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The Philly Autism Project: How the city is reaching out to help people on the spectrum

In May, City Councilman-At-Large Dennis O’Brien launched the Philadelphia Autism Project, the first municipal‐level initiative to improve the quality of life for Philadelphians living with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families. On Monday, the final report of the project — done in partnership with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services — was released. We know the odds are small that you read the full 69 pages, so we read it for you. Here’s some of the important stuff.

It looks like things are looking up for those diagnosed with ASD in Philly.

According to an online community survey by Autism Speaks in April 2011, Philadelphia was ranked one of the top ten best cities to live if you have autism, among areas like Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. And Pennsylvania was actually one of the first states to create an Autism Task Force.

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The 2014 Pennsylvania Autism Census reported that an estimated 55,830 people of all ages with an ASD were receiving services in Pennsylvania, with an additional 130,000 individuals that may be undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or not receiving services. That blue-green color on the map shows that there are currently 4,617 Philadelphians with ASD receiving services, up a whopping 116 percent from 2,142 people in 2005.

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So how are students with autism going to get a quality education?

A nice chunk of those 4,617 people are students 5 to 17 years old enrolled in Philadelphia schools, and according to the Philadelphia Autism Project, that number has been increasing over time as well. Of Philadelphia children with an ASD receiving educational support through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 50.6 percent were receiving autistic support services, 27.2 percent learning services and 6.3 percent emotional support services.

The Autism Project aims to create mainstream opportunities for students with ASD and improve the Individual Educational Plan process for families. There will also be a large focus on strengthening the educational staff, giving teachers specific training and in‐school help to include students with autism, as well as a strategy of avoiding inappropriate discipline while increasing awareness among the rest of the school.

For higher education, the project plans to develop a supportive college program for students with ASD as well as post-secondary transition planning, where students are placed in autism-friendly colleges and courses.

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What about other social issues, like criminal justice and equality?

Over 500 people with autism in Pennsylvania who were receiving services from Medicaid had contact with the juvenile or criminal justice systems in 2011. The project plans to create “autism specific tracks within the First Judicial District Mental Health Court to offer diversion program options for individuals with autism who are court involved” (for both victims and offenders).

Twenty-six percent of those with ASD in Philadelphia between 2008 and 2012 were below the poverty line, while 64 percent of the ASD population in the city is non-white. This means everyone has different needs, which are asked for in different languages. To resolve this, the plan will use a little thing called the Internet to maintain a database of specialized services and culturally competent providers who speak various languages. They will also use this tool to connect the community with resources, such as videos, blogs and support groups, furthering the community integration ideals of the project.

Will it get easier for adults with autism to live independently?

The report also reiterated the fact that young adults with ASD have a difficult time finding jobs, with about half going into a paying job after high school. Pennsylvania already has the Adult Autism Waiver and Adult Community Autism Program to aid adults with ASD to live independently, but they want to round that out by expanding the “Work Ready” program to include ASD kids, create internships throughout the city that would accept autistic interns and target large businesses like Aramark and the sports stadiums to raise awareness for the need for employment.

Sounds nice and all, but how is this all going to happen?

That’s a lot of resources to tack onto the city’s stressed budget, and the report alone took two years and 135 stakeholders to complete. The plan is to roll out these initiatives over the next two years through a $100,000 grant, but the report also calls for an annual Philadelphia Autism Conference, which will organize a grassroots movement to advocate more funding.

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