One parent said their autistic son was arrested in middle school.
For the Schroeters it was seeing their autistic son get booked for assaulting his teacher.
For Jessica Badner, it was seeing her autistic son afraid to go to school for fear he'd be bullied again.
Parents shared their heartbreak at Autism Delaware's April 10 Parent's Coffee Hour, where they discussed concerns and new autism topics.
The aroma of fresh coffee filled the room as parents of autistic children vented about the horrors their kids faced in public schools.
The latest coffee hour was April 10 at the Holiday Inn Express Dover.
Two sets of parents attended the meeting. There was Badner of Felton, along with Rick and Elizabeth Schroeter of Camden, who came with their 21-year-old son diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The ways ASD affects each person differs, which is why it's a spectrum disorder.
The Schroeters said one of the challenges they faced was nearly a decade ago when their son was arrested in middle school after an incident in gym class.
The couple said they don’t recall what triggered their son to snap, but “he got upset for some reason and hit the back of the teacher’s head,” Rick Schroeter said.
His son, the father said, was suspended immediately. The day after, the school’s resource officer called them and said they needed to return him to school to get booked.
“He didn’t even know what was happening” and “he thought it was a fun-and-games thing when he got fingerprinted,” Schroeter said.
“[The officer] asked my boy, ‘do you have anything more to add?’ He said, ‘Yeah: 1 + 1 equals 2.’ He didn’t even know [what took place]. That’s when Elizabeth started crying.”
Schroeter said it could’ve been avoided had his son been eligible to enroll at the John S. Charlton School in Camden, where teachers specialize in handling autistic students.
Kevin Thompson, director of student services for the department of special education at Caesar Rodney School District, said CR follows Title 14 of Delaware’s educational regulations to determine which students attend Charlton. But an autism diagnosis doesn’t guarantee entry.
“We have students that are identified as meeting the criteria for autism that are in our regular, typical school settings. They’re in typical classrooms with their typical peers,” Thompson said. “It all depends on the need of the child.”
Schroeter’s son graduated high school in 2014 with a certificate. The 21-year-old falls in the middle of the autism spectrum. His speech isn’t very developed for someone his age, and his ability to understand others is stunted.
Schroeter maintains his son should’ve qualified for the Charlton School, since he has social and intellectual deficits.
“To me that’s like saying, ‘Well you’ve got cancer, but it’s not bad enough. We’re not going to do anything about it,’” Schroeter said. “They kept insisting that [his autism wasn’t] bad enough to affect him in school. Well, how did he get arrested?”
Annalisa Ekbladh, Autism Delaware’s family support program manager, said it’s abnormal for autistic students to get arrested or suspended from school.
She said Delaware has four schools that primarily cater to students with autism: Sussex Consortium, Charlton School, The Brennen School and Kent County Community School.
There were no reports of students suspended from any of those schools during the 2015-16 school year, according to the Department of Education.
Ekbladh, however, said there’s a problem -- not enough teachers are trained to support autistic students.
“The schools are really, really struggling right now,” she said.
Ekbladh said Autism Delaware has recommended the Department of Education update Title 14 to include the Delaware Autism Program, a statewide, public school program for students with autism spectrum disorder.
Only six of 19 school districts are involved with the Delaware Autism Program.
She said some school districts spend their own money on outside consultants to train teachers, but she would like to see the schools train teachers using the same resources.
“We’re asking the Department of Education and the state to look at a more statewide approach to providing that training, so that there’s consistency across the state, instead of each district just hiring consultants for their district,” she said.
Bullying also came up at the coffee hour.
Felton mom Badner has homeschooled her 13-year-old son since fifth grade, because he was bullied in the fourth grade.
“When I’d drive him to school, as I’m coming around to drop him off, I hear all the pleas of, ‘please can we just go home? I don’t want to go to school,’” Badner said.
Things were just as bad when she’d pick her son up after school.
“He would hide in between the [seats] and have his little meltdown, because obviously he didn’t want to talk,” Badner said. “He didn’t want to say what was happening.”
Her son’s diagnosis was PDD-NOS or “Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified.” It’s an autism spectrum disorder characterized by the presence of some, but not all the defining symptoms of autism.
Her son, Badner said, is highly functioning and does well academically, but he’s shy and “his social skills of communicating, eye contact and talking to somebody – that’s on the low side.”
She said she reached out to school administrators throughout her son’s fourth-grade year for answers concerning why he was afraid to go school. But the school did very little to help.
By May, the school informed Badner that someone sat in the classroom to observe her son. But that was unsatisfactory to her.
“What are they going to observe?” she said. “He’s going to almost be like the perfect student because he’s afraid to talk.”
Badner said when her son began seeing a therapist and was getting home-schooled in the fifth grade he began to open up about being bullied in public school.
Schroeter said his son started getting bullied in middle school, and often his son would be the one disciplined for reacting or retaliating.
“This one kid would be behind my son and he’d kick him under the desk; and he knew the camera [in the classroom] wouldn’t see that,” Schroeter said. “He knew my son would get upset and my son would turn around and yell at him or get up and stomp off.”
Ekblahd said kids with disabilities are commonly easy targets for bullies.
“This sort of goes back to the Title 14 thing and providing the teachers the skills they need to support our kids in school and in the classroom. But it’s just not happening routinely,” she said.
Delaware hasn't 'kept up'
Since ASD diagnoses have ballooned, Ekbladh said, many teachers aren’t equipped to handle autistic students.
In 1991, 152 Delaware public school system students had an autism educational classification, according to the Department of Education. In 2015, there were 1,660, an increase of about 992 percent.
“We have more kids with autism in more schools,” Ekbladh said, “and our system hasn’t really kept up with the need and the prevalence.”
In 1975, 1 in 5,000 people were diagnosed with autism, according to Autism Speaks. In 2012, 1 in 68 people were identified with ASD.
Dr. Harry Chugani, chief of neurology at Nemours/Alfred I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, said there are multiple theories surrounding the cause of autism.
“Many suspect that there are one or more environmental factors interacting with genetically predisposed individuals, but there are probably several potential explanations,” Dr. Chugani said. “At this time, we cannot pinpoint precisely why there is an increase."
Related Story: Brother gathers support from 50 states for sister with autism.