Families sue over discontinued autism therapy

Families with autistic children in eastern Los Angeles County have filed a class-action lawsuit against the nonprofit agency that provides them with state-funded services, alleging that it had illegally discontinued their therapy for the disorder.

The agency, the Eastern Los Angeles County Regional Center, informed more than 100 families late last summer that their children were losing the therapy -- known as the DIR model, or “developmental, individual difference, relationship-based” -- as a result of state budget cuts.

The therapy is the basis for a popular treatment known as Floortime, in which a therapist follows a child’s lead during play activities to build communication and social interaction skills.

Eliminating it “threatens to condemn our clients and this group of children to a bleak future under institutionalized care,” said Laura Faer, an attorney at the Public Counsel Law Center, which filed the suit Thursday on behalf of the families in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Last July, the state Legislature cut more than $300 million in services for the developmentally disabled, including experimental treatments, recreational activities and nonmedical therapies.

The Eastern Los Angeles Regional Center -- which oversees state-funded services for the developmentally disabled from Highland Park to La Mirada -- eliminated DIR because it “doesn’t meet the rigors of science,” said Gloria Wong, the executive director, who is named as a defendant in the suit.

Attorneys for the families said that DIR should not be considered experimental, because it has been reported to be “clinically effective,” and pointed out that none of the other 20 regional centers in the state had discontinued it.

Although there are no controlled scientific studies on DIR, the National Research Council concluded in 2001 that it had enough in common with other, proven methods that it could be considered a valid model for treating autism. Across the country, some public agencies and school districts have funded it; others have refused.

Wong estimated that the regional center was spending $4 million a year on the therapy.

The law allows any family to appeal the decision and maintain the service while waiting for an administrative law judge to issue a ruling.

Autism, a neurodevelopmental disorder that limits communication and social interaction, is being diagnosed at record rates.