Bitter infighting among members of a state task force on autism has led to the cascading resignations of three of its chairs, causing it to cease operations and leaving a leadership void as Minnesota confronts a rising tide of the costly and disabling disorder.
After mediation failed to resolve the internal frictions, the Minnesota House voted this year to disband the 18-member Autism Spectrum Disorder Task Force. The Senate, however, refused — leaving the panel in a state of limbo with no chair and no meetings scheduled.
Although the task force has no budget or staff, the legislators who created it three years ago considered its work essential in preparing Minnesota to help the thousands of Minnesota children and young adults with autism, many of whom will need expensive therapy, education and training to live successfully with the condition.
“We can’t backslide,” said Sen. David Senjem, a Rochester Republican and task force member. “We worked way too hard to get that task force created.”
In an interview last week, Senjem vowed to get the task force back on track — with new members, if necessary.
“Autism is emerging as a near epidemic,” he said.
The share of Americans diagnosed with autism has grown more than 30-fold since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Minnesota has one of the highest reported rates in the country, with an estimated 11,000 to 20,000 children over age 2 having an autism diagnosis in 2010, according to the state Department of Health.
The disorder can manifest itself in a broad spectrum of symptoms, from mild to severely disabling, and the state spends millions of dollars annually on therapy and schooling just for school-aged children.
The task force, created by the Legislature in 2011, completed a statewide “strategic” plan in December 2012, which won high praise at the Capitol. But internal personality conflicts quickly became paralyzing.
Brad Trahan, a parent from Rochester, chaired the group until he resigned in June 2013, writing to House Speaker Paul Thissen that he could no longer tolerate what he called false allegations and complaints filed against him by Idil Abdull — the task force member who nominated him for the job.
Abdull, of Burnsville, founded the Somali American Autism Foundation. Both she and Trahan have children diagnosed with autism, and both have become tireless advocates for families affected by the disorder.
Abdull insists that she likes Trahan, but she challenged some of his actions as chairman. A prolific blogger, letter writer and e-mailer, she has compared him to Idi Amin, a despot who ruled Uganda in the 1970s.
Trahan said Abdull filed complaints against him with legislative leaders, the State Patrol, Capitol Security, the NAACP and the state attorney general’s office. He said nothing came of them. The law gave him no way to remove Abdull from the task force, he said, so he decided to resign because the conflict was disrupting its work.
But the rancor continued. Trahan’s replacement, Abbie Wells-Herzog, an autism specialist with the Department of Employment and Economic Development, resigned in January after just four months. Wells-Herzog, who is tending to an ill family member, referred a reporter to a department spokeswoman, who declined to comment.
Dawn Steigauf, a past president of the Autism Society of Minnesota and a longtime task force member, succeeded Wells-Herzog as chairwoman. She resigned in March. She said she was glad the task force completed the strategic plan, but declined to comment further.
When Steigauf ran for a spot on the Bloomington school board, Abdull blogged that she was biased against minorities because she had supported a bill requiring private insurers to cover expensive autism therapy — one of her principal complaints about Trahan as well.
In an interview, Abdull said she opposed the bill because it did nothing for poor children, many of whom are on Medicaid, and did not apply to self-insured health plans run by many large employers. “Every child should be on the same bus at the same time for the same thing — otherwise, we don’t approve it,” Abdull said.
Abdull also parted ways with her colleagues over a $300,000, grant application by the state Health Department to help pay for autism services. The task force voted to endorse the grant, and Trahan wrote a letter of support stipulating that the money should be distributed in a way that reaches “the underserved communities with the most disparities (Native American, Somali, Hmong, African-American, Rural, Hispanic).”
That failed to satisfy Abdull. “Unless you put a specific dollar sign, support could be $2,” she said. “I wanted specific dollars … going into minority-based organizations. They’re going to do the legwork of going into communities of color.”
The rancor has stung several other task force members, including Barb Dalbec, who manages the Health Department’s section for children with special needs. Abdull called her a “village idiot,” and has demanded that she be fired. Dalbec declined to comment, and a department spokesman said a complaint filed against Dalbec was closed without any disciplinary actions; records also show that Dalbec received a state award for leadership this year.
Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, joined the task force last year and brought in mediators to resolve the frictions. She abandoned the idea after three meetings. “It just became too dysfunctional,” she said, laying the problem on Abdull. “There were members [who] were tired of the accusations, the tactics being used.” Norton said she has taken to blocking e-mails from Abdull, which she called “quite harassing and counterproductive.”
Norton said the task force had largely completed its mandate, so she and Sen. Chris Eaton, another member, sponsored legislation to shut it down and assign state agencies to oversee the implementation plan.
“When the adults aren’t doing the work, and the work needs to be done for the kids, you find another way to get it done,” Norton said.
Now legislators are mulling the idea of creating an autism commission next year to replace the task force. In the meantime, Senjem said, he will do his best to support the task force’s work.
Abdull said she will continue her advocacy and sees no reason to change her tactics.
“I have news for them: My kid has autism. I’m not going anywhere,” she said.