As I reflect on the steep rise in students who are diagnosed with Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I think back to those days when special needs were first being identified and wonder, “Did we have kids with autism and didn’t know it.” I never heard of it. In fact I just read that it wasn’t until 1980 that it was introduced as a separate diagnostic category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
I can remember my first exposure to Autism – Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) with Tom Cruise as his brother Charlie. Here’s the dialogue from the movie as Charlie tries to figure out why Raymond is in an institution:
Charlie: He's not crazy, he's not retarded but he's here.
Dr. Bruner: He's an autistic savant. People like him used to be called idiot savants. There's certain deficiencies, certain abilities that impairs him.
Charlie: So he's retarded.
Dr. Bruner: Autistic. There's certain routines, rituals that he follows.
Charlie: Rituals, I like that.
Dr. Bruner: The way he eats, sleeps, walks, talks, uses the bathroom. It's all he has to protect himself. Any break from this routine leaves him terrified.
For more Rain Man dialogue go to: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095953/quotes
Richard Rende, writing for Parents Magazine, says that in 1980 the rate if autism was typically quoted as 4 in 10,000. The most recent reported rate is 1 in 50. Without a doubt, every school superintendent I know will agree that the numbers have increased dramatically in the last 10 years. I can’t help but wonder why. Are there really more or are we just getting better at putting labels on kids?
In Calvert County Public Schools we have 15,600 students and there are 169 students identified in special education with autism as their disability. 83% are male. It is highly likely that there are some on the spectrum who are undiagnosed and others diagnosed who do not require special education services.
Ari Ne'eman is a young man with ASD and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on Disability in 2009. He lives in Washington and has been a presenter to school districts. I’ve chatted with him a few times and heard him speak – very powerful. He points out that it is indeed a spectrum of behaviors. He likes to say, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” In other words, no two are alike.
Here’s an interesting thought. If there are that many in our student population, are there any CCPS employees? Would we employ them? If they came forward and told us that they were ASD, would we offer them accommodations in the work place to help them be successful?
World Autism Awareness Day is officially April 2. Since we are on Spring Break we will acknowledge and celebrate on April 17.