The past year saw important news for the autism community, including a big push by the American Academy of Pediatrics to make its members more aware of the need to diagnose autism spectrum disorders early, and big wins in South Carolina and Texas by advocates seeking to get health insurance companies to cover autism services.
Autism Bulletin's 2007 Advocates of the Year list includes the people and organizations behind those big events. It also includes other people and groups who made a difference—including a number of individuals nominated by readers. Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts on these individuals' important efforts. Here are the picks for Autism Bulletin's advocates of the year:
The American Academy of Pediatrics.
It was big news in the fall when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a call for doctors across the United States to offer routine diagnostic screenings for autism spectrum disorders. The group that has 60,000 members also published papers to educate its members about autism and what treatments offer important help for people on the spectrum, and a special package for doctors to educate themselves about ASD. The move is important as an awareness campaign, but its impact could have larger repercussions as it firmly legitimizes therapies such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) which some insurers, school officials and medical professionals considered "experimental" and provides concrete baselines for service levels (25 hours per week, 12 months per year) for such therapies.
The South Carolina Parents Who Won "Ryan's Law."
There were tears, hugs and celebrations in the lobby of the South Carolina capitol building last June, and they were justified: the state Legislature had just overridden the governor's veto to pass legislation that requires health insurers to cover services for children with autism up to age 16. Not only did these parents and other advocates led by Lorri Unumb (Ryan's mom) and Lisa Rollins work tirelessly to educate state lawmakers about the need—and relatively modest costs—for such coverage. They have organized advocates from around the nation to share strategies and tactics to work for similar legislation in others states. We saw legislation pass in Texas and have been watching as advocates working in Michigan, Arizona, California and Florida, among other states, seek to follow South Carolina's lead.
Sandee and Jeff Winkelman, Who Argued for Parents' Rights (and Won).
The parents of Jacob Winkelman of Parma, Ohio, fought and won the right for parents across the nation to argue on behalf of their disabled children in federal court. In a 7-2 decision in May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal special education law grants parents "independent, enforceable rights" separate from their children and therefore they can pursue those rights in court—without a lawyer if necessary—so they can advocate for their child to receive a free and appropriate education. Other parents of autistic children understood the Winkelman's plight: when you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for autism-related services and schooling, who has the money for a lawyer to fight for services in court? The Supreme Court said they didn't have to be lawyers to fight the good fight.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton, the New York Senator who is in a dogfight for the Democratic presidential nomination, this year demonstrated a willingness to be a front-and-center advocate among policy makers in Washington D.C. for people with autism and their families. In March, Clinton and Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, filed legislation that would expand autism services and research. Then this fall, on the campaign trail, Clinton made the loudest call for increased spending on research, education and support services for people with autism, pledging to spend $700 million per year if elected. Yes, it's that time of the political season when we hear lots of promises. And other candidates (only Democrats so far) have noted the need to do something more for people with autism. But no one else has made such pointed, specific proposals for autism. At least not yet.
The Asperger's Association of New England.
It was almost a year ago that a murderous stabbing in a Lincoln-Sudbury High School bathroom in the Boston suburbs shocked the region where I live. It turned out that the 16-year-old who allegedly killed a fellow student has an Asperger's diagnosis, a fact which his lawyer has made central to his defense. The Asperger's Association of New England took it upon itself to invite the public to discuss the diagnosis and assert that physical violence is not at all typical of people with the condition. The group's leaders fielded many media calls and sought to enlighten the public and spread awareness about Asperger's. A footnote to the tragedy: local media have reported the special education program which the Asperger's student attended is no longer hosted at the high school.
Angela Mouzakitis, BCBA.
ABA needs more voices like that of Angela Mouzakitis. Mouzakitis publishes the blog Applied Behavior Analysis: Current Topics, and is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) who teaches in the graduate special education program at City University of New York's Queens College. Her essays are always professional, sometimes technical and academic—but throughout she conveys a passion for helping kids on the autism spectrum, for creating new educators who share her passion. Along the way she demonstrates an open-minded approach to practitioners of other kinds of therapies.
Parents and Siblings Who Teach Others About Autism
Karra Barber is the mother of a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome who has brought energy to her advocacy work in California. Her website has a useful list of Asperger's support programs in California, among other resources. A reader writes that she was a leader in the founding of a summer camp for film-making for kids who have trouble communicating at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.
Morton Ann Gernsbacher, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and past president of the Association for Psychological Science, has made understanding autism one of her research priorities since her son received an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. An Autism Bulletin reader notes that Gernsbacher's work to make therapists aware about autism and to battle prejudicial perceptions of people with ASD is essential.
Renee Henderson, a Philadelphia-area mother and advocate, has established a group called Autism Sharing and Parenting, which organizes support groups and parent workshops in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania. A reader writes that Renee, who started the group three years ago, spends many hours helping families make daily picture schedules using Boardmaker, and providing a helpful and supportive ear, and adds: "She is making a difference by teaching parents how to become better advocates for their children, by providing parents with the information, tools and resources needed to improve their quality of life."
Nicholas Lombardi, who is now 12, was in the mall with his younger brother Joey and his mom when Joey took off his shoes and started running. "As the people stared I found my self very angry," Nicholas writes in an essay published on the Autism Speaks website. "Not at him, not really at them, but maybe at autism. I wished there could be a way… to have people understand. A voice." Nicholas decided to create a button for his brother and other autistic kids to wear that says "I'm not misbehaving, I have autism. Please be understanding." Sales of the button in English and Spanish, has raised more than $8,000 so far at Autism Speaks online store.
Recognizing Continued Advocacy Efforts
As noted in the 2006 list of advocates, there are a number of organizations who deserve credit for their ongoing efforts on behalf of people with autism and their families. These include advocacy organizations like the Autism Society of America (which this year announced a partnership with Easter Seals to improve access to services), and Autism Speaks (which merged with Cure Autism Now). Though both groups are large and as such, have their critics and controversies, they are amassing the resources needed to make a national impact.
Others who have continued and expanded their worthy efforts include:
* The center builders, such as The Friends of Children with Special Needs in Fremont, Calif. and the Autism Center of Pittsburgh, an outgrowth of the advocacy and support work at AutismLink.
* Medical researchers. The projects funded by public and private sources, both in the United States and abroad, are aimed at new understanding of autism's potential causes and treatments. See "Large Children's Health Study Cites Autism as One of Key Target Areas" and "British Researchers Unveil Brain Imaging Center" as two examples.
* Educators. This year, Autism Bulletin started an autism schools map project to build a directory for parents seeking options. The map is filling up with examples of organizations committed to helping kids, from the Claremont Autism Center in California to the Connecticut Center for Child Development to the Florida Autism Center for Excellence (FACE) School in Tampa.
Others Worth Noting
* Ivan Corea and others at the National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom, whose advocacy and awareness efforts included a meeting with former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
* Writers who shared their experiences as parents, including Roy Richard Grinker and Portia Iverson. And Tim Page, who wrote movingly of growing up with Asperger's.
* The British author Nick Hornby, who uses his success to sustain the TreeHouse school in London he helped to found, and even from time to time, uses his book reviews in The Believer to spread awareness, though his own experiences, when he writes about autism.
* IEP Advocates like Barbara Ball of Newton, Mass., upon whom parents rely for advice and support.
Thanks to all of these individuals and organizations for their efforts.