Lawmakers moving from autism ‘awareness’ to acceptance and advocacy

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, is observing Autism Awareness Month by introducing a package of bills that would make it easier for autistic students to attend college and make it easier for first responders to assist those with special needs.

Santabarbara, the father of a teenager with autism, has been a longtime advocate for New Yorkers with autism and other developmental disabilities. Last year, he unveiled Autism Action NY, a comprehensive five-bill package designed to provide these resources, including efforts to increase employment opportunities and expand independent housing options.

He described a “crisis for support services,” emphasizing the need to expand the services and resources available for individuals with autism to help them thrive in the community.

“The goal of Autism Action NY is to help facilitate the transition into adulthood,” Santabarbara said, “and to promote independent living for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

One of the flagship measures of the bill package, the Autism Spectrum Disorder Advisory Board, was signed into law by Gov. Cuomo last November. The advisory board’s job is to organize the Legislature’s efforts by centralizing the services available to New Yorkers with autism, periodically reviewing them, identifying additional resources and recommending improvements as needed. The first Autism Action Plan is expected to be unveiled in October.

“It was not meant to be one package of bills. As new information becomes available, as things change, the bills will change too,” said Santabarbara.

According to the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, autism is among the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States. One in 68 children will be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“That means at some point there will be one in 68 adults [living with autism],” said Santabarbara. “We need to be prepared for that.”

This year, Santabarbara is introducing five new bills, including a measure (A.0205) to provide additional training for guidance counselors to prepare autistic students for education, and employment opportunities, beyond high school.

Santabarbara is also calling for a Tuition Assistance Program waiver for college-bound students with autism, extending financial aid awards to accommodate those who may need extra time to complete their degree requirements.

One bill (A.0223) aimed at the health and safety of New Yorkers with Autism Spectrum Disorder includes the implementation of autism response teams in health care facilities, as well as additional training for first responders.

Another measure (A.0249) would create standardized Autism Spectrum Disorder ID cards to assist in interactions with law enforcement and first responders.

“We need to move from autism awareness, which is a very noble goal, to autism acceptance and autism advocacy,” said Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, who is the mother of a child with autism.