2012-04-19 / Local News

Educating Leelanau’s 25 students diagnosed with autism

By Amy Hubbell
of the Enterprise staff

There are about 300 students in the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) identified as having Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Twenty-five are in Leelanau County.

“The number of students identified with autism has increased from what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” said Suttons Bay superintendent Mike Murray, comparing it to the number of students identifi ed as having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). “I don’t know if they have better methods of identifying them or if it’s something else.”

Murray said over a period of time, the state has raised the bar in the classroom. Years ago, students considered “marginal” received little extra help. That is no longer the case.

Deb Nelson is director of the TBAISD’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Program at Oak Park School in Traverse City.

“We provide programming and services with the ultimate goal of keeping students in general education and help them access the curriculum,” Nelson said.

A continuum of services is offered from birth through age 26.

The majority of students regionally are in general education classrooms and have an individual education plan (IEP) in place that identifies goals along with “accommodations” to keep them in the classroom.

“The IEP identifies what’s needed in order for the student to function effectively in the least restrictive environment,” Murray said.

Students whose ASD is so great that they can’t function in a traditional setting participate in the “self-contained” Oak Park program. The ISD also has two classes at East Middle School in Traverse City.

Glen Lake Elementary principal Kim Wright said she, too, has seen an increase in the number of students diagnosed with ASD in the 30 years she’s been in education.

“I believe we’ve seen such an increase because the definition of autism has been expanded,” said Wright, who was a special education teacher at TBAISD’s New Campus, which is attended by area students with severe emotional or behavioral issues.

The law states that schools must make accommodations to provide students with the “least restrictive environment” possible for learning.

Glen Lake has six ASD students and another who was once in special education, but no longer needs these services.

To provide the least restrictive environment to these students, Glen Lake provides each with an aide which is part of their IEP.

“We support them as best we can to keep them in the general education classroom,” Wright said. “If there’s a behavioral issue we bring in a social worker.”

The school also makes use of an autism consultant available through the ISD.

Leland Public School has five ASD students; all have IEPs.

“They prescribe the right support system to ensure the students have what they need to succeed,” superintendent Jason Stowe said. “This could range from individual aides, part-time aides and special education aides to very little assistance at all for high functioning students.”

When possible, students with autism earn traditional high school diplomas. Those who can’t receive “certificates of completion”. Both student groups can continue to work with the ISD in transition programs aimed at helping them move from school to the work force.

Northport School superintendent Jeff Tropf declined comment, citing pending litigation (see story below).

As a growing percentage of the population these students reach adulthood, the demand for transition services is also growing.

Grand Valley State University’s Autism Education Center recently received a $24,200 grant from Autism Speaks, a national leading foundation set up to combat the effects of autism. The grant will help improve services for individuals with autism in the areas of education and young adult services.

“This is an important award since it helps our Autism Education Center collaborate nationally and allows us to create a better model of transition services in Michigan,” said Amy Matthews, director of GVSU’s autism center. “The project will expand a statewide collaborative effort to provide employment, educational and community learning opportunities for young adults with autism spectrum disorder.”

Matthews said the long-term goal of the project involves establishing a discovery portfolio platform for individuals with ASD, starting early in their school career, that will support transitions throughout school and into adulthood.

Autism diagnoses triple in decade

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Michigan students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) eligible for public services has more than tripled.

According to information from Grand Valley State University’s autism center, there were 15,403 students identifi ed with ASD in 2010. That’s more than three times the ASD students identifi ed in 2000 and more than 10 times the 1,208 identified statewide 22 years ago.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) refer to several disorders that fall under one umbrella. Generally speaking these disorders are marked by impairments in the areas of communication, socialization and restricted patterns of interest. They are:

 Autism —Manifested in communication, socialization and restrictive or stereotype patterns of behavior.

 Asperger’s Syndrome —Manifested in socialization and restrictive or stereotype patterns of behavior.

 Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified — Manifested in socialization and communication or restricted, repetitive or stereotyped patterns of interest.

 Childhood Disintegrative Disorder — The child experiences normal behavior until the ages of 2 to 4 years, followed by a dramatic loss of previously developed intellectual, social and communication skills.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about 1 in 88 children in the United States have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Information from ASD A Parent’s Guide, published by the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District

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