Heartland family fears lawmakers plan to cut funds for autism services

Missouri Autism Project funding
Updated: May. 1, 2018 at 7:46 PM CDT
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A battle in Jefferson City is continuing over funding for the Missouri Autism Project, and it has organizations and parents in Southeast region worried about losing access to autism services.

House members want to keep the program's budget where it is, at $8.7 million statewide, but Senators recently voted to reduce that funding by 43 percent.

Parents like Kyla Bergman, whose five-year-old son Townes has autism, are upset because they've experienced how impactful the programs are for their children.

"Just the thought that this could happen infuriates me," Bergmann said. "Parents should have the right to have access to services. We absolutely need help to learn how to communicate with our children."

Since Townes diagnosis two years ago he has continued doing different therapy session and Bergmann and her husband have also educated themselves through parent training.

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"When we started with Easter Seals they just give you strategies on what to do and it works," Bergmann said. "Townes was not communicating at all when we came here, and now he is full on talking. He is less frustrated, less angry. Now he is just a funny little kid."

Easter Seals Midwest, the SEMO Autism Center and Blue Sky Community Services are the three organization in the area that receives more than $1.5 million dollars combined from the Autism Project each year.

Kelley Pujol is a music therapist at Easter Seals in Cape Girardeau and helps children and adults with autism improve their attention, communication and motor skills through a variety of activities.

"We understand that music is processed in so many different areas of the brain and it helps organize the brain so kids have a greater ability to process information and to respond to what we are asking them," Pujol said.

Last week the Center for Disease Control announced that 1 in every 59 children is autistic. Pujol says that rate has gone up substantially and was shocked to hear about the proposed funding cut which could force organizations to let go of staff positions.

"I've been here 17 years and never have we discussed a cut of this magnitude," Pujol said. "With the level of incidents continuing to increase it's just very difficult to wrap my head around what that will even look like."

One mission of Missouri Autism Project is to bring services to rural areas of the state and Pujol says they do that by having autism specialists and therapist drive to a family's home.

"There are so many families that could not access those resources if we did not bring the services to them so it is absolutely vital," she said.

Bergmann and other parents have been calling and emailing legislators to show their support for keeping funds for autism services intact and they're encouraging others to join in.

"Last year they cut 3 percent, and that was more than they needed," Bergmann said. "We are going backward. We need more funding in this area and I think everyone does."

Members from both the Missouri house and senate have formed a committee to further discuss the spending plan that includes the Missouri Autism Project, and have until May 11th to come to a consensus and send the bill off to the governor to be signed.

They group consists of senators Dan Brown, Dan Hegeman, David Sater, Shalonn Kiki Curls, Jamilah Nasheed and representatives Scott Fitzpatrick, Justin Alferman, David Wood, Deb Lavender and Crystal Quade.

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