Autism needs growing faster than available resources
News about cash-strapped school districts has landed on television and newspapers for the last few years following The Great Recession, exacerbating issues the districts are facing within their student bodies. They have no immunity against autism, and as Kelly Puente of the Press-Telegram highlights, the state of California is implementing what they can with limited resources as more autistic students enroll in their schools. California’s Department of Education estimates 60,000 children in their schools are autistic, with over 1,000 serving in the Long Beach Unified School District, the primary coverage area for the Press-Telegram.
While limited funding increases the difficulty of adapting to rising autistic students, districts like the LBUSD are far from helpless. Previously relying on outside agencies to provide services for autistic children, the district now offers resources that include the Long Beach Early Autism Program which begins before a child turns 3. The program helps parents and the district construct and Individualized Education Program (IEP) while the child enrolls in preschool and special day classes. While such amenities cost the LBUSD $91 million, nearly 20 percent of their overall budget, they say doing so saves money long-term by going in-house versus using outside agencies (my post on Ken Salazar’s granddaughter highlighted some reasons for the high cost of autism services).
The state of California formed an Autism Advisory Committee in 2007 as a call to action to meet the challenge of educating autistic children. A teaching authorization for autistic students was added to special-education teachers, and the LBUSD now requires an authorization to teach autistic students for all special education teachers working with children who have mild to moderate disabilities.
Although Puente’s main plot is the course of action pursued by the local district her paper serves, she makes the story easier to relate by including an insight from an autistic student inside the Long Beach district who is prone to mental breakdowns but excels in his middle school classes. Blake Wesselman serves as the springboard for the story’s focus, representing one face of the 60,000 inside the country’s most populous state. While Wesselman’s mother holds hope that her son can lead a normal life, Puente bookends the story emphasizing such “normal” things, including his proficiency in math, his passion for sports, heavy metal and Guitar hero, even mentioning Blake’s girlfriend in the story. I doubt Puentes and Temple Grandin have met face-to-face, but Puente has taken Grandin’s advice about promoting the strengths of autistic people, as such strengths aren’t exclusive to them or non-autistic people.
Using Blake’s profile as a bookend benefits the story beyond illuminating a success figure in the schools, his story reinforces the effectiveness of the LBUSD’s autism programs. While no doubt was cast in the story on the school district’s programs, using a student who was more severely impaired or just started receiving attention in one of their programs could unintentionally communicate an ulterior message in Puente’s story. Factoids about autism awareness month and the disability itself are included to clue in readers who may not be aware of either element.
Puente’s reporting balances the increase in support for autistic students in California schools with ongoing obstacles, allowing her sources to promote why autism services require continuous support. A follow-up certainly isn’t out of the question with the always-changing nature of education. Whether that’s through more success stories like Blake’s, new programs offered by school districts, or the impact current programs have on students is unknown, but the story’s positive nature will at least offer a nice reprieve for readers growing weary of stories warning of a metaphorical apocalypse.