By Briana Vannozzi
Many people think of autism as a childhood disorder. But what happens when those children grow up and what’s being done to help them as they move into adult life? The Autism CARES Act recently signed into law by President Obama addresses just that. Sponsored by New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, it allocates $1.3 billion over the next five years — the lion’s share for research grants — and some $340 million for early detection and intervention, with an emphasis on transitioning to adulthood.
“There are 50,000 young adults aging out of school-based services every year. Over the next 10 years that’s 500,000 young adults that will have their services at school end,” said Autism Speaks President Liz Feld.
They age out at around 21 to 22 years old. The Autism CARES Act will focus on issues like life-skills, employment opportunities, housing and transportation.
For families trying to navigate the various support and services available in each state, it can be overwhelming because up until now there have been no national guidelines to address that.
The bill’s primary sponsor says this law assures individuals with autism that they’re not forgotten. Congressman Smith says, “In many ways, this law is about hope for parents and their children who have autism — hope for a brighter future with greater opportunities in life.”
New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the country. According to the CDC, nationally, one in every 68 children and one in every 42 boys is diagnosed on the spectrum. It’s drastically higher here — one in 45 children and one in 28 boys.
Ann Marie Sullivan knows this well. She runs Spectrum Works — a non-profit company that gives job training and paid employment to people with autism.
“Our vision is to change society’s perception of people with autism that they can be valued productive members of society. They just need opportunities,” Sullivan said.
The law means more people on the spectrum — like graphic designers Chris and Dennis — will get those opportunities.
“I was looking for a job in graphic design for a year, which is really hard for someone with a disability slash autism like myself,” said Christopher Rawlins, Spectrum Works employee.
“Sometimes I work on the computer, other times I help with the database looking for new customers, and sometimes I help arrange the shirts, and do screen printing,” said Dennis Taylor who also works for Spectrum Works.
They both plan to take other employees with autism under their wings.
“I don’t look at our autism as a weakness but more as an inspiration to give myself a step further in my inner strength,” said Rawlins.
Legislation is also pending in the U.S. House of Representatives to set up a global autism research program that would serve children in developing countries.