Dan Horn reports:
Thousands of autistic children across Ohio could soon get access to an intensive and costly treatment program that state officials have said they are not obligated to provide.
The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter last week that applied behavior analysis, also known as ABA therapy, must be made available to any child who is considered a good candidate to receive it.
“This is huge,” said Richard Ganulin, a Cincinnati lawyer who has fought for wider availability of the treatment. “The U.S. government has ordered the state of Ohio to fix what it’s been doing wrong.”
The order comes as state officials continue to fight in federal court with a Clermont County couple over whether federal law requires Ohio to provide the treatment, which some parents of autistic children believe is the most effective care available.
Holly and Robert Young sued the state last year after the Ohio Department of Health refused to provide ABA therapy for their son, Roman, through the state’s “Help Me Grow” program. They said their son, now 3, thrived in the therapy and regressed without it.
U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett ordered the treatment program reinstated for Roman until his third birthday, at which time his local school district assumed responsibility for providing it.
But the judge’s order didn’t change the way Ohio handles the treatment of autistic children under the age of 3, and it did not guarantee they would have access to ABA therapy if it was deemed the best possible treatment.
Ganulin said that’s why the letter sent last week is so important: It says the state must make ABA available or risk losing the millions of dollars in federal money it receives each year for the treatment of disabled children.
The letter from Melody Musgrove, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s special education programs, said the state must make available early intervention services that “include applied behavior analysis.”
The letter warned that the department is monitoring the litigation in Ohio and that the state is responsible for following the rules related to early intervention services.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Education did not respond to a call seeking comment. A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health declined to comment.
ABA therapy is a form of behavior modification that’s considered effective with autistic kids in early childhood, when their brains are still developing. The goal of the therapy is to teach autistic children how to learn, since traditional methods usually don’t work with them.
After one session with a specialist, Holly Young said, her son quieted his disruptive behavior and spoke a few words for the first time.
According to the Youngs’ lawsuit, doctors suggested 25 to 40 hours of the therapy every week, which would cost about $2,750 a week. The state, however, offered a few hours a week of speech therapy.
Holly Young, a police officer, and her husband, a firefighter, said they struggled to pay for the therapy themselves, but managed to provide some on their own until the judge ordered the state to do it.
She said she’s grateful their fight has prompted federal officials to make the therapy available for all autistic kids in Ohio. But she still wonders what might have been for her own son if his therapy had not been interrupted. Their lawsuit continues because they want the state to cover the cost of the treatment Roman now needs to make up for the time lost when he was younger.
“If they had just done what they were supposed to do in the first place, instead of fighting us, where would our boy be now?” she said. “We’ll never know.”