It’s impossible to ignore the news – cases of autism are on the rise all over the country. One child in 150 has some form of autism, as compared to 4 or 5 children per 10,000 just a few years ago. With this influx of students with special needs into the public school system, are public schools keeping up with the special education challenges? Most parents report that special education has fallen far short of what the law has promised.
What the Law Requires
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires all public schools in every state to provide free and appropriate education for school-age children with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger’s. Public schools must prepare a list of instruction goals or specific skills, known as the child’s Individualized Education Program, to develop a program based on each child’s needs. But these programs are exceedingly expensive to fund, and many families cannot persuade their school districts to pay for it. For example, applied behavioral analysis, the most sought-after treatment for children with moderate autism, requires 30 to 40 hours of personal attention per week and can cost up to $60,000 per year for a single child.
Why Can’t Public Schools Keep Up?
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of children age 3 to 21 in federally supported programs for autism increased from 22,000 in the 1993-1994 school year to 223,000 in 2005-2006. At the same time, public schools have a shortage of more than 12,000 special education teachers, and the number is expected to grow. With so many students and so few teachers, the public school system often is unable to meet the needs of many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) like Asperger syndrome and autistic disorder.
Autism poses a challenge for schools because the disorder affects each person in different ways and to different degrees. For example, many children with autism don’t speak or interact at all, while children with milder forms like Asperger’s syndrome may be very talkative. Special needs classrooms may focus on academics rather than social skills when in reality, autistic children need the most help developing socially. Autistic support classrooms, on the other hand, tend to be segregated from the rest of the school and may be so focused on building social skills they forget a child’s academic abilities.
Even if services in school are adequate, most children with autism or Asperger’s require extra services to learn to apply what they learn in school to other settings. They learn one skill at a time (e.g., organizing their backpack) and need constant repetition and one-on-one instruction to retain the information and apply it to other situations. Often, children with autism spectrum disorders need supplemental support from speech, occupational, and behavioral therapists.
The National Research Council has noted that the ideal services for autistic children and those with Asperger’s don’t always match the reality of what most publicly funded education programs offer. Many schools argue they are complying with the law and providing appropriate services for children with ASD. But parents have a different definition of what adequate services means for their child. Across the country, parents have sued school districts that set up behavioral therapy programs for autistic students because the parents found developmental therapies to be more effective. When schools set up special autism classrooms, parents argue their children should be mainstreamed into a typical classroom rather than segregated.
Most school districts cannot provide adequate specialized services because the state and federal budget simply will not cover the high costs. According to Michael Ganz, author of Understanding Autism: From Basic Neuroscience to Treatment, it can cost about $3.2 million to take care of an autistic person over his or her lifetime. Caring for all people with autism and Asperger’s over their lifetimes costs an estimated $35 billion per year. Thus, district administrators are torn between parental demands, legal mandates, and limited financial resources in finding ways to educate students with autism.
Elements of an Effective Education Program
One of the few things experts agree on is that the sooner children with autism or Asperger’s get help, the more likely they are to succeed in developing communication skills. The National Research Council has determined that intensive early intervention makes a “clinically significant difference” for many children with autism. This makes education a top priority.
The National Institute of Mental Health suggests a list of questions parents can ask when planning for their child’s education:
Alternatives to Public School
For years, frustrated parents have chosen to educate their children with Asperger’s or other autism spectrum disorders outside of the public school system. For lack of better options, some parents home school and recruit occupational or behavioral therapists to provide in-home assistance a few hours a week. Others have enrolled their child in charter schools or private programs.
There are a number of academic and residential programs that specialize exclusively in educating and socializing children with autism spectrum disorders. For example, Talisman Academy (a semester-length academic program operated by Talisman) helps adolescents with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, and similar disorders fulfill their potential, even if they have struggled in more traditional environments. Talisman Academy focuses on improving social awareness and interaction, independence, and academic self-motivation. In small learning groups, students enjoy 1- to 2-week trips that immerse them in multi-sensory lessons in natural and cultural history, geography, and scientific exploration.
Over the course of a semester, students practice independent living skills and learn budgeting, scheduling, nutrition, healthy living, and personal responsibility within the context of focused social skills groups. With a knowledgeable staff, personalized attention, and plenty of structure, they excel in a learning environment that understands and supports their needs.
Every parent wants what is best for their child. Parents of children with autism or Asperger’s yearn for their children to gain the skills they need to go to college, get a job, and live an independent, fulfilling life. If public school is not meeting the needs of your child, residential programs and private schools may be a viable alternative.
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