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Autism on rise in schools

December 02, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Autism affects "10,000 percent" more students across Maryland than it did about 10 years ago, a staggering number that's causing state and county school officials to take a closer look at how children who have the complex disability are taught, a Maryland State Department of Education official said.

"I think it's an epidemic at this point," said Marjorie Shulbank, special initiatives and family support specialist for the education department. Shulbank said 85 percent of her work involves autism.

Since state education officials began identifying children with the developmental disability in the 1990s, they have seen a "10,000 percent" increase in the number of children identified as being autistic. She said 260 students were identified as autistic in 1993 and 3,488 students were identified as autistic in 2002.

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Autism, a complex developmental disability, is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain and usually is evident in children by age 3, according to the Autism Society of America's Web site.

A spectrum disorder, the symptoms and characteristics of autism can surface in a wide range of combinations, from mild to severe. Although autism is explained by a certain set of behaviors, children and adults may behave in a mix of the behaviors in any degree of severity. Two children with autism may act very differently from one another and may have a different set of skills, according to the Web site.

Shulbank said the increased number of autistic students is not due to the state's increased ability to identify those students, who by age 9 will have shown enough characteristics of the disability for a determination to be made. Those characteristics include a lack of social and communication skills or difficulty changing routines.

At the same time state educators began identifying autism, they also began identifying traumatic brain injuries. Shulbank said the number of students with traumatic brain injuries has not increased greatly during the same time period.

"I've been here for 25 years and no group has increased like this," she said.

How do children develop autism?

"That is the question of the century at the moment," Shulbank said.

There are many hunches about what causes the disability, she said, but perhaps the most popular theory suggests that vaccinations that contain mercury cause it during early childhood.

"But we just don't know," she said.

The number of autistic students in Washington County Public Schools has steadily increased over the years, from one student in 1992 to 57 students this year, said Cheryl Strong, the school system's interim director of student services.

"It's true nationally. We're not unique," she said.

It is estimated that autism and its associated behaviors affect as many as two to six people out of 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disability is four times more prevalent in boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic or social boundaries, according to the Autism Society of America Web site.

In Washington County, however, school officials have found more cases in girls than in boys, Strong said.

Autistic students attend special education classes or are placed in classes with students their own age, Strong said.

Wanting to learn more about how to help students with the condition, Washington County student services employees got approval to hire consultants from Johns Hopkins University and Grafton School, a Berryville, Va.-based school for children with severe disabilities.

Those consultants trained special education teachers, who Strong said have varied levels of experience in dealing with autistic children.

Shulbank said more training is needed across the state to help teachers determine what works best for students with varying degrees of the disability. No accommodations are being made for autistic students under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The act is designed to close the achievement gap between schools and make sure all students, including disadvantaged groups, are academically proficient.

The state education department is working with Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health to determine how children in Maryland and Delaware are diagnosed with autism, Shulbank said.

Shulbank said she is working to get Medicaid waivers to help families with autistic children get help to manage behavioral problems associated with the disability. Waivers have been approved for 900 students, a small portion of the state's young autistic population, which Shulbank estimates to be close to 4,000 children.

She said waivers are given to families with severely disabled autistic children who would benefit from having their parents trained on the disability's complications as opposed to having their children institutionalized.

"We are acutely and painfully aware that there's an increase and they're in need of intense treatment," Shulbank said.

"We're doing what we can to stay abreast of the situation," she said.

The Autism Society of America Web site is at www.autismsociety.org.

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