Minister pledges autism funding

Prevalence of autism in Cayman is unknown

The government will provide funds
to pay for assessment, diagnosis and treatment of autistic children, the Minister
of Education Rolston Anglin told an autism workshop this week.

“The ministry has allocated funds within
the 2011 budget that should help us make significant progress in this area,”
Mr. Anglin told a packed room of parents and medical and educational
professionals who work with children with autism.

Mr. Anglin did not say how much
money had been earmarked for autism assessment and care. Allocating funds to
help address the issue may not be an easy one, as the number of children with
autism in Cayman is not known.

Until recently, most diagnoses were
done off Island and there is no nation-wide registry to track children with the
disorder.

There is a registry, completed in
September 2009, which showed there were 185 children with special needs in
government schools. There were another 71 children at Lighthouse School, which
caters specifically to children with special needs, and a further 120
pre-school children on the education department’s Early Intervention Programme.

However, the number of children with
autism and other special needs in private schools and kindergartens is unknown.
It is also believed that there are likely to be other children, as well as
teenagers and adults, who have never been diagnosed.

Mr. Anglin said the allocated funds
would be spent on assessments and diagnoses done by a multi-discipline panel.

That panel would include a
paediatrician, a speech and language therapist and a child psychologist, said
Shannon Seymour of the Wellness Centre, a private counselling and consultation organisation.

“I proposed to the government that
they provide funding… Based on what [Mr. Anglin] said, he is about to commit
to that funding. The money will come to the Wellness Centre and we will be
responsible for putting together a panel which will collaboratively make a
diagnosis,” Ms Seymour said.

She said best practices dictate
that an assessment by a panel of qualified professionals was more appropriate
than one made by an individual.

If a child is diagnosed with a
disorder on the autism spectrum, the panel can refer the child to relevant
professionals and services.

Ms Seymour said the panel approach
was an improvement on the existing system whereby a child would be assessed and
diagnosed in the US or locally, and then parents had to try to find how to help
the child.

“It falls on the parents to find
the necessary services. These are parents whose lives are already exhausted by
the complexities of dealing with a child with autism. With the panel, at the
same time that we assess the child, we connect them to a treatment programme,”
she said.

In the past, children were being
sent overseas, usually to facilities in southern Florida, for assessment. This
was paid for either by the government or the families, Mr. Anglin said.

He said the government would also work
with the Wellness Centre to provide autism awareness training for pre-school
teachers, public health nurses and school counsellors to identify children with
developmental delays and those with at-risk symptoms for autism.

Mr. Anglin said there were also
plans to launch workshops for teachers of autistic students.

The minister said early detection
and diagnosis was vital to ensure at-risk children receive early intervention
services.

But one parent at the meeting pointed
out that the government’s early intervention service was only available during
the school year, so there were four months each year when children could not
access that system and parents would have pay for such services privately.

Another parent questioned what
could be done to ensure that children with autism were not turned away from
private schools in Cayman.

Brent Holt, head of student
services at the Department of Education Services, told her that once the
Education Modernisation Law 2009 came into force, private schools could no
longer refuse to accept children with special needs. That law was passed shortly
before last May’s election by the PPM government but its implementation was
delayed after the UDP government said new regulations would have be drawn up
before it could be implemented.

“We’re hoping it will come into
effect this coming September,” Mr. Holt said.

Health minister Mark Scotland, who along
with Minister Anglin gave opening remarks at the start of the event before
returning to a budget meeting in the Legislative Assembly, said the Health
Services Authority had started an awareness campaign. He pledged his ministry’s
support to the development of programmes that addressed the issue of autism in
Cayman.

Last month was World Autism Month
and, for the first time, the Cayman Islands marked the event.

Organisers of the two-hour workshop
held at the George Town Library on Monday afternoon said they wanted to keep up
the momentum started last month and said they planned to hold more workshops
and seminars in the future.

They were prepared to go ahead with
the workshop if only five people showed up, but the event was full, with about 50
people cramming into the meeting room. “We’ll get a bigger venue next time,”
said paediatrician James Robertson.

“The fact we filled the room is
very exciting, but also at the same time points to the urgency with which we
have to address this issue in our country,” he said.

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