Thursday, June 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

Navigating a Complicated System

// Parents plead with school district to save successful autism program at local elementary school

In the wake of National Autism Awareness Month, a highly regarded autism program at an award-winning school in Tacoma may be closing by the end of the school year.

Although the program itself is slated to move from Lowell Elementary to Jefferson Elementary, parents are up in arms over the possibility of losing a teacher – and the overall supportive educational environment – who inspired significant improvement in their children’s conditions.

“Students enter this program and leave entirely different people,” said Dana Napoleon, whose son Keanu, 9, is enrolled in the K-5 program at Lowell Elementary. “We also have more than 100 signatures from parents of general education students in support of keeping the program, because interacting with our kids benefits typical students, too.”

Interacting with students in general education classes benefits autistic children immensely, allowing them to mimic behaviors and observe social interactions. “Our kids will be placed in what looks like a separate wing at Jefferson, and we do not want that,” Napoleon said, adding that her son spends time in mainstream classrooms on a regular basis at Lowell. “It’s so important to have an element of peer integration because our kids learn from others, and we need them to learn behaviors that typical kids have.”

Children enrolled in special education programs in Tacoma move between schools more often than typical students, causing even more discomfort and confusion in many autistic children.

“Research shows that it’s difficult for kids in special education to move to multiple schools, and we’ve been working toward stabilizing the environment for them,” said Dan Voelpel, director of public information for Tacoma Public Schools. “These students will soon be able to start in kindergarten and finish in 5th grade.”

Previously, students were placed in special education programs based on space availability, requiring students to attend multiple schools. The K-5 autism program at Lowell has three students enrolled, and the district intends to roll it into Jefferson’s K-2 program. “We do not want to make decisions in the future based on where space is available, because that is not in the best interest of the kids – the best solution is to keep them in the same school as long as possible,” Voelpel said.

In the meantime, parents continue speaking out in support of the program at Lowell – including families in the autism community whose children attend other schools. Sue Leusner, whose 6-year-old son Bode is enrolled in an autism program at Franklin Elementary, believes that cutting successful programs presents one more challenge for families already facing immense hardship. “It’s true that it helps our kids with transitions if they are not forced to move schools every three years,” Leusner said. “The problem with this situation is that the program at Lowell is so successful and the kids are flourishing, so why get rid of that? The good programs for our kids in Tacoma Public Schools are few and far between and getting rid of the best program they have is frustrating to a lot of people.”

Leusner’s daughter goes to Lowell Elementary, but her son was not offered enrollment in the autism program. “I know of many families of kids who do not have autism who are very upset these kids are leaving,” she said. “There is a lack of diversity at the school, and this program allowed the typical kids to experience some diversity.”

Amy Carr, whose third-grade son has changed schools four times in four years, knows all too well how important it is to develop a safe, stable educational environment for children with autism. “The district always thought they could do better for my son,” Carr said. “But their biggest failure is that they haven’t had an autism specialist in at least three years, and they do not understand autism spectrum disorders. And there are dangers out there for these kids because they’re not able to self-report. They don’t always have the social skills to tell someone they’ve been abused.”

When Carr discovered her son had been regularly placed in seclusion for extended periods of time, she removed him from the system altogether.

“When I talk to other autism parents, we’ve found that my son is the perfect example of what can happen if you’re not in a safe environment,” she said. “I’ve visited Lowell, and the teacher has a significant understanding of what autism spectrum is. To remove him from the community Lowell provides is playing with fire.”

Although research shows a variety of causes of autism, there are even more theories and questions that remain unanswered, according to Dr. Steve Altabet, director of University of Washington Autism Center’s satellite clinic in Tacoma. “Autism can be caused by a number of factors, and many compare it to cancer in that there are many types and causes,” Altabet said.

The condition has gained momentum in recent years thanks to the advocacy of outspoken and sometimes controversial celebrities such as Jennie McCarthy. The problem is that numbers are growing at an even more rapid rate. Today, the latest statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. According to the report, boys are three to four times more likely to be impacted than girls, with 1 in 54 diagnosed with the condition.

This rise is diagnoses could be occurring for a number of reasons, according to Altabet. “A lot of it could of it could be due to more awareness and willingness of clinicians to diagnose it,” Altabet said. “It could be the broadening of the definition of what autism spectrum disorders are.”

Although each child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder is unique, research shows many have average to above average intelligence, but struggle with learning disabilities, social cues, communication skills and more, based on where they fall on the spectrum. With increasing awareness and a system that works in the best interests of these students, Altabet is optimistic that schools are preparing themselves well considering the information available. “I’ve spent time in classrooms and I feel that many special education programs are doing a pretty good job trying to get up to speed with autism spectrum disorders and the needs of these students,” he said. “In my opinion, more training needs to occur in the regular classrooms to better accommodate those students who are able to spend time in regular classes.”