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Autism Looms Larger on TV, but Industry Therapy Coverage Falls Short (Opinion)

“So, autism. That’s like the Rain Main savant thing, right?”

Thanks to television shows such as “Parenthood,” “Atypical,” “The A Word” and “The Good Doctor,” conversations about autism are less likely to start with this type of under-informed exchange. The wider public is finally gaining more nuanced insight into the condition that impacts 1 out of 68 children in the U.S. Temple Grandin is a national celebrity, while a few celebrities now publicly identify as autistic. This weekend, Jon Stewart gathers his most famous funny friends for the annual “Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs” benefit on HBO.

Autism as a front-and-center issue integrated into more TV shows is great news to me, since my 11 year-old son is on the spectrum. Our family cheers on this movement towards inclusion, since we knew so little about autism when he was diagnosed at the age of three. The “Parenthood” pilot in which Adam and Kristina Braverman receive their son Max’s Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis and begin muddling along into the specific experience of parenting a kid who lives with the intensely gray area that is high-functioning ASD was the first time a fictional family scenario on scripted TV closely mirrored my own.

But for many families in the entertainment industry affected by autism, there’s a stinging irony. Our WGA health care plan doesn’t cover most of our son’s therapies. Those who create the characters and stories that help spread autism awareness are themselves often denied essential funds to help treat this very condition, leaving the burden of extensive intervention costs largely on our shoulders.

Despite a more woke younger generation with regards to anti-bullying efforts and such, many struggling kids are left vulnerable. Funding for autism support services in most states is lacking, and to add fuel to the rage fire, children of color and kids in low-income earning families are less likely to be diagnosed and receive crucial early intervention.

We began working with a classroom shadow and enrolled our son in a social skills group soon after the diagnosis. My husband is a television writer and producer, so when the claims I filed to our WGA health insurance in hopes of receiving reimbursement for some of these services came back rejected, I was shocked. So much for hyper-conscious, progressive Hollywood, where I myself grew up overhearing my parents’ envious murmurings about those gold standard DGA and WGA health insurance plans. (As a self-employed freelance journalist, our family relies on my husband’s WGA coverage.)

California Senate Bill 946, California’s Autism Insurance Mandate initially passed in the state legislature in 2011 and implemented in 2012, helped nudge the needle forward to add autism services to behavioral health insurance coverage in California, including Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and other autism therapies. And yet the loopholes are many. The Writers’ Guild-Industry Health Fund is a “self-funded” entity, meaning it’s administered by a third party and therefore has discretion over what’s included in members’ Anthem Blue Cross plan.

We received a letter explaining the Fund “recognizes” SB 946, but the Health Fund Plan excludes ABA and other “Educational Therapy” treatments. File this discretionary decision under perfectly legal — and a deeply unfair policy that needs to be challenged. (Yet another item to add to the parents of special needs kids’ To Do lists, along with consulting with therapists, attorneys, and advocates.) When your own insurance plan falls short, the buck gets passed to overburdened public agencies, such as California Regional Center.

I’m not making noise here in hopes of throwing the WGA under the bus. We are a fiercely pro-union family, and never take for granted the gains the labor movement has fought for throughout history. Recent down-to-the-wire negotiations with the AMPTP revealed the Health Fund’s precarious solvency, too. But another lesson organized labor has proved consistently is that staying silent about an issue doesn’t lead to progress.

I’ll watch Jon Stewart’s show in hopes of some good laughs and another major heartstring tug, like Katy Perry’s “Firework” performance with the girl on the spectrum. But it’s harder to enjoy knowing our industry stops short of properly taking care of its own when it comes to autism.

The WGA did not respond to a request for comment on this column.

(Jessica Ritz is a freelance journalist. Her husband, Henry Alonso Myers, is a TV writer and producer.)

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