Parents, educators and professionals well-versed in autism spectrum disorders repeat the same mantra: If you meet one person with autism, you have only met one person with autism.
Developmental disabilities identified on the autism spectrum come with a wide array of symptoms, behaviors, challenges and strengths, explained Autism Delaware Executive Director Teresa Avery, as well as the need for a greater understanding of the individuals and families affected.
While each case is completely unique, the Milford School District has planned a webinar session for staff with Barbara Boroson, an autism educator and parent of a child on the autism spectrum, to expand the knowledge of district educators concerning autism spectrum disorders. The district originally planned to host Boroson for a public workshop Thursday night, but due to inclement weather, the workshop will be rescheduled for a later date.
Since 1991, the identified cases of autism have increased by 695 percent in Delaware, which is slightly higher than the national increase of 600 percent over a 20-year period. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately one out of 88 children are now identified on the autism spectrum, with boys being five times more likely to be identified.
“Autism is on the rise incredibly and … if you don’t know someone with autism now, the way it’s increasing, the likelihood is that you will,” Avery explained. “It’s not about the label, it’s about the person and what their individual needs and capabilities are.”
Avery also pointed out that there are a lot of “Nos” in autism. There are no known causes, no medical or blood tests available and no cure, and the developmental disability affects each person uniquely, she said.
And as those numbers rise, the Milford School District is also seeing an increase in the population of students identified on the autism spectrum, according to a report presented to the Milford school board last month by special education director Laura Mange. In the past four years, the district has seen more than a 200-percent increase, with 11 students identified districtwide in 2009, to 24 students in 2013.
The district is working with limited resources and staffing to help with the identification of students, as well as to develop Individualized Education Plans to ensure that students can succeed in their classrooms, as determined by their individual needs and strengths.
While there are additional resources, like Delaware Autism Program locations in Kent and Sussex counties that serve a continuum of programming for students on the autism spectrum, Manges said her goal is to continue to serve all students in their home district.
“Everyone in the district can stay at the home school and it’s our responsibility to work out a plan to serve them,” Manges said. “Everyone has a right to what everyone else has. If these students and the wishes of their families is to be served in their home district, that’s what I want to do.”
Page 2 of 2 - While there are only four teachers within the district holding autism certification, Manges said the district works closely with former schools, educators, parents, caregivers and DAP to serve children in the least restrictive environment as possible. The district also has a psychologist and educational diagnostician at Morris Early Childhood Center to administer the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, an assessment that helps recognize students on the autism spectrum.
“It’s a national trend that we’re identifying more and more people on the spectrum of autism,” Manges said. “Now that they are staying and being served in their home schools, we have to figure out how to serve them 12 months of the year. It is kind of about staffing, but really more about educating everyone because these children require so much more support.”
As the district works to accommodate a growing population of students on the autism spectrum, some parents of identified children have seen progress, even in classrooms with teachers who do not hold autism certification.
Jennifer Cinnelli Miller said her third-grade daughter, Liberty Miller, has seen the most success this year at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School, as she attends regular classes with a one-on-one paraprofessional. Miller said her decision to keep her daughter in the home district is based on the individual needs of her child, and said being a part of the Milford community is an important part of Liberty’s educational experience.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I want my child raised in this village,” Miller said. That’s always been by mantra.
“My child is in a fully included classroom and I know there were probably some concerns in the beginning, but once I talked to the kids, a lot of the parents felt better and knew they could reach me at any time,” Miller added. “It’s just a matter of really educating the general population about what inclusion is.”
Miller said that while the district may be limited with funding and staffing, she believes the Milford School District is doing the best it can with what’s available.
“I think we can do better, but it requires more,” she said. “It’s very challenging and it’s very hard to be a parent with a child with special needs in the district. There needs to be more knowledge, more experience, more training, more support for the district, teachers and staff. Everybody would benefit if they knew more about autism.”