(March 31, 2014) -- Four autism centers providing early intervention services for Oklahoma children are in danger of closing due to a threatened $600,000 state budget cut.
Families across the state are now appealing to Oklahoma House Speaker Jeff Hickman who has expressed support for restoring the funding, according to Kathy McCracken, executive director of the state's Children's Hospital; Foundation. The foundation has been financially supporting the program through the Oklahoma University Child Study Center which set up the centers in 2007 in Norman, Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Mustang.
The state Department of Education has said it plans to cut the $600,000 annual base funding for the centers, an act that would force them to close, McCracken said. The state attibuted the cut to the federal budget "sequester" which created across-the-board reducations in funding support, she said.
The cut is particularly harsh for Oklahoma, one of only 16 states yet to require private insurers to cover medically necessary treatments, leaving parents few options to afford intensive early intervention services for their children with autism.
"Oklahoma's children with autism and their families, who are currently enrolled, will lose an incredible opportunity to learn and grow to be productive citizens," McCracken said. "Current parents in the program will become desperate for help, some will move to other states. Parents on the waiting list will know there is no help in the future for them in Oklahoma."
In addition, she said, "Oklahoma will lose a nationally recognized research program which has created jobs for new researchers, and Oklahoma may lose these talented scientists to other states."
The four centers integrate toddlers and preschoolers with autism and their peers in community daycare and "mother’s day out" programs, offering home-based and center-based specialized services needed by children with autism. More than 32 children with autism under the age of 4 have completed the intervention and at least that many are currently receiving services in these “model” pre-school centers," McCracken said.
The centers employ 28 teachers who work directly with the children, she said. In addition, a team of specialists helps train educators and other professionals across Oklahoma.
"And yes, there is a waiting list of children and teachers wanting to participate," McCracken said.