The LePage administration says it has found a way to provide educational programs for dozens of young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities who have been stuck on a growing waiting list for services.

The Department of Health and Human Services has shifted $250,000 from reserve accounts and non-essential services into a MaineCare program that provides occupational training and other programs to adults who are graduating from high school but are not yet able to work or live independently, said Jane Gallivan, director of adult disability services for the DHHS.

The funding will bring in about $500,000 in federal money and will support services for 45 adults around the state. Letters will be sent to those families this week, she said.

Also, $177,000 included in the pending state budget could help move an additional 20 adults off the waiting list this summer, Gallivan said.

Efforts to shorten the state’s waiting list have been under way for weeks in response to a directive from Gov. Paul LePage to DHHS staff during a meeting about the issue in late April.

“We really have been focusing on every dime that we have, any surplus we have in any area,” Gallivan said. “We’ve looked at what are the real critical core functions and we’ve looked at eliminating things that are not essential.”

Those efforts were noted in a May 15 front-page story in the Maine Sunday Telegram about the waiting list and the toll taken on the graduates who face an uncertain future and the parents who have to give up livelihoods to care for them at home. The media attention has intensified discussions about long-term solutions, Gallivan said.

“It certainly has gotten a lot of reaction. People are looking at other creative alternatives. It’s a challenging problem,” she said.

“This is very heart-wrenching for all of us when we hear the stories.”

Adults on waiting lists typically stay at home and can gradually lose the communication and other skills developed through years of special education. Their parents, some of whom appealed to the governor, frequently go through divorces and can end up needing public assistance to support their families.

There are nearly 296 young adults on the waiting list for day program funding, and another 400 are on a related waiting list for more extensive services, including residential care.

The waiting lists did not exist four years ago, but are now expected to keep growing as a wave of children with autism moves through the state’s public schools and overwhelms resources for adult services.

Autism, while rare 20 years ago, now affects an estimated one in 110 American eighth-graders. Autism is actually a spectrum of disorders that affect communication, reasoning and social skills in different ways and to different degrees.

Cathy Dionne, director of programming at the Autism Society of Maine, said the efforts to chip away at the state’s waiting lists are encouraging, especially given the state’s tight budget.

“People keep talking about cuts (to services), but autism is so much in the forefront right now,” she said. “This shows that the state wants to address that wait list, because they’ve got a huge burden coming their way.”

Richard Estabrook, the chief advocate in the DHHS, said the additional funding will clearly help the 65 adults and families who may soon receive services. But, he said, the long-term solution will take a lot more resources.

“It’s a major patch, but it’s a patch,” he said.

Debbie Bouchard of Arundel knows what the new funding will mean to the families who come off the waiting list.

Her son, 20-year-old David Bouchard, was featured in the Telegram article. Debbie Bouchard was dreading her son’s graduation next month because he would have no place to go but home and might lose all the progress made during years of special programs.

After the article was published, a reader who wanted to remain anonymous offered to pay for David Bouchard to attend a part-time adult program. “I was flabbergasted,” Debbie Bouchard said.

Then, before Debbie Bouchard and her husband could respond, the Morrison Center — where David Bouchard attends school — called last week to say it would be able to provide adult programs after her son’s graduation.

The school had been negotiating with the state for some time to provide adult services for David Bouchard, a longtime student and this year’s only graduate, and the arrangement was solidified last week, said Jim DeCamillis, Morrison Center’s executive director.

Debbie Bouchard said the unexpected news entirely changed her view of the future.

“I went from being absolutely terrified for David’s graduation to looking at it as a celebration, like every other parent,” she said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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