A $2.2 million federal grant aims to improve autism services in Maine by training 45 pediatricians, teachers, educators and other health professionals about autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, said the grant is great news because expanded services are “desperately” needed. One out of every 68 children is born with autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are about 10 years behind in Maine compared to the rest of the nation for services for children on the autism spectrum,” Mehnert said. She said her 13-year-old son is autistic, and when they moved from Pennsylvania to Maine four years ago, the contrast was stark. In Pennsylvania, there was an array of services for autistic children, but in Maine there’s not much available, she said.

“I was horrified at the lack of services in Maine,” Mehnert said. “There’s a huge waiting list for help, and many people go out of state for help.”

Dr. Matthew Siegel, director of developmental disorders at Maine Behavioral Healthcare, said the five-year, $2.2 million grant will be used to train professionals, with the idea that those new “autism leaders” will grow programs in doctor’s and therapy offices, schools and other places. Siegel said that 44 other states already have the federal grants in the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities program – known as LEND – and Maine is playing catch-up.

Siegel said autism patients need a wide variety of services, and the LEND grant will help grow and create new programs.

“If you have a child with autism, the child needs speech therapy, physical therapy, and sometimes help eating, and often they need help treating anxiety and depression,” Siegel said. “This population has needs that cross many disciplines.”

Siegel said he helped create an outpatient program at Maine Behavioral Healthcare, and within a year it maxed out on patients.

“Our new outpatient program is already bursting at the seams,” he said.

Siegel said the demand for services is strong and there are plans to expand the program from 250 patients to about 1,000 over the next few years.

The grant was awarded to Maine Behavioral Healthcare, the University of New England and Maine Medical Center.

Eileen Ricci, associate clinical professor at the University of New England, said the grant will eventually help ease long waiting lists for a number of services, including diagnostic screening. Ricci said while parents wait a year or longer for a diagnosis, children are missing out on needed services.

“The Maine LEND program will be instrumental in improving the quality of life for these children and their families,” Ricci said.

Ricci said she expects the grant will be renewed in five years, as other states have had LEND programs for decades.