- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Pentagon on Thursday eased some concerns among military families worried that a new pilot program would interrupt treatment for their autistic children.

Some active-duty families had feared the 12-month program, which will begin Thursday to provide special behavioral treatment for autistic children, would be unwieldy for service members who change duty assignments. The program requires testing every six months.

For “any active-duty family member currently enrolled in the [extended care program], there is no change in their requirements on July 25. They can continue to get the same care under the same rules going forward,” Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, said during a conference call with reporters.

“For all of the existing programs, there is no plan to implement more rigorous requirements during the next year,” Dr. Woodson said. “We are apologetic to the autism community because we know there has been some controversy over the issue.”

The pilot program focuses on an intensive therapy for autism called applied behavioral analysis, or “ABA” treatment. It was mandated by the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act in order to study how ABA can be made available to military family members under Tricare, the military’s health care system.

Military family advocates say the Pentagon previously had issued eligibility restrictions for all members receiving ABA under Tricare, including active-duty family members, but buckled under pressure.

“It seems that Tricare has rethought the policy that it had announced previously,” said Karen Driscoll, associate director for government affairs and military relations for Autism Speaks, an advocacy group. “We think this is a positive step in the right direction, and we applaud their decision to rethink this.”

Ms. Driscoll, a military spouse with an autistic child, said that requirements announced last month would have restricted care for children over 16 years old and required stringent testing every six months for anyone receiving ABA, not just those under the pilot program.

Dr. Woodson said there are some 8,500 active-duty family members and 3,600 others who receive autism treatment under Tricare. In 2012, about 6,000 were receiving ABA treatment, he said.

Dr. Melissa G. Schultz, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic, said ABA has been around since the 1980s and has shown to be effective in changing behavior and mannerisms of those diagnosed with autism over time.

“ABA is the most widely acceptable behavioral treatment that is known to shape autism’s trajectory,” Dr. Schultz said.