ANDOVER — Rudy Hall was reading at a level several grades higher than his public elementary school classmates but struggling to adjust socially. By the second grade, his parents made the difficult decision to send him to a private school.
Looking back on the years after her eldest child was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, state Rep. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, called Rudy a "trailblazer."
"I don't think of myself that way," said Hall, who's now 20 and has his sights set on attending community college this summer. "There's been others."
Hall is right. He was one of thousands of children in the state born in the 1990s and diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Today, L'Italien said such disorders affect one in every 100 children born in Massachusetts and one in every 70 boys.
Now in her fourth term as the 18th District's representative, L'Italien has become a leading voice on Beacon Hill on issues related to disabilities and special education.
L'Italien celebrated a personal victory June 7. She and about 50 others gathered at the Statehouse for a ceremony in recognition a new law on autism that she helped pass.
The law calls for a 27-member commission to study autism spectrum disorders and the state services in place to assist individuals of all ages living with them.
L'Italien said the goal of the commission will be to work with parents and advocates to enhance services.
"This is all about sitting down and putting our heads together," said L'Italien. "I think better coordination and better training can make the difference ... and over the long-run can save the state money."
This is not the first time steps have been taken in Massachusetts to study autism spectrum disorders. In the summer of 2002, a provision was inserted into the state budget to form a commission charged with looking into Asperger's syndrome and high-functioning autism.
But L'Italien said former Gov. Mitt Romney never seated the commission. L'Italien filed a new bill in January 2009. It was signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick in April.
"Barbara has just been a tremendous advocate," said Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger's Association of New England. "This wouldn't have gotten as far if she wasn't in the Statehouse. That's for sure."
L'Italien helped form the Asperger's Association of New England before she was elected in 2002. Since then, with the spike in autism diagnoses in the last two decades gaining widespread publicity, Jekel said she feels the timing is now right for the study.
"There's much greater awareness," said Jekel. "I'm more hopeful that we'll have some movement."
L'Italien said she is "swamped" with requests from people who want to participate in the study. She expects commission members will be named over the summer.
Members will be appointed by the governor, Senate president and House speaker, and by the heads of 11 state departments and agencies, including the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
L'Italien said some state services might be enhanced simply through better communication.
"The agencies really don't talk to each other," said L'Italien. "Some of this is about efficiency and working together."
The law has no funding associated with it. But part of the commission's job will be to ensure the state receives as much federal money as possible.
L'Italien said other improvements might not cost money or will even save the state money.
The commission must report its findings to the Legislature in January.
L'Italien said she envisions the commission dividing into subgroups, with each one focusing on an age group or segment of the autism spectrum.
Just like the severity of their disorders, services for individuals on the spectrum vary greatly from employment and independent living training programs to intensive and specialized daily care.
"We need to look at the whole lifespan and address the different needs," said L'Italien.
L'Italien represents parts of Andover, Boxford, Georgetown, Haverhill, Methuen and North Andover. It is expected that she will run against either Republicans John Thorlin or James Lyons Jr. in November's state election.
A mother of four, L'Italien credits her deep understanding of the autism spectrum to her experiences raising Rudy with her husband, Kevin Hall.
"It's certainly not the only thing I do," said L'Italien, who serves as the vice chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "I think because of my personal circumstances, people see me as an expert on these issues. They really listen to me, I guess."
For that, Rudy, calls his mother a difference maker.
"It makes me happy," said Rudy. "It makes me very proud that she brings her knowledge from experience not only from me, but the other people she's met on the spectrum."