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EDITORIAL: A good start, but questions remain

Times Leader - 4/6/2019

April 06-- Apr. 6--For a variety of reasons, autism has become a complex scourge on our population.

These days, of course, it is more accurate to talk of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, a term that not only demonstrates the complexity of the problem but derives from the history of diagnoses as professionals worked through the medical maze autism's many manifestations creates.

Defining ASD as a spectrum -- rather than using the older system of having a single diagnosis of "autism," or even a fixed number of autism types-- almost certainly accounts for some of the rapid growth of diagnoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one of every 59 children in the United States is affected.

So it was encouraging last September when the AllOne Foundation -- forged in the merger of Blue Cross of NEPA an Highmark Health -- teamed with six other foundations and area universities and agencies to launch the "Autism Collaborative Centers of Excellence" (ACCE), promising to spend $7 million to improve services for those dealing with autism across 13 counties.

At the time, AllOne board chairman John Moses summed up how an effort like this, and indeed any philanthropic endeavor, gets done: "You have to be able to make one plus one equal three." His valid point: When united in a goal, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

The first big display of ACCE occurred Thursday with a ceremony at the University of Scranton -- one of the partners -- opening the project's "Executive Hub" in a campus building. It is intended to be at the virtual center of five hubs throughout the region working to create a comprehensive approach to diagnosing and treating ASD.

From the start, this has been a commendable idea, and it's good to see it take form. But it is just a start, and the proof will be in the outcomes for all those in the area dealing with ASD now and in the future.

That said, as the project unfolds there are two important factors AllOne and those involved should keep in mind.

First, so far the goals have been painted in broad terms, making the measurement of success fuzzy. At some point more concrete objectives should be made public, with solid yardsticks in measuring success. ASD, as noted, is complex, and the ACCE initiative deserves time to suss out those specs. But even in such a worthy cause, proof of value through hard numbers is wise.

Second, $7 million is a lot of money to spend on any health initiative, and this region has a many issues that could arguably merit similar attention. AllOne and the others involved have not given much in the way of justification for prioritizing ASD over other regional health problems. There is never enough money to address all those concerns, and because of its impact on childhood and on lives it is easy to accept ASD as worth the investment. But at some point ACCE backers should show how this focus is proving to be the best bang for those bucks.

Make no mistake, the ACCE initiative is worthwhile and deserves support. But if it aims, as Moses said Thursday, to become "a national model for scientifically sound innovation for providing ASD care," the project must keep in mind these broader concerns.


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