With autism on the rise in California, state leaders are turning to Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities, to co-chair a statewide task force to spur the fair distribution of services to diverse communities in California.
In appointing Aguilar-Gaxiola, state Sen. Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, noted that disparities exist in providing autism-related services to communities that are disadvantaged and to Latino and African American communities.
Aguilar-Gaxiola, who recently unveiled a UC Davis Center study on the inequitable availability of mental health services in Latino communities, said, "The ultimate goal is to improve the lives of children suffering from autism and related developmental disorders and their families."
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social relating and language, and by the presence of repetitive behaviors, typically emerging before the age of 2.
In California, individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities are eligible for state-sponsored services through 21 regional centers, which provide services to people with disabilities that occurred before their 18th birthday including those with autism, intellectual disability, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
New figures from the California Department of Education indicate that more than one of every 100 local students have autism, a rate that has more than tripled during the last decade.
About 3,830 students in the four-county Sacramento area were autistic in December 2011, up by 450, or 13 percent, from 2010.
The rise occurred even as total enrollment in the region stayed flat.
Statewide, the number of autistic students rose by 6,000 individuals, or 9 percent, to almost 72,000. The services the centers provide for autistic individuals include assessment and diagnosis, counseling, genetic counseling, early intervention services, and the purchase of direct services in the form of individual program plans.
The individualized program plans outline the types of services that individuals are eligible to receive.
Steinberg appointed the committee following testimony on April 30 before the Senate Select Committee on Autism & Related Disorders. The testimony revealed disturbing details of inadequate services in underserved communities, Steinberg noted.
Aguilar-Gaxiola is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Autism Speaks, one of the nation's leading autism advocacy and research organizations.
He will co-lead the task force with Areva Martin, an autism advocate and co-founder of the nonprofit Special Needs Network.
The UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities that Aguilar-Gaxiola heads provides research and support to promote the health and well-being of ethnically diverse populations.