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Licensing rules in Pennsylvania could hurt autistic kids

Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Staci Sypien of Bethel Park and Bobbie Polasky of Bridgeville practice an intervention technique used to protect themselves from an acting out individual while taking a family behavioral resources training in Monroeville.

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By Bill Vidonic
Sunday, March 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Some autistic children and their families will suffer because of a state law that requires behavioral specialists to apply for a license in order for insurance to cover their treatment, a local support group said.

“Kids with autism lack the understanding to deal with a disruption or delay of services,” said Luciana Randall, executive director of ABOARD'S Autism Connection of PA. “Any progress they have made is going to be interrupted, and in autism, a transition like this means the vast majority will regress behaviorally and emotionally.”

Randall estimates there are 14,000 autistic children statewide served by specialists. The Pennsylvania Medicaid Policy Center estimates 21,000 children in the state are autistic.

“The intent was to raise the standards for people working with children with the autism spectrum disorder,” said Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Carey Miller.

Of the 2,500 to 3,000 behavior specialists in Pennsylvania, Miller added, only 540 have applied for a license. Local agencies said some of their other specialists will qualify for the license but are still gathering the paperwork to apply for one.

The deadline is May 26. Miller couldn't say whether the state would be able or willing to extend the deadline, which the state set last summer.

Vanessa Casper-McElhaney, 39, of Aliquippa, a behavior specialist for more than 12 years, said she'll be forced to quit her job at Western PA Psych Care in Beaver because of the licensing requirements. She added she'd have to be in school full-time for 18 months to meet the criteria.

“It's pretty disheartening. You have a passion for the job, and you do care for the clients,” said Casper-McElhaney.

Under the law, behavioral specialists have to be a licensed doctoral-level psychologist or a licensed clinical psychologist, or have a master's degree in related fields including special education, or a mental health degree.

Specialists must have 1,000 hours of working with a client, 90 hours of additional coursework or training and one year of experience in assessing behavior problems. They also must pass a background check.

Medical professionals such as psychologists, social workers and clinical social workers are qualified to help autistic children and don't have to obtain a license, according to the law.

“We are working with the Department of State and also with some of the behavioral health care organizations and service providers to ensure the services for children will go on without interruption,” Miller said, citing increased training opportunities for specialists.

Leslie Walter, 43, of Shaler has an autistic 7-year-old daughter, Lily, who receives treatment through Barber National Institute based in Erie.

“Sometimes, a degree isn't that big of a deal,” Walter said. “It's the ability to reach these kids. The patience, the compassion — that's a big deal.”

Glade Run Lutheran Services in Zelienople recently sent parents letters warning their child's treatment might be affected.

Of the 100 or so specialists there, only 15 have the proper certification, said Glade Run Foundation executive director Sheila Talarico. She did not know the financial impact the licensing issue could have on the facility.

Talarico said staff without proper licensing could be reassigned to other duties within the agency, and services to autistic children could be reduced.

“We don't object to the new licensure requirements,” Talarico said.

“We are advocating for a delay in the start date to allow staff to fulfill all the extensive obligations.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or

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