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NM teens ask state to restore autism funding

SANTA FE, N.M. — One teenager called Camp Rising Sun a place where kids with autism are spared from cruelty.

Others said they made friends and tried new things.

They were among about a half-dozen campers who took turns – sometimes quietly, sometimes boldly – asking state officials Thursday to find a way to restore funding for the summer camp, which helps children with autism and trains professionals on how to work with them. Some campers don’t have autism at all, but siblings do.

Emma Ruth Stone, 16, who has a brother with autism, urges state officials to restore funding for autism services, including Camp Rising Sun. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

The teens’ testimony came during a meeting of the Legislature’s Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee.

No final decision on funding for the camp – or any other autism program facing state funding cuts – was made Thursday.

But Jim Copeland, director of the state Developmental Disabilities Supports Division, said he and his colleagues in the state Health Department will consider restoring the money if they can as the state’s budget situation improves. Camp Rising Sun isn’t scheduled to start up again until next summer.

“We just had to make some tough decisions and some tough cuts,” Copeland told lawmakers Thursday. “… We’re trying to do the best with what we’ve got.”

Thursday’s hearing comes after 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 lost all of their state funding. The Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico, which operates Camp Rising Sun, is taking a 6 percent cut and officials there say it isn’t clear whether the camp can continue.

Ethan Brown, a 15-year-old who’s attended the camp, told legislators that Camp Rising Sun changed his life and helped him make friends.

The camp gives participants “a way to be around people who don’t show cruelty to them, who don’t want to hurt them, who will treat them as people,” Brown said.

Katie Stone, who has a son with autism, said children with autism aren’t allowed at other summer camps. Parents often have no chance to take a break.

“We have no other option,” she said. The autism cuts are “just a heartbreak.”

The camp benefits last long beyond just the week that a child is there, Stone said. It’s like getting a year’s worth of therapy in one week, she said, and the teachers and social workers who are trained there help kids year-round.

Democratic legislators at Thursday’s hearings said they were disappointed by the cuts and urged the Health Department to restore the money.

“Of all places we can cut, this is not a place to go,” said Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe.