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Westmoreland school districts want to keep autistic students close to home

For Tammy Barton, a special education teacher in the Kiski Area School District, each autistic student is a puzzle to be solved.

"I love to try and figure out a way to reach them," she said. "You have to make it interesting for them. I have an autistic boy who is fascinated by the color green, so we make sure his pencils are green, his erasers are green. It helps him focus."

With the number of autism diagnoses in the United States on the rise, teachers like Barton are required to solve this kind of puzzle more and more. During the past decade, according to the Department of Education, the number of public school students diagnosed with autism has risen six-fold.

While many of the students do well in regular classes, children with the most severe forms of autism typically have been placed in special schools. But changing interpretations of education law are pushing public schools to educate every student closer to home, and during the past few years, more and more school districts in the region have set up their own classrooms designed specifically for autistic students.

"What we're trying to do is get our youngest kids off the buses," said John Molnar, administrative assistant in the Southmoreland School District, which will open a classroom this year for autistic kindergarteners and first-graders.

Until last year, Southmoreland sent children with severe autism to a private school or to a classroom run by the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, which oversees the county's 17 public school districts. For some students, that meant bus rides as long as 20 miles.

"We've been thinking for a long time about serving them locally," Molnar said. "It appears we have a sufficient number of students to make that cost-effective."

Cost is no minor consideration. Hiring a special education teacher and aide and setting up a new classroom at the Southmoreland Primary Center will cost up to $90,000 in the initial year for salary, benefits and special equipment. It's a high per-pupil expense for the three or four students the district expects to enroll in the class, but it could save money in the long run.

According to federal law, public schools have to bear the cost of private placement if a student with disabilities is not thriving in the public school. In Westmoreland County, districts send many students to Northwestern Human Services Autism School in Herminie, which can cost up to $6,000 a month.

Highlands School District, which created a classroom for secondary students with severe autism three years ago, is considering adding one at the elementary level.

"We were one of the first districts to have that," Superintendent Lou Baldassare said. "It saves a lot of money."

Baldassare calculated that private tuition for an autistic student could run close to $50,000 per year, compared to less than $15,000 in-district.

"Some of those tuitions can be expensive," said Margaret Zimmer, the director of pupil services for the Norwin School District. "It's a benefit to the taxpayers to educate these students in the district."

Zimmer said cost was only one factor in the district's decision to open a classroom for seven severely autistic elementary students this year. The new class will allow autistic students to spend less time on buses and give them more exposure to their non-autistic peers.

It also will fill a growing need.

"If you look at the statistics about the incidence of autism, I think we can anticipate that we will continue to populate that class," Zimmer said.

While the decision might be a prudent one, it presents school officials with unusual challenges.

"I've ordered things that have maybe never been seen in the public school before," said Zimmer, referring to equipment such as therapy balls and weighted vests, which educators have found help autistic people to feel calm and balanced.

"Our autistic support classes are equipped with various pieces of hardware: mats, specialized chairs, trampolines," said Ronald Tarosky, the special education director for the Franklin Regional School District, which has one district-based autistic class and is the host for three more for the intermediate unit.

"One of the things autistic kids need is a sense of where they are in space," Tarosky said, explaining that the special equipment can help autistic people feel grounded. "That's a very real thing. With these kids, if you don't take care of these issues, you can't take care of the education."

While a classroom for autistic students might appear unusual, it reflects a growing body of knowledge about autism and related disorders.

"We started to get better at this in the later 1990s, and we just keep getting better at it," said Marilyn Hoyson, chief operating officer of the Watson Institute, an Allegheny County-based nonprofit that advises about three dozen public school districts, including Norwin.

Much of the improvement has to do with better efforts to understand autistic students' behavior, which can include repetitive movements, outbursts or self-injury.

"The idea is to figure out what's wrong," said Hoyson. "Sounds, lights, smells — they could need more or less of that. They may need some more exercise, they may need to jump, or they may need quiet."

These behavioral puzzles can be daunting for teachers who might not have encountered them before.

Vicci Morris, who lives in the Gateway School District, took her son, 14, out of public school there two years ago and placed him in a private school, where tuition is paid by the district. Though high-functioning, she said, her son suffered meltdowns with which his public school teachers were unable to cope.

"You can't expect a teacher who has your child for a few hours a day for a few months to know what your child's needs are," said Morris. Since autistic symptoms vary, she said, "the needs aren't always going to be identical. They don't always follow the same path."

While in the past special education teachers were trained to work with a variety of disabilities, the demand for teachers who specialize in autism is growing, said Shanna Bradfield, who will be the teacher in Norwin's new autism support classroom.

"You're dealing with a lot more behavior, a lot of social skills deficits that need to be addressed," she said. "It does take someone who specializes in autism to do that effectively."

"Sometimes it takes a very long time to reach them," said Tammy Barton, the Kiski teacher who was spending the summer working with autistic students at a Franklin Regional summer program.

Recalling the boy who loved green, she said, "The old-style teaching would not have adapted to that. Education has come a long way."

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