Public schools face rising cost of educating children with autism

A new study suggests that it's getting expensive to properly serve children with autism in Rhode Island's public schools.

Ali attends a middle school in Portsmouth, and her mother is a huge advocate for her to be sure she gets the services she needs.

"My daughter needs a one-to-one aide. So, she has someone with her at all times," said Wendy Fournier of the National Autism Association.

Ali, like other children with autism, has safety risks. She wanders and without constant supervision, she could not only get lost, she could get hurt.

The federal government's estimate of autism has moved up to 1 in 68 U.S. children. In Rhode Island, the numbers are largely consistent with the rate in which children are being diagnosed nationally.

To date, about 2,200 children in Rhode Island's public school system are being treated for autism spectrum disorders.

A new Harvard study suggests that the cost to the educational system to serve these children is becoming a burden.

Fournier said she can attest to that first-hand.

"I don't know how the school districts are keeping up. They are being broken. Not only are the school districts being financially devastated by what I consider to be an epidemic, but also families are being bankrupted as well," Fournier said.

Kids Count is tracking the issue.

"I think that there has been some good planning going on. I think that this is something that is definitely on the radar screen of our educators and our health care professionals," said Kids Count executive director Elizabeth Burke Bryant.

The philosophy is to pay now, not later.

"Our government agencies -- CDC and NIH -- have spent $1.6 billion on autism, but they have yet to prevent one case of autism and they have not developed one treatment to help our kids," Fournier said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.

In Rhode Island, $1 million was set aside to pay for high-cost special education services.

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