Wichita — A new program that will provide intensive services to about 25 children with autism is a small but promising step in efforts to understand and help those with the disorder, advocates say.
The program, which begins this month, will provide up to three years of services for children from birth to 5 who are chosen to participate.
The application deadline is Friday.
The the state will randomly select the children who will be served.
Although the 25 children are a small fraction of the more than 15,000 people statewide who have been diagnosed with some form of autism, officials say the program could have a dramatic effect on those chosen and their families.
"Research really shows that birth to 5 is the age where most gains are made," said Michelle Ponce, director of communication for the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, which will oversee the program.
To be eligible, a child must be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by a licensed doctor or psychologist and meet certain requirements established by Medicaid. However, the program allows SRS to waive a parental income requirement for Medicaid services, Ponce said.
The services provided under the program will include an autism specialist to coordinate care, up to 25 hours a week of intensive one-on-one therapy, family counseling, parent support and respite care.
The program is expected to cost $744,000 in the first year - $300,000 from the state general fund and the rest from the federal government, Ponce said.
Sue Claridge of Emporia, whose 11-year-old son, Austin, has Asperger's syndrome, served on a committee that developed the program.
"It's a very small start, but we have to start somewhere," Claridge said of the new program. "It's early, and it's intensive, and I think it's going to work for those 25 kids.
"You're talking about 25 families that will be incredibly impacted. And when you impact families, you impact society."
Connie Coulter, coordinator of autism resources for Heartspring in Wichita, called the new state program "a great first step," but wishes it could help more families.
"I think everyone's kind of sitting and holding their breath and saying, 'OK, how is this going to play out?' " said Coulter, a member of the governor's commission on autism.
Plans call for the SRS program to serve 50 children next year and 75 the next year, Coulter said. But that depends on legislative funding, Medicaid matching dollars and other factors.
In the meantime, Coulter said, most families affected by autism will continue struggling to find and pay for therapy, respite care and other services.
"Families are grateful that our government is at least looking at the need here in Kansas," she said. "I really am hoping that it's a start that takes off like fire."