This past Tuesday, we recognized World Autism Day, a time to raise awareness and understanding about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is the fastest growing serious developmental disorder in the United States, affecting nearly two million Americans. One in 88 children is on the autism spectrum by age 8, and boys are five times more likely to have an ASD. A new survey by the Centers for Disease Control indicates that the instance of ASD may actually be higher.
On World Austim Day, I spent the morning with students from Barcroft Elementary School to highlight the school’s effort to create a community of acceptance for students with ASD. I toured the Multi Intervention Program for Autism (MIPA) designed for students with ASD who require more intensive educational interventions, smaller special education classes, and the school’s Peace Room.
I also visited general education classes. As I walked from room to room, I saw classrooms filled with students excited to measure with rulers, learn about the environment, master new vocabulary words, and share stories from their journals. Participating in these active classroom discussions were children with ASD.
Barcroft Elementary sets an example for the rest of the country by providing innovative training for all staff members on methods for teaching students with ASD. These efforts allow students with ASD to be successful in general education settings, a result I saw firsthand this week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there has been a nearly 80 percent increase in ASD diagnosis since 2002. Although we are better at diagnosing ASD, the increase cannot be wholly attributed to better and earlier diagnosis.
We do not know the causes of ASD, but environmental factors are clearly involved. The fact is, there is growing and alarming evidence that ASD, and many other rapidly growing illnesses and conditions may be caused by man-made chemicals that disrupt the body’s endocrine system.
While scientists work on the causes of and treatments for ASD, children on the spectrum deserve the best possible education. Many students with high-functioning autism (HFA) can be placed in mainstream classrooms. Unfortunately due to the rapid growth in ASD, many teachers have not had the opportunity to receive training to more effectively teach children on the spectrum.
To fill this need, I have introduced the AUTISM Educators Act to establish five-year pilot programs, similar to those at Barcroft Elementary, pairing local school systems with universities or non-profits to train general education teachers who work with children diagnosed with ASD. The program would be available only to school systems with 10 percent or more of its special education population diagnosed with ASD.
Every child, special needs or otherwise, faces obstacles to his or her education. By passing the AUTISM Educators Act, we can help children with ASD overcome the barriers that inhibit their ability to succeed in mainstream classrooms. It is a small investment, but it can make an enormous improvement in educational success for our children.