Educators adapt to increase in autistic students

Diagnoses of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have reached unprecedented highs across the nation, with one in 88 children to be diagnosed this year, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released on March 29. This has raised concerns and drawn attention to the needs of children and families living with ASD. While autism remains without a definitive cause or known cure, much of the focus at the individual level surrounds treatment, as well as schooling of children with an ASD. Robin Johnson, student success coordinator with the St. Marys Area School District, said just 10 years ago the district had zero students identified as autistic or having ASD. "This school year, we have 27 students identified as autistic," Johnson said. Johnson has been with the district for 10 years, having previously held positions as a teacher’s aide, alternative education teacher, and learning support teacher. Prior to her joining the district, she worked in the mental health field. In her tenure with SMASD, Johnson has witnessed the growing rates of autism firsthand and acknowledges that there have been changes as well as advancements in overall awareness of the subject within the academic community during that time period. But as the developmental disorders under the umbrella term "ASD" are characterized by a number of exhibited symptoms, including impaired social interactions; problems with verbal and nonverbal communication; and repetitive behaviors; or severely limited activities and interests, Johnson said there is an inherent difficulty educators face in identifying effective instruction methods for students with developmental disorders. "Training from our IU9 has helped with the district’s awareness. The main focus of change is that students’ communication skills with ASD are usually poor, and as a district we realize this is a barrier for learning. Most students have the cognitive abilities to learn, but it’s difficult to find the right strategy or supplemental aid to help the student communicate," Johnson said. Under the IDEA Act, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are required for any student with ASD. "While autism affects each child differently, most children with autism do not learn like typically developing children, by observing and imitating what they hear and see others say and do. Children with autism lack the internal mechanism by which typical children learn how to communicate, behave and play. Therefore, they must learn how to learn. As a result, the single most important intervention for a child with autism is a highly structured, specialized, intensive education plan," Johnson said. As Johnson explained it, the process by which an IEP is designed follows an evaluation in which a child is determined to have ASD and be in need of special education services. "The regulations are very specific about how school districts must conduct evaluations of children thought to have a disability. Evaluations must be conducted by a group of persons, called a multidisciplinary team. The multidisciplinary team includes parents and professionals such as the following: school psychologist, speech and language pathologist, occupational or physical therapist, medical specialists, classroom teachers, principals and/or supervisor of special education. The team decides if the student has a disability and is in need of specially designed instruction, and therefore is eligible for special education. Then an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) is developed by the IEP team. The team decides what are the best supports needed for the student to be successful in all aspects of learning," Johnson said. In addition, Johnson said special services, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, transportation and speech therapy are available, whereby the teacher integrates the sensory and behavioral needs within the daily classroom activities. Johnson refers to the "severalty" of ASD in identifying three main components concerning the education of children with a disorder as being communication, social skills, and behavioral interest.One aspect of the communication component, Johnson said, can involve students' delayed development of speech and nonverbal skills in relation to their cohorts and norms for their age groups. "They also have trouble understanding the meaning of spoken or written language. A child may take words exactly as they mean-- that is, he or she will have a very literal sense of language and won’t be able to understand jokes or sarcasm. He or she may also find it difficult to read body language and facial expressions. Older children may have an unusual use of language, and have difficulty starting or keeping up conversations," Johnson said. Johnson added that children with severe autism may be nonverbal, but can be prompted to communicate in other ways, such as through signing or using pictures.Johnson also said the social challenges associated with many forms of ASD manifest in a number of ways, some of which are not conducive to the educational setting. Pick up a copy of the Monday, April 16, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.