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New York City Council Oversight Hearing on FY24 Preliminary Budget

March 21, 2023
Lori Podvesker
In the Media, Testimony

We would like to thank the New York City Council’s Committees on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction, and the Committee on Health for jointly holding this important oversight hearing on the City’s FY2024 Preliminary Budget.  My name is Lori Podvesker, and I am the Director of Disability and Education Policy at INCLUDEnyc. For the last 40 years, INCLUDEnyc (formerly Resources for Children with Special Needs) has helped hundreds of thousands of NYC families navigate the complex special education service and support systems.

While we commend the City for all its continued efforts in supporting our City and residents to our new post-pandemic “normal,” we also testify today to urge the Council to maintain funding for the Autism Awareness Initiative. Many families with children on the autism spectrum were in high need prior to the pandemic. During the pandemic, those needs escalated. But unfortunately, families will always struggle with obtaining public and private supports and services for their children to make educational progress and live at home, based on systemic, social, and cultural barriers. 

However, these same children and families are still struggling right now and remain among the last group of people to have access to pre-pandemic supports and daily living, including quality special education programs and the delivery of special education services, and non-school related activities. This coupled with the current mental health crisis among, and severe staffing shortages within our schools and within the community, especially District 75 programs and Medicaid-funded disability-related activities, will further negatively impact this generation of New York children and young adults with developmental disabilities now and in the future. 

Families also desperately continue to need help navigating the eligibility and public service system for community-based waiver services for their family members from the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).  It is a very nuanced and complex process. And even more so for non-English speakers, and families who do not have access to technology, or the ability to communicate during traditional work hours. 

There are tens of thousands of children on the autism spectrum living in New York City under the age of 21. According to the New York City Department of Education’s November 2022 Special Education Report to the Council as per Local Law 27, there was an increase of more than 3,000 students classified with autism last school year than the school year before. Additionally, nearly 27,000 school-age students receiving special education support and services in the public school system, including 3,000 kindergarteners, are now classified with autism. The number of students classified with autism continues to increase by one to two percent each school year during the last five years, now equalling 14% of all school-age students with IEPs. There are thousands more under the age of 5 who are diagnosed with autism, and many more who are waiting to be evaluated and diagnosed or classified with autism. 

As per the most recent data provided to the Council from the NYC DOE (February 2022 School-age Special Education Report as per Local Law 27), more than 5,000 children with autism in self-contained classes, in which the majority of students classified with autism are programmatically recommended for, are not receiving any or all their mandated services. And more than 4,400 school-age English Language Learners students are classified with autism. 

Within the last year at INCLUDEnyc, we had more than a 40% increase in the number of calls we received from families with a loved one on the autism spectrum looking for information and help from us, and twice the number of calls in FY22 than prior to the pandemic.  We presented over 17 autism-focused workshops related to children under 5 which 500 people attended, and presented more than 30 workshops geared towards school-age students with autism with nearly 1100 attendees,  totaling more than 1600 parent, youth, and professional attendees in total. In addition, 740 New Yorkers in person attended our annual event in the South Bronx last June, Outdoors for Autism. 

Through our work, we are able to help families with children with autism:

  • Problem solve to access emergency behavior supports for their child and themselves
  • Connect to mental health resources and eligible public benefits such as SSI
  • Identify non-education in-person activities and programs
  • Understand citywide and school-based information  
  • Advocate for their child’s educational rights
  • Apply for home and community-based services through NY State’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities
  • Access child care and other forms of respite programs
  • Prepare for life after high school, including college, employment, adult services, and residential programs

We urge you to fully restore the Autism Awareness Initiative at $3.3 million. Without this funding, there are no other public service systems where families can get this kind of support. Thank you for taking the time today to consider this important matter. We look forward to partnering with you to improve equity and access for all young people with disabilities in New York City.