MIFFLINBURG — When Terri Manning and her family moved to Pennsylvania from Virginia, hopes were high that their 9-year-old son John would be able to benefit from the mental health services the state offered.
“Pennsylvania stood out as one of the states to pattern yourself after,” she said.
And with help from numerous programs and a therapeutic staff support (TSS) aide, John has thrived, said Manning, who now lives in Danville.
“At first, he had no eye contact and no facial expressions,” she said. “Now, he’s so loving, he has tons of faces. He doesn’t have a lot of vocal skills, but he’s learning how to communicate with sign language and pictures.”
However, Jacob’s therapy may be in danger, thanks to cuts to what services TSS workers can bill for.
New guidelines for billable services put out by the state’s Office of Mental Health state that TSS aides cannot bill for recreational activities or personal care services such as prompting an individual to complete a task or assisting an individual with a task. All things that Susan Bolig — whose 11-year-old son, Ryan, has autism — said are essential to the development of a child with an autism spectrum disorder.
“One of the biggest things our kids need is to learn is how to deal with the community and how to become a part of our community,” said Bolig, who lives in Selinsgrove. “Now they’re taking that away.”
Representatives from the state Department of Public Welfare could not be reached for comment.
But the moms aren’t letting the cuts go unnoticed. Manning, Bolig and fellow mother Brenda Laubach met with state Rep. Fred Keller, R-85 of Kreamer, on Saturday morning to discuss their concerns and see how they could fight to reverse the new guidelines.
Keller was very receptive, Laubach said.
The state representative said: “I wanted to sit down with and really understand how things were impacting them. We’ll get together once I do a little bit of work on that and meet again next week.”
One of the moms’ biggest concerns was potential cuts in billable hours for a summer camp held in Shamokin Dam each summer by Keystone Human Services, which allows autistic children to participate in recreational activities and therapies, while maintaining the routine of the school year, Laubach said.
“Honestly I have no idea what I’ll do if he can’t go to the summer camp,” she said. “He needs it because it keeps him active and on a schedule.”
Bolig’s son also has benefited immensely from the summertime program, she said.
“He loves to go swimming and go on the slides,” she said. “That teaches him to wait his turn, how to go down properly ... This year, he was answering a lot more questions, he was sitting at lunchtime and eating grapes and drinking milk.”
These small skills are all things that may come naturally to most people, but not to children with autism, Manning said.
“Our kids have to be taught how to do those things,” she said.
And it can take years of working with a child to reinforce these lessons, Bolig said.
“It can take years to learn something like how to dress themselves,” she said. “With my son, he picks out his own clothes, but I still have to go in and make sure things aren’t backwards or inside out ... It just takes a long process to teach them.”
Laubach works in the adult behavioral services field and has seen first-hand what early intervention can do.
“If they don’t get intervention they need now, in the long run, we’re going to end up spending a lot more money (on services),” she said.
And when these skills are taught at a young age and honed through the help of TSS aides, it can allow children to grow and mature into adults who are independent and can hold jobs in the community, Laubach said.
“We’re not just asking for things. Our children have a lot to offer,” she said. “Who knows what John can do, his story’s still unwritten.”
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