Autism Help Effective But Unfair?

carmen deflorio, autistic child
New therapies are making big strides in the battle against autism.

But with more children being diagnosed with the disability every year, many schools are in a squeeze, balancing the high cost of special education.

CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports that 5-year-old Carmine DiFlorio, by all appearances, is a typical energetic preschooler.

But three years ago, he was a very different little boy.

His mother Carol Migliaccio says, "You would scream at him and he wouldn’t respond at all, you know, you could yell his name and he would just be staring at the T.V."

Carmine was diagnosed with autism -- a complex developmental disability.

His mother feared that like many autistic children, Carmine would forever live in his own separate world.

What made the difference was that Carmine’s parents pushed him into an early intervention program like the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center in New Brunswick, N.J.

The center's Sandra Harris says: "Probably about half of the children we work with make really, really substantial gains… and when I compare the outcome for children today with the outcome 30 years ago, there is simply no comparison. Thirty years ago all of these children would have been destined for the backwoods of institutions."

Carmine was fortunate to live in a state that has a handful of stellar autism schools.

Harris says: "I think parents of autism are desperate to find services for their children… The problem is that there are many parts of the country that have not yet developed adequate services."

Many parents of autistic children have begun a ‘great migration’ to states like New Jersey.

But programs cost as much as $60,000 a year per student, and it’s up to local school districts to pick up most of the tab.

Terry Rosenfeld, of Lawrence Township Public Schools in Lawrenceville, N.J., says, "If several of these students move into the district this is a large financial impact on the total program, and since this is a federally mandated program we are responsible for paying for them."

Terry Rosenfeld’s school district has eight autistic children, one family even moved from India to enrol.

The influx of autistic children is forcing the district to make tough choices.

Rosenfeld says: "We’re in a quandary because we have to divide limited financial resources among all the children in the school district so that everybody gets an appropriate education… The problem arises when those resources are limited and you have children who have serious needs and the autistic child has serious needs."

Seven-year-old Connor McCarthy is one of autism’s success stories.

Following three years in an intensive early intervention program, he was mainstreamed into a regular kindergarten class -- greatly reducing what could have been a lifetime burden of special needs.

His father Mike unerstands that education dollars are tight. But he also believes his son shouldn’t be denied a shot at a normal life.

McCarthy says: "The concept of my kid’s never going to talk because your kid needs a computer in the classroom -- that doesn’t fly with me. I think the chance of recovery is more important than that."

Connor's mother Cathy says: "We still pay for our own therapy, outside of school. We still make sure he gets speech therapy when he needs it. We still work on programs at home so that we can eliminate those last things."

Carmine DiFlorio is making tremendous strides too. For his mother, is hard to put a price tag on her son’s progress.

She says, "It is a lot of money, but I feel like it is an investment, you’re investing into a child’s life… He’s mainstreaming into regular kindergarten… and hopefully, God willing, he’s going to be able to fly right along and not need any more help."

The New Jersey Department of Education has proposd a $300 million increase for autism programs, which currently must turn away 95 out of 100 applicants.