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Autism awareness advocates have made great strides since April was declared Autism Awareness Month by the Autism Society more than 30 years ago.

Affecting one in every 68 children, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that often causes those affected to have difficulty with communication, social and emotional skills.

In Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has become a well-known champion for the cause, having first-hand experience — his daughter has been diagnosed with the disorder.

In 2012, Calley led Michigan in becoming the 30th state to enact autism insurance reform, requiring insurance coverage up to the age of 18 for Applied Behavior Analysis and speech and occupational therapy for children diagnosed with autism. This monumental step forward ensured our state’s children would have access to behavioral therapy known to dramatically increase their personal progress.

Calley also chairs the Michigan Special Education Reform Task Force, established just last year. Under Calley’s leadership, the task force is charged with recommending reforms to Michigan’s special education system to help children with special needs reach their full potential.

The group recently made 26 recommendations to address the well-being of students with a variety of special needs. The group’s recommendations covered topics ranging from limiting the use of seclusion and restraint on students to handling emergency situations, and reinstating an appeals process for special education complaints.

In autism spectrum disorder, as with other behavioral health issues, it is essential that we focus on full community inclusion of those with the disorder, and fostering self-determination. We know that early intervention improves outcomes, so it’s essential that we break down barriers to a diagnosis, including the stigma that many parents face on their child’s behalf.

If you think your child may be on the autism spectrum, ask your child’s doctor. You may need to make an appointment with a specialist — a developmental pediatrician, child neurologist or child psychologist. Reliable diagnoses of the disorder can be made before age two.

An autism spectrum diagnosis an important first step in the path toward leading a fulfilling life. It is up to each and every one of us to make that path forward achievable for our fellow Michiganians by advocating for autism awareness, and for behavioral health parity across the nation.

Robert Sheehan is chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards.

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