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Sen. Clark: Raising Awareness for Autism

State Senator Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) writes about autism and how awareness can be raised in our communities.

Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the prevalence of autism in the United States has risen to 1 in 88 children.  The estimated prevalence for boys is approximately 1 in 54, and 1 in 252 for girls.  The CDC report confirms that rates of autism – specifically called autism spectrum disorders (or ASDs) – have continued to rise in recent years. As the CDC points out, whatever the reasons for the increase, this is “an important public health concern in the United States, underscoring the need for continued resources to identify potential risk factors and to provide essential supports for persons with ASDs and their families.”

The report was timely. Because April is National Autism Awareness Month and this Monday, April 2, was World Autism Day. Many people in our communities and around the state demonstrated their support by “lighting it up blue:” displaying blue lights on front porches, public buildings, and even at Fenway Park to raise awareness and encourage more research and action.

We are privileged to have leaders on this issue right here in our district. In Stoneham, Brian and Pam Gill, whose son Riley is autistic, are dedicated advocates who champion education options for students with autism. The Gill family spearheaded Stoneham’s “Light it Up Blue” event on Sunday, April 1, 2012, with support from many residents, local businesses, and Town leaders.  During the festivities, over 20,000 blue lights illuminated the Stoneham Town Common, and hundreds of community members joined together to raise money and awareness.

In addition, last year I introduced legislation drafted by Lydia Brown, a Melrose resident, advocate, and student at Georgetown University, that targets autism awareness among law enforcement. This bill would establish a course within the recruit basic training curriculum for Massachusetts law enforcement and correction officers to help them better understand how to interact with individuals with autism, including those who are victims, witnesses or suspects of a crime. The legislation has the support of many in the local law enforcement community and has been extended in the Joint Committee on Public Safety.  I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues to get it passed.

Over the last several years I also worked to successfully enact legislation that prohibits private insurance companies from discriminating against those with ASDs and requires coverage of medically necessary autism treatments, including evidence-based behavioral health treatments. And I continue to fight for adequate funding in our state budget for services that support those in the autism community – across the spectrum and for children and adults alike. 

I am proud of the advocacy efforts by so many families in our communities.  Working together, we can raise awareness about autism, encourage more research into its causes and treatments, and most importantly, support those individuals and families who confront this challenge everyday.

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