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Experts: Prepare now for autism’s rising flood

As the number of school-age children diagnosed with autism continues to rise at an alarming rate, parents and special-education teachers are trying desperately to make school leaders aware of the often-overlooked education needs and costs associated with the condition.

Autism typically appears around age three and is a neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. While it is defined by a certain set of behaviors, it is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and to different extents. For unknown reasons, autism is four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.

Signs that a child might be autistic include a lack of or delay in spoken language, little or no eye contact, lack of interest in friendships, repeated motions or words, fixation on parts of objects, and lack of spontaneous or make-believe play.

The Autism Society of America (ASA) estimates that families could spend anywhere from $3.5 million to $5 million caring for a child with autism over the child’s lifetime. National costs, including research, educational spending, and insurance, reach nearly $90 billion each year.

Nationally, one out of every 150 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The federal government estimates that autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent each year and could affect 4 million Americans in the next decade.

“When you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism,” said Brenda Smith-Myles, ASA’s chief program officer. “No two children on the autism spectrum have the same needs.”

Given the explosive growth of the disorder, the fact that no two cases are alike, and the resulting strain this puts on education systems, experts are sounding an alarm and warning school stakeholders to prepare now for what could be a flood of challenges in the coming years.

There is no known single cause for autism, and the debate over potential causes has ignited a media firestorm. However, most people acknowledge that autism is caused by abnormalities in the brain’s structure or the way it functions. Researchers are investigating links between autism and genetics, environmental factors, and other medical problems.

But the increase in diagnoses is leaving some states bewildered and searching for a cost-effective way to support students with autism and those who educate them.

In August, ASA, along with the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), announced a series of professional competencies for those teaching students with ASD. The competencies are based on the latest autism research and form what ASA hopes will be the basis for national standards when it comes to course and program creation, as well as professional development for those who educate children with autism.

Connie Smith is the supervisor for special-education programs and services with Virginia’s Loudon County Public Schools. In that role, she oversees special-education training programs for teachers, as well as district mentoring programs.

The autism program that Smith oversees has grown rapidly: Last school year, Loudon County employed 43 autism teachers, and this year that number has jumped to 54.

Funds from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “don’t provide enough money to support special-education services,” Smith said. “The majority of our funds come from local and state resources.”

But Loudon County isn’t letting the lack of federal funding limit its goal to support students with autism.

“We do provide a comprehensive program, and funding is always an issue—we can always use more money—but I think we do pretty well with the resources we have,” Smith said.

Still, the county isn’t entirely unaffected by budget problems. Smith said the district has tried to maintain a 6-to-1 ratio of students to teachers in classrooms that have students with autism, along with two assistants, but because of a limited budget the county is forced to increase this ratio to the state cap of 8 to 1.

“One county focus is trying to provide services for students so they can be educated in the least restrictive setting, and access to the general curriculum is key,” Smith said. “In a self-contained program, no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to replicate the richness of a general program. That’s where we’ve been hurt the worst with reduced staffing—I don’t know if we’ll be able to provide as much support in the general setting as we can.”

Rosy McGuinness, an autism specialist with Loudon County Schools, said the challenges abound for students, parents, teachers, and districts.

Schools must find a balance between offering individualized, focused instruction, while also giving students with autism the chance to participate in an inclusive environment where they’re a part of the school community, McGuinness said.

Training teachers is also an essential part of classroom support for children with autism.

“We have to understand the nature of autism, its characteristics and challenges, and we help teachers understand that children [with autism] … lack the skills needed to manage themselves in certain situations,” McGuinness said.

Loudon County opened nine new classrooms specifically for students with autism this year, and the district is working to develop an autism program in every secondary school across the county.

Autism consulting teachers help classroom teachers with observations and on-site training, and McGuinness attends twice-monthly meetings of the Virginia Autism Council to develop competencies and training initiatives that she brings back to her district. Virginia hosts two meetings per year for autism specialists across the state.

Loudon County special-education teachers have five extra days built into their contracts for training, and once a month McGuinness meets with all the district’s autism teachers for short training sessions.

Ed Steinberg, the state director of special education for the Colorado Department of Education, said his state has seen a 600-percent increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism in the last six years.

And while the causes of autism are very controversial and highly debated, Steinberg said the condition itself and its skyrocketing diagnoses are very real phenomena.

One challenge schools face is the autism spectrum’s broad range.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all [approach],” Steinberg said. “Children with autism vary greatly in terms of their individual needs.”

But there are some common needs that Steinberg said Colorado makes every effort to meet, including intensive support from schools, a teacher specially trained in teaching children with autism, and additional services such as speech and language therapy.

No national standards exist to guide educators as they teach and support students with autism, and Steinberg said not all states have statewide standards.

“Given the deluge of students diagnosed within the autism spectrum over the last 10 years, states and schools are scrambling to make sense of this and come up with best-practice standards,” Steinberg said.

Educating future teachers is key as well, and Colorado’s challenge, Steinberg said, is making sure prospective teachers have enough coursework and experience to support students with autism.

“It’s an uphill battle, but the situation is certainly better now than it was five or six years ago,” he said.

Funding is still an issue for districts across the state, but Steinberg said districts have risen to the challenge and are carving money out of their budgets for ongoing staff development.

Most schools in Colorado have a centralized autism team that includes four or five people, such as teachers, speech pathologists, and other specialists who work with students. Districts across the nation are similar.

Federal IDEA funding covers about 18 percent of Colorado’s special-education costs, Steinberg said. The combination of state and federal funding reaches just 35 percent, leaving the burden on local districts to produce the remaining 65 percent of funding.

Another significant challenge districts can face is with high-functioning autistic students, who might be academically brilliant in certain subject areas but still have social and communicative barriers.

“The challenge for districts is in harnessing these students’ very high ability—almost genius ability in some cases—but at the same time, the students might have [trouble with] social interactions,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg offered four tips for schools as they try to support the growing number of students with autism and the educators who teach them.

1. Have a core district team of specially trained professionals who can jump right in at the first mention of an autism diagnosis.

2. The earlier a district can obtain a diagnostic evaluation of a student in the autism spectrum, the better, because the district will be able to better identify the unique needs of that student.

3. Early intervention is key. The earlier districts can begin working with a child with autism, the better the child’s prognosis for developing language and social skills.

4. Districts should engage parents and families of children with autism immediately, and each should treat the other as an equal partner. If parents can reinforce at home some of the work and methods that educators use with students in the classroom, it will benefit the student.

ASA’s Smith-Myles said students with autism, along with their schools, need several key supports.

Because each child with autism is different, each needs an individualized educational program. Ensuring that classrooms have adequately trained educators and professionals who understand autism is essential. And unfortunately, Smith-Myles said, there are too few university programs that focus on teaching students with autism.

Students with autism have diverse and complex needs, so a team approach is essential to ensuring that those needs are met. And the interventions that are designed for the classroom must match each child’s particular autism-related needs.

“We need training so that teachers know what those interventions are, we need modeling so that teachers can see what those practices look like, and we need coaching so that when the teachers try out these interventions and approaches, there’s someone there who has a degree of expertise and who is able to provide feedback,” Smith-Myles said.

But training and support can be a strain on already-tight school resources, and money that might be directed to helping students with autism takes away from other special-education programs that also are in need.

“Children with autism can succeed and do very well, or they can regress and not reach their potential, so the best intervention we have is education,” she said.


Autism Society of America

Virginia Autism Council

Colorado Department of Education

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