Coping With Autism in New Jersey's Budget

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a budget that maintains spending for autism services -- but the reality is that other cuts will likely still affect these services.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a budget that maintains spending for autism services -- but the reality is that other cuts will likely still affect these services.

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pledged himself a supporter of autism services. "You have an advocate for your issues in the governor's office and I am that advocate," he told members of Autism NJ, a nonprofit that provides services for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders in New Jersey.

Christie, a rising star in the Republican party, has kept his word. Autism NJ saw its state funding slashed by $155,000 when the state's Fiscal Year 2011 budget was being debated last year. The original $655,000 contract was set at $500,000 and remains at that level in the governor's fiscal 2012 budget proposal announced yesterday.

"The restoration of the contract in near totality -- in tough fiscal times -- is a more compelling story," writes Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, in an email.

New Jersey: A Leader in Autism Services

Autism is a particularly tough issue for Christie. For reasons that are not clear, the state has one of the highest levels of autism in the U.S. The developmental disorder affects about 1 in 110 children, including my 4-year-old, who receives services through our local school district. New Jersey officials have set up such a strong system of autism services that some experts believe it encourages people to move to the state. Democrats in the Legislature, including former Speaker John Roberts, have taken a personal interest in the issue.

New Jersey has been at the forefront of the autism awareness movement for years. A 2001 government study in Brick Township found that the prevalence of autism was much higher than anyone expected, which may have helped increase awareness of the condition.

The Pain on the Road to Fiscal Recovery

Even so, Garden State residents who are dealing with the disorder must face fiscal realities. After all, Christie's $29.4 billion spending plan for fiscal 2012 proposes to cut overall state spending by 2.6%.

He called on state workers to contribute more toward their health care and benefits and preached a message of fiscal tough love. "At a time when New Jersey families remain among the highest-taxed in the nation and the climate for job growth remains tepid, the only responsible way to deal with the reality of depressed revenue levels is through fiscal restraint," he said.

Meanwhile, autism activists say that Christie has followed through on his promise to protect autism programs from cuts. Overall, he has maintained existing autism spending in his proposal: His budget actually increases funding for early-intervention efforts, which are designed to identify and help young children, and also spares the state's Division of Developmental Disabilities from major cuts, according to Statewide Parent Advocacy Network.

"In New Jersey, autism is a big deal," says Deborah Howlett, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton think tank that is often critical of the governor, in an interview. "It's a tough fiscal environment to keep that promise."

More Sacrifices Likely to Come

Of course, Christie's move last year to slash more than $1 billion from education aid did affect services to students with autism and other disabilities.

This year, the governor is proposing to increase aid to districts by an additional $250 million. But that "in no way" makes up for the money that was slashed in the previous spending plan, says Diana Autin, co-founder of Statewide Parent Advocacy Network. She adds that her organization also remains concerned that proposed cuts to Medicaid would make it more difficult for families to get the services that they need to care for their loved ones with autism.

But until states' economies improve, New Jersey -- along with many other states -- will likely continue to have to make tough choices. What happened in New Jersey is happening in states across the county as they try to balance their books under difficult economic conditions, says Peter Bell, executive vice president of Autism Speaks. Many programs are facing "significant" budget cuts, he says.

Note: This story has been updated with new information.