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UM News
February 07, 2013

MISSOULA –

University of Montana Associate Professor Ann Garfinkle recently published a report  documenting the results of the first 43 children to complete an intensive early-intervention autism program that launched in 2009.

The Montana’s Children’s Autism Waiver Report documents positive outcomes in children who recently completed the intensive three-year program. According the report, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ program that provides early intervention to children age 15 months to 5 years old with autism is “on par with published results from the best national programs” and has been “incredibly successful.”

To determine program effectiveness, the report focused on three common measures, including if the child still exhibits symptoms that would result in an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, if the child is able to receive general education services and if the child has full, moderate or limited community access.

“The data provided in this report is so encouraging,” said DPHHS Director Richard Opper. “It clearly shows that early intervention works. I want to both thank and congratulate the families who made the commitment to this program over the past three years. It really shows their hard work has paid off. I also want to thank our many providers who helped DPHHS deliver this important service to Montanans all across this state.”

Children from Libby, Kalispell, Polson, Ronan, Missoula, Stevensville, Hamilton, Darby, Choteau, Helena, Townsend, Butte, Bozeman, Livingston, Billings, Miles City, Malta and Glasgow were part of the first group of children to complete therapy under the program.

While the program has improved the lives of children, it has also improved overall family life as well. Some families stated they are now able to be a family and participate in activities together. The report shows that 65 percent of the participants now have full community access. In addition, 65 percent are receiving general education services in public school.

“Many families with autistic children struggle to do many of the things most people take for granted, such as attending local community events,” said Jeff Sturm of the DPHHS Developmental Disabilities Program. “This program has helped so many families.”

The report also states nearly 50 percent of participants no longer exhibit symptoms that would result in an Autism Spectrum Disorders diagnosis. However, according to Garfinkle, the statistic should be interpreted with caution.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder is a life-long disorder and it may be that as these children age, they may need additional support or services,” she said.

According to Garfinkle, the program compares with national results. “These outcomes compare favorably with national published outcomes from other high-quality programs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” she said. “Some of these programs conducted comparison studies that indicate that this type of program at this intensity does yield outcomes in children that are significantly different from children who did not participate in program activity.”

The program is designed to deliver 20 hours a week of direct intervention service to each participant at a cost of about $43,000 per year for each child for a three-year time period. The annual program cost is about $2.1 million. However, many of the participants in the Children’s Autism Waiver Program also are eligible for autism treatment through health insurance. Consequently, the program serves as payer of last resort, meaning the families’ insurance carrier is billed first, and any remaining costs are billed to the program.

In the report, Garfinkle also touches on savings to both the state and families. “While these children may need additional services in the future . . . their functioning level reduces the need for families to miss work or to fund additional therapies,” the report reads. “These savings, while challenging to predict, will be in the millions of dollars.”

Since the Children’s Autism Waiver Program has been implemented, prevalence rates of Autism have continued to increase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the prevalence rate is now one in 88 live births.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is four to five times more common in boys than in girls and has been documented in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder across the state in all five of Montana’s Developmental Disabilities Program service regions.

In order to be eligible for Children’s Autism Waiver Program services, a child first must be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and have a significant delay in adaptive behaviors. Adaptive behaviors are age-appropriate skills necessary for people to live and function safely and appropriately in daily life. These are real-life skills such as grooming, dressing, safety, safe- food handling, following school rules, money management, cleaning, making friends, social skills and personal responsibility.

Both the executive summary and full report are available online at http://www.dphhs.mt.gov/.

For more information on the report, call Garfinkle at 406-243-5262 or email ann.garfinkle@umontana.edu.

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Contact: Ann Garfinkle, associate professor, UM Curriculum and Instruction, 406-243-5262, ann.garfinkle@mso.umt.edu; John Ebelt, public information officer, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, 406-444-0936, .