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Autism's growth leaves TN schools unprepared

10:55 AM, Dec 11, 2010   |    comments
Cara Crosby-Wilson hugs her son, who has autism, as his father, Lee, watches. Courtesy: JEANNE REASONOVER / THE TENNESSEAN
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Written by Julie Hubbard, The Tennessean

Cara Crosby-Wilson collects about two pink slips a week from Fairview Elementary School in Williamson County, outlining her second-grader's disciplinary problems. He's too blunt, which makes other kids feel bullied.

Jim McCarten knew something was wrong with his daughter, but screenings at her Oak Ridge public school produced no diagnosis. It took a trip to Stanford University to find answers.

Their children have autism spectrum disorders, and they want schools to do a better job handling that population of students--which has tripled and quadrupled in some districts since 2002.

Tennessee does not require teacher training on children with autism, nor does it track whether any training that schools do offer is effective, a recent state study noted.

But many say the state should be doing both.

"Unfortunately, there are teachers with students with autism that have not been trained," said Nicolette Bainbridge Brigham, training director for Vanderbilt University's Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders. "It's a complex disorder and requires certain interventions, and if personnel haven't been trained... it can be very challenging."

Autism is a nervous system disorder that affects how a person perceives the world and communicates.

The increase in children with autism and efforts by districts to include them in mainstream classes are other complicating factors.

Autism explosion

The number of children with autism served by Tennessee's public schools more than tripled from 2001 to 2007, rising from 1,293 to 4,019.

Students with autism in Metro Nashville Public Schools tripled from 2002 to 2009. Of 9,000 students in the district's exceptional education program, more than 465 have autism.

The number in Williamson County schools quadrupled in the same period, with the district serving 282.

More children are being diagnosed as doctors and parents become more educated about the disorder. And more teachers have children with autism in their classes because of the practice of inclusion--educating students together despite disabilities.

Some recent graduates have been trained to work with children with disabilities, said Carolyn Shindler, a parent representative at the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee.

"Those teaching for long periods of time have never experienced it before," she said.

Crosby-Wilson's oldest daughter, who also has an autism diagnosis, is having a good experience at Fairview High. But her son's placement in mainstream classes causes him anxiety. She's going to home-school him for third grade next year.

"They pushed strongly for inclusion during two and a half years, but it's too stressful (for him)," Crosby-Wilson said.

District spokeswoman Carol Birdsong said she couldn't comment on individual student cases. Williamson County employs four autism-counseling teachers and does general training for employees who are interested.

Catching up to do

A three-part comptroller's office study commissioned by state Sens. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, is revealing that services for people with autism have far to go in Tennessee, given the rise in diagnoses. Part two as released this month.

The report's author, Joseph Woodson, said the condition is relatively new, and agencies have to catch up.

Many school districts, for example, offer training to serve these children, although it isn't required.

"At the state level, we don't have a catalog of which systems are best to teach autism," he said. "There's not a really great picture statewide of who is prepared."

McNally and Jamie Woodson didn't respond to requests for comment about whether they are considering legislation related to autism.

Some states offer children with disabilities vouchers to attend private schools that could better serve parents' needs, but Joseph Woodson said that might not be the answer in Tennessee.

The goal in Metro Nashville Public Schools is to train every teacher to serve children with autism because at some point he or she will run across it, said Denise Rollins, director of social and emotional learning in Metro's exceptional education department.

A seven-member team of autism experts trains teachers who request it, and with the increase in diagnoses, Rollins wishes the team were larger.

The Tennessee Department of Education partners with Vanderbilt's TRIAD center to train teachers, and the training is free to school districts. The three-day, in-house sessions require teachers to be out of their classrooms, which can discourage districts and sometimes sessions aren't full.

"From a professional standpoint, it would be good to require mandatory training, especially when it's free from the state," said LaTamara Jackson, a TRIAD trainer.

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