By Jason A. Smith
Efforts are underway in the Southern Crescent area, to help children and their families, who are affected by autism.
Ryan's Friends, Inc. (RFI), a non-profit corporation based in McDonough, recently launched its Benefits and Services Program for Henry, Clayton and Fayette counties. The program will award grants to families of autistic children, 18 and under, beginning with Henry, and later extending to Clayton and Fayette.
The organization was incorporated in January, and the grant program was developed in February, according to Leo Payne, president of RFI.
"Our mission is to provide benefits and services to families in the Southern Crescent, who have kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)," Payne said.
"The benefits and services of RFI include providing financial assistance for the evaluation, testing, education and treatment for persons suffering from an ASD."
Payne said the grants are based on need, and the availability of funds. Each grant application, he said, will go through a 30-60 day evaluation process before funds are awarded.
"We're evaluating grants now, but we have not approved any," he continued. "We expect, in the very near future, to have our first approval for a grant. There are some people who may need $50,000, to send their child to an autism center."
RFI is named for Ryan Kuhn, a Stockbridge 6-year-old, who was diagnosed with an ASD three years ago. Payne said RFI's ultimate goal is to generate enough funds to create an autism treatment center in the Southern Crescent -- most likely in Henry County.
"There are many therapies, treatments and 'cures' for ASD being promoted today," he said. "There have been some levels of success, but equal levels of failure. RFI cannot possibly provide all forms and levels of treatment for ASD. However, RFI will provide funding for certain treatments based on information contained in grant applications from ASD families."
Payne added that parents of autistic children often experience a negative impact on their finances, as well as the "shock" of discovering the diagnosis. National statistics also reveal an 80 percent divorce rate among parents of autistic children, he said.
"There's no silver bullet," said Payne. "There's no cure for autism. We'll help the financially stressed families first, because we have the means to ask for that. An autistic child will always be autistic. But, they can be high-functioning, productive members of society."
Payne acknowledged a rise in autism diagnoses in recent years, which he said can be attributed to a rise in awareness by parents and physicians, about its symptoms.
Michelle Law, who works as a parent mentor in the Special Education Department of Henry County Schools, said the presence of autism in a child can often result in financial hardships for the family. "Private insurance companies will limit, or refuse to cover, some of the therapeutic interventions that a child with autism may need," said Law. "Some children with autism are not covered by private insurance, or Medicaid."
Law commended RFI for the "valuable" service it provides, for families with autistic children. "They fill a very big gap in health care locally," she said.
Treatments for autism may include medication, psychiatric counseling, speech therapies and diet plans, according to a recent news release issued by RFI .
All applicants for RFI grants or scholarships, will have to submit an application and meet certain qualifications," the release states. "All applications must be in writing. No verbal applications will be accepted."