Parents to serve as advocates for autistic students’ programs 

A defunct committee addressing education for challenged students has been revived

REDWOOD CITY — Patricia Sharp has nothing but praise for the teachers who have helped rein in her son’s biting, screaming outbursts at school in recent months, so much so she wants more autistic kids, like her own, to have expanded access to the latest teaching techniques.

Sharp, along with other parents, recently convinced county Office of Education administrators to reconvene a disbanded task force to probe local autistic children’s educational needs. And for the first time, the 18-member Blue Ribbon Committee on Autism includes the parents of children with varying degrees of autism.

"It’s really a privilege to be a part of [the committee] because we’re going to be a voice for parents," Sharp said. Her son, 8-year-old Chad, attends Palos Verde School in San Bruno, and has severe autism. While Chad’s behavior at school has improved, his academic performance could be better, she said.

The committee met for the first time this month and began researching the best practices in identifying autistic kids, treating them and delivering services in a cost-effective manner, according to Lauren O’Leary, county administrator for the Special Education Local Plan Area.

In the last five years, the prevalence of severe autism in the county has risen 135 percent, from 275 reported cases in 2001 to 645 in 2006, records show. Over the same period, educational funding, which is based on overall public school enrollment, has declined, O’Leary said.

While educating an average student can cost about $7,500 a year, there are no additional state or federal funds for special needs students, such as those with autism, whose educational costs can run from $20,000 to $100,000, officials said.

One curriculum the committee may look to model is a pilot program her son participated in, Sharp said. The pilot brings together paraprofessionals, therapists, teachers and parents on a regular basis, allowing them to share their findings, as well as share teaching approaches that can be carried into the home, Sharp said.

Sharp and others began lobbying the county Office of Education to reinstate the committee on autism and fully fund the pilot her son participated in, called Training and Educating Autistic and Communicatively Handicapped Children (TEACCH), after a 2004-05 civil grand jury report made the same recommendations. "The parents reminded us that that had been a recommendation [by the grand jury] then and that we had agreed to do it," said O’Leary, who joined the county office last year.

County Office of Education Superintendent Jean Holbrook agreed to reconvene the committee this summer, not long after a series of articles ran in the Examiner exposing gaps in funding and a lack of responsiveness to parent concerns.

Autism’s growth

The dramatic increase in autism isn’t relegated to San Mateo County. In San Francisco, officials have seen a 90 percent jump in students diagnosed with severe autism, and in Santa Clara County, the figure has risen more than 95 percent. "It does seem to be going on in most places in this country, and in most countries where they keep data," said Professor Robert L. Hendren, executive director of the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at U.C. Davis. Whether the cause of the increase is environmental or due to evolving methods of diagnosis isn’t yet clear, Hendren said.

Growth by county

Year: San Mateo/ San Francisco/ Santa Clara

2001: 236/ 198/ 862

2002: 277/ 226/ 1,022

2003: 333/ 257/ 1,198

2004: 409/ 297/ 1,391

2005: 480/ 335/ 1,682

2006: 553/ 378/ N/A

Source: California Department of Education

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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