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Putting The 'U' in Advocacy

Michelle Todd is President of the University of Minnesota Autism Speaks U chapter and has a 17-year-old brother on the autism spectrum. Last spring, she participated in a webinar covering Autism Speaks’ mission, including Advocacy.  During the webinar, she discovered the Advocacy department was offering summer internships and that Shelley Hendrix, the director of Grassroots Development, lives in Baton Rouge, LA where she was headed. She applied immediately for the position.

When I received the internship for the Autism Votes program, I was thrilled. As a future special education teacher, I was excited to learn about another important side in bettering the lives of those affected by autism and other disabilities -- Advocacy.

Now, I’m from the north, and with my internship located in Louisiana, I knew I was in for some major differences. Luckily for me, I was able to travel outside of Louisiana and into Mississippi to continue my cultural learning experience which, in addition to Southern politics, included Moon Pies and semi-trucks full of chickens.

During my cultural tour of the Deep South, I was lucky enough to venture to Jackson, MS for meetings at the Capitol. (That's me at the podium, left) We met with a couple of wonderful people who were interested in introducing autism insurance reform for their state. As of today, 34 states have enacted reform laws which require state-regulated health plans to cover medical treatments and therapies for people with autism, including applied behavior analysis (ABA).  Oregon became the most recent state when its law was enacted in August.

This is a huge difference from just 10 years ago when only one state, Indiana, had enacted this insurance reform. Mississippi has not passed autism insurance reform. YET. But maybe our trip there this summer will help change that.

 Because my major is in Education, as opposed to political science or government, this was a huge learning experience for me. It was amazing to see how many people come together for a common cause and how many people are truly passionate about creating a better life for all people with autism. Whether these people have been directly affected or simply know the magnitude and prevalence of those with autism, it was evident that they truly cared about how to make the lives of those affected better.

As Shelley and I arrived in Mississippi on that hot July day (every day was hot for me in the South), I was excited to learn about the process of introducing a new bill in a state. It not only takes lawmakers to make this change, it also takes your everyday citizen to get the ball rolling. Shelley and I met with state Representatives Steve Massengill and Jody Steverson, who want to spearhead this movement in Mississippi. Alongside these two wonderful gentlemen was another man named Quess whose child has autism. He also teaches special education.

Shelley presented information to the Representatives and to staff from the House Speaker’s office to explain why we need autism insurance reform for the state of Mississippi and what it will mean in terms of cost and outcome, not only for the individuals and families affected by autism, but for the state and our country as a whole. When autism insurance reform is implemented, medically necessary behavioral therapies become available and affordable, and more jobs open up for potential therapists as well as for those who have autism. Because of behavioral health therapy, many kids with autism will become indistinguishable from their peers, leading to higher quality of life as well as more opportunities for the future which includes their employment as adults.

If you ask me, any one of the above reasons is good enough to implement this reform as so many other states have already done. But combined, there is no doubt in my mind that with the rising prevalence of autism, it is the only sensible thing to do – to ensure that people with autism have access to appropriate health care treatments for their medical condition.

As Mississippi continues to work on enacting this insurance reform, I hope that all of its people will recognize what this reform could do for their state economically and how it can truly impact the lives of those affected by autism. 

All in all, I learned so much I decided to continue my internship, and therefore our work in Mississippi, this fall.  I learned how I could be part of changing the lives of thousands of people I may never meet.  And that’s amazing.

If you want to learn more about the autism insurance reform movement, please visit www.autismvotes.org. Register today, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, look for the Autism Votes booth at your local walk, and start getting involved.

 I’m so glad I did.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.