Number of autistic children in Alabama's public schools growing rapidly; teachers lack training to deal with autism(November 30, 2008) B'ham News

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Alabama's public schools have seen such an enormous increase in the number of autistic children in the last two decades that educators are struggling to find ways to train teachers to deal with these students.

In 1991, just three students in Alabama's public schools were diagnosed with autism. During the 2007-08 school year, the number was 2,737, and that number is expected to continue to climb.

The diagnosis of autism has expanded so rapidly over the past two decades that only a small percentage of Alabama schools have programs dedicated to it. And in those that do, the programs sometimes are run by teachers with no formal training in the subject.

Even special education teachers lack proper training in how to deal with autistic children because few universities have courses in the field.

"The only research I know is what I've grabbed off the Internet," said Joel Smith, director of the autism program at Councill Elementary School in Birmingham. "People tell me I do a great job, but I don't think I do. I know these kids are intelligent and I would love to know how to unlock that potential, but I just don't have the training or research to do it."

When Smith took the job nearly two years ago, he knew nothing about the disorder, he admits. Anything he knows about it he taught himself, he said.

Autism spectrum is a complex neurological disorder that affects as many as 1 in 150 people, according to the Autism Society of America. Autistic children have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.

Nobody knows all the reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism. Clearly better identification and more diagnoses have swelled the ranks of children considered autistic. But the cause of autism is still not known.

Training for all teachers:

The majority of autistic students across the state are placed in general education classes but are enrolled in special education and have what is called an individualized education program, a specialized program provided to a child with a disability.

Teaching an autistic child can be extremely challenging, since there is no strategy that works the same way for each individual, autism experts say.

That's why proper training is so important, Smith said.

"One of the children in my caseload is in the general education program all day long and is a straight-A student. She will be a normal functioning adult," he said. "Another of my students is completely nonverbal and will probably be in a group home when he's an adult. So I have students from all over the spectrum."

Smith has been on the job two years and has six children in his class who have been diagnosed with autism and two more students who have all the signs of autism but have not been officially diagnosed.

Councill is one of two Birmingham city schools with autism programs. The other is Epic School.

The students respond well to Smith and he says the program is running smoothly, but he'd be the first in line if the state offered any training in the area.

The state Department of Education recognizes the need to train not just special education teachers, but all teachers, in dealing with autistic children and has come up with a low-cost way to educate teachers about how to help them. They began training teachers a few years ago, but say not enough educators were reached.

The state will begin training teachers through the state's distance learning program, allowing more teachers to be trained. Using distance learning technology - which will be in all Alabama's high schools by next fall - is an inexpensive way to address a problem when the state doesn't have money to start new programs, said state Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. Ward, who has a child with autism, is co-chairman of the Alabama Autism Task Force.

"Funding won't be an issue for this," he said.

Mabrey Whetstone, director of special education for the state Department of Education, said the training will be open to all teachers and will likely be a three-month course.

"We'll start with the basic 101 and then move into more intensive courses," he said. "I've contacted some national autism specialists and asked for distance learning modules. My plan is to try to find a distance learning program within a month so we can do a pilot program in the spring or summer that will be open to any teachers."

Early intervention:

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the number of children diagnosed with autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year.

Jennifer Sellers, assistant director of the Auburn University Autism Center, said the alarming growth rate will continue, and soon there will be a boom of autistic children in Alabama's high schools.

"Right now, I'd estimate that two-thirds of the children with autism are junior high and younger, so the high schools need to be prepared to deal with these students in a few years," she said. "Teachers do have to know what's going on and how to teach these kids or they'll end up with behavioral issues."

Sellers has a 16-year-old son with autism and said early intervention is key.

"Toddlers throw temper tantrums to get attention," she said. "As these kids get older and bigger, those temper tantrums get bigger and more aggressive. They can throw things, become aggressive and get up and run around, becoming disruptive."

Now when her son throws a tantrum, she said, it becomes a bigger issue because he is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds.


"If you don't know how to deal with these students, it can become very frustrating for the teacher and the student," she said.

Since half of autistic children develop either no or very little communication, Sellers said they are usually taught through pictures or technology. Autistic students should be taught in a highly structured environment, with work stations and visual supports, she said.

"Sadly, if a teacher doesn't know how to deal with an autistic student, he or she will give the child busy work to allow the teacher to teach the other 20 students in the class, but that is not necessarily learning," she said.

"In many places in rural Alabama, teachers may dismiss an autistic child as `Oh, he's just a geek,' or `that child is odd,' not knowing that child is on the spectrum. With proper training, teachers will be able to see that something is not right, and that can lead to an earlier diagnosis."

News staff writer