Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bill would help students with autism

Feb 24, 2008
By Wendy K. Kleinman
Staff Writer, The Oklahoman

Jaymee Muns is the only student in her classroom; the 11-year-old has both a teacher and an aide. She has been known to become violent, even breaking her aide's nose once, because she's learned she can use her behavior to put learning on hold. Her mother says she is afraid middle school will be a nightmare.

Joy Lauffenburger, 15, makes good grades. She has had a personal aide in school since the second grade but is being weaned away so she can become more independent. Her mother said Joy has an advantage because she entered the school system before the influx of students with similar needs.

Jaymee and Joy have autism. Jaymee has rarely been in a regular education classroom; that is all Joy has ever known. One is regressing; the other is thriving. Parents of the students said including the children in regular classrooms and giving support and training to regular education teachers would benefit children with spectrum disorders like autism.

That's the goal of a bill (SB 1686) filed by Sen. Mary Easley, D-Tulsa, that calls for an emphasis to be placed on autism in schools. About 2,000 of the state's 95,000 students receiving special education services have autism, said Misty Kimbrough, assistant state superintendent of special education services.

Battle for inclusion
Jaymee started school in Putnam City, moved to Moore and now is in Stillwater.
"My goal was, Jaymee needs to be in kindergarten with all the other kids,” Shawna Muns said. At the time, she told herself, "I don't see why she can't. She can repeat every song she's ever heard; certainly she can repeat her ABCs,” she said. "I have seen children who are included; as long as they are appropriately supporting the children, the children flourish,” Muns said.
Even within her family, Jaymee has been an inspiration: She inspired her mother to pursue a doctorate in psychology, her 19-year-old sister Ashlee to work toward becoming a clinical psychologist and her 16-year-old brother Kevin, already a college student, to set his sights on neurology.

When asked to comment on Jaymee's situation, Stillwater special education director Renee Holladay said the district cannot talk about individual students. She said accommodations for students with special needs are determined on an individual basis through a team process involving a parent, administrator, special education teacher and regular teacher.

In Edmond, Joy fits the profile of a student who does well when included in regular education classes. Joy's aide no longer helps her with academic work, just social skills. Still, her mother, Melinda Lauffenburger, said the road has been rough. "I think the thing that most parents tell me is we don't know what's available and what isn't, and then the thing that teachers tell me is there's so much IEP (individualized education plan) paperwork that they don't have time to think creatively. The process is a lot more of a legal battleground, and the kids get lost in that,” said Lauffenburger, who is the director of both the Edmond and Oklahoma Family Center for Autism.

What can be done
Lauffenburger said there are five things children with autism have in common: issues with communication, social interaction, behavior, organization and sensory stimulation. The idea behind Easley's bill is to address those issues by putting an emphasis on training for teachers of prekindergarten through third-grade students so they learn to recognize symptoms and provide positive support for students with autism, said Kimbrough, the state official.

Easley could not be reached for comment, but Kimbrough said people in her office had talked with the senator about the bill. Rene Daman, director of the Oklahoma Autism Network, said there is a gap in training for regular education teachers — as well as other school personnel ranging from principals to cafeteria workers.

"In the world of autism, there's not a one-size-fits-all treatment approach, and so people will seek different treatments based on the individual needs of their child, based on the individual preferences of the family, and different districts have professionals that have training in different areas,” Daman said. Daman has been a therapist for children with various disabilities for about 15 years. Providing more training will become even more important as new students enter public schools because one in every 150 babies now is born with autism, she said.

Existing help
The State Department of Education has provided training about autism since the early 1990s, Kimbrough said. Most of the teachers who attend the training are special education teachers, she said, although she added that there is always a waiting list for the classes. The department also provides support through programs like Project PEAK at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, she said.

In addition, the state developed a pilot program in Putnam City this year where infants and toddlers with spectrum disorders spend the day with typically developing peers, Kimbrough said. "For some kids, the right services in the early years can make the difference in their long-term outcome, and our state cannot afford to not seize that opportunity because parents will die, and they will become wards of the state,” Lauffenburger said.

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