State struggles to provide services to students with autism

Updated: Mar. 28, 2017 at 7:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One in 68 children in the United States has a form of autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And Hawaii mental health professionals argue the state has failed to provide hundreds of students a treatment they're entitled to.

Last August, a judge ruled the state violated federal law by not telling parents about a therapy known as Applied Behavioral Analysis.

"It requires 35 to 40 hours a week of one-on-one interaction between the child and the therapist," said attorney Paul Alston.

And he said there were two reasons it wasn't being made available: It's pricey and there are few qualified ABA therapists in Hawaii.

Education officials declined to speak on camera for this story, but said in a statement that they've been providing the treatment based on student need.

The Department of Education "provides ABA services as it relates to the educational needs of our students. For those that require it as part of their individualized education program, the Department has and will continue to provide access to ABA licensed staff and providers," said assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy.

But Kathleen Penland, of the Hawaii Association of Behavioral Analysis, said most families have been forced to seek out services on their own.

In a statement, the state Department of Human Services said it supports "comprehensive screening and treatment for autism."

"With regards to the August 2016 order, we appreciate that the court recognized the department's work over the last couple years to implement this kind of coverage, particularly for early and periodic screening, diagnostic, and treatment services."

Shannon Pucci's daughter Bianca was diagnosed with the autism when she was 2, and she's seen the benefits of ABA.

"My daughter wasn't able to communicate very well. She didn't want to play with other children. She was almost in her own little bubble in her own little world," Pucci said.

But with two years of ABA treatment, which was partially covered by the family's insurance, Bianca has thrived.

But what's happening in the school system has Pucci worried about the future.

"Unfortunately there isn't a lot of help here on the islands," she said.

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