Educators, Officials Face 400 % Spike in Autism

As the number of children believed to be autistic has skyrocketed in Texas and worldwide, much of the public debate has focused on the reasons for the rapid increase. But after a decade in which the state has seen a fourfold spike in diagnoses of the condition — to nearly 30,000 — the more pressing questions for policymakers are how to best educate afflicted students and how to pay for it.

During the last legislative session, State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, introduced legislation to expand the availability of special education training to Texas teachers, influenced, in part, by the growing number of students with autism. The bill included a small stipend for participation to encourage additional training, but after passing unanimously in the Senate, it died in the House.

Now some lawmakers are exploring the idea of building charter schools for special ed students and integrating them into existing campuses. They’re looking, in particular, at a New York City charter school for autistic children that is located inside a public school. “I absolutely believe that a charter school system is viable for Texas,” says state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. Another “ideal option,” Shapiro says, is putting autism charter schools on state university campuses, where they could draw on university money, staff and expertise.

With the looming budget shortfall next year, increased financing for special education programs could be a tough sell. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, worries the shortfall, which could be as much as $18 billion, could force the Texas Education Agency to cut early autism intervention and evaluation programs — an important step to successfully treating and educating children with special needs. As the next legislative session approaches, Van de Putte says her colleagues need to determine which special education programs work and use their limited funds wisely.

Kathy Clayton, a special education administrator at TEA, says the Legislature has formed a committee for the next session to determine if state financing rates for special education students needs to be adjusted. Shapiro remains hopeful despite the budget woes. “I think you’re going to see the Legislature open their arms and their hearts and make changes to make these parents and these children’s life’s better,” she says.

 

Mysterious causes

According to the American Society of Autism's definition, the affliction typically appears in the first three years of life and impacts the portions of the brain that control social interaction. Autistic children and adults struggle with verbal and nonverbal communication.

The quadrupling in the number of autistic students in the Texas public schools can be attributed to multiple factors, including increased awareness about autism, broadening of the diagnostic criteria to include Asperger syndrome and other similar symptoms, along with earlier diagnosis, says Anna Penn Hundley, vice chairwoman of the Texas Council on Autism and executive director of the Autism Treatment Center of Texas. “There is just more autism all over the world, and we don’t know why,” Hundley says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism now affects one in every 110 births in the Unites States and one in every 70 boys. A study published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine estimates that the lifetime cost of caring for someone with autism is around $3.2 million.

Experts are unsure whether the greater prevalence of autism is genetic or environmental. Some speculate that more heavy metals in the environment, such as mercury, are contributing to the increase. But experts have largely rejected what once was a leading theory: that childhood vaccinations are a contributing factor. Thimerosal, the compound often blamed, was removed or reduced in most vaccines by 2001, and the rate of autism has continued to go up. And over the last two years, federal courts have ruled that the link between childhood vaccines and autism is not scientifically valid.

Untrained teachers, frustrated parents

Causes aside, autism’s effects are indisputably profound on students, parents and teachers. Nearly 30,000 of the 4.8 million students in Texas schools are classified as autistic, according to TEA data. Lawmakers have taken note of the growing autistic population and the increasing volume of complaints from frustrated parents. And they are looking to new programs and to other states for potential solutions.

Many Texas teachers have limited knowledge and training to teach students with autism. With more and more autistic students in regular classrooms, many parents say teachers must be better prepared. Regional Educational Service Centers, which are essentially branch offices of state government, provide free online training modules and face-to-face workshops for interested teachers and school professionals, but the programs are not mandatory, and teachers must complete them on their own time.

 

“What we're working on is making districts very aware of all training and technical assistance that is available to them,” Clayton says.

The quality of Texas special education programs for autistic students runs the gamut, and the number of autistic students in classrooms decreases as children get older, TEA data shows. Some mental health advocates speculate that the reason for that trend is that parents take their children out of public schools and seek education instead in a private or homeschool setting.

“A lot of parents just get frustrated, and they just don’t see the point in continuing. It’s a lose-lose for everybody,” says Colleen Horton, program officer at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

One of the biggest frustrations for parents, Horton says, is that schools don’t adequately prepare students with autism to transition into adult programs and participate in the community. Districts are required by law to provide special education services for students until they are 22 years old, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to enter the world. “We can teach them for 12 to 15 years, but if we are not preparing them for something after that, many end up sitting on the couch with nothing to do,” Horton says.

Barbara Kaatz, a program specialist at TEA, says the law requires schools to provide transition services for students in special education, and that their interests are taken into consideration when plans for their future are made. Transition services have improved significantly over the last several years, she says. But advocates fear that access to services can be limited because many parents do not know what is available to them and because the types of services available frequently vary among school districts. But certainly not all parents of autistic children are dissatisfied. State policy makers hope schools can produce more experiences like that of Leigh Dusek, whose 5-year-old son will be entering kindergarten in the fall. The special education services in Frisco ISD are “fantastic," she says. "It has been amazing personally. They have given us everything I've asked for, everything I've needed.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.