By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – The number of autistic children in Maryland’s public schools has grown by roughly 300 students per school year for four years, according to the state Department of Education, but advocates say it is difficult to pinpoint a single cause.
“The numbers are definitely going up,” said Marjorie Shulbank, a section chief at the department’s Division of Special Education. But, “nobody can tell you what is the cause.”
Shulbank said Maryland schools had 999 students, ranging in age from 3 to 20, who were categorized as autistic in 1996. By 1999, that number had grown to 1,886 autistic students.
Until around seven years ago, autism was not one of the categories schools could use to define students needing special education, Shulbank said, making a long-term comparison of the numbers of autistic children impossible. Children back then received services, but they were grouped with other categories such as “seriously emotionally disturbed” or “other health impaired,” she said.
Now that the category exists, a broad spectrum of behaviors fit under the umbrella of autism, which may help explain the rising numbers, said Mary Hepple, an educational consultant who helps families in the Baltimore region with special education needs.
The Autism Society of America describes autism as a complex developmental disability that usually appears before age 3 and interferes with an individual’s ability to communicate with others and relate to the outside world.
Some people with autism have repetitive motions, difficulty adapting to changes in routine and strong sensitivity to their environment. Others may become aggressive, inadvertently injure themselves or experience other medical problems.
The state school system’s definition of autism includes severely disabled autistic children as well as children with pervasive developmental disorder, who do not meet all of the medical criteria for autism but display similar symptoms.
Hepple said doctors are becoming more skilled at recognizing all of these disorders.
“There seems to be a heightened awareness of the spectrum” of autistic disorders by people in the special education and medical communities, said Linda Carter-Ferrier of Severn, whose son is autistic.
As a volunteer with the Anne Arundel and the Baltimore/Chesapeake chapters of the Autism Society of America, she said she has received a lot of calls from people who are just receiving a diagnosis of autism for children who are 8, 9 and even 10 years old.
Shulbank also said families may be more willing to accept the label of autism than in the past, in part because intensive therapy and other treatments offer hope of improvement.
Some parents and researchers believe there are just more autistic children due to environmental factors, particularly reactions to vaccines, said Shulbank.
But medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say there is no scientific link between vaccinations and autism.
As the numbers grow, so does the need for specialized educational services. Autistic children can vary considerably and programs need to be specific to their needs, said Hepple.
In many cases, young autistic children need highly structured programs with limited distractions and very direct teaching, she said. Older children may be able to spend time in regular classes, but still need help with social skills and emotional support.
Hepple said many schools are doing a good job with early intervention, but need better-trained one-on-one assistants in the lower grades and more counselors, speech therapists and behavioral specialists in upper grades.
Carter-Ferrier said school programs for autistic children can differ depending on the district. She gets frustrated, for example, that schools right down the road in Baltimore County have better summer programs — with more consistency for autistic students who have trouble adjusting to change — than the schools in Anne Arundel County, where she lives.
Services for autistic children are costly, said Shulbank, and state and local school systems question how they will afford such programs as the numbers increase, particularly with limited federal support.
But Carter-Ferrier said she hopes that the growing number of families facing autism will help schools understand the need for more therapists and individualized services.
As the number of children with autism grows, “there will be more of us (parents) and we will speak a little louder and a little more often,” Carter- Ferrier said.