Growing number of autistic students causing concerns at Mid-Columbia schools

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldAugust 9, 2014 

Sarver Family

Jacob Sarver, 9, plays legos Thursday with his parents Laurie and Sid at their home in Richland. Jacob has autism but is highly functioning and spends most of his days in a regular classroom a Badger Mountain Elementary School.

SARAH GORDON

The differences between the autistic sons of Janine Frakes and Laurie Sarver are as vast as their experiences with teachers and school administrators.

Frakes said her 13-year-old son Grant, who lacks social skills and has difficulty communicating, was kept for long periods in a small padded room at Finley Elementary School. His parents said they've repeatedly had disagreements with the district about their son's education and care.

Sarver's son Jacob, 9, is high functioning and spends most of his school days in a regular classroom at Badger Mountain Elementary School in Richland. The support he's received from teachers and other staff have allowed him to be successful at school, Sarver said.

The boys are two of the more than 6,600 students in the Tri-Cities and its nearby school districts who receive special education services, and autistic children make up a growing portion of those students each year.

Money is a big hurdle in meeting those students' needs, as the cost to provide services increases, and state and federal dollars for special education haven't kept up with demand, district officials say.

But parent-teacher relationships are more crucial to any student's success, parents and educators said, and a lot can go wrong when that trust and communication deteriorate.

Growth of autism

Every special education student's needs are different, educators said. Many require time each day with a specialist. Others require more extensive care and monitoring, with nurses, psychologists and other medical professionals.

Autistic children generally have trouble communicating or developing social skills. They can display repetitive behaviors, such as sorting objects or hand flapping, and can struggle when a routine is broken.

But autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there's a wide range in how it affects people. Symptoms can be mild, such as with Asperger's syndrome, or so severe that a student is almost unable to interact with others.

"If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism," said Lisa Upton, an autism behavioral specialist in the Pasco School District.

There is a debate whether autism is overdiagnosed, potentially because the symptoms that define it have expanded in recent years. But studies show the incidence of autism growing, and Mid-Columbia educators are seeing it firsthand.

"When I started in this job 10 years ago, we had one or two autism classrooms," said Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Doug Christensen, formerly the district's special education director. "Now we have a dozen."

Not all autistic students struggle, as educators said some end up in gifted programs.

But many more need extra services, and the state only gives enough money to districts to provide special education to less than 13 percent of a district's student enrollment. Federal agencies don't provide much more.

The Richland School District routinely pulls $2 million from other revenue to cover its special education programs.

The Finley School District usually spends $200,000 to $300,000 of its basic education money on special education. Superintendent Lance Hahn said his district doesn't skimp on providing services.

"I think we compete at or above any district our size," he said. "We try to go out of our way."

Classroom conflicts

About 150 students received special education services in Finley last school year, according to the district. That included Grant Frakes and his brothers.

Grant, the second of three boys, requires the most attention because of his limited social and verbal skills, his parents said. He started showing erratic behavior this past winter after his parents took him off one of his autism medications, Janine Frakes said.

Grant spent a lot of time in the quiet room at Finley Elementary School, more than teachers were recording in a required logbook, Janine Frakes said.

Run-ins with his teachers made Grant uncomfortable and increasingly afraid to return to school, his parents said.

They decided to keep him home and work with him, though the district threatened to declare him truant. They also tried to enroll him elsewhere but haven't had success, because districts usually don't have space for special education students outside their boundaries.

District officials declined to discuss details of the situation with the Frakes family, citing student and health care privacy concerns.

Teachers want Grant back in school, said Hahn and Barbara Donaldson, Finley's special education director, so he can continue to receive the services he needs.

Conflicts between the parents of special needs students and their teachers aren't common, but they are part of the landscape of special education, educators said. Some teachers said working with parents is more stressful than with the children themselves.

Challenges for teachers

The Washington Office of the Education Ombuds received more than 1,000 complaints from parents during the 2013-14 school year, said director Stacy Gillett, and more than half from parents with special needs children. The office handles complaints and tries to resolve conflicts before they end up in court.

"I can tell you based on experience that a majority of them deal with autism because it often deals with behavior," she said.

Part of the reason cases involving autistic children dominate is that teachers can't standardize education for them, Gillett said. Many of the students struggle to communicate, so when they act out teachers may restrain or isolate them, a practice most parents don't like and which leads to mediation or perhaps legal action.

It's not just a problem in the Mid-Columbia.

Temple Grandin, an animal science expert who has written and spoken extensively about her experience with autism, told the Herald that while she had good teachers as a child and that autistic children are receiving better services, "so much depends on the particular situation and the particular school."

Not all teachers have extensive training or experience working with autistic students, which can lead to frustration, said Christine Lindgren, director of the Responding to Autism Center in Kennewick. Lindgren works with districts throughout the region and has served hundreds of families with autistic children.

Parents, on the other hand, can feel overwhelmed by their child's diagnosis and want teachers to "fix" their child's problems.

This combination can lead to high emotions but "there doesn't need to be a fight," said Lindgren, who also has served as a mediator in disagreements between teachers and parents.

Realistic expectations

The Sarver family hasn't run into any difficulties with their son's teachers. Jacob is in a regular classroom most of the time. He is curious and friendly but struggles with some social interactions and can be easily distracted, Sarver said.

"He gets real upset when he falls behind (in class)," she said.

Sarver and her son's teacher contact each other whenever there is an issue, even if it's something that happens outside of school. The teachers want to be consistent with how behavioral problems are addressed at home, she said.

"From the moment he started his formal education, we've been treated as part of a team," said Sarver, a language arts teacher at Southridge High School in Kennewick.

Sarver has heard other parents of autistic children talk about problems they have with their children's teachers.

She believes her background as a teacher help her to strike a balance between fighting for her son's needs while recognizing "it's important to have manageable and realistic expectations."

New developments

More services are becoming available to autistic students, Lindgren said. Teachers are tailoring them to individual students. Parents also have access to more resources as research uncovers new ways to work with autistic children and more specialists become available.

Federal education officials have developed measures to ensure districts aren't isolating autistic kids at school so they have opportunities to interact with other students, Gillett said. The measures are expected to roll out this fall.

Grant won't be at a Finley school this fall to see any of the developments. His family is preparing to enroll him in Washington Virtual Academy, an online program operated by the state, for the coming school year.

Jacob will be back at Badger Mountain this fall, his mother said. The first few weeks will be rough: he'll have to adjust to a new teacher and new routine. But Sarver knows the school is a haven for him and will help him to be successful.

"I value what his teachers see," she said.

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