State legislators work to pass Asperger's aid bill
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State legislators work to pass Asperger's aid bill

Michael Mosenkis and his parents spent the first ‘0 years of his life wondering what was wrong. With difficulty making friends, Michael was often the target of teasing and bullying in school. Bright and articulate, but unable to take social cues, he switched schools several times while Sharon and Dan Mosenkis searched desperately for some answers and guidance from child study teams, learning consultants, and therapists.

Finally, a visit to a new psychiatrist yielded a clue: Asperger’s Syndrome, the Mosenkises were told, a little-known and less-understood condition on the autism spectrum, could be responsible for their son’s problems.

Indeed, Asperger’s was not officially recognized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until the publication of the fourth edition of its "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" in 1994, long after untold numbers of child sufferers reached adulthood.

Thanks to a support group he has attended for the past half-dozen years run by the West Bergen Mental Healthcare in Ridgewood, Michael, who will turn 36 tomorrow, is one of the lucky ones. Although he lives at home with his parents in Fair Lawn, he holds a full-time job as a cashier for Ikea in Paramus. Many adults with Asperger’s either can’t find employment or hold jobs, a result of poor interview skills and social awkwardness, despite their often high aptitude and superb organizational talents. Michael, for example, is a graduate of the New York Institute of Technology, where he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance.

State Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-38th Dist.) knows this terrain intimately. She, too, said Voss, was "going nuts" for ‘0 years before she learned that her son, now 3’ and a maintenance worker for the Fort Lee Police Department, had Asperger’s. That’s why Voss has devoted the past three years to a bill she hopes is near passage by the state legislature making $300,000 available for the implementation of a pilot program for adults with Asperger’s. The bill, co-sponsored in the state Senate by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37th Dist.), who has facilitated an initial grant of $’0,000 to Jewish Family Service for limited programming this year, would enable the Department of Human Services to fund "an intensive treatment model to provide services in three domains: vocational, educational and social," said Dr. Jonathan Garfinkle, associate executive director of JFS in Teaneck who has been working with Voss. In addition to offering formal instruction in life/interpersonal skills and emotional awareness and self-advocacy, the program will have a component to raise awareness of the condition among potential employers, so that more adults with Asperger’s may have a chance to lead productive lives and become self-sufficient.

The community’s need for these services is overwhelming, said Garfinkle, who noted that on Asperger’s Syndrome Awareness Day, JFS drew more than ’00 people to the Jewish Center of Teaneck the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Weinberg, Voss, and Dr. Jeanne Marron, clinical director of Asperger’s Related Services at West Bergen and its Center for Children and Youth, spoke at that event.

Approved by the Assembly in June, the Senate version of the bill, S690, is wending its way through the committee process there. It is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Voss is concerned it may languish unless constituents raise their voices. "I told everyone who works with me to deluge [Appropriations Committee] chair Bernard Kenny (D-33rd Dist.)," said Voss. She is urging people to e-mail him at senkenny@njleg.org; write to his district office, ’35 Hudson St., Suite 1, Hoboken, NJ 07030, or fax him at (’01) 714-98’5. "When legislators get mail, they pay attention," she said.

Assuming the bill passes the Senate, it still must be signed by the governor to become law. "The governor has alluded to the fact that autism is a major problem we have to deal with, so I can’t imagine [Gov. Jon Corzine] wouldn’t be supportive of this," said Voss.

It’s estimated, said Garfinkle, that "five or six times as many people meet the criteria for Asperger’s as for classical autism. They are folks one might know of as eccentric, peculiar, or odd, but who are high-functioning and usually of very high intelligence."

Autism itself appears to be on the rise, with New Jersey recording the highest number of children on the autistic spectrum, according to recent federal studies Weinberg cited. She and Voss have, therefore, also teamed up to introduce seven new bills this week aimed at addressing this challenge. One piece of pending legislation, said Voss, would create a fund for research. "We don’t know whether [autism is] genetic, environmental, a reaction to vaccines [received in infancy], but nationwide one in 150 children is diagnosed with some form of autism." One goal of the legislation, she said, would be to make pediatricians and teachers more adept at spotting Asperger’s and other forms of autism so that those with the disorder and their families could be spared the painful years of uncertainty experienced by so many of today’s adults with Asperger’s.

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