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The number of students identified with autism continues to rise, and St. Mary’s public schools are adapting to offer more support to children and their families, according to educators said.

Several upcoming activities are scheduled to bring information about the spectrum of disorders to the public in April, which is autism awareness month.

“I want it to be autism acceptance month. Our kids are different, and that’s OK,” parent Terri Griest said.

About 10 years ago diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder began to increase as developmental disabilities were better defined and doctors began to recognize the disorder. School systems around the country began putting support systems in place. Some worked and still are used today, while others were changed or abandoned.

“Nothing’s easy. This is a spectrum disorder. And it is a pervasive developmental disorder,” Griest said. “There’s no part of your life not touched by this.”

Griest heads the Autism Spectrum Support Group of Southern Maryland, formed a decade ago, that now serves more than 100 families. Its website offers forums for parents to discuss autism as well as resources to help understand the spectrum of disorders.

Autism spectrum disorder can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, those who work with people who are diagnosed with it say, but the effects can be mitigated for many with proper support, especially if introduced at an early age.

One early sign of autism is a delay in language, however, most children with language delays do not develop autism. In addition, children with autism often have problems socially interacting and communicating.

Boys are four times more likely to have an autism spectrum disorder than girls, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control.

The March, 2013 report shows as many as 1 in 50 school-aged children have some form of autism; that prevalence is up from 1 in 86 in 2007.

About 160 students currently have an educational label of autism in St. Mary’s public schools. That is less than 1 percent of the student population.

Some of those students receive their instruction in solely regular classrooms. Others are assigned to specialized classrooms geared to autism. There are two classrooms at the elementary level, two in middle schools and two in high schools in the county that offer support for children with autism who require greater levels of help

Even within those classes, which usually serve a handful of children, students often move in and out during the day, spending time with regular education students in physical education, art, music, or even English and math courses.

An overriding teaching element that is still used today is the idea that students with autism often learn best within regular education classes, school officials said.

“Our goal is always to have children in the least-restrictive environment,” said Melissa Charbonnet, executive director of special education and student services.

Parent Tracie Chandler of Callaway said she has seen more specialized teachers and other support staff added to schools during the last decade to help instruct children with autism.

“I have seen many improvements along the way,” she said. “I would say we still have a ways to go.”

Griest agreed, saying that more funding is needed so St. Mary’s schools can put in place programs to reach children with all levels of autism and better assist families.

For instance, she said she would like to see more services for what she calls “twice exceptional” children, meaning students who have autism or some other disability but who are also intellectually gifted.

There are currently children with autism in the elementary, middle and high school science, technology, engineering and mathematics academies, which are offered to academically advanced students.

Griest said she has heard of instances where parents have pulled their child out of public school because they are frustrated with the services provided to their autistic child. She acknowledged that happens everywhere, not just in St. Mary’s County.

“You just need to be able to reach them in a way they understand. They are reachable,” Griest said of students diagnosed with autism.

She said families new to the support group are often most worried about their child’s social skills. Children with autism are sometimes considered “eccentric,” she said, and are reliant on routines. They may react in what is considered a rude or inappropriate way when talking to other people.

Some are naturally drawn to computer sciences and technology, while others may favor the arts or music.

Some people with autism may need assistance their entire lives, while others go on to attend college and have successful careers, those who work with them say. There is no one hard and fast definition of how a person with autism will live and learn.

Griest’s son, who has autism, plans to graduate with his class in two years. At that point, he will no longer be covered by services provided by the school system, but would likely fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act like other adults with autism, she said.

Some students, based on their individualized education plans, can remain in public school until they turn 21 years old to receive services for autism and other disabilities.

Parents do have some say over what services their child receives, or does not receive, during individualized education plan meetings, Charbonnet said. The IEP meetings allow schools and parents to map out a child’s specific instructional needs.

Occasionally, but rarely, parents will decline any support from the school system for a child when told they show signs of autism, she said.

School employees in St. Mary’s will also go to a child’s home to extend the school-day instruction.

Lisa Dean, who is working toward becoming a certified behavioral analyst for the school system, currently works with as many as 10 families at home. She will help a child learn appropriate ways to interact in a store, how to adjust daily schedules or routines, or discuss ways to deal with disappointments when something doesn’t go the way it was planned.

Dean and her colleagues Carlton Sutton and Joe Schlereth, both certified behavioral analysts, help complete an autism support team at the school system with supervisor Debra Pearce and others.

The school system also employs 27 applied behavioral analyst providers who are assigned to specific students or schools to offer additional support. Most of those employees work with students who have autism.

The school system also has resource kits available for use by teachers or parents. The schools’ main website at www.smcps.org links to a number of autism services that are available for parents to use, free of charge, to help learn more about developmental disabilities.

The school systems’ Partners for Success Resource Center for Families and Schools periodically offers workshops for children with autism and their families.

Charbonnet and others said children with autism should always be thought of first and primarily as children.

jyeatman@somdnews.com