The General Assembly is considering several bills aimed at improving services for people with autism as they leave school and enter early adulthood.
A 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that nearly 500,000 students with autism nationwide will be leaving schools next year, and local advocates warn Connecticut isn’t ready for the transition.
“Folks are aging out of our school systems at an alarming rate,” said Leslie Simoes, executive director of the Autism Spectrum Resource Center of Connecticut, which is located in Wallingford. “Connecticut spends a ton of money in special education in the school systems, but at 21, (people with autism) sit at home, doing nothing, isolated.”
One bill would mandate school districts provide special education services to age 21, or when the student graduates high school.
Other proposals include allowing school districts to begin transitional services for students at age 14, down from 16, and tax incentives for employers to hire individuals with autism.
“Part of the challenge is asperger’s (syndrome), through the years, has been misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” said Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden. “A lot of these young people can be more successful if they had a little more support. Asperger individuals can go to college, retain a job and learn to drive.”
Abercrombie, co-chair of the legislature’s Human Services Committee and a member of the Autism Spectrum Advisory Council, has co-sponsored several of the bills.
Other proposals are going before the Education Committee, while one bill — increased training for first responders on how to approach calls involving juveniles with autism or other non-verbal disorders — recently was before the Public Safety and Security Committee for a public hearing.
“Unfortunately, without adequate autism awareness training, an encounter with an autistic individual can lead to a rapid escalation that ends in injury or death,” Shannon Jacovino, of the ARC of Connecticut wrote to the Public Safety Committee.
She said the “substantial rise in the overall number of individuals who have ASD (autism spectrum disorder)” make the training “essential” for emergency personnel.
While autism diagnoses continue to rise, Abercrombie agreed that the bigger problem is the pending spike in the number of students with autism becoming too old for school-based programs.
“The challenge is with the housing,” Abercrombie said. “You can give someone all the supports they need, but then you isolate them. We haven’t put a lot of effort into what about the 18-year-old who is still sitting in his house.”
The 2017 HHS report identified a number of specific needs nationwide, including continuing education or vocational training; treatment for concurrent conditions; housing and transportation assistance; access to occupational, speech, and language therapies; job counseling; and other services.