Schools provide educational services to students with autism

Published 7:00 am Saturday, April 26, 2014

(This is the final in a series of weekly stories covering autism in recognition of Autism Awareness Month)

Over the last few years, local school districts have been finding ways to meet the growing needs of children in Pearl River County diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

For the last three or four years, Pearl River County School District has provided a class for students who are on the more severe end of the spectrum to provide specialized and individualized care, said Director of Student Services Mike Posey.

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Picayune School District will follow in their footsteps in 2014-15 school year, thanks to a grant from the Lower Pearl River Valley Foundation, said Director of Exceptional Education Kristen Ladner.

Posey said there is a misconception that all children diagnosed with autism are non-verbal, withdrawn and unable to communicate, but he said that is not the case. He said there are many high functioning students that are part of the general education program.

“They’re smart. They’re bright. They’re intelligent. But, they lack those other skills that have them learning in the way other students learn,” Ladner said.

The high functioning students may exhibit characteristics of autism and learn differently, but they are succeeding in the mainstream classes, Posey and Ladner said.

The Pearl River County School District has eight elementary aged children with a severe form of autism attending a specialized class, Posey said.

Posey said the teachers in that class have specialized training to handle children with severe forms of autism.

Ladner said Picayune’s class next school year will cater to students in kindergarten through second grade. She said the class will be equipped with multi-sensory materials required for students with moderate to severe forms of autism. She said a psychologist will provide specialized training and an occupational therapist will work with the students on sensory activities.

The classroom will also contain specialized furniture, Ladner said.

The district will provide funding for one paraprofessional and one teacher and the grant will cover all other expenses, Ladner said.

“We’re hoping by the time the students are in middle school, we’ll have helped them overcome the issues that were preventing them from becoming mainstream,” Ladner said.

She said the goal is to teach the students coping techniques, have them self-regulating and for them to become as independent as possible.

Posey and Ladner have noticed an increase in awareness and an increase in parents seeking educational services for autistic children.

The Department of Education has recognized each student’s unique needs and in response have developed new guidelines to address those special education needs, Posey said.

“When people hear special education, they think of that room with children that are self-contained and who have no interaction with other children,” Posey said. “Special education is different now than it used to be.”

Posey also said that in the past, students who struggled in school and had difficulty learning would go unassisted. Now it is recognized that those students sometimes have some type of learning disability and are eligible to receive school services to help them.

Ladner said there is a focus on identifying developmental delays in children younger than the age of four. She said the Picayune School District offers two specialized classes for children ages three to four with developmental delays. The district also has a teacher who specializes in developmental delays who brings those services to children in the Early Head Start program and in private settings.

The district’s referral rate is at an all-time high, Ladner said. She said, the district focuses on educating parents and the community of the signs of developmental delays and provides her contact information so individuals can address their concerns and so that child can be tested.

This year, the district received 130 more referrals than last year and of those 130 children, about 127 were eligible for early intervention services, Ladner said.

Of the 3,800 students in the Picayune School District, about 38 students are identified has having an autism spectrum disorder, Ladner said.