We recognize this Wednesday as World Autism Day, taking a moment to raise awareness around the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S. Autism incidence in the U.S., and in Northern Virginia in particular, is reaching astounding levels. While we don’t yet know the causes of Autism, most signs point to environmental factors. We do know that each year, one in 68 children and one in 42 boys will be diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s a nearly 30 percent increase from the CDC’s own estimate just two years ago.
Part of this increase, of course, comes from greater awareness and a better understanding about Autism Spectrum Disorder. Parents and medical professionals are increasingly alert to the signs and symptoms of ASD. Armed with this knowledge, early accurate diagnoses are easier to make.
In just the past ten years, we have learned a tremendous amount about the importance of early detection for children with ASD, but less so on the kinds of high quality intervention methods that will help these children succeed. Because of the rapid increase in students with ASD, many teachers are ill equipped to effectively teach children on the spectrum.
We learn more and more about children with ASD every day, most importantly that they do not need to be sequestered in their own classrooms. Last year, I had the privilege to tour Barcroft Elementary and see how they’ve set an example for the rest of the country by providing innovative training for all staff members on methods to teach students with ASD. I met a number of classes where non-ASD and ASD students were side by side, mastering new vocabulary and working on math problems.
To help promote this model of learning, I introduced the AUTISM Educators Act last year which would establish pilot programs based on the Barcroft model. The bill would link school systems across the country with universities and non-profits to help train general education teachers who work with children diagnosed along the Autism spectrum. Because it’s a pilot program, it would be narrowly focused on school systems with a very high incidence of ASD – at least 10 percent or more of the special education population.
All children face obstacles in their education, and with the growing prevalence of ASD in U.S. classrooms, we need to be prepared to help these children overcome additional barriers to success so they too can thrive in mainstream classrooms. I look forward to working with my colleagues to secure this legislative victory for children with ASD, to show them that we can make this investment in their educational success.