Schools OK changes for students with autism Instruction time, teacher training will be increased

June 26, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board approved changes to the special education program last night that will increase instruction time for students with autism and give their teachers more training.

The proposal calls for more frequent and intensive services for autistic toddlers, preschoolers and kindergartners; additional professional development for staff, including hands-on instruction in behavioral methods; and an expansion of summer services for autistic students.

Though some parents expressed concern at an earlier school board meeting that the county's program would not meet all the needs of their children, most of the handful of parents at the meeting seemed pleased with the board decision.

"We are pretty excited," said Ben Dorman, president of the Howard County chapter of the Autism Society of America. "People have been arguing for this. We have finally managed to talk to the people we need to talk to to get things changed."

This month, school staff and parents presented somewhat different approaches to educating children with autism.

Both sides agreed that temporary employees should be used to reduce the staff-child ratio, parental input should be taken into account, and a number of methods should be considered in teaching the students.

But parents also said a method known as discrete trial therapy -- a behavioral-based therapy that breaks up lessons into small parts and teaches each part separately -- should be the primary method used to teach their children.

However, the staff recommended choosing a method based on the developmental level and learning style of each child.

"As a methodology, we want discrete trial therapy to be included, but it would not be the sole methodology that we would use," said Sue Brown, service coordinator for Early Intervention Services. "I think the parents wanted to be assured across the board that discrete trial therapy would be an option for all the children."

Interfering with the normal development of the brain, autism causes people to have difficulties with communication and social interaction. In some, the condition is characterized by repetitive movements such as flapping the hand and rocking.

But unlike other disabilities, autism is not a specific disease or genetic disorder, and researchers do not know what causes it. Instead, the term describes a set of symptoms, which means that it is difficult to determine one approach to treatment.

Seventy-one Howard County public school students have autism. Brown has said the number is expected to increase to as many as 100 within two years.

The changes in teaching would be paid from $1.13 million allocated for the fiscal year beginning Wednesday. Special education staff members will ask for more funding in the operating budget for a total of $2.13 million the next fiscal year.

School board member Linda L. Johnston said the staff's plan "seems like a strong, sound compromise in many of the areas."

Also at last night's meeting:

The board heard a status report on the county's initiatives for disruptive students, which include Saturday school, evening school and three new in-school alternative education programs at Running Brook, Laurel Woods and Elkridge elementary schools. The three programs were begun this past school year.

Thirteen schools will have in-school alternative education sites next school year, and they are expected to serve between 300 and 500 students, said Craig Cummings, assistant administrator for alternative education. The evening school, which began in February with 17 students, ended the school year with 54. One student was able to earn a high school diploma by participating in the program, Cummings said.

"I would say, overwhelmingly, students received passing grades," he said.

The board discussed the issue of weighted grades and class rank for the county's high school students. Currently, the school system does not weigh grades according to course levels. Some board members suggested that a weighted ranking system could be used for college admission purposes rather than for honor roll, National Honor Society or other activities requiring the report of a grade-point average.

A hearing will be held at the July 23 board meeting, and the panel is scheduled to vote Aug. 22.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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