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Wanting to improve the care of people with autism, the University of Utah will develop an autism "one stop shop" for parents and professionals.

The Autism Resource Partnership is being created through a $450,000 grant from The Regence Foundation, of insurance company Regence BlueCross BlueShield in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The grant is the foundation's largest. Spread over three years, it will enable the U. to provide information and training for families and professionals and develop a website with information on evidence-based treatments, local resources, including support groups and therapy options, and ways to get involved in local research projects.

"The real thrust of this is to help us move towards creating a statewide network that would support constantly improving clinical services, education and research," said William McMahon, chairman of the U.'s psychiatry department.

He wants to improve the partnership the U. already has with the state departments of health, human services and education to gain a "full picture of autism." For example, the resource partnership could help broaden the reach of the U.'s various research projects on autism — from genetics, brain scans and prevalence to adult outcomes.

Considering 1 in 77 8-year-olds in Utah has autism, "it just screams out for an area of focus," said Robert Hatch, president of Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah.

"Anybody who is close to autism knows there are a lot more questions than there are answers," he said, noting that his niece's son has the disorder. "We want to start answering questions," including what causes it and how best to treat it.

Another question is whether insurance companies should cover autism behavior therapy. Attempts to mandate coverage in Utah were defeated in 2009 in part due to complaints by insurance companies. Hatch said his company covers medical treatments, including medication, psychiatric care and occupational and physical therapy.

Asked if the new partnership could lead to coverage of behavior therapy, he said, "As insurers, we are trying to help transform health care and we're looking for transformative work in the health care field. I don't know where that will take us."

Cheryl Smith, president of the Autism Council of Utah, said she is "thrilled" with any money that is available to help families who have children with autism. She expects to see more referrals to her group because of the efforts. "I'm excited to see health care step up and take a part in trying to find help for these families."

The grant-funded training will start next month: Teachers, counselors and others who work with autistic children can get trained on the program "Superheroes Social Skills." The course was developed by a U. educational psychology professor to help high-functioning children follow directions, take turns and have conversations.

In November, the partnership will host a public event about medication management.

The Regence Foundation started giving grants in 2008 to build healthier communities and to improve end-of-life care. It has given a total of $6 million.