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Digging deeper: Shortage of autism therapists in Wisconsin

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RIO (WKOW) -- Health officials say the number of children living with autism in the U.S. has been steadily growing in the past two decades, but parents and providers believe there aren't enough resources available to help them.

Cassie Paap's son Lucas was diagnosed with autism at around 18-months-old.

"In the beginning, he wasn't communicating at all besides crying, biting, pinching," she said. "He had no words to express how he felt or any way to communicate with us how he felt."

Early on, her family didn't know what to do to help him, so they asked for support themselves.

"I reached out to some friends I knew that had children with autism and I said, 'where do I start,'" Paap said.

Soon, she found there just aren't enough autism therapy providers to go around, especially serving rural areas like Rio, where they live.

"Those outlier communities, people just aren't aware that these services exist and so it's really about trying to get our word out that these kids need help," said Amanda Kaja.

Kaja is the area director for FamilyPath Autism Services in Madison. The service provider sets up teams of therapists to visit the homes of toddlers with autism.

"That one-on-one time, it really builds those relationships with those kids," Kaja said. "We're able to meet that child where they're at in their learning and adjust our teaching styles to accommodate their learning."

But it's been difficult to find enough therapists to travel southern Wisconsin and work with the kids in need of care.

It can be even harder for low-income families. The Waisman Center at UW-Madison tells 27 News state records show 46 of Wisconsin's 72 counties don't have behavioral treatment providers that accept Medicaid as a form of payment. Eleven of those counties, which are in far northern Wisconsin, don't have any autism therapists at all.

Experts say even in the counties with providers, they don't necessarily cover the entire area. Services can vary by distance and Medicaid doesn't cover travel for in-home therapies.

But FamilyPath has been able to make it work, visiting their clients' homes, without a waitlist. The organization serves about 100 kids with about 100 employees, based in offices in Madison, Milwaukee and Janesville.

"We're willing to come out to these kind of rural areas and help these families because they deserve services, too," Kaja told 27 News.

They're helping kids like Lucas.

When his family moved to Rio, in rural Columbia County, FamilyPath staff members said they'd make it work to keep visiting him, with a goal of twice a day, five days a week.

"At this point right now, he's so young that we don't know what his capabilities are, but he shows us that he is learning and then he's picking this stuff up," Cassie Paap said.

The therapy is gradually bringing results, helping a grateful family that's seeing progress in a boy now able to communicate in his own way.

"He'll actually look at me, which is actually ... it's a heart melting moment," Paap told 27 News.

Kaja says while they're able to help so many children, they are always looking for more therapists to fill shifts because there's a lot of turnover. FamilyPath works to train new people in autism therapy. They need candidates with a high school diploma and experience working with kids.

Click here for a list of job openings right now.

The American Psychiatric Association released a study last month, that found nearly every state in the US does not have enough autism therapists to meet the needs.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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