Throughout the country, more and more educators face the challenges of educating students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, despite having had little of the necessary experience or training. According to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to mark the beginning of Autism Awareness Month, the estimated number of U.S. kids with autism has shot up 78 percent since 2007. One in 88 children now has autism, and boys are four to five times more likely to be among those affected.
But why has the prevalence of autism skyrocketed? One expert told CNN that it’s the result of “better diagnosis, broader diagnosis, better awareness, and roughly 50 percent of, ‘We don’t know.’”
“Autism is a complex condition and there remain many unanswered questions,” said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
One thing is certain — with autism rates at an all time high, more students on the spectrum will be entering public schools. Another certainty is that education and early intervention is the primary treatment for autism, which has no known cure. Studies have shown that the earlier education begins, the more positive the outcome is likely to be. Fortunately, the CDC study showed that more children are being diagnosed by age 3, an increase from 12 percent for children born in 1994 to 18 percent for children born in 2000.
With the hard work of dedicated educators, many of these children will grow up to live independently, and even make extraordinary contributions to society. A big factor for their future success, say the experts, is being educated in regular classes, where they can learn to interact with their peers and to control or modify their behaviors.
But transitions are difficult for children with autism, and sometimes inclusion is tough on teachers, too. No matter how great their desire to help, some teachers fear they won’t be able to handle teaching an autistic child alongside the rest of their students. That “fear factor” is a big roadblock for general education teachers, says Julie Moore, a middle school teacher in Kitsap, Washington, and member of NEA’s IDEA Resource Cadre.
“The rise in diagnosis has challenged me to provide much more professional development for my colleagues,” she says.
Moore spent much of the last two decades teaching in special ed classrooms before becoming a general education teacher. When the inclusion movement took hold, she saw nervous and unprepared educators in need of support. That’s when she began leading a six-hour autism workshop for Washington state teachers based on The Puzzle of Autism, a resource guide created by NEA and the Autism Society of America.
“The Puzzle of Autism, has been indispensible with ideas and suggestions to increase a student on the spectrum’s opportunity to access the general education curriculum while increasing student achievement,” says Moore.
Students with Autism and the Social World
There are other common traits that are helpful for general education teachers to understand about students with autism, says Marguerite Colston of the Autism Society of America.
For example, the social world is confusing to children with autism, and they don’t pick up on cues that come naturally to others. They can’t generalize, and don’t realize that accepted behavior they’ve learned in one setting is appropriate for all settings: for example, table manners learned at home should also be practiced at school. They have selective attention and sometimes focus on one detail, such as the color of a car rather than the car itself. Later, they might not be able to identify another car if it’s not the same color. They often engage in self-stimulatory activities, like rocking or hand flapping, to ease anxiety. Repetition and consistency are comforting—even slight changes to routines are distressing.
Still, autism is a heterogeneous disorder and, as Colston often says, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism”—which is why effective interventions and therapies vary from child to child.
“There are many children and families who need help,” CDC’s Frieden explained. “We must continue to track autism spectrum disorders because this is the information communities need to guide improvements in services to help children.”