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By DIANA FISHLOCK, The Patriot-News

June 07, 2010, 12:00AM

At Lawnton Elementary School, fourth-grader Philip Givler receives individual and group speech and language therapy and spends half his time in an autism classroom.

He used to visit a sensory room daily and receive occupational therapy to help him master physical tasks, such as holding a pencil.

Philip, 10, of Lower Paxton Township, is one of a growing group of students with some form of autism.

Schools also have seen a huge growth in numbers. As of December, 18,879 Pennsylvania students with autism were eligible for special education. Much of the growth in numbers results from doctors becoming better at being able to diagnose autism.

“This significant increase has been a gradual curve upward since 1993,” said Mike Miklos, an educational consultant with the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. He calls the work of educating these students “never ending and very challenging.”

The challenge

“If you’ve met one student with autism, you’ve met one student. Each individual can bring such unique patterns of performance,” Miklos said. “The challenge of educating a person with autism is just immense.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all educational or behavioral plan for students with autism, whether it’s a more severe form that leaves the student nonverbal and mentally impaired or Asperger’s syndrome, in which the child is intelligent and verbal, midstate experts said.

How does a school deal with an Asperger’s child who might have an IQ off the charts but can’t cope with someone jostling him in line? The student lacks a sense of what’s socially inappropriate and sometimes shows oppositional or aggressive behavior.

What works for one autistic student doesn’t work for the next. Sometimes what works one day doesn’t work the next. But as the population of students with autism has increased, educators have found several methods to be helpful.

In addition, some autistic students need speech classes to learn the social aspects of conversation: taking turns, smiling, and noticing and interpreting other people’s body language.

Some are much more sensitive to sounds or lights than other people or can’t cope in crowded situations, so it’s difficult for them to be in a classroom or a lunchroom with a lot of students, said Janet McCauslin, director of special education for Central Dauphin School District, which has six elementary, three middle school and three high school classes for students with autism.

Something as minor as where the student’s desk is in the classroom or how the room is lighted could be critical, said Luann Schaffer-Yeager, the director of special education for the Susquehanna Township School District.

People with autism spend so much time and energy trying to cope with an onslaught of auditory, visual and tactile input that there’s not much energy left for socializing, said Nina Wall-Cote, the director of the Bureau of Autism Services in the state Department of Public Welfare.

Christine Roesch, who teaches in an autism classroom at Central Dauphin High School, said, “The hope is to get them to tolerate more things so not so much of the world is overwhelming.”

Her students, aged 17 to 21, form the first group that was diagnosed early and received help from preschool on, she said. Because they were in the first wave, their educational experience was more trial and error than it is for children diagnosed today.

“This is a population that has such great talent and aptitude and gifts and abilities, and a recognition of that is so important,” Wall-Cote said. “While we focus on the deficits — and those are real — there has got to be a recognition of the incredible abilities people have.”

Pennsylvania conducted an autism census, which was released last fall. Before then, people didn’t know how many Pennsylvanians had autism, where they lived or how old they were.

“Pennsylvania is really the first state to have concrete numbers,” Wall-Cote said. “In 2005, we counted 20,000 individuals with a diagnosis. … By this year, we’re already at 25,000.”

Officials say that’s an undercount, but it’s a starting point.

“We urge you to keep in mind the implications that these numbers will have on a service system wholly unprepared to meet the rapidly increasing population of children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” the report’s cover letter stated.

Read in Full:  http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2010/06/schools_develop_programs_to_he.html

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