Increase in autism demands that we act now

November 04, 2003|By Dawn Koplos

IN 1993, there were 260 students in Maryland's schools identified as autistic.

In 2002, there were 3,488.

It's a staggering increase.

Similar increases have been reported across the country and internationally. In July, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said: "The number of people diagnosed with autism is on the rise. The impact on families as well as autism's profound effect on the nation's educational and health care systems points to the need for a better understanding of this troubling condition."

My son scores years ahead of his age on cognitive tests. Yet emotionally and socially, he is behind his peers. He has issues with sensory integration. When he gets overstimulated - too much noise or too many people - he has tantrums lasting an hour or more. He flaps his hands when excited and he doesn't seem to notice (or care) when people get angry.

My son is autistic, just like thousands of children who will be diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder this year.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees a free and appropriate public education with peers, to the maximum extent appropriate, to all eligible children with disabilities (ages 3 to 21) who need special education and related services in order to learn in school. Because of this, parents of autistic kids frequently turn to their local schools for accommodations and services.

A few Maryland counties, such as Howard and Montgomery, are cited as offering exemplary services and interventions - occupational therapy for sensory integration, speech therapy for pragmatic language issues, social skills training and instructional assistant prompting.

Linda Carter-Ferrier, president of the Anne Arundel County Chapter of the Autism Society of America, says, "I think our schools are working as rapidly as they can to learn as much as they can about how to most appropriately work with students on the autism spectrum.

"Combine that with the demands of a rapidly rising caseload, due to the significant increase in the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and you have a real problem finding and retaining enough school personnel [special education and general education teachers, as well as therapists and aides/assistants] who have received adequate training in working with this population of students."

Studies show the sooner you begin early intervention, and the more intensive the services, the better the outcomes. Family doctors and pediatricians can help by increasing their knowledge of the early signs of autism, learning more about early intervention therapies and programs and steering families in the right direction when a delay is discovered or suspected. In Anne Arundel County, parents who suspect any kind of developmental delay in their children (up to 3 years old) should call the Infants and Toddlers Program at (410) 222-6911.

Autism is found in every country and region of the world, and in families of all racial, ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. The Autism Society of America estimates the costs of health and educational services for children and adults with autism could exceed $200 billion a year nationwide by 2010. The National Institutes of Health puts this estimate at a much more conservative $3 billion and says that autism is the fastest-growing disability in America, with about 400,000 Americans presently diagnosed with autism.

Parents can advocate for their children, but we need a collective public outcry to put autism at the top of the list of public policy priorities to ensure the funding to provide comprehensive services, care and support for these kids and their families.

We also need to demand funding of research to identify the reasons for the increase in the numbers of children being diagnosed, find out what causes autism and what helps - which interventions work and, ultimately, how best to help children and adults living with autism.

On my son's "good days," I wonder whether I've been overly concerned about his prospects for school or worried too much about his behavioral problems. But then, as we turn down a new street to go home - resulting in a 40-minute meltdown - I pray that our schools will be prepared.

Dawn Koplos, a professional grant writer, is the parent of a 4-year-old boy with mild autism. She lives in Severna Park.

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