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Funding for autism battle could come in '07

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 - The Bergen Record

President Bush on Tuesday signed into law the Combating Autism Act, authorizing a $1 billion effort to wipe out a devastating neurological condition.
The law calls for screening every child in America, $643 million for research, tens of millions of dollars more for public education and the presentation of an annual report to Congress.

In New Jersey -- where an estimated 12,000 to 18,000 people have the disorder -- the funding could be a boon for researchers and clinicians.

"The autism bill will provide additional funding opportunities in New Jersey for those who already study autism, and will hopefully encourage more scientists to enter the field," said James Millonig, a mouse geneticist whose research at Rutgers and the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey has made him one of the state's top autism experts. "These funds are essential for scientists to do their research, and only through this process will we begin to understand the biological basis of autism so that new therapies can be developed."

The one caveat is substantial: The president and Congress must appropriate the money.

Bush, in a statement issued after he signed the bill in the Oval Office, indicated he will not let the initiative go unfunded, saying "it will serve as an important foundation for our nation's efforts to find a cure for autism."

"For the millions of Americans whose lives are affected by autism, today is a day of hope," the president said. "The Combating Autism Act of 2006 will increase public awareness about this disorder and provide enhanced federal support for autism research and treatment." Rep. Steve Rothman, D-Fair Lawn, said funding could be available by fall 2007. "It was certainly a positive development that the president signed the bill," he said. "It is even more important that he send the Congress a budget request with the federal dollars included that are specifically earmarked for autism education and autism research."

Autism is a neurological condition that causes communication and social problems, often manifesting by age 3. Researchers aren't sure whether its roots are genetic, environmental or a combination. In recent years, a growing number of parents have suspected that a mercury-based preservative in childhood vaccinations was a cause. The federal government has said the evidence to support that theory was not conclusive.

Last year in New Jersey, the state Department of Education counted 7,400 students with autism. That was a thirtyfold increase over the 1991 figure. Four North Jersey counties combined account for almost a third of the cases: 2,150 in Bergen, Passaic, Morris and Hudson.

Right now, the state Governor's Council on Autism -- after several years of budget and administrative problems -- is distributing funds for one round of research grants and evaluating requests for another set of clinical studies. Together, those distributions will total about $10 million -- most of it from $1 surcharges on moving-vehicle violations, and all of it spent in-state.

The idea is for New Jersey researchers to build on the state-funded work and enter the running for multimillion-dollar federal grants, such as those available via the Combating Autism Act. Eventually, New Jersey could point to its homegrown scholarship as a reason to operate nationally recognized, government-funded clinics and research labs.

North Jersey parents affected by autism praised the bill, saying it was the first to benefit not only patients and their families, but also a public that increasingly must confront the disorder's effects, particularly higher costs for education and social services.

"It's a recognition that this disorder affects not only one in 166 individuals, but will be affecting the entire community," said Linda Walder Fiddle, whose Ridgewood foundation funds programs for autistic adults and adolescents. "If we don't try to find the etiology of autism, if we don't support education, then it's going to be a crisis for the entire society. We need to pay now, or pay more later."

Diane Lento of Oradell, whose 15-year-old daughter, Kate, has autism, said the president's attention will cause "a wonderful snowball effect."

"When Kate was diagnosed at a little over [age] 2, there was so little information, so little resources," Lento said. "Even those in the medical community trained to look at childhood disorders weren't sure what to do. Now, autism is finally getting the attention it so desperately needs. Many more good things are going to come as a result of this."