The month of April is dedicated to raising autism awareness. However, for the countless families affected by this neurodevelopmental disorder, every day of the year is spent raising awareness in ways both big and small.
As the chairman of the influential Assembly Mental Health Subcommittee on Autism, I am humbled by the stories I hear of their love and dedication to their family members diagnosed with autism. I am also honored to work on behalf of those afflicted and their families by helping to secure funding for the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and providing our families handling this disability with a strong voice in Albany.
Today, every 20 minutes a child will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, which currently affects more than 1.5 million people in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 68 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder this year.
But, in spite of these overwhelming statistics, families do not have to go through raising their son or daughter alone. Local organizations, such as New York Families for Autistic Children and HeartShare, have dedicated their mission to offer support, educate and provide direct services to help guide our families after diagnosis. Although we still do not know the cause of autism, we do have a much better grasp on how to reach and teach these individuals to live better and richer lives.
I was a staunch advocate to include OPWDD funding in this year’s state budget and I am proud to announce $44 million in additional funding was awarded to expand OPWDD facilities. Of these funds, $9 million will be provided to enhance direct care and $35 million for new services.
Additionally, this year’s budget included a pay increase for direct care workers — a 2 percent increase on Jan. 1, 2015 and another 2 percent bump on April 1, 2015. Direct caregivers are entrusted with the well-being of some of our most vulnerable family members. Their duties are often arduous, heartbreaking and physically challenging, but finally we have a state budget that recognizes their hard work and has awarded them with better wages and the tools they need to do their jobs.
There are lots of challenges that come along with raising a child with autism, but there are also so many things that we can celebrate. This month, we are not only raising awareness, but we are celebrating all the positive attributes of those who have been diagnosed with autism. As Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, I hope more individuals have a wider social understanding of what it means to live with autism. In the world of autism, we can make a difference on the state level by providing more funding to allow these individuals the tools necessary to be successful and provide them a lifelong gift.
Additionally, in appreciation and acknowledgement of Autism Awareness Month, I will be testifying at the City Council hearing on Autism Education, Awareness and Safety this week. The purpose and goal of the hearing is to educate residents on the disorder as well as to propose ways to avoid any potential dangers that affect those who have the disorder (i.e., the use of GPS tracking devices as well as other means of providing comfort and safety to families of children and adults living with autism).
There has been significant progress in achieving mental health parity in New York State. However, more help is still needed, and I look forward to joining my colleagues in continuing to work with local organizations like NYFAC and HeartShare to make strides for autism.
We need to do more to assist, support, and help these families understand how they can help their children. I look forward to hosting a hearing in the future to continue our dialogue and do what is necessary to ensure every family has the support they need. For more information on autism visit nyfac.org or heartshare.org.
Phillip Goldfeder is New York State Assemblyman for the 23rd District, in South Queens and the Rockaways.