COLUMBIA, SC — State officials have seen a 14 percent jump in the number of people seeking help for autism because of a change in the official definition of the disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association updated its definition of autism in the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to include Asperger syndrome and some cases of pervasive developmental disorder. That new definition made a new population eligible to receive services from the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.
“It’s a very good thing because these people are the ones who have kind of fallen through the cracks,” said Kim Thomas, president of the Autism Society of South Carolina. “It gives them hope that there can be services for them.”
Statewide, more than 6,500 people have applied for autism-related services from the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. Of those, about 920 are eligible because of the new definition for autism, said Lois Park-Mole, a department spokeswoman.
But not all of them are receiving services.
That is because the department has huge waiting lists for most of its programs. One program that includes autistic children – the pervasive developmental disorder program – has 902 children in the program and another 1,241 on its waiting list.
“We are going to have to be looking for increased resources and increased system capacity in order to provide services for this new group of people,” said Park-Mole. “We also are working on looking at what are the types of services that would be the most beneficial to these new individuals. People who have Asperger’s have a different set of needs than individuals who might have been diagnosed with ... ‘classic autism.’ ”
Autism is a complex development disorder. The symptoms vary in each case, but, in general, people diagnosed with autism struggle with communication along with other social and repetitive behaviors. To be eligible for state services, Park-Mole said those with the disorder must be a S.C. residents and have a confirmed diagnosis of autism.
To help with its waiting lists, the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs is asking lawmakers for an extra $5.4 million in state money for its fiscal year that starts July 1. That money would be used to help move 1,400 people off the agency’s various waiting lists, including those diagnosed with autism. Thomas, with the Autism Society, said some families have been on waiting lists for up to seven years. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley included the request in her budget proposal earlier this year.
Other budget requests by the department include:
• An extra $1.8 million to care for disabled people who live with caregivers over the age of 70
• An extra $1.5 million for community services, a program that helps intellectually disabled people learn how to interact with their communities
• An extra $500,000 to increase the hourly rate the department pays those who provide respite care. The added money would be paid to professional caregivers who step in to give full-time caretakers a break.
House budget writers, who are just starting their budgeting process for the state’s July 1 fiscal year, have yet to act on the requests for more money from the agency. The state Senate is expected to take up the issue later this spring.
“I’m supportive of any efforts to provide an increase to treatment and services of autistic children,” said state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs’ budget. “I think that helps save us money in the long run as they get older and may have to be dependent on the state to take care of them.”
Autism in South Carolina
6,591 - Number of South Carolinians who have applied for autism-related services from the state
920 - Number of South Carolinians who have applied for services because they now are eligible under a new definition of autism, a 14 percent increase.