10/05/07 — Public schools respond to rise in autism

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Public schools respond to rise in autism

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 5, 2007 2:14 PM

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism over the last decade and with it, the need to provide specialized teachers, Wayne County Public Schools officials say.

The once-rare disorder is becoming more prevalent across the country.

Some experts believe heightened awareness is prompting parents to have their children tested. Others attribute the rise to the fact that the definition of the autism spectrum has expanded.

Autism encompasses a wide range of behaviors and learning abilities -- from nonverbal and non-communicative students to children who are very talkative and adapt comfortably to a regular classroom.

Since schools are required to provide an equal education to all students, and fewer parents are opting to place their children in private or specialized schools, public schools are having to keep pace with the burgeoning need.

"It's plain and simple -- every child is entitled to a free and appropriate education," said Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability and student services for Wayne County Public Schools. "Whatever needs a child comes with, we're charged with meeting those needs, and not just for autism."

Currently, the district serves 2,872 students categorized as "exceptional children," which range from developmentally delayed and emotionally handicapped to hearing impaired and severely/profoundly mentally handicapped. Of those, 158 students are classified as autistic.

That number has quadrupled over the last decade. In 1998, out of the 2,553 exceptional children, 43 were deemed autistic. That number jumped to 83 in 2003, to 127 in 2003 and has gradually risen since.

"One hundred fifty-eight is a lot of children, but when you look at a school system of 19,000, it's relatively low," McFadden said. "But it's still something we have to work with. They're held to the same accountability (test standards)."

Wayne County is not unlike other school districts faced with growing numbers of autistic children. The reason behind the growth is uncertain, whether the tests are more conclusive or there are simply more children affected, McFadden said.

Either way, the school system has a much higher case rate than it once did, he said.

"We have them in a wide range -- at Edgewood for the severely involved classrooms and then at other schools for the mild cases, including regular classrooms," he said.

Teachers have to be equipped to handle them, which means they must be certified in a specialized area and receive supplemental training.

Crystal Brock has been an exceptional children's teacher for 15 years, first in Pitt County, now at Carver Elementary in Mount Olive.

"When I started, we really didn't have a whole lot of autistic children," she said. "I would say probably in the last five or six years, you have heard more about the autism spectrum.

"I think we have gotten better at recognizing children that are on that spectrum, seeing that it's not just behavioral issues."

One challenge to overcome has been the stigma that accompanies being categorized as autistic, she said.

"Public perception is the very low-functioning, hand-slapping person. They don't think that an autistic person can look like us, act like us," she said. "They think more of an institutional type ... (but) they may look no different than us and just have different issues."

For parents of a child that may be autistic, wearing that label can be uncomfortable. At the same time, though, it can also come as a relief, Ms. Brock said.

"I think it is painful for the child, but it's almost protection for the child," she said.

"You have those children perceived as troublemakers. I think when we can give them the protection, that label a lot of time it opens up that child and probably lessens some of the pain for that child. Sometimes it's a stigma, but sometimes they can be understood, too."

While autism is a social disorder, intelligence can cover a wide range. Treat the behavior and oftentimes, teaching becomes easier, she said.

Because of her training in the field, Ms. Brock has a self-contained classroom and can at times be responsible for students from kindergarten through fifth grade, all at once.

For the most part, she has found parents and grandparents have been supportive of educators' efforts to work with their autistic child. Others, though, have at times challenged efforts.

"Sometimes it can be just lack of understanding -- people around them, the teachers, other kids," she said. "We strive to make (the child) as independent as possible. ... Our experience is in the school that they see what we're willing to do, and we really do have the child's best interest at heart."

Sometimes the problem lies in consistency between home and school.

"It's much more difficult for them to deal with the children at home than it is at school," she said. "At a staff development workshop years ago, we had parents comment on what they wanted us to know -- most said when (the child) got home how difficult it was."

For her part, Ms. Brock said she would want families to know how diligently educators work to accommodate special needs children.

"We collaborate with other teachers, other schools, try different techniques," she said. "They send us to training to update us, and not just teachers, assistants. I don't think (families) perceive how much time we invest in these children ... what investment we put in them to help them function outside of school.

"I think I do more sometimes for my autistic children outside of school than I do for other children, but it's because when the other children leave school they sometimes leave their disabilities behind and these autistic children don't ever really leave their disabilities behind."

Debbie Ogburn, principal at Carver Elementary, said the rise of children with autism prompted parents at the school to launch their own support group this year.

"Parents approached me and asked if I thought it would be a good idea, if I would support it," she said. "I said, 'absolutely' because I feel it's very important right now."

It is being run by family members, although Kathy Capen, an exceptional children's teacher at the school, will also assist.

"Part of what we're doing to extend parent support is seeing the need for awareness," Ms. Capen said.

Likewise, peer awareness is also important, she said. Last year the school received a grant to teach older grade levels about autism, to help them better understand classmates.