To hear the Show Me Today interview with Dr. John Mantovani, click below.

Missouri has six autism centers and about 2,500 residents are diagnosed with autism each year at one of these centers.

A state commission is developing a roadmap to cover the lifespan of every Missourian living with autism. Dr. John Mantovani, who chairs the Missouri Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders, said the roadmap is a four-year focus.

Photo Credit: Office of Autism Services, 2022

“We anticipate having a roadmap that takes us through early years, identification, treatment, access to care across these different life periods and the transition to adulthood with the group of individuals who have very serious challenges regarding their behavior and the abilities of the individuals and their families, to function within their communities,” he said.

Missouri’s autism centers are in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, and Cape Girardeau – with new ones to come in southwest Missouri’s Springfield and Joplin. State funding of $10 million was designated to get the future centers off the ground.

“Each of those centers has its own slice of expertise, if you will. Some of us focus more on the early childhood aspects. Some of us focus more on the mental health challenges, which are very common. Some focus on intensifying relationships with existing school districts and partnering with school districts to provide in school therapies,” he said.

He also says early intervention is key.

“It’s easier to teach a two and a three and a four-year-old how to do things differently or encourage them and support them to do things differently than it would be for a 12 or 13 or 14-year-old. So we lose some biological opportunity and that’s a primary focus for us,” said Mantovani. “However, you’re not going to get to everybody early, and you’re not going to be able to move, even those children you get to very young, you’re not going to be able to move them all into a situation where they’re not going to need considerable support educationally, medically and otherwise. So while you’re focused on early recognition, early diagnosis and intense therapy, you’re also building treatment programs that are organized around family support, family education, in home services, coordination of programming, with schools, in terms of their ability to provide services and educational opportunities for the individuals. And so the ultimate goal, really, for anyone that we are working with who’s diagnosed with any disability, is to assist that individual to find the level of participation, functioning and satisfaction in their life that they choose and are able to. And so we work on the biology on the front end, but then we’ve got a universe of things to work on, in terms of the support and the adaptive sorts of processes that can help individuals learn to function.”

For years, there’s been a shortage in the number of healthcare workers in this field.

“For reasons that I don’t profess to have the full answer for, this field is not attracting the numbers of people that are needed. Now, that’s coupled with the fact that we need more, because more individuals are being diagnosed, more individuals are being identified. And so it’s an unhappy scenario, in which fewer people choose this line of work and more people need the sorts of supports and expertise that can be provided,” he said.

Mantovani touts Missouri’s investments in helping individuals with autism – setting it apart from most states.

“Missouri has led the way in providing resources to fund part of that responsibility to develop the diagnostics and be innovative in terms of therapies for individuals on the spectrum,” said Mantovani.

The commission has been around since 2008 and was active until about 2014. It was reactivated last year.

It is made up of people on the autism spectrum, parents of people with autism, healthcare professionals, educations, state leadership from the Departments of Mental Health, Health and Senior Services, Social Services and Commerce and Insurance.

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