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State of Autism Part 1: Tristan and Autumn 1 Year Later

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There have been significant strides in autism treatment in West Virginia over the last year, but there is a long road ahead for autistic children and the services needed to treat them.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed West Virginia's Autism Insurance Reform Law (HB 2693) April 2, 2012 at West Virginia University's Center for Excellence in Disabilities. It has a small Intensive Autism Service Delivery Clinic, which serves five children.

Tristan and Autumn Hinebaugh are twins who receive hours of one on one instruction at the clinic.

In 2012, their mother Tina described their behavior before they began treatment.

"Tristan had two words at two and a half. He didn't know, if we were getting ready to go somewhere, what a coat was, how to put it on, nothing," Tina said. "Autumn would sit in a corner and play with a string."

Now, the little boy who didn't even seem to notice there was a camera in the room can't keep his eyes or hands off of it while we record their session, and the little girl who seemed lost in her own world has found her words.

"Chip," Autumn said, receiving praise and a Dorito from Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Emily Harris.

"You said ‘chip' all by yourself!" Harris said, before repeating the exercise.

"They are doing better than I ever dreamed possible," Tina said.

Their progress comes after many hours a week of personalized, one on one treatment at the CED in Morgantown.

In another exercise, Tristan sets an iPad on the table. The camera is pointed back at Tristan and Chelsea, one of the several WVU students who work with the children at the CED.

"Where's Chelsea?" she asks, as Tristan makes faces into the camera.

"Where's Chelsea?" she asks again, before Tristan points to her image in the screen.

Autumn and Tristan are learning how to learn, how to socialize, and how to connect with other people. These are skills that don't naturally develop in children with autism.

"If my son falls on the playground, he can point to the body part that hurts," Tina said. "That wasn't there before."

The difference a year has made for these children is remarkable to the casual observer, but it means much more for their family.

"It's an amazing transition into a relationship with your child that didn't exist before," Tina explained.

This kind of therapy is part of the autism treatment now covered under the new law.

"We know from years of research, years of experience, that this kind of intervention can make a huge difference in the life of the child, to the point where some lose their diagnosis," said Dr. Susannah Poe, the director of the clinic.

The law provides up to $30,000 a year for necessary treatment of children for up to three years. After that, the benefit reduces to $2,000 a year until they are 18 years old. The child must be diagnosed before they turn 8 years old.

There are gaps in the coverage, though. Only businesses with more than 25 employees are compelled to offer the coverage, excluding self-insured companies. That means only 23 percent of children in West Virginia are covered by the new law.

That leaves almost 75 percent without access to the treatment Tristan and Autumn receive, or their results.

Our series continues Wednesday with more on the gaps in coverage, and what that means for the state of autism in West Virginia.