Hope for autistic students
Grappling with one of special education's fastest-growing areas, legislators make changes that spell out strategies
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Parents of Texas' roughly 20,000 autistic students hope that recent changes to state law will resolve one of special education's more contentious areas by clearly spelling out considerations that must be made for their children.
The revamped "autism supplement" defines 11 areas — including specific teaching strategies and social skill supports — that parents and educators must discuss before they decide on an autistic child's education plan.
It replaces an older, very brief list that some advocates say school districts simply skirted over. Education officials, on the other hand, worry that families may view the new guidelines as mandates, rather than considerations.
"Everybody's on a learning curve," said Cynthia Buechler, director of the National Educators Law Institute and a partner at an Austin law firm that specializes in education issues. "My biggest concern is that it'll be construed that there's an entitlement to these services."
Autism, a complex neurobiological disorder, is one of the fastest-growing categories in special education. While it affects children in varying degrees, those on the spectrum often have trouble communicating and socializing.
This is a major area of concern for school districts, which have seen the time and resources that they spend working with autistic children grow exponentially in recent years. Officials in the Cypress-Fairbanks district, for example, say they have about 750 special-education students classified as autistic, compared with five in 1990.
The Houston Independent School District reported 656 students last year with the primary diagnosis of autism. That's up from 557 in 2002-03.
Training for the changesUnder existing state and federal law, school districts are already required to provide any service that a special-education student needs, including all of those that are now specifically mentioned in the supplement.
"We're not really bothered by the autism supplement," said Nadine Fidler, assistant superintendent in the Cy-Fair school district. "A lot of the things, we already do. We're just now committing it to writing "
But advocates said the supplement means school districts have to be more upfront about what the possible services are. Unsure of how these conversations will play out this year, some school districts are scrambling to train educators on the changes.
"Many school districts are grappling with how to address the changes mandated by the new commissioner's rules," said April Fox, director of special education in the La Porte district, which has 72 students affected by the change.
They're worried, for instance, that parents might see "applied behavior analysis" in the supplement and think it means their child is entitled to the popular therapy.
Considered by many parents to be one of the most successful interventions for autistic children, ABA calls for trained educators to spend up to 40 hours a week teaching behaviors by using reward and consequences. It's a costly and somewhat controversial therapy.
"This is going to be a litigated issue," Houston advocate Louis Geigerman said. "Frankly, the districts don't like ABA. While this doesn't mandate that they have to do it, it does mandate that they have to discuss it."
Many of these talks will play out this spring, as parents of special-needs children meet with their school committee for the first time since the changes took effect late last fall.
Districts weren't required to notify parents about the changes ahead of time, and they're also not required to refer to the "autism supplement" at the meeting. They just have to discuss all 11 topics specified in the document.
Because of that, advocates encourage parents to do their homework prior to their child's special-education committee meeting. Such groups, consisting of educators, parents and specialists, meet at least annually to assess a child's progress and set educational goals.
Advocates say they hope this expanded list will guide parents' conversations, letting them know they can ask to attend training workshops or ask that their children receive social-skills support.
"It gives parents a big hammer when they come in," HISD parent Cynthia Singleton said. "But if they don't know where to hit the nail, it's not going to help them."
Policymakers' jobWhile parents appreciate the items and examples being added to the supplement, many are quick to point out that talk is cheap. Just discussing the items won't resolve any of the long-standing problems that surround educating students with autism, they say.
Legislators and policymakers have a responsibility to make sure schools have enough resources to help students with autism, they said.
"The major hindrance, even if there were 20 provisions, is the ability to implement," said Cy-Fair parent Michelle Guppy, who has a teenage son with autism. "If they don't have the funds, and the teachers don't have the training, it doesn't matter what they say."
POINTS THAT MUST BE DISCUSSED
Parents and educators must discuss each of the following 11 points before creating an Individualized Education Program for a student with autism:
• Extended educational programming, including extended-day and extended-year services
• Daily schedules with minimal unstructured time
• In-home and community-based training that helps students acquire social and behavioral skills
• Positive behavioral support strategies
• Planning for the life, work and education of children of all ages
• Parent and family training and support
• Suitable student-to-staff ratios for children during the various stages of learning
• Communication interventions
• Social skill supports
• Professional educator and staff support and training
• Teaching strategies based on research-based practices, including discrete-trial training and applied behavior analysis