Equalizing Access To Autism Care In Georgia

May 2, 2016

One in 68 children are born with autism in the United States. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Georgia the rate is even higher.

Healthcare advocates say Georgia also has a big divide in access to autism care. Atlanta has long had an autism center. Now, a new Middle Georgia center seeks to provide needed care to those outside the big city. 

When the Autism Center at Navicent Health in Macon first opened, the goal was to help about a hundred families in the first year. Over the past six months, 731 families have flocked to the center for care. 

One of those families is 14-year-old Akeeth Godfrey and his dad James Burgess of Macon. 

Burgess said before they began coming to the center, he had tried to work with Akeeth at home. "We were trying to teach him how to read, understand his colors and help him get dressed and it’s been a rough road," said Burgess. 

Burgess decided to make that rough road smoother by moving from their home in Macon to Atlanta, which has the Marcus Autism Institute. But he says they would have given up much to do it. "I would have given up my job, family, and my other kids. But just to get the help Akeeth needs, we were willing to do that."

Akeeth Godfrey, center, 14, listens carefully during his therapy session at the Autism Center at Navicent Health. Before he was accepted to the new center, Akeeth and his family were dealing with his autism as best they could on their own.
Credit Grant Blankenship / GPB

The waiting list at Marcus is over a year long.

Before Burgess's plans to move the family were finalized, he heard about the new Navicent center in Macon. He’s been bringing Akeeth there for about a month and he said he has already seen improvement.

Natalie Rayburn’s 7-year-old son Alex also gets treatment at the new Autism Center. "No matter where your child is on the spectrum, the one commonality that any parent that has gotten the diagnosis can relate to is that moment that you realize that something is wrong with your child and the feelings that come with that are complicated, but the best one I can think of is just absolutely devastating," Rayburn said.

Devastating emotionally and, potentially, financially.

"What’s out there? Is it covered by insurance? That’s kind of what you think about when you start thinking about therapies," said Rayburn.

Autism care can cost a family about $60,000 a year on average, according to Autism Speaks, a research and advocacy organization. For many families, that’s money they simply don’t have.

The cost and the lack of resources – like a center close by – can cause delays in diagnosis, according to Tripp Ritchie. He’s the director of the Autism Center at Navicent Health. Ritchie said the average age for a child diagnosed in Atlanta is 4 years old. Outside of Atlanta, it’s more than 6 years old.

"Just because you are in a rural area doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have access to those intervention services," Ritchie said. "So what we’ve done is establish a diagnosis program that we can use to diagnose a child within five weeks."

By the time he was three, Alex Rayburn's parents began to suspect that he was on the autistic spectrum.
Credit Grant Blankenship / GPB

Ritchie says the unexpected high demand for services have meant making big changes to staff. "We’ve doubled our pediatric rehab staff to support that. We have the wait list down from two years to about a month for physical therapy, from 18 months to two months for speech and language therapy and no wait list for occupational therapy at this point."

Ritchie says the center figures to serve about 2,000 families by the end of the year. It’s also on track to opening a full telemedicine clinic that will support up to 300 families in rural areas in the next six months.

Support for Health, Education, and Poverty  reporting on GPB Macon comes from the Peyton Anderson Foundation.