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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's Involvement with Autism

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The Denver Post's Eric Gorski reports on Interior Secretary and former U.S. Senator Ken Salazar's three-year-and-three-month-old granddaughter Mireya.

Mireya was diagnosed with autism at 2 years and 1 month old.

The warning signs came early:

"Until she was about 18 months old, Mireya developed like a typical child. She sat up, crawled, walked and babbled at all the expected times.

Then she started regressing.

The words slipped away. She started to hum."

Mireya has a penchant for lining blocks in order and configuring number puzzles. She refuses to eat a broken Cheerio. She can only fall asleep if every door in the house is closed; otherwise, she slams them shut. And one of the most noticeable signs: she rarely acknowledges, connects or responds to people. Gorski writers, "She can seem more interested in a pink balloon than in her father, more fascinated with a blank space in the distance than in 'Papa Ken'–her grandfather, Interior Secretary and former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar."

Early on, Salazar and his wife Hope became Mireya's foster parents, so that their daughter and Mireya's mother Andrea could complete college and work. Mireya's father, Nelson Rodriguez, 23, a graduate student at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, agreed with the decision, acknowledging the couple were not prepared for a relationship, much less a child.

The arrangement would also make Mireya eligible for Ken Salazar's health insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program, which has done little to help the Salazar's treatment plan for Mireya. Gorski writes, "DPS [Denver Public Schools] rejected the family's request to pay for Mireya's attendance at Firefly Autism, the expensive private treatment center; Ken Salazar's health insurance so far won't cover her therapy; and Mireya is on a long waiting list for a Medicaid waiver that would help pay the bills."

The Salazars found their treatment options in Washington lacking. Firefly's cost of 1-on-1 therapy and other advantages ran too high (from $13,600 a year for an after-school program to $66,900 for an intensive treatment program for older kids). The Salazars enrolled Mireya in the UC Davis MIND Institute's Early Start Denver Model.

Fighting for tuition reimbursement from school districts or coverage from insurers requires persistence. “You have to be relentless,” says Betty Lehman, executive director of the Autism Society of Colorado. “The school districts and insurance companies, they just bank on it . . . ‘Who would have time to fight us? Nobody.’ They know how to make you give up.”

The Salazars share their story to raise awareness of the disease and its challenges. “For the parents of a child with autism,” Ken Salazar says, “it's very easy to get lost.”

Read the full article.