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Calls to Action

On the Road: You never know who you will meet

Lorri Unumb, vice president of state government affairs for Autism Speaks, travels the country advocating for families and individuals facing the challenges of autism. This is her ongoing series "On The Road For Autism Reform".

Lorri with students in her GW Law School class, along with Karen Driscoll, Autism Speaks Associate Director of Federal and Military Affairs, who spoke to the students this week on Tricare coverage issues.

Business travel is not glamorous, and it can be physically exhausting, but I find that I often draw great strength from my travels with Autism Speaks. This week, I was running through the Atlanta airport (my second home) when a man stopped me and said “I noticed your pin.” He pointed to my blue puzzle piece on the lapel of my blazer. “Yes, it’s for Autism Speaks,” I replied. He went on to tell me that his son had been diagnosed with autism just 6 weeks ago. He was clearly still feeling the pain and experiencing some denial. He also was just beginning to investigate insurance coverage for autism treatments, so I gave him the two-minute version of everything I’ve learned over the past 10 years. It turned out that we live in the same city, so we traded contact information and began to part as flight times approached. “Wait,” I called after him. “Would you like to have my pin?” I removed the pin from lapel and placed it in his hands. He was grateful, and I felt that familiar autism bond with a new member of our “family.”

On another note, my flight that day took me to Washington, D.C., where I teach a class on Mondays. For the fourth year in a row, I am teaching a health care law seminar focused on autism at George Washington University Law School. I call it my “Autism and the Law” class, and I love teaching it! Before I joined Autism Speaks, I was a law professor full-time, and, as much as I love advocating for our families in legislatures around the country, I do miss being in the classroom. This course allows me to combine my two professional passions.

I have 11 students in my class this fall, and they are enthusiastic and brilliant! Some students signed up because they are interested in health care law generally. Others signed up because they have a personal connection to autism. One student is already a practicing lawyer who has represented autism families. Another is a practicing physician (a surgeon at Children’s National Medical Center) who wanted to learn more about autism policy. All told, they are an awesome group, and I consider it a golden opportunity to spend a semester educating these lawyers-of-tomorrow about the legal issues surrounding autism. I’m also giving them a glimpse into the personal side of autism. After we read a case on autism law, we sometimes pick up the phone and call the parties from the litigation, since I’ve come to know many of the autism heroes who have blazed trails in the courts. This semester, we’ve talked to Lisa McHenry, who had to bring suit against her insurance company in Oregon multiple times. We’ve talked to Jill Tappert, who won coverage for her daughter’s ABA therapy through arbitration in Colorado. We’ve talked to Suzanne Wheeler, who sued her insurance companies years ago for their unending denials. The students have enjoyed talking to the real people behind the cases they read in their textbooks.

Thank you to GW Law School for giving me the opportunity to influence a few of our next generation of attorneys. Maybe one day we’ll be working with these lawyers in our recently-launched Autism Speaks Legal Resource Center. The autism community needs their help!