Preliminary settlement reached in autism lawsuit

Families of children with autism in eastern Los Angeles County appear to have prevailed in a fight to maintain state funding for a popular therapy for the disorder.

More than 2,200 families received notice this week of a preliminary settlement in a class-action lawsuit that, if approved by a judge, would force the Eastern Los Angeles County Regional Center to continue to provide the treatment, known as the DIR model (for “developmental, individual difference, relationship-based”).

DIR is the basis for Floortime, a popular method in which a therapist follows a child’s lead during play activities to develop communication and social skills.

Last year, the regional center — one of 21 nonprofits throughout the state that administer state money for people with developmental disabilities — informed more than 100 families whose children were receiving DIR that it would no longer pay for the therapy. That prompted the Public Counsel Law Center to file a class-action suit.

At the time, Gloria Wong, the executive director of the regional center, said she was simply enforcing a mandate from the state Legislature to stop paying for experimental and non-medical treatments — part of a broad effort to cut more than $300 million from the state budget for people with developmental disabilities.

DIR has not been tested with controlled scientific studies, but experts testified it is supported by decades of clinical experience. Other regional centers pay for DIR.

The Eastern Los Angeles County Regional Center could end up having to provide the treatment to more people than ever. As part of the settlement, families whose autistic children had never received the treatment were among those notified this week that they too may be eligible for it.

Lawyers in the case said they expect the judge to give final approval to the settlement in September.