.