The number of children being diagnosed with autism is rapidly increasing. The incidence rate within the past few years has gone from one child in every 500, to one child in every 150, and now, according to the CDC, the incidence of kids on the autism spectrum is 1 in 88. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to explain the reason for the escalating number of children being diagnosed, but suffice it to say that the public schools are being called upon more and more frequently to provide services for these children. Sometimes schools can do a phenomenal job in addressing these children’s needs; sometimes not. In particular, meeting the needs of those students with higher functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome can be uniquely challenging because on the surface many of these children look “fine.” Yet, these children have challenges and need help.
School staff can be blinded by the sometimes high intellect or seemingly strong verbal skills some children with either Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism exhibit. Yet, these kids can be exceedingly puzzling. Seemingly competent students fall apart when their rigid adherence to routine is interrupted. Due to sensory overload, the student in AP physics might wind up under the table during a fire drill. Navigating gym classes, lunchrooms, and playgrounds—confusing even for some children without special needs--can be nightmares for children on the spectrum. Homework and class work are also stressors for these children. Some teachers will fault the child on the spectrum who fails to turn in his homework, loses it, or even more frustratingly, simply refuses to do it. After all, these are bright children who should really “know better.” Any and all of these scenarios can result in meltdowns for these children. In worst case scenarios some melt downs are so very badly managed by school staff that the child exits the school in handcuffs escorted by police. Other children will quietly slip under the radar and simply have their needs overlooked.
Yet some children may need to be placed in self-contained special education classrooms or schools. Ultimately, those students struggling the most may need therapeutic or residential placements. Some families give up on public schools entirely and enroll their child in virtual schools or even home school them. The overall challenge, however, is finding an environment that can support the child emotionally as well as meets his or her academic strengths or weaknesses. Yet, the number of students with autism educated in “other environments”; e.g., separate school, residential facility, homebound/hospital environment, correctional facility or parentally placed in private school; has also decreased from 16.9 to 10.5%.
Clearly, more and more demands are being placed on teachers and schools to provide services to these students. And unfortunately, educating these children is not cheap. Teachers, and where appropriate, paraprofessionals need specialized training. Speech therapists and social workers need to be able to deal with these children’s pragmatic language deficiencies to help them develop appropriate social skills. Occupational therapists need to provide children with sensory diets to help them manage their anxieties when sensory overloaded. Everyone needs to understand that each of these children is different. No two children with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism are exactly alike. Educating these children is not always easy, but it can be rewarding and it can be done.