With autism spectrum disorders on the rise, schools need to be strategic about giving all students the chance to succeed.
In 2002, the centers for disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 150 children had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. That number today? One in 50.
It's not clear how much of the rise is due to actual increases in instances of autism, how much is due to better diagnostic tools, and how much is due—as some skeptics charge—to overdiagnosis.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain: Schools now have three times as many kids with autism diagnoses, all of whom require special services. Administrators who don't adequately address these needs will quickly find themselves engaged in legal battles with parents who are increasingly willing to fight for what they believe their children are entitled to. But more important, schools without good autism programs risk leaving a growing segment of their student population behind.
Follow these tips to ensure that your students on the spectrum have the opportunity to reach their potential.
1 | Treat Parents as Allies, Not Adversaries
"When I talk to parents, one of their issues is that principals and administrators and teachers need to recognize that the parent is the person who knows the most about that individual child," says Ellen Notbohm, author of Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew.
You won't always agree with all parents about the best educational program for their child, but it's important to give them a voice in the conversation. By listening to parents, you're not only laying the groundwork for an amicable relationship but also getting access to valuable information about things like doctors' assessments and behavior modifications that have worked at home.
Arthur Freiman, director of pupil personnel services for Bergenfield (NJ) Public Schools, says administrators can often find ways to address parents' concerns without deviating from what they think is best for students. For example, a mother may simply want an assurance that her son will spend at least part of the school day with his general-education peers.
"It's a matter of listening and figuring out what the parents want, and can you design the program to meet that," Freiman says.
2 | Don't Paint With a Wide Brush
"We're fond of saying, 'If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism,'Ã?Â?Ã?Â¢Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?Ã?Â?" says Notbohm.
Michael Borr, chairman of the executive committee of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts, echoes the sentiment. "You put a hundred of these kids in a room, and you're going to find a lot of common characteristics, but you're going to have trouble finding two alike."
The upshot: Don't assume that what works for one student with autism will work for all the others. Make sure the team working on each child's individualized educational program has that child in mind, rather than other children on the spectrum they've worked with in the past.
"It's a range," says Freiman. "What you have to look at are the behaviors and skill levels of the student."
3 | Create a Culture of Inclusion
School culture starts at the top, and teachers and even students will take their cues about how to treat kids with autism from you.
"If the principal is creating a culture of diversity, where all kids are served, then kids with autism are better served," says Notbohm. "If there's an attitude that kids with special needs are a resource suck and take away from quote-unquote regular kids, kids with autism aren't going to be well served."
A zero-tolerance bullying policy, Notbohm adds, is something that all schools must have in place. "It works," she says.
A culture of inclusion does not necessarily mean that all students with autism are in mainstream classes. For example, students in an early-childhood autism program obviously aren't going to take classes with older kids in an elementary school. But that doesn't mean they can't be included during recess, lunchtime, and school assemblies.
Sheila Wagner, assistant director of the Emory Autism Center at Emory University, says that while bullying is typically worse in middle school than in elementary and high school, it's important for school leaders to make sure students with autism feel included and supported by their peers at all grade levels. "It can make the difference between a tremendously successful program and a student being bullied so badly they drop out of school," Wagner explains.
4 | Alter, but Don't Lower, Expectations
"If there's a student who is trashing the classroom, and he doesn't have autism, he loses privileges. You assume they know better," says Wagner. "But when a student with this disorder has an infraction, or does something against the school rules, you can't assume they know better. They're acting out of confusion, out of fear, out of anxiety."
Punishing kids with autism the same way you punish other kids isn't just unfair, Wagner says—it's unlikely to work. If a student with autism is sent to the principal's office or suspended, she explains, that student may welcome the break from a classroom environment that can be confusing and overwhelming.
That doesn't mean you should lower your expectations for students with autism spectrum disorders. Rather, you should try to accommodate their special needs and reach them in the ways they learn best. "For so long, I think we set the bar way too low for students with autism," Wagner says. "When we set the bar high and aim for that bar, these are students who can achieve that."
In Madison, Wisconsin, accommodations include giving kids with autism outlets for their energy and using assistive technology like iPad apps to provide them with a visual indicator of the day's schedule. "We have classrooms where several students may be sitting on bouncy balls," says John Harper, the district's executive director of educational services. "They can walk around, bounce on the ball, or sometimes take a break, then come back and reengage with their peers."
Lisa Goring, vice president of family services at Autism Speaks, says some students with autism spectrum disorders might not be able to demonstrate knowledge in the same way as their peers, even when they have mastered the content. She gives the example of a child who could name only two or three state capitals out loud. "It turned out, if you gave the child a map and the labels, he actually knew all of them," Goring says. "He just wasn't able to verbalize it."
5 | Invest Early
Lisa Bishop, parent of a 5-year-old with autism in Lynn, Massachusetts, says that two years of intensive early education has worked wonders for her son, and he'll be in mainstream classes for kindergarten this year.
"Because he got all his needs met so young, now they're able to integrate him," Bishop says. "If school systems will take the time when they're younger, you'll have better outcomes. You'll save money in the long run."
Goring agrees that early interventions can lead to significant progress, but she cautions that "it's not a guarantee. Sometimes teachers and kids work really hard, and they don't make as many gains as others."
6 | Utilize External Resources
"There are a tremendous amount of resources in the community today that weren't there before that [districts] need to take advantage of, and I'm not sure they're doing it," says Borr, of the Massachusetts advocacy group.
Staff from Borr's organization have gone into schools to train teachers, and the state has several autism centers that can help schools connect families to parent support groups and weekend and after-school programming. But, Borr says, "it's been a struggle to get the school systems to take advantage of what's there."
Goring notes that Autism Speaks has developed a "School Community Tool Kit" that provides autism information tailored to everybody from lunch aides to custodians. The handout for bus drivers, for example, warns that students with autism may get anxious if there's a change to the bus route.
7 | Give Support, but Don't Coddle
"Probably the biggest mistake i see in schools is to dump the student into a general education class with no support, no training of the teachers," says Wagner. "They're just expected to sink or swim, and too often they sink."
At the same time, Wagner says, she thinks students should be allowed to operate independently when they're able. If a student requires the services of a paraprofessional for only part of the school day, for example, she says it's a mistake to provide those services during other parts of the day, because the student may become over-reliant on the assistance.
"By the time they graduate from high school, nobody is going to be glued to their side," Wagner says. "They've got to be independent and ready to roll."