One day, my then-2-year-old grandson stopped talking. He had been a happy, babbling, outgoing toddler, but within a week, everything changed. Abruptly, he stopped playing with his friends. He refused eye contact, lined up his toys over and over again, and began squealing and throwing tantrums repetitiously. The diagnosis was swift and shattering: We had an autistic child.
At that time, my grandson lived in Iowa — thank heaven. The state of Iowa acted immediately. An expert teacher and a therapist spent hours with him every week. Preschool helped him model how to learn, how to interact with others, even how to eat and play. My daughter, his mother, received her own training in how to help him, along with respite care — well-deserved breaks from the intense effort of teaching him. State-mandated health insurance covered the costs. Gradually, my grandson improved.
Recently, the family moved to Utah. My daughter is shocked at the lack of services here for autistic children. Virtually nothing is available. No health insurer will cover autistic services. Fortunately, in Iowa the little boy had improved to the point that he is now in first grade at a mainstream school and doing well.
I'm grateful to the enlightened state of Iowa for the intensive early intervention in my grandson's life. That state moved quickly to help young parents who were baffled and devastated. It probably cost the insurer tens of thousands of dollars to give that little boy the help he needed, but the dividends will be enormous. A Harvard School of Public Health study estimates the lifelong cost of caring for a dependent autistic person at $3.2 million, most of which falls on taxpayers while insurance companies bank their premiums.
By contrast, I'm appalled at the unenlightened state of Utah. Few services are available from terribly overstretched therapists. Utah is one of the few states that does not require health insurers to cover autism; yet, according to the Deseret News, Utah leads the nation in autism rates at 1 child in 47 ("1 in 47 Utah children has autism, new estimates say," March 29). Parents of autistic children clamor for help, but the Utah Legislature is too busy sending messages to Washington to listen.
A recent attempt was made to get a bill through the Legislature to require health insurers to cover autism, as do 37 other states including Iowa. The National Institutes of Health estimate that coverage would increase premiums by about 1 percent — a few dollars a year. Yet, our penny-wise, pound-foolish Legislature turned thumbs down on the bill, voting instead for a "pilot program" that will serve about 350 of the estimated 15,000 children in Utah who need help.
I submit we don't need a "pilot program" to demonstrate that an investment in early intervention will save money and, more importantly, save these suffering children from a lifetime of dependency. We need to stop hearing "no" from the health insurance companies. I was puzzled that my own state senator, Todd Weiler, led the effort to block the insurance requirement for autism.
No one knows what causes autism, but we do know that early intervention works. Where are the leaders who will move to help thousands of young Utah children like my grandson? Not in this Legislature.
Dr. Breck England is a consultant and writer who lives in Bountiful and is a candidate for the Utah Senate from District 23.