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What Makes Special Education "Special"? -- Autism

Updated on September 1, 2012
With the frequency of Autism increasing, almost everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with Autism or some other Developmental Disorder.
With the frequency of Autism increasing, almost everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed with Autism or some other Developmental Disorder.

What is Autism?

Autism is defined by the Georgia Department of Education website as a developmental disability that is generally becomes evident prior to the age of three years old. Autism has severe impacts of a child's performance in the academic setting in addition to having a significant effect on development (both the rate and sequences of development). Autism typically impacts both verbal and non-verbal communication skills as well as social skills such as interaction and/or participation with others. Some other behaviors that are characteristic of Autism include: difficulty with environmental change or change in daily routine, repetitive activities, stereotypical movements, and atypical responses to sensory experiences (noises, tastes, textures, bright lights, etc). People who have been diagnosed with Autism vary greatly in their abilities and behaviors.

Autism can occur concurrently or along with other disabilities. As far as Georgia criteria, the Autism eligibility can also include students who have been diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Rett's Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, and Childhood Developmental Disorder. This is assuming the student meets the eligibility requirements for special education and that their educational performance is being impacted by the diagnosed disorder. Autism is considered the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States with an incidence rate of 1 in 88 children being effected. Autism is more prevalent in the male population with incidence rate for boys being 1 in 54. Essentially boys are effected four times more than girls. Autism is a disorder that costs $137 billion per year, but it receives only a fraction of the research funding that less prevalent childhood disorders receive. Presently there are no medical cures or ways to detect Autism. Although there is presently no cure for Autism, there are a small number of individuals who do eventually progress to the point of no longer showing signs of Autism.

Signs and Symptoms of Autism

Because Autism is a disorder that is diagnosed prior to age three, the signs are often there even in infants. Because early intervention and treatment produces the best results, it is crucial to talk with your pediatrician if you notice any of these signs. The following are early indicators of possible Autism:

  • No big smiles or warm joyful expressions by age 6 months or after
  • No copying (like when a parent coos or smiles and the baby repeats it) facial expressions, sounds, or smiles by age 9 months or after
  • No babbling by age 12 months
  • No copying of simple movements like pointing, moving, reaching, or waving by age 12 months
  • Not speaking any words by 16 months
  • Not using meaningful two word phrases by age 24 months (this does not include imitating someone)
  • Loss or backwards progress in communication skills (speech or babbling) or social skills at any time

There is a link at the bottom of this hub that will take you to the Autism Speaks website to a questionnaire that can help you and your pediatrician determine if your young child exhibits characteristics of Autism.

Effects on Education

Because ability levels and behaviors differ individually for children with Autism, so does the level of impact the disorder has on their educational performance. Some children with Autism have high levels of intellectual ability, but poor social interaction skills. There are some children with Autism who have lower levels of ability but are more willing to tolerate interaction with others. Regardless of the variable levels, children with Autism are likely to have difficulty in the typical school environment because of their cognitive ability (or ability to learn) in addition to their difficulties interacting with other students and faculty or staff members. They may be capable of learning but hindered by their lack of ability to communicate effectively with others.

What Can Schools Do?

The Georgia Department of Education has paired with the Marcus Autism Center to come up with Assessing the Needs of Children with Autism (ANCA). This was done in response to several local systems requesting training for specific staff members to help them better understand Autism and how to serve students who have been diagnosed with it or other developmental disorders. This training initiative is supposed to help educators to use the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills - Revised Edition (ABLLS-R) to facilitate the development of better goals on the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for students with Autism. These goals are developmentally appropriate and individualized to each student. Setting and working towards achieving quality personalized goals will help improve the outcome of students with Autism.

There are several different curriculums that have been developed to serve students with Autism. Public schools often use one of these many programs to help deliver behavior modification and instructional opportunites to students diagnosed with Autism. Some of these programs are based on research while others are not. Typically students with Autism are served in the traditional public school setting through special education. There are also psychoeducational facilities in Georgia that serve students with severe behavioral disabilities. These schools often house special classrooms geared at the education of students with more severe forms of Autism or other Developmental Disorders due to the behavioral nature of these diagnoses. There are some special schools that were established primarily to work with children with Autism. Very few traditional private schools accept children with spectrum disorders because they are not equipped to meet their needs. Regardless of the environment in which services are delivered, it is crucial that teachers, administrators, and support staff (parapros) understand the characteristics of Autism and that they understand and are compassionate about the learning and behavioral differences these students have. Consistency, fairness, flexibility, patience, and high expectations are also critical factors in a good program.

What Can Parents Do?

First and foremost, parents can advocate for their child. They can attend school meetings and actively participate in the educational planning for their child. If parents are not happy with what the school is doing, they have the right to express this and to make suggestions. Parents should also let the school know of medication changes, things that work well at home, or any changes at home that may have a positive or impact on the child's educational performance. It is important for the parents and the school to work as a team for improving current educational and behavioral planning as well as improving the outcomes for these students as adult community members at some point in the future. The ultimate goal is to produce well rounded, stable adults who are able to be self-sufficient and productive adult members of society.

Parents may seek help from pediatricians, developmental specialists, psychologists, psychiatrists, personal advocates, parent support groups, or even parents within their community who have children with disabilities, especially Autism Spectrum Disorders. Probably one of the best things besides advocating for their child is educating themselves on Autism so they can try things to help their child at home.


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