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Garden City conference tackles autism research, funding

Nassau County Executive Thomas Souzzi speaks at a

Nassau County Executive Thomas Souzzi speaks at a rally for autism reform in Garden City. (Sept. 29, 2009) Photo Credit: Joel Cairo

Significantly increasing funding for autism research and making insurance companies pay for treatment were among the major ideas offered at a government-university sponsored conference and rally on autism in Garden City Tuesday.

"Those are the top items of the day," said Mark Roithmyer, president of Autism Speaks, the largest advocacy agency for the disease in the world.

In response, Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plan in Washington, D.C., said "there has been a recent attempt to shift the responsibility for some educational services to the health care systems, and our customers tell us they can't pay any more."

But Roithmyer said 15 states have mandated that insurance companies provide additional services and noted, "New York State could be next. Harvey Weisenberg [D-Long Beach] is sponsoring such a bill in the Assembly and Sen. Charles Fuschillo [R-Merrick] in the Senate."

County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, helped pull together the coalition of 30 local autism groups that, along with the county and Adelphi University, sponsored the daylong conference at the school. He noted that money is an issue.

"Families dealing with autism on Long Island are struggling financially, emotionally and even physically trying to provide their children and the rest of their families with the basic qualities of life. . . . [Governments] need to do a better job," Suozzi said.

"And for [special] education, the state won't have any new money, so we need to give educators more flexibility so they can tailor programs to the individual need of these students. One size does not fit all."

The conference, attended by more than 200 people, highlighted a paper by the Nassau County Autism Coalition recommending new federal, state and local policies toward the disease.

Besides recommending raising federal funding for research from 2008's $118 million to $3 billion, it said the state should spend up to $500,000 a year for five years to participate in a study examining autism in the earliest stages of life, because the recurrence rate in families with one autistic person is possibly tenfold higher than in the general population.

Suozzi said that autism cases on Long Island are estimated at 20,000 - based on the 1 in 150 used by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the county and the university plan a joint study to gain more accurate numbers of children with autism; it should be completed by 2012.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), a former nurse, praised Suozzi and the coalition, saying: "You have made this a model for other parts of the country."

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