President Barack Obama signed a three-year extension of the Combating Autism Act Friday, the very day the law — and many of the programs it established — was set to expire.

The reauthorization Obama signed calls for $231 million annually through 2014 to fund everything from autism research to prevalence tracking, education, early identification and intervention programs.

It’s virtually identical to the original law first enacted in 2006.

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Obama signed the bill during a closed-door gathering in the Oval Office surrounded by just eight others including representatives of disability organizations, family members of people with autism and the act’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., according to¬†Scott Badesch, president and COO of the Autism Society, who was at the event.

Without the president’s signature on Friday, the autism law would have expired, a move that would have jeopardized many of the research programs and other initiatives that the act provides for, supporters said.

“It’s very exciting that autism research will be able to continue without interruption,” said Peter Bell, executive vice president at Autism Speaks, which lobbied heavily for the bill. “This is a significant relief within the research community.”

Despite strong bipartisan support, the law’s fate remained uncertain as recent as early this week. A group of Republican senators had placed a hold on the measure, before abruptly agreeing to allow the bill to be voted on late Monday night just before the Senate left for a nearly week-long break.

Even among autism advocates, there were some misgivings about the reauthorization of the autism act from the start. Self-advocates with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network criticized the measure for failing to address the needs of adults and for allocating too little toward services for people currently living with the developmental disorder.

Supporters of the measure, however, argued that the legislation was realistic given the current political climate.

“There are a lot of things this community needs but this is a step forward in that it doesn’t allow the programs we’ve already made to lapse,” Alison Tepper-Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, told Disability Scoop when the bill was first introduced in May.

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