The Autism Debate
The developmental disorder known as autism has gained much attention as the number of cases continue to grow. Is there an epidemic, or is something else behind the increase? Plus, Kent General Hospital goes robotic and be sure to protect yourself from allergies.
(page 2 of 5)
Indeed, several studies indicate that the numbers of children receiving special education for other cognitive deficits declined as the number of those getting help for autism was rising. But if more kids are truly developing autism, what’s fueling the increase? As with most illnesses, experts believe genetics and environmental factors play a role. Vaccinations have been a favorite target, but no solid link has been found.
No matter what is fueling the surge, one thing is certain: More resources will be needed to meet the needs of children and families affected by the disorder. Advocates agree that Delaware has done a good job of providing services, but they say the state will need to reorder its priorities to meet future demand. “We were ahead of the curve for 20 years, but we allowed our systems to get overloaded, and we didn’t look out for new and improving models,” says Theda Ellis, executive director of Autism Delaware. “We do some great things for kids, but are we where we were? No.”
One area Delaware leads is education. The Delaware Autistic Program is the only statewide public school program in the nation for autistic children. One district in each county administers the 30-year-old program, which now serves more than 700 students. That’s three times as many as 15 years ago.
The growth has brought challenges. Finding qualified staff to teach autistic children can be tough. “The bulk of special education is oriented toward kids with mild to moderate cognitive delays,” says Dr. Vincent Winterling, director of the Delaware Autism Program. “The problem is the range of characteristics that are presented in kids with autism. It requires more sophistication in terms of your ability to figure out how to teach these kids.”
At the same time, the program’s reputation has attracted families from out of state, putting more pressure on resources. Officials estimate that transferred students account for about 10 percent of the program’s enrollment.
“As a general rule, letting more kids into the system is not always the best thing, because you’re diluting valuable resources,” says Winterling. “Right now we’re hanging in there, but there’s always the need to upgrade training, upgrade recruitment.”
Meanwhile, school districts, including Brandywine, Capital and Seaford, are opting to educate their autistic students by following approaches approved by the state Board of Education and the Delaware Autism Program. More districts will need to increase services to their autistic students to keep up with demand.
“The DAP doesn’t have the capacity to serve all the children who might have a need to be served,” says Martha Toomey, who directs special education services for the Delaware Department of Education.
That could be a challenge for smaller districts. “It’s hard to build the capacity within the smaller districts to serve every child as effectively as possible,” says Dr. Peter Doehring, a former statewide director of the Delaware Autistic Program who is now director of regional programs for the Center for Autism Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Page 3: The Autism Debate, continues...