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Autism up in local schools

Both, Andalusia City Schools and Covington County Schools have seen increases in students who have autism, the disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.

Currently there are 11 students within the ACS system with autism and 18 in the county school system.

ACS Special Education coordinator Sonja Hines said the school system typically averages four to five students with autism, but the number has increased.

Still, Hines said she doesn’t necessarily believe there are that many more children with autism, but that parents, medical professionals and educators are doing a better job identifying the syndrome.

“Early intervention is key,” she said. “The earlier you intervene the better the results.”

Typically, experts say, the signs of the disease all begin before a child is 3.

Billie Thompson, Covington County Schools’ special education coordinator, said the numbers in the school system were as low as 10 in 2007, but have since increased.

“I think overall, there is just an increase in the number of students having autism,” she said. “We are definitely seeing more preschoolers and young children with it. That’s true statewide not just in Covington County. I guess that’s why there is such a big initiative for autism.”

Nationally, an estimated one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, which makes it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.

Autism Speaks estimates that about 1.5 million people in the U.S. and 10s of millions worldwide are affected by autism.

The actual cause of autism is unknown, and Hines said there is much debate over the causes.

Autism covers a spectrum of disorders, in fact, autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). The other pervasive developmental disorders are PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified), Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

Hines said she and others in the ACS system have been working to receive specialized training in the area of identifying students with autism. This training is an initiative sponsored by the state department of education.

“We need to get information out to parents and service providers about the necessity of early identification,” she said. “I have made autism one of my priorities. No one autistic child is the same (as another); therefore educators must be equipped with a variety of strategies to teach students with autism.”

Through the department of education’s initiative, Autism Alabama, local school systems are getting autism training.

“The initiative is to have people trained in identifying autism,” Hines said. “All three systems took advantage of pursuing the process.”

Autism Alabama is an initiative of Special Education Services, Alabama Department of Education, to provide on-line training resources for parents and educational professionals on autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It can be accessed at http://alex.state.al.us/autismAL.

Child Find is another resource the systems use to help identify children with disabilities.

“Child Find, early identification and early intervention definitely contributes to us helping these children early,” Thompson said. “We are seeing great strides in a lot of the intervention, and we’re doing everything we can.”

Parents who suspect their child has a disability can contact the local school system, if the child is between 3 and 21 or call 1-800-543-3098 for birth to 2 years.

The special education coordinator for Opp City Schools could not be reached for comment.