Q&A with Advocate Mirella Petersen

Mirella family shotFilmmakers, rock stars, chocolatiers, and deans. When you think Marriott School of Management, those words might not come to mind, but they should. During my five years with Marriott Alumni Magazine, I’ve interviewed a slew of alums with varying personal narratives and careers. And now I’m excited to add another profession to the have-featured list: advocates.

Mirella Petersen is bold, organized, and driven—the perfect combination for getting insurance reform passed in Utah. In the Summer 2014 issue, Petersen speaks candidly about caring for her family, volunteering with Autism Speaks, and having the courage to say something. You’ll want to read her full story, but here are a few tidbits that, due to space constraints, didn’t make it into the final piece.

MAM: Say you’re approaching someone, maybe a legislator, who doesn’t know what autism is. How do you educate him or her?

Mirella: In my mind advocacy boils down to education. I’d start by explaining that autism is a developmental disorder that affects people in varying degrees. What my son’s autism looks like is very different from what autism looks like in other individuals.

The goal of our advocacy is to provide access to the support needed so that these individuals can live independent, happy, and fulfilling lives. What we’ve seen is that approximately half of children who receive intensive applied behavioral analysis and intervention early on are able to achieve normal academic functioning commensurate with their peers. That’s a huge success rate. And the services are out there. What’s not available, in many cases, is insurance coverage for these types of treatments.

MAM: Tell me about the passage of SB57, Utah’s autism insurance reform bill. What does it mean for the state?

Mirella: Utah is the thirty-fifth state in the United States to recognize autism as a medical condition that needs to be treated, diagnosed, and covered under insurance policies. And that’s a big deal. Because more children will have access to treatment, more children will turn into adults who are able to hold jobs instead of living in long-term care facilities. It will also reduce the number of special needs services required by children with autism. It’s a very fiscally responsible way of providing necessary treatment while reducing the burden on tax payers.

MAM: What’s one of your most memorable experiences as an advocate?

Mirella: This past November I went to Washington, DC, for the Autism Speaks Law Summit and was able to meet with Senator Marco Rubio. This was significant for me because in 2008 Senator Rubio actively worked to pass legislation requiring coverage for diagnostic testing and treatment of autism in the state of Florida. In 2009 my son was born with autism, and his treatment was made possible because of that bill. I was personally able to thank Senator Rubio for the fact that my son can speak today. My son is in a mainstream classroom, excels in math, has friends, and is able to control his impulses because of that bill. It was a very emotional experience for me.

Mirella kids