More than two years of preparation, fact finding and meetings with more than 130 stakeholders have led At–Large Councilman Dennis O’Brien to release the comprehensive final report from the Philadelphia Autism Project.
O’Brien publicized the report’s release Monday during a press conference at City Hall, which proceeded a committee on the disabled and special needs public hearing on the issue.
“When we sketched out the Philadelphia Autism Project we found it very important to clearly define a core set of three guiding values,” O’Brien said. “One, to address individuals across the entire autism spectrum and lifespan. Two, to develop innovative approaches to meet the needs of individuals and their families, and three, address the underserved and underrepresented population in the city.”
O’Brien said the Philadelphia Autism Project created a citywide task force to examine the services and supports for individuals and families who are living with autism in Philadelphia and this effort represents the first of its kind.
“We undertook this effort because despite this wonderful recognition [that Philadelphia has become one of the leading autism–friendly cities], we realized that we can and must do better to address gaps in our services systems,” O’Brien said. “Furthermore, the challenges are still evolving and growing with increased research about autism. Recently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated that one in 68 Americans lives with autism. The prevalence is staggering and presents a challenge to policymakers.”
According to PennsylvaniaAutism.org, the project’s final report identifies the most effective, efficient and comprehensive system of care for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder and their families living in Philadelphia.
As a result of those stakeholder meetings, 139 initiatives were identified that, if implemented, will substantially improve the quality of life of individuals and families living with an autism spectrum disorder.
“Autism is a pressing national public health issue,” O’Brien said in an executive summary of the report. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of every 68 children in the United States are on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, the 2014 Pennsylvania Autism Census Report signals a looming crisis as the number of adults with autism in Pennsylvania is projected to increase by 20,000 by the year 2020.
“This is especially concerning since there are few services currently available for adults. The struggles individuals and families impacted by autism confront on a day–to–day basis has been an area of great importance to me.”
The three counties in the commonwealth with the highest number of individuals with autism were Allegheny, Philadelphia and Montgomery, with 4,895, 4,617 and 1,691, respectively.
“Philadelphia is recognized as one of the top ten cities to live in if you [are] diagnosed with autism,” the report stated. “However, we realize there continue to be gaps in service and supports, as well as unmet needs that must be addressed. It is clear tremendous progress [has been] made in the last two decades. However, individuals with autism are becoming increasingly more involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems; they face high levels of unemployment and opportunities for true community inclusion are often limited.”
Individuals with autism in Pennsylvania most often received services through the departments of public welfare and education. Specifically, O’Brien’s report notes 64 percent, or about 36,000 individuals, received services through the public welfare department and 70 percent — or roughly 39,000 individuals — received services through the education department.
Across these groups, two out of three individuals were identified as having autism and were receiving services from both departments. Since the most common age groups of individuals with autism in Pennsylvania were 5–12 and 13–17, the high enrollment for services in both departments is not surprising, O’Brien said.
Services through the education department are not available for the vast majority of individuals over age 21, or age 22 in some cases.
O’Brien said the task force came up with year–one solutions that may address these and other pertinent issues regarding autism treatment and services.