State aid to autistic children needs a major overhaul, according to Estelle Richman, secretary of the Commonwealth's Department of Public Welfare. Under her microscope is the $452 million program called "wraparound," which sends state-paid aides into the homes of kids with autism and other behavioral problems for set numbers of hours of therapy every week. "I think what we too often have is sophisticated babysitting," Richman says.
Any effort to overhaul wraparound could strike a nerve with the families of the 40,000 kids statewide who get the service (which includes this reporter's family). Cindy Waeltermann of McCandless has two autistic kids who get wraparound help aimed at improving their social skills. Calling it babysitting is "non-complimentary to anyone who works in the field," says Waeltermann, who is also a board member of the Pennsylvania Action Coalition for Autism Services, which represents parents of autistic kids. "There are problems with the system," she says, but they are mostly due to the low pay and minimal training some behavioral aides receive.
"The system needs a major overhaul, but I don't think we should take away services that are working," says Nina Wall-Cote, co-chair of a state autism task force Richman commissioned. A behavioral specialist and parent of an autistic 14-year-old, Wall-Cote, of Delaware County, says she's confident that Richman will try to improve services for autistics, and "not throw the baby out with the bathwater."
As City Paper documented in a recent three-part series on autism, the number of kids diagnosed with the condition is rising dramatically, along with the costs to schools and the state. Wraparound alone often costs more than $20,000 per autistic child per year, and special education has a similar price tag. Within a few years, Richman says, she wants to see "a total change in the children's system." She's not sure what the new system will look like yet, but says it will have "more of a family focus. ... It is the devastation to the family that is the most significant effect of autism."