ANNAPOLIS – Maryland schools are struggling to meet the needs of a growing number of autistic students and are so overwhelmed they’re considering turning over part of their responsibility to the state health department.
More than 4,000 children, ages 3-21, are diagnosed as autistic in Maryland; up from 260 students in 1993, according to a study conducted by Marjorie Shulbank, State Department of Education disabilities specialist. Nationwide, 50 new cases are diagnosed each day, an advocacy group reported.
The disability impairs social functioning and communication and is usually associated with repetitive and stereotyped behaviors, said Craig Newschaffer, a Johns Hopkins University professor researching autism.
Those impairments require special services and individual attention that school districts are hard pressed to provide. There is a shortage of special education teachers, whose job it is to tutor such children mainstreamed into the classroom, and there’s a lengthy waiting list for state aid to finance programs designed to help autistic children.
Special education teachers were listed as a “critical shortage” in an already sparse supply of teachers statewide, according to this year’s Maryland Teacher Staffing Report.
Baltimore City — with more than 400 autistic students — started the school year with 45 teacher vacancies in special education. Harford County has about 130 autistic children and reported 3.5 vacancies — all special education.
Filling those slots is very difficult.
“There are no silver bullets that we have found — we are looking to increase partnerships with colleges and universities, recruit student teachers and convince them to stay,” said Bonnie S. Copeland, Baltimore City Public Schools chief executive officer, at a State Board of Education meeting.
But larger initiatives are being made statewide.
“We are putting in more than $1 million to the new budget to address children with special needs,” said Nancy S. Grasmick, schools superintendent. These funds are a part of the fiscal year 2006 budget.
But $1 million may not be enough to specifically meet the demands of the state’s autistic children.
The state Department of Education grants 900 families with autistic children Medicaid waivers to finance care of their children who would otherwise be institutionalized. But nearly as many — 800 families — dwell on a waiting list for the waivers.
The rising demand for the waivers and the persistent delays in providing care, may see the department turning over responsibility for the waivers to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in the future, said Grasmick at a State Board of Education meeting.
Under these waivers, autistic children can receive a range of services — from intensive individual support to respiratory care to working with contractors to make homes safe to family training and behavior therapy.
Patrick Good, 11, from Harford County, was among the first to qualify for a waiver in 2001.
The state aid relieved his mother, Ruth, from two years of care her family paid out of pocket. His current one-on-one program costs about $20,000 per year. But many programs are more expensive, she said.
“There are some services, but we had to fight for what we get,” Ruth Good said.
Patrick attends Harford County’s John Archer School — the only public school in the county exclusively serving children with disabilities — where he is in a class of seven students with a range of disabilities.
Just three schools statewide are specifically designed to help students with autism, and all are operated by Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children — a non-profit with facilities in both private and public school buildings.
Upon county recommendation, a child can attend at the jurisdiction’s expense. But without that recommendation, parents have to pay through insurance or with their own money.
There are a few other options for autistic students.
More special education teachers are being trained in the state, and the state education department operates an early intervention program, which includes autistic pupils and which curb the severity of future autistic behavior. – 30 – CNS-10-1-04