Affecting roughly 1 in 88 children, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is considered the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., according to the non-profit Autism Speaks. But until recently, most families in Michigan had little or no access to treatment, because insurance companies didnâ??t cover evidence-based treatment for autism such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), speech and occupational therapy. Autism costs the average family about $60,000 a year, although treatment plans and costs will vary among patients.
It's a busy Tuesday for 15-year-old Michael Bell. After school, he sits with his private tutor - this week, he's learning state capitals. Michael was diagnosed with autism through the Saginaw County Head Start program when he was two-and-a-half years old. His mother, Pam Novik-Bell, said, â??We try to really push Michael to be independent as self-independent as he can be.â?? Michael's made a lot of progress by working with tutors and his special education teachers at school.
"It's a daily thing we have to watch,â?? Novik-Bell said.
As for medical care, Novik-Bell had to become the expert. She keeps a close eye on Michael's diet and a bevy of other health issues common among autistic children.
â??We've just been trying to work with as many different medical professionals out there to make sure we're getting all the correct care for him,â?? Novik-Bell said.
But she quickly learned not to use the word "autism" in the doctor's office for fear the insurance company would get in the way of treatment.
"Virtually every policy in the state of Michigan denied coverage for evidence-based treatment for autism,â?? Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said. In fact, it was tough to even find qualified doctors or therapists who could provide the recommended intensive speech, behavioral and occupational therapies.
"There were only about 30 in the entire state of Michigan for 15 thousand kids,â?? Calley said.
For several years, efforts to update the insurance code stalled in the legislature. But when Lt. Gov. Brian Calley learned his own daughter had autism, he pushed for reform.
â??I thought, with or without changes in the law, my daughterâ??s going to get what she needs, but the average person had no chance whatsoever in making sure their kids got what they needed."
In April 2012, Michigan became the 30th state to sign autism insurance reform into law. Insurance companies are now required to offer coverage for diagnosis and treatments that are often too expensive for the average family.
Itâ??s a small victory for Calley and some 50,000 children and adults in Michigan living with autism.
â??You have to treat them the same way as you'd treat someone with heart disease or cancer, or any other type of diagnosis,â?? Calley said.
At 15, Michael is well past the recommended age for early intervention treatments. But Novik-Bell said, she will finally be able to get Michael medically diagnosed with autism in hopes that he'll get more tailored treatments.
Calley said reforming insurance coverage is just one component in helping people with autism succeed. He said he also wants to see doctors and therapists working closely with public schools to provide integrated care.
â??The more all of that can be coordinated to work together, the better the results will be for the student. I think that's the next big frontier for kids with autism,â?? Calley said.
As for Michael's next frontier, he's growing up fast. Heâ??ll be working at a dental office this summer, building new skills to tackle new challenges every day.
â??I guess we always want to reach for the stars and the sky for him and that's what we're going to continue to try to do,â?? Novik-Bell said.
April is Autism Awareness Month. The Great Lakes Bay Autism Center and Autism Support & Resource Center have upcoming fundraisers and events:
Great Lakes Bay Autism Center
6 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Bob Evans will donate 15% of sales at the following locations:
Bay City - 4137 East Wilder Road
Midland - 7000 Eastman Avenue
Saginaw - 2832 Tittabawassee & 8466 Gratiot Rd
Visit www.glbac.org to print out flyer