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EDITORIAL: Autism is "GROWING PHENOMENON"; VA sees sixfold increase since 2001

Nov 26, 2018, Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch: Editorial: Bring more light to decisions about autism and the classroom Autism is a growing phenomenon in Virginia, as it is in the rest of the United States. One in 59 children had been diagnosed with the disorder in 2014, up from one in 110 only six years previously. The syndrome affects not only families, as C. Suarez Rojas wrote powerfully in the Times-Dispatch on Sunday, but it is creating budgetary stress for Virginia schools. The challenge of paying for special treatment is everybody’s problem. According to the Virginia Department of Education, autism diagnoses in public school children have jumped sixfold since 2001, with 18,256 cases identified in 2016. The special needs of students with autism are driving increased state spending under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which leaped 16 percent from fiscal year 2013 to fiscal 2016, reaching $364 million. That compares to $8 billion that the commonwealth allocates to direct aid to public education. Over and above the fiscal burden, there is a cost for which there are no metrics: the cost to other students whose classroom instruction is interrupted by students with autism, some of whom are prone to tantrums, aggression, and self-injury. Under the new disciplinary regime spreading through Virginia public schools, commonly referred to as restorative justice, teachers are taking on the role of social counselor to deal with children whose outbursts disrupt classrooms. Time spent counseling autistic children — and other students with behavioral problems — is time not spent teaching. While many autistic students are mainstreamed successfully, not all of them are. In 21st century America, we rarely institutionalize children with severe cognitive disabilities. It is right and proper that schools endeavor to mainstream kids with autism. But compassion for autistic kids should be balanced by compassion for their classmates and their desire to learn free from interruption. Sunday’s RTD story profiled the contribution of Richmond’s privately run Faison Center in preparing autistic children for participation in public schools. The center accomplishes amazing things — but the specialized treatment and education it provides are expensive. There are complex tradeoffs between what’s best for the children with autism, what’s best for their classmates, and what’s best for the taxpayers. Rarely are those tradeoffs made explicit. As autism becomes even more prevalent, we Virginians need to bring behind-the-scenes bureaucratic decisions into the light of day and have an open conversation about what’s best for all.


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