For Some Students With Autism, "Appropriate Education" is Hard to Define

Nov 9, 2010

If it seems like you’re hearing a lot about autism these days, it’s likely because more kids are being diagnosed with it.

Nationally the rate of children diagnosed with what’s called autism spectrum disorder is 1 in 100. For boys, it’s 1 in 70. To put that number into perspective, it means that one student in 3 or 4 average sized school classes lives with some form of autism.

How schools should deal with it is up for debate.

NHPR Correspondent Sheryl Rich-Kern has this second part in her series Challenges of Autism.

Science Teacher: "You are going to get together and predict: is this item going to be a conductor or an insulator?"

Fifth-grade students at Nottingham West Elementary school in Hudson are learning about electricity.

About 30 kids cluster in small groups.

They work with paper clips and strings to find out what makes the light bulb turn on.

In the back of the room, teacher’s aides sit with three students diagnosed with autism.

They’re visiting the class just for an hour.

Aide: "What’s this called? Look."

Student: "A clip."

Aide: "A clip. A paper clip. Nice job."

The aides and a few helper students make sure the kids stay on task.

Aide: "Look, it lit up."
Sheryl Rich-Kern: "Now do you feel they’re getting this?"
Aide: "Some of it, yes I do."

That’s Pat Anderson. She’s a teacher’s aide.

Anderson: "Not the whole thing, but enough to know that’s it’s something to do with electricity. Yes, I do."

"We have more resources here"

Ten-year old Andrew Ryan finishes the experiment with the rest of the students. But he doesn’t stay for the next lesson.

An aide escorts him to another classroom of about ten students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

(sound of reading)

Karen Cassidy is the special education director of the elementary school.

Cassidy: "Some of the work that needs to be done with the children, the regular classroom provides a barrier because it’s not quiet enough or the work is so different. We have more resources here."

The reason they’re in this room is partly so that each student can get individual therapy with a trained aide.

The therapy is called applied behavior analysis.

Dr. Stephen Mott specializes in autism at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Mott: "What one does is take a very discrete act and repetitively enforce the child to perform that. For example, if a child typically doesn’t make eye contact, they get put in a chair — hands gently on cheeks — so that when they’re spoken to, they’re making direct eye contact."

And Dr. Mott says this kind of therapy works.

But taking children with autism out of their regular classroom is a point of debate among some parents and teachers.

Cheryl Jorgensen is with the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire. She’s a proponent of what’s called inclusion.

Jorgensen: "Inclusion is when all children are full-time members, full participants in the general ed classroom, learning the general ed curriculum with the supports and services they need in order to be successful."

Jorgensen agrees that some one-on-one time for therapy can be valuable. But she says the research on inclusion is clear.

Jorgensen: "There’s a positive relationship between the amount of time students with disabilities spend in a regular classroom and their academic achievements, social skills, communication skills and positive outcomes after they leave school."

Federal law mandates that state’s provide an appropriate education for children with disabilities. But what’s appropriate could depend on the child and where he or she is in development.

As is often the case with educational programs, the issue comes down to money. Keeping children with autism in the classroom all day requires trained staff. Not every district has the resources. And not every parent believes in full inclusion.

Michelle Abbott has two daughters with autism.

Abbott: "To really have that one on one, sor maller classroom, that’s not so busy for her, then be able to bring the into a bigger crowd within a classroom, that’s important."

Everyone agrees: the incidence of autism is on the rise.

But what’s less clear is how New Hampshire schools can best meet their needs.