Special education resources get boost

More and more students are being diagnosed with autism in The City’s school district, and it’s costing more money.

This year the San Francisco Board of Education added about $2 million from the general fund to pay for resources for students with special needs. Autistic children make up about 8 percent of that population, according to the San Francisco Unified School District.

“The most substantial challenge is the cost as the district continues to develop and implement research-based programs to best meet the educational needs of students,” the district’s Special Education Supervisor Pam Macy wrote in an e-mail.

The Autism Society, a national organization that seeks to raise awareness about the disorder, describes autism as “a complex developmental disability that … impacts development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.”

People with autism tend to show difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities, according to the organization’s Web site.

Nationally, about 1 percent of children have been diagnosed with autism. In 2003, about one out of every 150 children was diagnosed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The school district has reported a percentage slightly lower, but that number is increasing nonetheless.

“We’ve been talking about this for years. We know it is increasing. We have been trying to respond to it as best we can,” board Commissioner Jill Wynns said.

But Wynns also said responding to the increase in diagnoses comes at a cost. The district is being asked to spend an additional $1.5 million this year on special education resources, some of which would go toward resources for autistic students.
“It’s a huge amount of money. It’s not a matter of saying, ‘Do we want to do it?’ It’s just a lot of money,” Wynns said.

Spending the money now on early education interventions, such as the district’s new preschool class for autistic children at John Muir Elementary, is an investment for both the district and students, Commissioner Rachel Norton said.

Norton’s 10-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism at age 2. When teachers and parents pay attention to autistic learners’ needs when they are younger, they can lessen the disorder’s impact later, Norton said.

“If we spend the money now, it will help save money later,” she said.
There’s no evidence that can properly explain the increase, Norton said, while speculating about one possible reason.

“I think there are a lot of kids on the more mild end of the spectrum who wouldn’t probably have been diagnosed as autistic 20 years ago or 30 years ago,” she said.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com
 

Autism on the rise

The number of city students being diagnosed has grown over the past school year.

  2007-08  2008-09
Students with autism spectrum disorder  373  454
Students in special education classes  6,043  5,889
Total students in the SFUSD 56,315  56,116

Source: SFUSD

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