Editorial: Learn from autism situation
By TCPalm Staff
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
While a recent incident at St. Lucie County's Morningside Elementary School has created a national debate over the treatment of a child suspected of being autistic, the incident likely will lead to reform.
Primarily, the incident in which kindergarten teacher Wendy Portillo encouraged classmates to present their opinions of 5-year-old Alex Barton and his disruptive behavior has increased awareness of autism and the need for training and support for teachers in properly dealing with autistic students.
Alex was not diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder until after the disciplinary incident at Morningside, but a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, had been suspected.
In many cases, because the law requires that children be placed in their least restrictive environment, many with Asperger's are placed in a regular classroom.
But, teachers must be aware of the special needs of children with autism, and the teachers and the students need expert support. With that kind of support, the incident involving Alex may have been avoided.
While Treasure Coast school districts are increasing their understanding of autism and their responsibilities to the students with autism and with their classmates, more should be done.
• There must be quicker diagnoses of autism. Until then, there are not usually individual plans created to meet the student's needs.
• School districts offer autism training and workshops. Bill Tomlinson, director of special education for the St. Lucie County School District, said that training is "strongly encouraged," but not mandated. It should be mandatory, at the very least for all teachers working with autistic children.
• Training is generally offered at the discretion of individual school principals. It should be mandatory and uniform.
• Treasure Coast school districts should take more advantage of the Treasure Coast Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at Florida Atlantic University in Port St. Lucie, which works with teachers, parents and children through a variety of expert help and support services. While all the Treasure Coast districts use the services of the center, they could benefit from additional use.
Jennifer Agganis, site coordinator for the Treasure Coast program, also noted that the training is not mandatory.
Further, she said, center services must be expanded in the schools to include more general education teachers. The trend is for more autistic children, often those with Asperger's, to be placed in regular classes.
• There needs to be more honest reporting of disciplinary incidents in classrooms that might lead to earlier diagnoses of autism and the creation of individualized plans. Those reports need to be compiled by teachers and principals and forwarded to appropriate staff members at the district office level.
• Coordination is critical among teachers, administrators, parents and health experts in establishing realistic plans and goals for children with autism disorders. The goal must be providing the most appropriate education for the child through whatever support is needed.
Neither Morningside School nor other schools on the Treasure Coast are unique to this new educational dilemma. Because of the Morningside situation, however, there should be greater awareness of the issue here and a better understanding of addressing the needs of children, children with autism, their parents and their teachers.