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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Budget Fiasco Comes Down on Autistic Kids

(CN) - More than 100 autistic children in California may be "institutionalized" because state budget cuts may force a developmental services agency to axe funding for a highly effective treatment, a class action claims in Los Angeles Superior Court. The children have "severely impaired verbal and cognitive abilities," often engage in "isolated, repetitive behaviors," and act violently toward themselves and others, the parents say.

Parents say the "Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship-based (DIR)" treatment for autism is not only beneficial and cost-effective, but has led to dramatic improvements for their children. They say the defendant Eastern Los Angeles Regional Center has violated the state's intent to save money by withholding money for DIR treatment, and the alternatives will be costly and ineffective.

"Some of these children will repeatedly bash their heads on the wall or another hard surface, scratch their skins to the point of bleeding, or hit themselves until their bodies are covered with bruises," according to the complaint. As they get older, often the "violence becomes more difficult to control and more dangerous ... (w)ithout treatment, a significant risk exists that these children will eventually require state-funded congregate care or institutionalization to prevent them from harming themselves or others," the families say.

The parents say the Regional Center has misapplied new legislation from the "Trailer Bill," which demanded that the center not "purchase 'experimental treatments,' 'social recreational activities,' and 'non-medical therapies, including specialized recreation,'" as of August 2009.

But the class claims that DIR therapy is a widely accepted, effective treatment that is not experimental or recreational.

Parents say DIR therapy has been so beneficial that one child with rage problems who "could not interact with his peers," has "become much less dangerous, both to himself and others around him."

Another child who suffered from emotional, social and verbal impairments now has the possibility of "becoming an independent, healthy and fully-functioning member of society," due to DIR treatments, the parents add.

They fear that without the developmental therapy their children will regress and eventually have to be hospitalized or institutionalized.

The DIR model is related to a therapy called "Floortime," which focuses on "encouraging the child's initiative and purposeful behavior, deepening engagement, lengthening mutual attention, and developing symbolic capacities, through pretend play and conversations, always following the child's lead," according to the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders.

The parents say the Regional Center does not have the legal right to dictate the children's treatment, which is supposed to be based on the family's preferences.

Autism is a serious medical disorder and "a public health crisis," affecting 1 in 110 children born in the United States, according to the complaint.

While a solely behavioral approach to treating autism takes "30-40 hours per week of therapy, and can cost up to $50,000 per year per child," DIR therapy costs only $2,500 to $3,000 per year for each child, the families say.

California's budget fiasco caused the Legislature to "cut more than $300 million in services for the developmentally disabled" in July 2009.

The families demand that the Regional Center and its director, Gloria Wong, be enjoined from terminating the DIR treatment program, claiming doing so would violate the Lanterman Act.

Lead counsel is John Sharer with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

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