It’s a typical morning in Beth Orth’s classroom at McCollom Elementary School – though she might argue there’s no such thing – and five children are learning about the letter “S.”
“S says ‘ssss,’ ” says Orth, the teacher, pointing to a drawing projected on the smart board. “Spider in the soup! Ssss-ssss-ssss!”
When it’s time for the students to practice writing the letter, a boy named Spencer grabs his marker with two hands. Orth coaches him to use just one.
“Wiggle to the left and wiggle to the right,” she says, and the boy makes a tiny “S” in blue. “Look at that baby ‘S’ you made! ‘S’ is for … Spencer!”
And for smile. And success.
Each comes with significant planning, effort, time and cost in Orth’s classroom, one of more than two dozen in the Wichita district designated specifically for children with autism.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1 in 88 children in the United States has autism or a related disorder – the highest estimate to date. The number of public school students with autism has spiked as well, more than doubling in Wichita over the past five years.
“Autism is the area that’s just exploding,” said Neil Guthrie, Wichita’s director of special education. “It’s a real challenge when it comes to funding and staffing and just meeting those students’ needs.”
This year, 369 students in Wichita schools have autism, up from 164 just five years ago. They account for only a tiny portion of the district’s more than 50,000 students.
But educating them – including supplying the classrooms, teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists and nurses, along with daily bus rides to autism programs at neighborhood schools or Levy Special Education Center – costs nearly $10 million a year, Guthrie said.
This fall, Wichita added five autism classrooms – two at Franklin Elementary in the Delano neighborhood and three at Christa McAuliffe Academy, a new K-8 school in southeast Wichita. The goal, Guthrie says, is to have autism programs in each quadrant of the district.
Suburban districts are seeing an increase in students with autism as well.
Ten years ago in Derby, only seven children were identified as autistic; this year that number is 56. Maize schools saw a similar increase, from seven to 52. Goddard went from nine students with autism in 2002 to 40 this year. Andover has 46 students with autism.
The Sedgwick County Area Educational Services Interlocal Cooperative, which serves nine small school districts around Wichita, recently hired an autism specialist and established a team that meets monthly to coordinate autism services and respond to concerns.
“We’re doing more training with paraprofessionals all the way through regular, general-ed staff on strategies and interventions that work with kids on the (autism) spectrum,” said Lisa Morch, school psychologist coordinator for the co-op.
“Because these aren’t just special-ed students. Most of them are spending at least some if not all of their time among peers in regular-education classrooms, so they’re everyone’s students.”
It takes additional work and supervision, but most public schools are managing to work with autistic students in mainstream classrooms – in part because they have to. Federal guidelines require schools to teach children in the “least restrictive” environment possible.
Autism, however, encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviors, as well as physical and emotional delays. Some children with autism can’t speak at all and aren’t toilet-trained.
Those with milder forms, such as Asperger’s syndrome, may be intelligent and talkative but have trouble relating to peers or dealing with distractions in a traditional classroom.
Sam DiGiovanni, a fifth-grader who has attended McCollom Elementary since kindergarten, still spends most of his school day in Traci Ray’s self-contained autism classroom. His brothers, Paul and Jack, also attend the west-Wichita school.
McCollom “has been our village,” said Sam’s mom, Gretchen DiGiovanni. “They’ve done just a tremendous job of including Sam, whether it’s in music class or his Circle of Friends (peer mentors). … It’s a team approach.”
One recent morning, Sam rehearsed alongside dozens of classmates, learning lyrics and movements to a “Little Shop of Horrors” song that would be featured in an upcoming music program.
When, after several unsuccessful tries, Sam finally mastered a “1-2-3, watch ’em DROP” bit of choreography, the teacher exclaimed, “Sam! You did it!”
Classmates applauded and cheered. Sam smiled.
“Everybody knows Sam. Everybody loves him,” said Ray, the autism teacher.
“That’s what’s so great about being a part of a school like this. (Regular-ed) students are totally accepting of kids with disabilities. It’s just part of their world.”
“There has to be that balance,” Gretchen DiGiovanni said. “We need to allow these kids to get to whatever level they’re capable of, to have them reach their potential. That’s what everyone wants.”
Many schools struggle to figure out that balance, and to provide costly services to more and more high-need students.
This year the Wichita district plans to spend $106 million on special education, about 16 percent of its overall budget. Of the 60 full-time positions added to the district’s workforce this year, more than half are special-education teachers and paraprofessionals.
“We’ve definitely seen this coming,” said Connie Zienkewicz, executive director of Families Together Inc., a statewide nonprofit that provides training and information for parents of disabled children.
“There are some families who really struggled in the past because there wasn’t the kind of awareness (of autism) or the knowledge or support, and kids ended up in environments that were caustic to their development,” she said.
“Kids with autism need general instruction and (peer) role models. But they also need the support and specialized instruction to be able to learn appropriate behaviors and not get into the way of other folks who are in the classroom trying to learn,” she said.
“As educators understand more about how kids learn and what kinds of things in their environment affect that, things are improving.”
Linda Kendrick, whose grandson Londan was diagnosed with autism at age 4, got help from Families Together to have him placed in an autism classroom at Chisholm Trail Elementary. Now the fourth-grader, whom preschool teachers said may never read or write his name, is reading, writing and doing simple math.
“Him being mainstreamed in a lot of classes helps,” Kendrick said. “But big classrooms just throw him because of the distractions, the feet shuffling and paper rustling and kids talking. … So he really needs both.”
DiGiovanni, the McCollom Elementary mom, already is looking ahead and considering options for when her triplet sons will start middle school next year. She’d like for Sam to attend Wilbur, their assigned school, with his brothers, but it doesn’t have a specialized autism program.
While the number of elementary programs has exploded, autism classrooms are offered at only three Wichita middle schools – Brooks, Hamilton and McAuliffe – and two high schools – East and Northwest.
“We’ve got a lot to think about, so I told them we need to start talking about what’s going to happen,” she said. “So far McCollom has been like our family, but kids grow and things change. … Every year, every day, is a little bit different.”