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Hawaii News

Autism on the rise

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Spencer Maher, 8, plays with his sisters, Shelby, left, 14, and Sydney, 10, at their Hawaii Kai home. Spencer is autistic. His father, Dennis, is chairman of the East Honolulu Children’s Community Council and says some Oahu schools appear unable to provide quality services for autistic children.

Through the last decade, the number of public school students with autism has doubled to more than 1,200 even as the total number of special-needs students has dropped.

And some parents say that growth is outpacing increases in services.

Those frustrations can be seen in due-process claims parents file when they disagree with the services offered for their child.

Last school year, 38 percent of the 148 requests for due process statewide were filed on behalf of children with autism, who make up 6 percent of the public schools’ special-education population.

By comparison, students with a "specific learning disability" make up the largest percentage of special-needs youth, numbering about 8,000 last year. But only 17 due-process requests were filed for the group in 2009-10.

Dennis Maher, chairman of the East Honolulu Community Children’s Council and the father of an 8-year-old with autism, said some schools appear unable to provide quality services for autistic children. Autism spectrum disorders, as the group of disorders are called, can be mild to severe.

Maher’s son, who attends Hahaione Elementary, has high-functioning autism, which means he tests at or above target for his age, but lacks nonverbal communication and social skills. Children with low-functioning autism, in contrast, have difficulty in communication and also often cannot perform basic tasks.

Maher said when he first enrolled his son, Spencer, Hahaione did not seem to know how to handle a kid who was bright but could also have violent meltdowns.

"One day, I went to find a teacher and aide pinning him on the ground," Maher said. "That was quite alarming. That was completely inappropriate."

But Maher said the school has improved, in part because of more training. "I’m cautiously optimistic," he said.

The department, meanwhile, says it is trying to improve services for all students, including those with autism, and wants to move to a quality, rather than compliance-minded, system.

"This is about focusing on all students," said Ronn Nozoe, deputy superintendent. "Are we there yet? No."

The department could not comment on specific cases. But officials did say that schools are many times doing their best, and sometimes parents can make unreasonable requests, call for therapies that are untested or get misinformation from others about what schools have to offer.

Education officials noted that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates a free appropriate public education but does not mandate the best education.

The department did say annual spending on autism is considerable.

In 2008-09 the department spent $22 million on its autism programs alone. Additional funds were also spent on autistic students through other programs.

Suzette Farnum of Waianae said her biggest concern remains qualified personnel, especially in rural areas and on the neighbor islands. Farnum’s son has autism, and Farnum said it has been a struggle to find him aides who were qualified. Some, she said, had never worked with an autistic child before. "There just aren’t enough trained people," Farnum said.

But she also said that her school has tried hard to provide quality programs. "They’ve tried to overcome the obstacles," she said.

Nino Murray, the father of a 16-year-old with autism and a teacher at Waiakea Intermediate School in Hilo, said he has never met a parent with an autistic child who feels the school system is serving the autism community well.

Murray’s daughter attends Waiakea High School and is "high-functioning." He said he started "fighting with the system" when she was 5. His biggest concern also is the qualifications of special-education staff. Murray said his daughter has gone through at least 40 teachers and other staff since she started kindergarten.

"She has not been well served," he said.

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