Like a lot of 11-year-olds, Austin Wright likes junk food. This handsome redhead munches on chips and squirms on the couch next to his mother, Sara Wright, while she talks about how she and her husband, Jerry, learned that Austin had autism. She says that by the time Austin was 3, his vocabulary was limited to a few words: dada, mama. Other kids were zooming past him developmentally.
Their pediatrician said Austin was just a slow learner, but his parents knew otherwise. A Boston area specialist saw him, and immediately recognized the signs. She told the Wrights that Austin had a form of autism, and that he needed special educational therapy right away.
There are more than half a million children in this country diagnosed with some degree of autism, and that number keeps on growing. Many of the most severe cases must be educated in private schools, and local public schools must pick up much of the tab. But now, many public schools are preparing to educate these kids themselves. The May Institute, a Boston-area research and education center for children with serious developmental delays, is helping them get ready.
Austin was admitted to the May Institute shortly after he was diagnosed.
"I visited some of the public schools," Sara Wright says. "What I saw, it was like they were being babysat then. They've come a long way in the public schools now."
While she talks, Austin claps his hands and squeals. But he's well behaved, and has learned a lot during his years at the May Institute. His parents say that when he gets together with his cousins, you can hardly tell he has autism. He runs and plays with the other kids, and loves to swim in the ocean. Oh, and he likes to sing the Motown hit, "My Girl."
The Challenge of Educating Children with Autism
Austin's education is very expensive. The May Institute receives an average of $75,000 per year for day students. It's easy to see why. In a classroom, teacher Christina Flynn is working with a boy named Matt. She teaches Matt basic skills through constant repetition.
"Show me Matt," she says, and when Matt correctly hands her his picture, he gets a high-five or a snack. They will repeat this exercise over and over until he has it down.
In a conference center down the hall from the school, lecturer Glen Dunlap is telling a group of teachers how they can work with autistic kids in their own classrooms, and save the expense of private schooling. They watch a classroom video in which a special education teacher struggles with a 9-year-old child who lets out a blood-curdling scream when he gets upset. The teacher tries to discipline the child by using traditional methods: giving him a time-out, removing privileges. The teachers watching the video laugh in sympathy as they watch the child completely ignore the teacher, and scream even louder.
As Dunlap explains, teachers need to take a scientific approach to the problem. They must team up with their colleagues and take copious notes on the child's behavior. When does he act out? What seems to cause the most disturbing behavior? After months of work, the child's teachers succeeded in reining in his behavior.
More Students with Autism in Public Schools
It takes a lot of work, but many public schools are managing to work with autistic children in mainstream classrooms, because they have to. In Newton, Mass., the number of autism cases in schools is "growing like wildfire," according to Jeffrey Young, the school superintendent.
"It's just an unbelievable explosion of kids," he says. "It's growing both in terms of number and severity."
To deal with this growth, Newton has ramped up special services, like a special-ed preschool that goes right through the summer. On the day I visit, a young boy named Alex is reading a children's book to a group of preschoolers.
"What kind of animal would you like to be?" Alex asks them all. Alex is now headed for middle school, and has been diagnosed with autism. His former teacher, Robin Fabiano, says that when Alex first came to her in second grade, he couldn't speak. But after years in a regular classroom, he has overcome his social problems, and speaks well. He still needs extra help. But when he recently graduated from elementary school, Alex was able to make a speech, and get through the ceremony on his own. That's exactly what his parents have been hoping he'd be able to do.
Autism: A Growing Challenge for Public Schools
Once viewed as a rare disorder, the diagnosis of autism is becoming increasingly prevalent in the general population.
Some experts believe heightened awareness has led more parents to have their children tested. Others point to the fact that the definition of autism has been evolving, and that children who would have once been considered "withdrawn" or "socially awkward" are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. There may also be an environmental component.
Right now, one out of every 150 children is believed to have some form of autism. Many experts believe that number may continue to rise.
Autism encompasses a very wide spectrum of behaviors and learning problems: Some children with autism are completely nonverbal, while on the other end of the spectrum, children with milder forms, such as Asperger's syndrome, may be very talkative. The variety of symptoms makes it particularly challenging for parents to recognize the problem, and for schools to help these kids learn.
There's agreement among experts on one recommendation: The sooner that children with autism get help, the more likely they are to develop at least some of the communication skills they need to get by in the world. "Typical" children can learn one skill—say, organizing their notebook—and then apply that skill to other situations. Many autistic kids, however, must learn each skill discretely, through painstaking repetition and one-on-one instruction. That's a big job for a busy public school to tackle.
Historically, many school systems have chosen to educate challenging children in private schools, believing public schools could not deal with their sometimes aggressive and unpredictable behavior. Private placement is very expensive, and also runs against the belief that students with autism can best learn social skills by staying in the classroom with their peers. Federal law also requires that schools provide the "least restrictive" environment for students. Faced with the rapid growth in autism spectrum diagnoses, many school districts are now trying to educate these kids themselves.