One in 68 children are thought to have autism spectrum disorder, according to 2014 statistics by the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html). The disorder varies widely in severity, but one common trait is the tendency to get overstimulated by noise, lights, and other trappings of modern life.
Theaters now offer sensory-friendly film screenings; cafes host quiet hours. But public schools are struggling to keep up with the growing number of students with autism.
Some of those kids have strong sensitivities - school bells hurt their ears, crowded hallways are overwhelming, others struggle with abstract language. For them, making friends is always a challenge.
Tuition at private schools for autism can cost as much as $100,000 per child, per year, cited in an article published December last year in Portland Press Herald (www.pressherald.com/2014/12/12/maine-voices-regional-autism-programs-in-schools/),while small changes in an existing school system can reap huge savings.
Often, teachers and parents run these programs without any training or preparation for dealing with kids with special needs. These activities need some alterations to become accessible for kids on the autistic spectrum. They need aides to help guide them or make adjustments. Simple modifications, like opening up the computer lab for Minecraft during school dances, can include autistic people into the life of the school.
Most kids with autism are visual learners. They can learn maths and social studies faster when the information is presented on a screen rather than from a teacher's lecture. Keyboard instruction can help the kids with poor fine motor skills. Many kids with high-functioning autism have excellent computer skills and will later find work in a technical field.
Autistic kids need activities that are hands-on, rather than social. Non-competitive sports activities can lessen the stress that autistic kids face on a ball field. We need a return to fun, hands-on special classes, like sewing, cooking, woodworking, technology, art, music and car repair.
With autism often struggle with the complexity of team sports. Many have low muscle tone and are unable to play at the same level as their peers. They may not be able to handle the stress of the game. Schools and communities could offer opportunities for light, non-competitive sports - basketball games with lower baskets, baseball games where nobody keeps score, or track meets where everybody gets a medal.
Schools could offer an activity that is exclusively for kids on the autistic spectrum and similar special needs. In larger towns where the kids with autism might be spread out in different school buildings, this could provide an opportunity to meet someone else who shares a similar passion. School districts might work cooperatively to provide these clubs to expand the opportunity to meet a like-minded friend.
According to an online survey published on the 1st of April, 2011 by Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org/about-us/press-releases/10-best-places-live-if-you-have-autism), the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, from all families generally unhappy with supports in their community, an incredible 83% described just how hard it was to access educational services. Families told of needing to find specialized experts to best place their child, needing to change schools or districts, or having to resort to expensive legal action.
"These findings are even more compelling when you recognize that federal guarantees for special education services date back more than three decades," said Gary Mayerson, founding attorney of Mayerson & Associates, a law firm that represents and advocates for children and adolescents diagnosed with autism. "Since 1975, children with disabilities have been guaranteed equal protection to secure appropriate and effective educational programs despite their disabilities. To find this level of disservice and the need to fight to secure what Congress clearly intended as an entitlement is incredibly troubling, but unfortunately not surprising."
On January 25, 2013 a new breaking ground came in from the U.S. Department of Education, published by the New Jersey News (www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/01/feds_disabled_students_must_ge.html), stating that schools must include students with disabilities in sports programs or provide equal alternative options. Schools would be required to make "reasonable modifications" for students with disabilities or create parallel athletic programs that have comparable standing as mainstream programs. Barring kids from participation would violate their civil rights. Schools must either provide modified versions of existing activities or create "separate but equal" clubs and athletics.
It would take time, flexibility and coordination until a better school environment for autistic children is achieved, but if those models are followed, a greater change would also follow.