District 51 expands autism services
As diagnoses of autism have increased during the past couple decades, so have School District 51’s services for children with the disorder.
District 51 Special Education Coordinator Jan Blair said the district has gone from serving roughly 20 children with autism 10 years ago to between 160 and 180 today.
In that time, the district has organized an autism task force, gathered a team of local specialists to help teachers and kids understand autism, incorporated more information about autism into teacher training and introduced a full-day seminar on autism-related topics. The seminar debuted in November, and another will take place Oct. 16 at Two Rivers Convention Center.
The most recent addition to the district’s services is the Elementary Autism Program, which opened March 16 in cabins on the Tope Elementary School campus.
The program has two teachers, two instructional assistants and three students, but it can accommodate up to 10 students in kindergarten through fifth grade that need specialized attention.
The district used American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to open the elementary program, which is for students on the higher-needs end of the autism spectrum.
The spectrum, a commonly used term in the autism world, describes the wide variety of ways autism affects people.
“We had a teacher that said, ‘If you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one,’” Blair said.
Generalization is a near impossibility in providing services for children with autism. Blair said some children in the district with autism can attend classes in a general-education classroom all day with little to no monitoring. Other children, like those in the new elementary program, have little to no participation in a general- education classroom. Varying degrees of support exist between those extremes.
A child must receive an outside medical diagnosis or an education diagnosis from a school district team of specialists before receiving an education plan tailored to the needs of a student with autism.
Jill Frazier’s 16-year-old son attends some elective courses and science class in a general classroom and spends the rest of his day in a special-education room at West Middle School. Frazier said the school has been supportive of her son’s needs with autism, but she believes extra training for teachers couldn’t hurt.
“Autism is at epidemic proportions right now. School districts across the nation are scrambling to adapt to this,” Frazier said. “When a lot of teachers went through college, autism was one in 100,000. Now, depending on what you read, one in 150 or one in 90 children have autism.”
Frazier said parent involvement is important for making school an inviting place for students with autism. There were no support groups for parents when she moved to District 51 four years ago, so she started one, the Western Colorado Autism Network (WeCAN). It now has monthly father, mother and couples gatherings and a weekly coffee klatch.
The federal definition of autism is: “A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, which adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”
People with autism have varying levels of difficulty with interpersonal communication and social participation, but can also have adverse reactions to change, consistently repeat certain behaviors, have unusual responses to sensory activity, become preoccupied with certain parts of objects, have problems with cognition, or have delayed or unusual development of motor, sensory, learning or social skills, according to a manual written by District 51’s autism task force.
The task force meets every other month. The goal for this year is to complete a road map of services that students can use after being diagnosed with autism. It also will look for local gaps in service.