Autism programs struggle with budget cuts

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Jennifer Personius with her son, Andy, who has participated in some autism programs that are facing cuts in funding.

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – As a teen with autism, Andy Personius is often on the outside looking in when youngsters his age get together, his mom says.

That isn’t the case at Arts Adventures, a weekly program in Albuquerque in which children with autism participate in theater, visual arts and other activities.

The program “gives him a place where he is completely accepted and part of the group,” Andy’s mom, Jennifer Personius, said in an interview Wednesday.

But Arts Adventures and similar programs for children with autism spectrum disorder face new financial challenges this summer – partly because of cuts in state funding that took effect July 1.

The state this year reduced funding by 18 percent for groups with contracts to provide autism services, from about $3.4 million to $2.8 million, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Seven groups, including Arts Adventures, lost all of their state funding.

The reductions come after New Mexico faced an intense budget crunch that was, at one point, projected to nearly exhaust state reserves.

Health Department spokesman Paul Rhien said the budget crunch has forced the department to look for new ways to fund some programs.

“Within these constraints, we continually look at all contracts and determine where we can shift costs in order to continue to provide a large range of safety net services and programs that have evidence-based, positive impacts for vulnerable families statewide,” he said in a written statement.

The department also must fund a variety of critical services, such as programs that help families with infants and people with developmental disabilities.

“The health, safety and welfare of all New Mexicans will always be our top priority at the New Mexico Department of Health,” Rhien said.

Groups large and small have undergone cuts. The Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico – which diagnoses children with autism and runs Camp Rising Sun in the East Mountains, among other services – is taking a 6 percent cut this year in state funding for autism services.

State funding has been decreasing for some time, said Pat Osbourn, the center’s associate director. But the new cut could mean longer waiting lists for families seeking services, she said, and hard choices on which programs to continue, including Camp Rising Sun, which serves about 95 children and helps train about 145 adults each year.

It already takes about 18 months for families who want to have their children evaluated for autism.

“We really don’t want those children to have to wait any longer,” Osbourn said.

Deborah Brink, who runs Arts Adventures, which is part of the nonprofit Very Special Arts of New Mexico, said her program will continue in the fall, but its future beyond that is unclear. Most of the program’s funding comes from private donations and grants, she said, but those are tough to count on.

Autism symptoms vary widely but can involve social and communication difficulties, obsessive interests and repetitive behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A legislative subcommittee is expected to hear from families today. The Disabilities Concern Subcommittee has a daylong meeting scheduled at the UNM Science and Technology Center Rotunda, 801 University SE. Public comment is tentatively scheduled for 11:30 a.m.

State Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, who has a son with autism, said state funding for autism programs has been cut in half over the past decade and New Mexico trails other states in services.

“To cut it even further is just unconscionable,” she said.

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