"In 1990, there were no students with autism enrolled in public or private schools in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Five years later, there were 65. By 2005, there were 299."
In 1998 we lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania just north of Philadelphia. When I expressed concerns about our second child's developmental progress her pediatrician told me point blank, "I've never heard of a family with more than one child with autism."
I suppose he meant to allay my fears. He was affiliated with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and was not a country bumpkin doc who worked with the Amish population. And in 1998 he had seen so little autism that he'd never heard of a family with more than one affected child. Fast forward nine years. I'm in a Yahoo group for families with THREE or more affected kids. And there are thirty four members.
This article below talks about the explosion of autism in two "units" in the Northeastern Pennsylvania schools. Multiply these numbers by the entire state. Then the Northeast. Then the North. Then the entire nation. Then add Hawaii and Alaska. And then tell me there's no epidemic. And keep these words in your head from a respected medical doctor, "I've never heard of a family with more than one child with autism."
The link to the article from the Times-Tribune in Scanton, PA is HERE. The article was written by staff writer Libby Nelson.
Charts for the days of the week and months of the year. A clock for learning to tell time. Plastic counters for math lessons. A science lesson explained in pictures along with words.
Some things in Mari Hendershot's classroom might seem out of place in a middle school.
But her Abington Heights Middle School classroom is unique - the district's first venture in using its own resources to serve autistic students, said special education director Sam Sica.
Like programs for autistic students elsewhere, it serves a growing population.
In 1990, there were no students with autism enrolled in public or private schools in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Five years later, there were 65. By 2005, there were 299.
As the numbers continue to expand, districts are searching for ways to best educate a group of students who often have little in common besides a diagnosis.
The rapid rise in the numbers of students with autism mirrors trends across the state and country.
About one in every 150 children is born with autism, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States.
In Pennsylvania, there were more than 30 times as many autistic students in 2005 as there were in 1990.
Explanations for the growth vary. One theory proposes that changes in criteria for diagnosis lead to children being classified as autistic who previously might not have been. Others point to environmental or genetic factors.
"Diagnoses have gone up and there are many, many more people identified," said Pamela Wolfe, Ph.D., Penn State University associate professor of special education and co-author of "The Autism Encyclopedia."
"It means that, in many cases, teachers and administrators are kind of playing catch-up, trying to get information."
The autism spectrum is diverse. Some students need little help to participate fully in regular, even advanced, classes. Others spend much of their day in special classrooms.
"There's a full array of differences that these kids have," said David Angeloni, coordinator of special education for the Valley View School District. "There are autistic kids that are fully included in regular education. There are kids who are gifted or mentally retarded or have behavior disabilities or emotional disabilities."
Meeting diverse needs
Even in special classrooms such as Ms. Henderson's, which helps students with more severe cases of autism, abilities vary widely depending on the student and the subject.
Among her four students, there are reading and math skill levels that range from kindergarten to third or fourth grade. And people with autism can have trouble grasping abstract ideas, which can make explanations more difficult, she said.
So she models the thinking process for her students, breaking the abstract ideas into more concrete steps. To better understand numbers, she and her students graph the changes in temperature from day to day. A science assignment taken from the regular classroom is illustrated for beginning readers, with a picture over each word.
The curriculum itself is not revolutionary. But by dealing with autistic students through a district program, she and Abington Heights are in relatively uncharted territory.
Until recently, intermediate units have handled most of the support services for districts.
As the population of autistic students grows, districts are taking on more responsibilities for themselves, said Clarence Lamanna, Ed.D., director of special education for Northeast Intermediate Unit 19.
"I believe that as the numbers begin to increase and as parents are more in tune, districts will look very hard at operating their own programs," he said. "I see (intermediate unit involvement) as trending out."
Abington Heights would like to serve all students through district programs eventually, Mr. Sica said.
"I don't know if we'll ever be able to house all the kids," he said. "But we're making every effort."
Other districts are breaking away from the intermediate unit to create their own programs, most paid for by state or federal grants.
"Pennsylvania has really been a leader in terms of programming for children with autism," said Maria Farrell, supervisor of special education for the Delaware Valley School District, which started its second autism classroom this year. "Parents feel more comfortable having their kids in public school, whereas before it was an anomaly not to find a special school."
Sharing a classroom
Special classrooms, whether provided by the district or the intermediate unit, are the exception. About half the state's autistic students now spend at least 40 percent of their day in a regular classroom, meaning teachers are dealing with students they would have rarely seen 10 years ago.
Autism "was such a puzzle and a mystery at first," said Mr. Angeloni, who remembers the first autistic students diagnosed in Lackawanna County. "The diagnosis of autism was misunderstood, misdiagnosed, a newly developing category, whereas nowadays there are a zillion books and experts."
Changes in federal law, which mandates that schools include students with disabilities in the regular classroom as much as possible, have also led to changes in schools' techniques.
Some students spend an hour or two in a support classroom and the rest of the time with their peers. Others are served through "co-teaching" - pairing a classroom teacher with a special education teacher.
Programs are moving toward co-teaching and inclusion, meaning the need to train classroom teachers in autism will intensify, Dr. Wolfe said.
"They're going to need to be training general educators that these children are going to be in their class," she said. "They are not what many teachers have been trained to do."
For some regular teachers, teaching students with autism comes with apprehension about a disorder they might know little about.
"Given the spectrum, I imagine there must be some fear attached to 'I'm going to have this child and I don't really know much about autism,'" Ms. Farrell said. "We provide as much information as we can to get rid of the fear, or at least get rid of some of the fear."
Northeastern Pa. (Intermediate Units 18 and 19)