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Unlocking autism

| Wednesday, July 23, 2008

We're proud that Pennsylvania's new autism law will put our state at the forefront of helping parents deal with this puzzling neurological disease.

The law requires health insurance companies to cover $36,000 a year in behavior therapy for children up to age 21, beginning next year. Insurance companies traditionally have denied services saying they are not "medically necessary."

But many autistic children need intensive therapy to unlock their potential. Children can have a wide variety of symptoms but many have difficulty in communicating and relating to others. And that means some need aides to attend regular classrooms in school.

Medical experts don't agree on what causes autism. But there's been an alarming increase in recent years, with about 1 in every 150 children now affected.

A Harvard study released two weeks ago provided important clues. It found that some genes in autistic children seem to be turned off, which may explain why many children respond to intensive therapy started at a young age -- because it may activate those genes.

This law has been a long battle -- and many Valley families have lobbied for it, as we've reported in recent years.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Jane Orie, who represents part of the Valley, and House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, who has an autistic child in his family. State Rep. John Pallone of New Kensington has been a strong supporter as well.

A key turning point for the bill came when the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council said the mandate would increase health care premiums statewide by only $1 a month.

That seems a small price to pay to help open doors for these children to a better future.

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