Sharp increase in autism sparks a crisis in schools


Disability: A shortage of special-ed teachers strains school systems' ability to deal with a huge and puzzling increase in diagnoses.

August 01, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MARJORIE Shulbank, a disabilities specialist in the State Department of Education, holds up a bar graph that looks like one side of a very steep mountain.

"Every state in the union can show you the same thing," Shulbank says.

The graph shows the 1,500 percent increase in the number of Maryland public school children found to have autism over the span of a single decade: 260 in 1993, 4,084 in 2003. And that, says Shulbank, doesn't include 500 or so very young children classified as "developmentally delayed."

Eleven years ago, 10 of the state's 24 school districts weren't attempting to educate autistic children. Today, all of them are. Prince George's County schools had 19 children with the disability in 1993. Ten years later, the county's autistic enrollment was 28 times higher. Howard had 10 such students on the rolls in 1993; last year it had 361. Baltimore City's autistic population more than quintupled during the period, from 85 to 443.

Autism is a developmental disability believed to be largely genetically based. Scientists aren't quite sure what causes it, although they know it is characterized by a disruption of brain activity. To put it perhaps too simply, autistic people aren't wired right.

Part of the explanation for the exponential increase in autistic students is that parents, clinicians and educators are doing a better job of identifying children with the disorder and moving them into special education.

But, says Shulbank, "When you tease out all the other factors, there does appear to be a real increase. There are many suspects. There may be something in the environment of these kids, something like vaccines or mercury ingestion. Researchers are working hard to find out."

Those are the cold figures, definitions and explanations. But each one of those 4,084 people, who range in age from 3 to 21, has a story. Sometimes it's heartbreaking: Parents notice their 2 1/2 -year-old isn't talking. When autism is diagnosed, they blame themselves unfairly. Many of these children enter their teens with no functional speech.

Sometimes the story is inspiring. Tom Dunkel's recent story in The Sun about the remarkable progress of Mason Surhoff, the autistic 12-year-old son of Oriole outfielder B.J. Surhoff, brought tears to many an eye.

Too often, the story is one of services denied - in violation of federal law that requires the "free and appropriate" education of all disabled children. A teacher was a part of the story of each of those 4,084 children found to have autism last year. But how many weren't discovered, how many cases were misdiagnosed, how many didn't have a special teacher or a therapist in school?

This will be the crux of a hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore when it resumes Tuesday before state Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan and federal Judge Marvin J. Garbis, sitting jointly.

Have the city and state accomplished enough to be freed as defendants in a 20-year-old lawsuit brought by disabled children? State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who volunteered as a named defendant in the case 10 years ago, says the answer is yes. So does Carol Ann Baglin, who runs the state's special-education division.

"We're doing a much better job of oversight, and good progress has been made," Baglin says. (One advantage of closing the case at long last, she says, would be saving millions of dollars in legal fees.)

A major problem is the shortage of qualified special-education teachers. It's a job almost no one wants. Everywhere there are shortages. Like baseball teams recruiting free agents, districts compete for certified special-ed teachers. And Maryland is especially disadvantaged because its teachers colleges don't produce nearly enough instructors to satisfy the demand.

"If someone comes along who's certified and knows how to teach disabled children, he or she can find a job in a minute," Baglin says. That person is really golden if he or she knows the Maryland curriculum and understands the intricacies of the No Child Left Behind Act, Baglin says.

To help ease the shortage, the state is using a federal grant to train special-education teachers in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Prince George's counties.

The "resident teacher program" allows people - often career-changers - to begin teaching immediately while they take courses at Goucher College, Bowie State University or the College of Notre Dame.

Getting in the program is easy, and the federal grant covers most of the tuition. Yet the response hasn't been overwhelming, says Hannah Dietsch, the coordinator.

"That's a shame," says Baglin, "because special education is a great field to be in. Many of us are in it because we have a story."

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