HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania has become the first state in the nation to receive the federal government's permission to spend federal Medicaid dollars on services that enable autistic adults to live more independently, Gov. Rendell said yesterday.

The state received approval earlier this month for a waiver from existing Medicaid rules to spend $20 million a year on home and community-based services for autistic adults.

Federal special-education law requires public schools to provide services for children with autism and other disabilities through age 21, but no similar entitlement has been available in Pennsylvania for adults with the disorder.

"Prior to the establishment of this waiver program, there was nothing designed for people with autism once they reached the age of 21," Rendell said in a statement.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have previously allowed states to spend Medicaid money on programs targeting autistic children, but not adults, spokeswoman Mary Kahn said.

Autism is a complex developmental disability usually not diagnosed in children until after age 3. It is characterized by repetitive behaviors and poor social interaction and communication skills.

Pennsylvania's waiver program is expected to serve up to 200 autistic adults who meet certain eligibility requirements based on income and on the severity of their disability. The Department of Public Welfare, which oversees programs for the disabled, has no statistics on how many adult Pennsylvanians have the disorder, spokeswoman Anne Bale said.

The federal money will help pay for a wide range of services, such as respite aid for relatives who care for autistic adults and crisis intervention, Bale said.

Advocates for the disabled said the waiver program would allow more autistic adults who need special assistance to avoid institutionalization.

"The whole idea is to give them a jump-start. It puts them in line for significant and speedy improvement and accommodation to the complexities of our society," said Daniel Torisky, president of the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and secretary of the society's state chapter.

The waiver was one of several recommendations made in 2004 by a statewide task force that examined ways to improve the coordination of autism services.