New Jersey may soon join a growing list of states that require health insurers to cover treatment and screening for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

On Monday, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved the health-insurance bill in a 14-0-1 vote. The bill, which overwhelmingly passed the Assembly on May 21, heads to the full Senate for consideration tomorrow.

Since the Assembly vote, the governors of Connecticut, Colorado, and Nevada have signed similar measures. New Jersey would be the 14th state to expand coverage for those with autism; Pennsylvania's law goes into effect July 1.

There is no known cure for autism, a developmental disorder that manifests itself in repetitive motion and stunted communication and social-interaction skills.

The New Jersey bill would provide patients under 21 with insurance benefits of up to $36,000 a year for diagnostic services and behavioral early intervention, as well as occupational, physical, and speech therapy.

Critics of the bill noted Monday that the burden of the measure, estimated to cost between $6 million and $13 million annually, would fall on small businesses.

"We're concerned about the costs and the financing," said Wardell Sanders, president of the New Jersey Association of Health Plans. "The cost of this bill is shouldered by those least able to provide it."

Those in support of the legislation said that if not treated early, autism could lead to bigger, more expensive problems down the line.

Autism New Jersey's Clinical Director Suzanne Buchanan testified in support of the legislation, saying children with autism "need timely and comprehensive treatment."

"It's clearly necessary and should be covered by insurance," she said.

Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), one of the cosponsors of the bill, said Monday that "the committee should be applauded for recognizing this legislation as an incredibly sound and compassionate investment."

"The greatest cost would be the cost of doing nothing," he said.

Gov. Corzine will review the bill when it reaches his desk, his spokesman said yesterday.