Nebraska Department of Education trying to meet rising demand for autism services

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Payton Weise, 3 and a half of Fairbury, Neb. plays her favorite video game.

“Payton, Payton, come here Payton.” The mother of 3 and a half year old Payton Weise calls her daughter’s name over and over, but Payton never takes her eyes off of the brightly colored creatures floating across the television screen.

Payton isn’t simply ignoring her mother. She is autistic.

Diagnosed at 18 months, she is among the growing number of autistic, and developmentally delayed children in the United States.

The Center for Disease Control states that 1 in 110 children have autism spectrum disorders. ASDs do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender or socio-economic backgrounds. It is called a spectrum disorder because individuals can have various symptoms and characteristics.

The CDC states on its website, that “there are differences in when the symptoms start, how severe they are, and the exact nature of the symptoms.” This can make it difficult to diagnose and provide proper treatment.

The various symptoms and severity can make providing adequate educational services difficult. In Nebraska, to determine whether a child meets eligibility criteria to receive services, each school district must follow Rule 51.

Rule 51 states that a multidisciplinary evaluation team, including the child’s parents, must assess the evaluations and tests given to determine if the child meets eligibility criteria. If the child does meet the criteria, then an Individualized Education Plan or an Individualized Family Service Plan is developed.

Jeana Weise was frustrated by what she felt was a lack of services from the Tri-County School district. “She (the speech language pathologist) came out maybe once a month,” said Weise. “It didn’t help.”

But Teresa Coonts, Education Specialist at the Nebraska Department of Education, said that “All services are determined by the IEP/IFSP team based on the needs of each individual child. Districts do not determine services; the IEP/IFSP determines services.”

Coonts also stated that there are no minimum standards of services provided; it is determined case by case.

Although there are no minimum standards, schools are expected to meet a child with an ASD’s needs. However, issues such as lack of funding or inadequate staffing can make it difficult to provide services. Coonts says “Probably a greater need is having enough speech language pathologists to provide all the required services. Shortage of some special education staff is an issue in both rural and urban areas.”

Weise moved to a slightly bigger school district of Fairbury, Neb. and is happier with the services the school is able to provide.

Schools are working to find ways to meet the rising demand for services. The Nebraska Department of Education, Office of Special Education established the ASD Network back in 2002 for the purpose of providing training and technical assistance to school districts and families regarding evidence based practices in autism. This is fully funded by NDE and is in collaboration with UNL and five educational service units throughout the state.

UNL is actively involved with helping the NDE find ways to better educate children with ASDs as well. On East Campus is the Ruth Staples Child Development Lab. Within it, there is a program called Project EXCEED which is trying to merge traditional, on-on-one learning with a more natural, group day care environment. The idea is to help children with autism to function better in social environments.

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A staff memeber at Project EXCEED works with an autistic student.

The NDE is facing serious challenges as it seeks to find the best way to provide services to children with ASDs. Because of the countless ways ASDs can manifest themselves, educators and administrators must be prepared to handle all situations.

Matt and Christine McNair, parents of Luke McNair, sued LPS earlier this month because, according to the McNairs, LPS refused to alter Luke’s education plan after recommendations by doctors at John Hopkins. The McNairs claim that Luke’s deteriorating classroom behavior was a result of LPS’s practice of putting Luke in isolation whenever he misbehaved. The McNairs said Luke wants to be alone, so he misbehaved on purpose. LPS said it was simply following the child’s IEP.

The result of the lawsuit is still pending, but it does raise questions regarding how the school system can meet parents’ demands of services. LPS is expecting a 9.7 percent increase in school enrollment next year, or about 3,333 more students. That means that there will be up to 30 additional students with special needs due to ASDs.

The NDE is working to find solutions, according to Coonts. She said. “We continue to support the ASD Network with funding and resources so they can provide effective training and support to school personnel serving children with autism. They work very closely with school districts throughout the state, both rural and urban.”

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