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Legislators visit Autism Center at SIU

Submitted by Carbondale Times on

Dustin Duncan
Weekend Times


Republican legislators Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, Sen. Paul Schimpf, R- Waterloo, and Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, made a trip Monday to the Autism Center at SIU to see what could be done to maintain levels of funding in order for the center to continue its work. 

Stephanie Brown, director of the Autism Society of Southern Illinois, greeted the legislators and gave them a quick glimpse as to what having the center in Carbondale means to families in the Southern Illinois region. 

She said the next option outside of SIU is in Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, where there is currently a six-month waiting list to receive services.

  Additionally, she said the earlier children with autism receive services, the better off they will be, and the fact there is a center in Carbondale means there is a family support nearby to help through tough times. 

“What working parent can drive two hours one-way to the appointment, an hour-long appointment and then two-hours back, three times a week and maintain a full-time job?” she said. “It is impossible.”

Ruth Anne Rehfeldt, professor of behavior analysis and therapy at SIU, said the Autism Program of Illinois has traditionally funded the center.  Through that funding, she said the center serves about 60 children, teens and adults in the region. Also, the center trains about 40 to 50 undergraduate, masters and doctoral students in the field. 

Will Root, coordinator of the program working with teens and adolescents, said there is a parent who drives twice a week from Cairo for one-hour sessions. 

“That is how much they need this program,” he said. 

Dean of the College of Education and Human Services Matthew Keefer said the university’s graduate Rehabilitation Counseling program is again ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News. 

“The expertise that we have here that we continue to manage through this difficult period should be acknowledged,” he said. “The funding that we can manage to get is very appreciated and it’s very well-spent.” 

Schimpf said he wasn’t surprised by the amount of solid work being done by the university, and that program’s work hit home for him. 

“I can appreciate the work you are doing because my youngest boy was diagnosed as high-functioning autistic, so I have seen the value of the services that can be provided,” he said. 

Russell Bonanno, director of the state’s Autism Program, told the legislators the SIU program ensures the students working within the program have actual experience with children with autism, not just learn about it in a classroom or textbook. He also told the lawmakers that Medicaid doesn’t help parents pay for services for children with autism, but the state should because it creates long-term savings. 

“For each child with autism who receives early intervention services, there is a net savings of $2 to $4 million per child over their lifetime,” Bonanno said. “So, it is really is a significant investment to save down the road.” 

Schimpf and Fowler both let the staff at the university know that the information they were receiving was 


“This is the information that we need to know,” Fowler said. 

“You are being let down by our political class. That is the unfortunate reality. Our state is being held back by its government,” Schimpf said. “All of us definitely realize if we can get things straightened out in Springfield, I’m convinced that in Southern Illinois especially with this university, we are ready to take off like a rocket.”

Bryant said she has been beating the drum for what the facility can do for two years and although the state wants to get rid of duplication of services, that is not the case in Southern Illinois. 

“If a person has a child with autism and can’t be seen here, the closest place is in St. Louis and then there is a question (of) if your insurance will be covered. Or go to Peoria, it’s hard for a child with autism to be in a car for that long,” she said. “We also have the different dynamic of really how economically depressed we are here, so people have to have a vehicle that will get you all the way to Peoria. It is absolutely essential that we keep this 

facility open.”  

Rehfeldt said if no funding comes from the state, there are still things the center can do to serve as a training facility for students. However, professional development for students and workshops in the community would probably have to be cut. 

Additionally, consultation to area agencies, along with screening and diagnostic assessments would also be very difficult, she said. 

She said the center had funding from this past September to June 30. That funding was about $300,000, which has been a good amount to support students and serve families. 

“We are very grateful for the funds we have right now and we would be grateful if it could continue in the future,” 

Rehfeldt said.  

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