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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Educators Deal with the Growing Problem of Autism

As the number of special-needs students soars, schools grapple with ways to offer high-quality education without going broke.
By Fran Smith
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There may be no greater challenge facing public schools today than the staggering increase in children diagnosed with autism.

Even though the law requires school districts to provide a free "appropriate" education to every student, school budgets are not growing nearly as rapidly as the number of children classified as having special needs. Parents are increasingly demanding more than basics; they want intensive, expensive services that offer the best chance to rescue their child from a lifetime of disability.

Experts disagree on the most effective approach to teaching children with autism, and many school districts cobble together a mishmash of methods that changes with each new fad, source of funding, special education director, or classroom teacher. Too often, good intentions collide with limited resources, and overloaded bureaucracies clash with parents driven by hope and anguish. The result is often a mess.

"The way we treat and educate children with autism is a national disgrace," says L. Vincent Strully, founder and CEO of the New England Center for Children, one of the oldest and largest private schools for autism in the United States.

Yet, against so many odds, that grim picture is beginning to change. A small but growing number of districts are creating innovative programs based on the latest research in autism and modeled after some of the most highly regarded -- and expensive -- private schools. These pioneering programs may change the future for special-needs kids, and not only for the children fortunate enough to get into one. If these experiments prove successful, they may change the future of autism education throughout the United States, and not a moment too soon.

A Complex Diagnosis

Autism is not a single ailment but a complex collection of behaviors that generally surface around age two. Children can have a wide range of abilities, and the diagnosis runs along a spectrum, reflecting the child's level of cognitive and language impairment. Kids with autism typically have problems with social interaction, and they engage in repetitive, seemingly obsessive routines.

But exactly how this plays out depends on the child and the severity of the condition: A five-year-old with a mild form of autism called Asperger's syndrome may focus on a single interest -- say, horses -- to the exclusion of all else. He may be a handful at home and disruptive in school but have normal, or even accelerated, intellectual ability.

At the severe end of autism-spectrum disorders (ASDs), a five-year-old (or even older) child may still be unable to say the word horse or identify one in a picture book. The repetitive behavior that is an autism signature may take the form of endless body rocking or arm flapping. Sensory stimulation overwhelms many kids with autism. In the noisy, cheerful hubbub of the best elementary school classrooms, an autistic child might erupt in fury or shut down completely.

But these are general characteristics only, and they don't begin to capture the variability and unpredictability that make autism so painful for families and perplexing for educators. No two kids are alike, not in their behavior, in their potential to learn, or in the way they will respond to a particular instructional approach. And that places an extraordinary burden on school districts, which are legally required to meet the needs of every child.

An Explosion of Illness

Autism affects 1 in 150 children in the United States, according to the newly revised estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- far more than previously believed. In autism hot spots such as New Jersey, the rate is around 1 in 95. Nearly 120,000 school-age children nationwide were classified with ASD in 2002, up from about 20,000 in 1993.

Certainly, better detection and a broader definition of autism mean we are identifying children today we would have mislabeled as mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, or just plain strange a generation ago. But almost nobody attributes the rise purely to greater awareness.

Theories abound about what's going on, fueled mostly by desperate speculation on the part of grieving parents. People blame everything from genetics to food additives to environmental toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Many parents suspect mercury preservatives in vaccines, though extensive scientific reviews have not shown a link.

In 2001, a widely circulated article in Wired magazine advanced the notion that a math-and-tech gene had spurred a surge of cases in northern California's high tech Silicon Valley and explored whether autism is, in fact, a "geek syndrome." A 2006 study by Cornell University researchers pointed to an alarmingly pervasive culprit, suggesting that children exposed to too much television as infants might trigger the disorder.

Whatever the cause, there is no doubt about autism's impact on public schools. Administrators face growing pressure from vocal and sophisticated parents who insist on state-of-the-art instruction, highly trained teachers, staff-to-student ratios as low as 1 to 1, and extensive support services such as speech and occupational therapy. When districts don't deliver the programs parents demand, or pay for private school alternatives, families are increasingly willing to fight in administrative hearings and court.

That makes ASD more than an educational challenge for many districts; it's also a legal nightmare. "Autism is a leading problem on the radar now and a leading source of lawsuits," reports Bryna Siegel, an adjunct child and adolescent psychiatry professor and director of the University of California at San Francisco's Autism Clinic.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees "free appropriate" education to all disabled students. But the government has never fully funded the act, and "appropriate" can mean one thing to a parent determined to get the very best for a child but something else entirely to an administrator juggling limited resources for a seemingly unlimited number of special needs, including autism as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning difficulties, physical disabilities, and serious medical conditions (all of which are on the rise in public schools).

Children with autism do best when there is a strong partnership between the school and the home, but often the relationship is strained, or worse. "There is increasing tension between parents' aspirations for their child and what the school is willing to provide," observes Michael McKee, executive director of the Virginia Institute of Autism, a small nonprofit private school in Charlottesville. "School districts pretty much across the country define 'appropriate' as 'merely adequate.'"

Even merely adequate is expensive: A study by the Special Education Expenditure Project (conducted for the U.S. Department of Education) found that special classes, therapists, aides, transportation, and facilities for an autistic student cost an average of nearly $19,000 a year, or roughly triple the cost for a typical child. When districts go beyond adequate to establish intensive one-on-one programs or support a full array of speech, play, and occupational therapies, spending can skyrocket to $75,000 or more.

Parent Power

The Internet has spurred a new activism among parents, who trade information about "good" and "bad" districts, new research, effective advocacy tactics, legislation, court decisions, and more. Last year, the autism community cheered two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, even though they had more significance psychologically than legally.

In October, the court upheld a lower-court decision affirming parents' rights to challenge a school district's individualized education plan (IEP) without first "trying out" the district's placement. The case involved New York City schools, and the Supreme Court's 4-4 vote did not establish a national precedent. Still, it gives parents new ammunition in fighting what they see as inappropriate or ineffective placements for children who need the best intervention available as early as possible.

In May 2007, the court ruled that the parents of an autistic child may represent themselves in a lawsuit against a school district; they don't have to hire a lawyer. The case involved an Ohio couple who had placed their child in a $56,000-a-year private school and sought to get the local school district to pay for it. After exhausting administrative appeals, the parents sued in federal court, representing themselves because they couldn't afford an attorney. A long battle ensued over whether the parents had a right to do that, but their victory resolved only the legal sticking point, not the question of who should pay for their child's education.

Students with autism are more likely than other special-need students to receive out-of-district placements. In fact, almost every student at almost every leading private school for autism, including the New England Children's Center, New Jersey's Princeton Child Development Institute, and the Virginia Institute, attends at public expense. Still, the vast majority of autistic students go to public schools. Many parents devote their lives to making sure their son or daughter's school delivers the services spelled out in the child's IEP, the all-important document that drives the education of every disabled student.

But the IEP is only as effective as this year's teacher. "If you've got a terrific teacher who really gets it, everything is great," declares Lisa Jo Rudy, whose eleven-year-old son, Tommy, has high-functioning autism. "You get another teacher, and it all falls apart."

Some parents, disappointed with their local offerings and unwilling or unable to send a child out of their district, upend their lives and move. After four disastrous years in Pennsylvania public schools, Rudy, the guide on's autism page, decided to teach her son herself. Last summer, the family moved to Massachusetts, which Rudy says has friendlier homeschool laws.

More often, parents pack up for a district they believe offers more than the one they're in. Web forums buzz with opinions about specific schools and pleas from these searching nomads, often in a lingo that would baffle anyone unfamiliar with autism: For instance, a parent moving to New Jersey posted, "I am looking for small-group instructions with no aversives used, ABA-based, trained staff."

In a five-county area of California's Central Valley and Sierra foothills, young children with autism have access to free intensive behavioral programs for up to forty hours a week, a commitment almost unheard of anywhere else. The number of autistic children under seven years old receiving services there has grown even faster than the national average, from four in 1994 to about 170 today. (The number of children diagnosed has remained comparable to the national average, but the number receiving services in the area has grown faster.) "Families will move here for services," reports Tara Sisemore-Hester, autism coordinator of the Valley Mountain Regional Center, which oversees the programs. (See "Rewriting a Life Story: Treating Autism Early Can Help Save Later.")

Debate and Desperation

A huge debate rages about the best way to educate autistic students. But experts agree on two things: Early intervention is critical, and the more hours devoted to learning, the better. "In some ways, the ballgame is played out by thirty-six months," says the New England Children's Center's Vincent Strully. And as for time, for kids ages 2-5, thirty to forty hours a week of intensive effort appears to be ideal. "Autism untreated becomes a living hell," adds Strully.

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, is the best-known educational strategy for autism and has the strongest evidence supporting it. "The research literature is clear," states Patricia Krantz, executive director emerita of the thirty-eight-year-old Princeton Child Development Institute. "The only approach that has systematically documented its effectiveness is ABA."

ABA, which grew out of the work of psychologist B. F. Skinner, uses reinforcements in structured environments to encourage learning. Teachers break skills, from the simple to the complex, into small, measurable tasks that students repeatedly practice, ideally 1 on 1 with the instructor. When a child performs a target task -- say, places a book on a shelf -- he gets a reward, such as a cracker or a token that earns computer time. If a child instead slams that book onto the floor, she gets a prompt. The teacher might point to the book and nudge the kid's hand downward.

Teachers are specially trained and work to make sure no one rewards a child for negative behaviors, in school or out. In the best programs, educators work closely with parents, who learn not to pick up the book when a child throws it at home. A student in an ABA classroom will practice dozens of skills a day: language, adaptive, social and emotional, and academic. The teachers painstakingly log each result, producing a solid record of progress and a clear picture of what's working or not.

Some ABA programs for young children claim that almost half the students do so well that they eventually are able to function, and even thrive, in a regular classroom. But some have questioned those statistics, and in any case, nobody can predict which 50 percent will make this transition.

ABA has critics, some of whom contend that the approach is boring and uncreative and doesn't stimulate learning so much as compliance. Although supporters disagree, ABA clearly runs counter to inquiry-based, student-centered learning, the vogue in general education. Some autism experts and parents advocate developmental approaches, such as the Floortime Foundation's DIR/Floortime model, which emphasizes social interactions and problem solving, as well as sensory-integration therapy, which purports to change the way the brain processes sensory input.

Many public schools use a combination of methods, trying to offer the best of each. However, this approach makes it hard for parents to know exactly what treatment a child is getting, and ABA proponents say it causes other problems as well. "The mixed method, or what I call the eclectic approach, is probably the most widely available model. It's politically correct. And it's particularly ill suited for kids with autism," proclaims Gina Green, a California-based autism consultant, researcher, and behavior analyst. "These kids really thrive on consistency of instruction. By definition, a mixed method has a lot of inconsistency."

In one of the first head-to-head trials comparing different educational methods, published in 2005, Green tracked sixty-one three- and four-year-olds in the Valley Mountain Regional Center programs. She found that those who received intensive ABA showed significantly greater improvement in cognitive skills, language expression, and adaptive skills than children in eclectic programs or nonintensive behavior treatments. A study in Norway of children ages 4-7 had similar findings.

Until recently, some private schools offered pure, intensive ABA. But that's changing as parents press for evidence-based educational strategies and school administrators realize that it may be cheaper to beef up autism programs than continue to fight lawsuits. Public ABA programs are emerging, often in innovative partnerships with private schools.

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.
Kim Girard contributed to this report.

Comments (228)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sara Wagenmaker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a service provider to students with autism in a public school system, I agree with the comments made in this article, to a point. Applied Behavior Analysis is suitable for students in need of acquiring learning to learn behaviors, however once the student has grasped this concept there is a need to use alternative forms of reinforcement. Social reinforcement can be used successfully and the student does not always have to a tangible reinforcement on a one-to-one schedule.

I also take exception to the home programming providers, who typically are high school students in my area, telling me and my collegues with master in education degrees what is appropriate service provision and what skills I should be working on. There is no parent in this country, with or without a child with a disability, who would accept a non-postsecondary educated person providing their child an education in any general education classroom. I understand the hopes and prayers of parents who desire that their child will become a functioning independent member of society. We educators truly wish the same for your child. We ask that rather than attack us as incompetant that we join at the table as collaborators. In the long run, your child will benefit from the partnership. Rarely, is the child the source of professional frustration; more often than not it is the lack of respect that is often hurled at the service provider.

Let us all work together, with all the available tools, to provide the best possible education for all children.

Mh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am thrilled that Edutopia is covering a special education issue. I do sort of cringe however every time someone refers to a person with autism as "autistic". I know most people are not implying any negativity, but I prefer to think of all people as people first, not unilaterally categorized by labels like "retarded", "diabetic", or "autistic".

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a classroom teacher and I see special needs children all day. My district spends a fortune on some these children, far in excess of the costs for regular kids. Some of the parents I have worked with have demanded and gotten special schools, aides, programs, etc. They have been told by doctors and or others that their child has little or no possibility of ever being anything other than institutionalized at some later date. The case I'm thinking about, the childs cost of education was about 600,000 dollars, not including litigation. Within 9 months of graduation, the child was packed off to a state developmental center. The parents comment was "I just couldn't deal with him at home all the time." Ever since that day I have thought about the misappropriation of resources, 50, 75, or 1000, regular ed kids are deprived aussaging the guilt and shame of parents who won't accept the reality of the situation about their child.

Sandra from Phoenix's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I realize that my comments and my feelings are politically incorrect. I feel really angry about this. Why doesn't my bright creative typical child get $19K worth of resources every year? She's probably more than likely going to make a bigger impact on the future than a child with severe autism. Why can't resources be spread evenly amongst all kids? You get the best you can for your particular situation with the per capita amount for all kids in your district? Why is a child with disabilities entitled to more of my hard earned tax dollars than my own typical child???

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an public elementary school administrator, I have had a great deal of experience with autism programs at my schools. I strongly agree that early intervention is the key; however, the greatest obstacle for administrators is finding qualified, trained autism teachers. Not only is my school district lacking licensed autism teachers, but we're also lacking general education licensed teachers! When you're lucky to find and hire an autism teacher, he/she will usually not stick around very long because autism teachers aren't compensated enough for the daily stress that they encounter. Also, there is also a high turnover of instructional aides in autism programs. Aides in my district are provided hands-on autism training all year long, but they usually don't want to stay in the program because it's too hard and they can make the same amount of money in an easier program. Every year, we have to train new aides and new teachers. Having autism programs taught by untrained substitute teachers is not a solution, but it's happening in many of the schools in my district.

I am tired of un-funded federal mandates. I am tired of my state requiring my district to cut millions of dollars out of its budget. I am tired of my district providing miniscule raises to our teachers. I am tired of the looming program cuts that my district will impose. I am just plain tired!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Boy your comment angered me greatly. You are a disgrace to your profession. As far as I'm concerned, there are NO throw away kids, regardless of their abilities or lack there of. How a teacher could even say such a thing just baffles me. I believe all children deserve an education and fair shot, regardless of what you think they deserve! How are these regular education students being deprived? Of course special students need extra and the districts are given extra for these students.

I surely hope you find more a self-indulgent profession to get into because you certainly shouldn't be a teacher.

Sally's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm the mom of a 15-year-old with Aspergers, and also a school board member. Your article is right on the mark -- thank you for your careful reporting. What an accurate portrayal of the issues and concerns right now.

The best take-away point, in my opinion: That children benefit the most when parents and school staff work together as a team for the good of the child. Often, parents approach their first IEP meeting already on the defensive, already hostile, armed with advice from advocacy groups and ready to do battle. Meanwhile, the school staff arrives at the meeting full of trepidation, worrying that here comes another belligerent parent they will never be able to please, no matter how hard they try.

It's amazing how far you can get with common politeness, thoughtfulness, consideration. While there are exceptions, it is my experience that school special ed staffers are caring individuals who are performing a labor of love. (They sure aren't in it for the money!) That said, they have a frustrating go of it, most days. A parent who arrives at an IEP mtg saying "First of all, let me thank you for all you do for my child -- I'm glad for this chance to work together," will more often than not find a welcome response and the beginning of a positive relationship. Even if money is tight in the district, at least you have created allies, not adversaries, in the school system. SOmetimes that is worth a lot more than the lawsuit over the expensive new gadget.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reply to Sandra from Phoenix--My first reaction was to say, "shame on you", but that is not going to help either of us. I am a teacher and the mother of a child with ASD. In order for my child with ASD to become a functioning and contributing member of society, we needed to invest early on and in big ways and it is paying off. All children with ASD have potential and many of them will indeed make great contributons to the world. I guess as I consider every child's needs, it seems the most reasonable approach is to level the playing field. Those of us without learning challenges have access to the world and all it has to offer. If we only invest in kids without learning and social challenges,we leave behind many who could eventually contribute, not drain society by needing to live in group homes and have support their whole lives. Economically, this makes the most sense. Humanitarily, this makes the most sense. Be grateful your daughter has what she needs to access what the world has to offer.

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