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Atlanta, GA: "Call to action"; more ASD services needed

June 5, 2023, 11 Live, Atlanta, GA: The 'game changer' therapies for children with developmental disabilities - and the struggle to make them accessible

One in six children in the U.S. are living with a developmental disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while early intervention is key to a child's development, experts say there are not enough providers to meet the need for Georgia's children.

It's an issue Courtnie James-Harris knows all too well after seeking help for her 4-year-old son Connor, who lives with autism and sensory issues.

"When we first started our journey, it was like nobody to help," James-Harris said of the attempts to get into a clinic or program to help Connor with delayed speech and behavioral needs.

"The waiting list was six months to a year. Some were even longer than that," James-Harris said. "It's frustrating. It's upsetting. It's unbelievable that the resources that we lack, and I say 'we' as in everywhere. It's not just here in Georgia, it's everywhere."

Meanwhile, Connor struggled to communicate his basic needs as James Harris and the family also struggled to understand the young child.

"He still wasn't talking. It was still grunting, the anger, the fighting, all of that," she said.

While Connor briefly participated in "Babies Can't Wait," Georgia’s early intervention program, James-Harris said her son aged out within six months (BCW serves Georgia children from birth up to their third birthday).

Ultimately, Erica Wilson, a speech language pathologist, was the "game changer" James Harris had been waiting to find.

"Before he came here, he had no voice," she said. "It was the different screams, the different grunts."

"We get to start at the beginning, and it's like seeing a miracle unfold in front of you," Wilson explained of the process of working with kids like Connor. "Every child wants to feel special. They want to feel heard."

Wilson and specialists work to give children that voice, but she agreed there are not enough therapists to meet the need.

"We do have a shortage of therapists," she said. "There's a long waitlist parents are sitting on."

That indeed means families are left in limbo, sometimes for months, Dr. Nicole Hendix with Marcus Autism Center, told 11Alive News of the issue.

"There is thus a call to action for our state systems and universities to support providers in learning how to provide early intervention services, particularly for young autistic children with unique needs," she said. "State systems and universities also must work to help these providers feel supported given high turnover in these systems of care."

The team at Voices for Georgia's Children has also been advocating for changes to better meet the demand for services.

"Early intervention can make a big difference in how children are able to relate to the social world. So the sooner we can get a child to receive services, the better off they'll be," Dr. Caitlin McMunn, executive director of the nonprofit, explained. "One of the ways that that we've been advocating for services is by creating a more robust workforce and ensuring that the reimbursement rates themselves are comparable to other market rates so that the providers themselves get a better rate in return for their services."

While McMunn agreed states across the country are dealing with the same issues, Georgia, she said, is unique in other ways.

"We still need to ensure that we have full Medicaid coverage for all of our citizens and make sure that we expand that as much as possible," she said.

While Georgia is one of ten states that has not adopted Medicaid expansion, cost of services can be a barrier to care even for families with insurance, Wilson said, especially if there's a need for multiple therapies.

"A lot of families don't just need speech therapy. They need occupational therapy, ABA therapy," Wilson said. "It adds up."

Wilson is among the network of RiteCare clinics in Georgia supported by the Scottish Rite Foundation. The group has a long history of helping families with scholarships for speech needs….


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