When Patricia Taylor’s 2-year-old son Charlie started losing his language skills, developing a shorter attention span and making odd movements with his hands and body, she typed some of the behaviors into Google.
The search results were clear: he had autism.
The doctors confirmed the online diagnosis a few months later, but by that time Taylor already knew what Charlie had and what it would mean for their family.
“I had been through the feeling of devastation and crying,” said Taylor. “You are kind of thrown into the fire right away…You have to kind of figure things out as you go along.”
Autism is a brain disorder that can vary in degree and result in difficulties with social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communications.
And according to a recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disorder is on the rise. One in 68 children now have autism, a 30 percent increase from two years ago.
The actual causes for autism still remain a hotly debated topic, but one reason for the recent uptick is growing public awareness which has led to earlier identification of the disorder in children.
School districts have also seen the surge, and it has had a significant impact on their finances and academic approach.
Since 2006, Charlottesville City Schools have seen a 81 percent increase in autistic students and Albemarle County Public Schools have had a 83 percent increase. The growth has resulted in both school districts adding services and training more teachers in best practices.
According to Albemarle schools spokesman Phil Giaramita, the County has added special education classrooms, recently hired two extra behavior specialists and sent some of their 125 special education teachers to an autism-training program in North Carolina. Charlottesville also sends teachers to the program.
“We have become more specialized in how we train and have our teachers deal with our kids,” Giaramita said. “We have increased our resources for staff to be able to manage these cases and work with these cases and work with these kids so they recognize their full academic potential.”
Beth Baptist, Charlottesville’s director of student services and achievement, said Charlottesville has taken a similar approach. The City schools, Baptist said, have added a class for autistic students at Clark Elementary School and a class for preschoolers at Johnson Elementary. The division has also stepped up it’s training for teachers.
“We have added some specific programs for autism,” said Baptist. “We are hopefully doing a better job of identifying for autism.”
Charlottesville has an evaluation process that identifies any disabilities among referred students. Early detection has been helpful in identifying what resources autistic students will need.
One of the approaches that both school systems have strived for is the inclusion of autistic students with students in general education classes. Stephanie Morris’s autistic child, Jacob, is in a program at Cale Elementary School that often uses inclusion.
“He has done beautifully,” Morris said. “We couldn’t be more happy that Jake has had the opportunity to be able to model himself after typically developing children. He has established lovely little friendships with kids in the regular ed program.”
Giaramita said the majority of Albemarle’s autistic students are in full inclusion classrooms.
However, there is another group of students that both divisions have sent to an out-of-district school that has also experienced substantial growth.
Virginia Institute of Autism
The Individuals with Disability Education Act assures that each child with a disability is given an Individual Education Program by the school system.
IEP’s are written statements that present the student’s level of academic achievement and functional performance, give measurable annual goals and present any necessary accommodations needed to measure their success.
“Some schools when they address individual needs discover they need to have very specific educational programming,” said John Lloyd, the coordinator for the program in special education at UVa’s Curry School of Education. “There has really been one basic approach that has garnered regular support in the research on educational programs for children with autism and it’s a challenging effort to implement and it is sometimes known as…Applied Behavior Analysis training.”
One organization that has used this approach is the Virginia Institute of Autism. Founded in 1996, the private, nonprofit school serves autistic students with a variety of disabilities from school districts that can’t provide the services necessary for them to succeed.
The Virginia Institute of Autism is located on Westwood Road and has doubled in enrollment since 2010.
According to Lloyd, Applied Behavior Analysis is often practiced with positive reinforcement.
When a child displays good behavior or does something that they may have been working on, like starting to talk or sitting up straight, the child will be rewarded with positive reinforcement from the teacher. This could include praise, laughter, food or a hug. The reinforcement is supposed to encourage the child to replicate the good behavior and hopefully learn the skill.
The school educates students aged two to 22 who have diagnoses including autism and developmental delay, as well as intellectual and other disabilities.
“We have definitely seen an increase in referrals from school districts,” said Rorie Hutter, the director of education at VIA. “A few years back we were serving typically 3-4 schools districts. Right now we have students from 13 different localities.”
Hutter said enrollment has doubled since 2010, and the school now serves 48 students.
VIA is different from Charlottesville-Albemarle’s programs because it offers one-to-one services, has staff trained specifically for educating autistic students and it operates year-round in order to have continuity and avoid regression among students.
According to Taylor, who moved to the area so Charlie could go to VIA, the school encourages parents to come into school and see how the staff is helping their children.
“Its very daunting for parents to figure out what to do for their child,” said Taylor. “[Charlie] needs one-to-one instruction [and] well trained staff that know what they’re doing, that know how to work with kids on the far end of the spectrum…We are just so blessed to have him in a place like VIA.”
But the cost for a student to go to VIA can have a major impact on a school system’s finances. The cost to attend VIA is $80,000 per year and currently all of the students are paid for by their home school district.
The Comprehensive Services Act (CSA) for Students with Disabilities requires states to provide a certain amount of the funding depending on the jurisdiction, but localities must still pay the remaining tuition and the full transportation costs for the students. This can be expensive because students come from as far away as Fauquier and Rappahannock counties to go to VIA.
According to Giaramita, Albemarle currently spends $750,000 a year from local funding sources for 26 students at VIA. Charlottesville sends seven students to VIA for a total cost of approximately $560,000, which includes state funding support. The city also spends $200,000 on its two autism classrooms.
What the future holds
As the number of students with autism continues to increase, parent Stephanie Morris said increased funding for early detection will be critical, and that greater education of the services available to families will be important.
“I know a lot of families that don’t want their children to be labeled,” said Morris. “I kind of take the opposite approach, because if you want to label my child that’s fine, because it affords them all sorts of doors and windows to be open in terms of services that the County then can provide.”
Charlottesville parent Jessica Primm, whose child is in general education classes in high school and has been assigned a teaching aide, said the school system could help parents prepare for the challenges that come with putting an autistic student through school.
“It would be really good if they kind of gave you a roadmap of how the system works and kind of a list of names and contacts within your school that you should know,” Primm said.
Morris said if students can be given the services they are needed they can excel.
“Nine times out of 10 these children are brilliant,” said Morris. “It’s just a matter of unlocking that.”
“The earlier age we can do that and understand that yes they need additional support, and yes they are on the spectrum…the better chance of them being able to contribute to our community and our society versus them not,” said Morris.