Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fighting seizures and Autism

It's not exactly a political or town hall rally, but there will be plenty of fervor this Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at a special "Show-Me Coverage Autism Insurance Rally" at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon, Mo.

A special family that will be there in force is Glendale's Eric and Jaime Schmitt and their youngsters. For Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, this rally involves a personal cause, a family cause and a political cause.

"Of the top 10 most common neurological disorders, autism is the only one not covered by health insurance," said Schmitt. "Families all over our state are struggling every day to afford treatment and services for their loved one with autism.

It's a parity issue and an issue of fairness and more," added Schmitt. "For one thing, we have treatments that were experimental 10 years ago, but which are now accepted as effective. For another, we are now learning just how pervasive autism is as a family situation that needs to be addressed - and addressed early."

Schmitt is being joined in the rally and the cause by state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville. Rupp, along with former state Sen. Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, and state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, were instrumental in putting together a Missouri Blue Ribbon Panel on Autism.

The panel's study noted that autism is a profound mental and biological disorder linked to specific brain abnormalities. It shows up under many guises and can involve behavioral problems ranging from extreme introversion to disturbing, angry, violent outbursts.

Autism appears now in one of every 150 children, although its incidence specifically in boys is much higher. Some testifying before the state panel called it an epidemic, although they explained that early diagnosis and intervention can make a big difference in the lives of everyone in coping with autism.

"One thing to emphasize about the rally is that this will not be a bunch of politicians giving speeches," said Schmitt. "It's going to be a fun-filled, family-friendly event. The Dave Glover Band will play; face painting and balloon animals will be there for the kids; and celebrity autographs and photo-ops with sports stars such as Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry and Lou Brock will be part of the day."

Nevertheless, there is a political agenda to the event. The rally is meant to kick off the push for a law in the Missouri Legislature that will mandate "Show-Me Coverage" of Autism by insurance companies.



Jamie Schmitt with her son, Stephen, in their Glendale home. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
A Family Concern

Eric and Jaime Schmitt have been assisting their 5-year-old son, Stephen, with autism treatment and care since his diagnosis. Fathers sometimes find it especially hard to connect with children with autism, but Eric has obviously overcome that hurdle as he and his son interact together.

"Autism involves such a broad spectrum. Our son has some severe issues," explained Eric Schmitt. "Stephen did not make eye contact. He had life-threatening seizures. He has made amazing progress since his therapy treatments began.

"He is happy and he is loved, and by the grace of God we have been fortunate to cover his treatments out of pocket," added Schmitt. "Not all families are in a position to cover all the needs that autism can bring."

Jaime Schmitt had high praise for the Kirkwood School District and its resources to deal with developmental disorders such as autism. She also noted that schools are pivotal in helping all parents understand what autism is all about.

In 2008, radio shock jock Michael Savage caused a furor when he insisted 99 percent of autism cases are caused by permissive or poor parenting. Savage said in most every case, autism is about a child "who hasn't been told to cut the act out."

Savage competes for listeners with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who are the only right-wing radio talk show hosts with larger audiences. On his broadcasts, Savage said autism has no definitive medical diagnosis and usually involves children without fathers to tell them: "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life."

Jaime Schmitt said people are becoming more educated and aware of what autism actually is about. She said autism is a disability that must be diagnosed and treated.

"Quite frankly, Stephen's condition has been a critical factor in the way Jaime and I look at things," said Eric Schmitt. "It has given us a perspective that we would not otherwise have. And I think that to educate people about autism has become important to us.

"People need to know that this is not a behavioral issue," Schmitt added. "It's not a matter of discipline and it's not a behavioral issue. It's not the fault of the child or the parents when autistic children seem to act out in different settings."

Passing A Bill In 2010

Schmitt and other supporters of the autism insurance coverage mandate are optimistic. He explained that in 2009, the autism bill was voted out of the Senate by a 29-2 vote. However, it was bottled up in a House committee and never made it onto the floor for a vote.

According to Schmitt, insurance lobbyists can take credit for stopping progress on the bill in 2009. He said that doesn't have to happen in 2010, and he made that point with Gov. Jay Nixon after the 2009 session ended.

"The insurance industry has blocked autism from being covered in the past," said Schmitt. "They are a special interest group that has argued about costs, but I think the insurance industry is starting to take a new look at the reality of autism. Treatment is an investment that saves costs down the road.

"I did not mind standing with Gov. Nixon on this and to make the point that it should have been passed in the last session" added Schmitt. "For me, passing this bill is the right thing to do. And I don't care who gets the credit, whether it's a Democratic governor or a Republican legislature. It is a bill that will be good for all Missourians."

Jaime and Eric Schmitt are aware of the contentious debate over what causes autism, from vaccines to environmental factors to genetics. For now, they are focused on therapies and the wherewithal to cover needed diagnosis and treatment.

"Everybody and anybody should come to the rally on autism care on Sept. 20," said Schmitt. "I promise there will not be a lot of speech making. I promise," the state senator smiled.

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