DOVER — The number of Delaware students diagnosed with autism has grown tenfold since the early 1990s, while the program designed to help the students has not been updated in decades.
New legislation from lawmakers would seek to remedy that by providing a network of support services designed to aid children and parents alike.
Senate Bill 92 would revamp the Delaware Autism Program with the goal of providing greater resources to local districts, and Senate Bill 93 would create a committee that would help implement changes and provide support for families.
Developed in the wake of recommendations by the Autism Educational Task Force, the bills were introduced Tuesday by lawmakers.
Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, who co-chaired the task force, is the main sponsor of both bills, although the proposals have bipartisan support.
“You can imagine how things have changed, what therapies were recommended back then were probably not appropriate now, what educational plans were then, needed to be updated. So a lot of work was done as it relates to changing or updating the law,” she said.
“Then, as a result of the task force, it was decided that we needed to create a network of services for children and families who have autism.”
Senate Bill 92 deals with updating the existing regulations, while Senate Bill 93 would establish the Delaware Network for Excellence in Autism.
Under the changes, the Delaware Autism Program’s director would work with 15 experts to communicate with districts and ensure teachers have the proper know-how to work with autistic students.
“The DNEA will leverage the best capabilities of organizations like the Center for Disabilities Studies, Autism Delaware and state agencies to provide training and technical assistance first to the schools and then to any other provider system that may need to know how to work with kids and adults with autism,” said Teresa Avery, the executive director of Autism Delaware.
According to Ms. Avery, 1,512 Delaware students have autism. In 1991, when the statewide program was first introduced, there were 152 students diagnosed with the disorder.
An estimate included in the task force’s March report noted the changes carry a cost of $6.09 million over four years. They would cover salaries, travel, general overhead and other areas, with some of the funds coming from the Legislature.
At a news conference Tuesday, lawmakers and autism advocates praised the legislation.
One of my driving forces was when a parent finds out for the first time that their child has autism, where do they go? Who do they turn to?” said Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, a co-chair of the task force. “So we developed this network, and it was really great.”
The bills are in the Senate Education Committee.