GREENFIELD — No one needs to tell Toby Cox the odds of having a child diagnosed with autism have increased dramatically over the past decade.
His middle child, daughter Hannah, 14, was diagnosed with the disorder when she was 6.
Then, when his third child, son Jacob, 8, was a toddler, the family discovered he, too, has autism.
Both students are enrolled in Greenfield-Central schools, where they attend classes through Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services.
Cox said the children’s teachers – Hannah attends Greenfield Central Junior High and Jacob goes to Harris Elementary – do a fabulous job. But he knows they have their hands full. And he fears his children are not getting all the services they desperately need.
“I think the teachers at times are just overwhelmed, a lot like I am,” Cox said.
As a single parent with a full-time job, Cox relies heavily on the special-education agency to help him navigate life for his children.
“It’s kind of like walking into a cave with a match,” Cox said. “You get punched in the stomach with the diagnosis, and then all the sudden you’re frightened beyond belief and are kind of lost.”
Forty years ago, when autism spectrum disorder was first diagnosed among children, it affected one in 10,000 youngsters.
Now, one in 68 children have been categorized as having ASD, according to 2014 estimates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The increase in autism cases comes at a time when funding for Indiana public schools has decreased. Still, districts are legally required to serve all qualifying special-education students.
Numbers from the Indiana Department of Education show skyrocketing autism figures. The number of students with autism spectrum disorder in Indiana went from an estimated 8,000 in 2006-07 to nearly 14,000 in 2013-14.
Of the approximately 1,039,410 students enrolled in Indiana public schools last year, autism experts say approximately 13 in 1,000 have an autism spectrum disorder.
More than 2,800 students are enrolled in the local cooperative serving G-C, Mt.Vernon, Southern Hancock, Eastern Hancock, South Madison and Northwestern Shelby schools.
Heading into the school year later this month, more 300 of them have some form of autism, compared to 260 students in 2010.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in autism within the six school corporations,” said Karen Niemeier, executive director of the special-education cooperative. “Besides having the increase in autism cases, we’ve seen the severity of autism increase.”
Niemeier said autistic children are showing more aggressive behavior, which commands more staff time. With six behavior therapists and 6½ psychologists, the cooperative relies heavily on the teachers to make sure students are getting the instruction needed.
Janet Antle, special education coordinator for the agency, taught special education at G-CHS for 20 years. When she first began teaching, she had one or two autistic children in her classroom, she said.
“You can’t look at the student-teacher ratio like you would in a general education class,” Antle said. “I could have a class with only six kids, but the needs of those six kids are vast.”
State funding for schools in Hancock County averages roughly $5,400 per student. The state provides $8,350 for each student identified under the autism spectrum disorder regardless of the cost to educate that student.
Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, said that isn’t enough. Schools are placed in difficult positions in trying to support students with autism and often fall short in giving them what they need, she said.
“It’s not only that children are being diagnosed with autism at an increasing rate; some of these kids we are working with in schools are also coming to us with many more complex issues,” Pratt said.
“As the number of kids increases at the school level, it’s coming at the same time that budgets are being cut, and that means less training and less teachers in the classroom.”
Early detection key
Cox’s oldest daughter, Sarah, does not have ASD. That’s why, when Hannah was born in 2000, the family had no idea there was an issue until she was ready for kindergarten.
But, having gone through the process with Hannah’s diagnosis, Cox said when Jacob was born in 2006, he was able to get his son the help he needed right away.
“It was on our radar, and we knew what to look for,” Cox said. “We don’t know if the early diagnosis helped him or not, but they are as different as night and day. Hannah has more behavioral problems than Jacob does. He’s just so easy-going.”
According to health officials, ASD can sometimes be detected as early as 18 months. However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until they’re much older.
The delay means children are not getting the early intervention they need. That puts more pressure on school staff and the student once the child finally gets help, educators say.
Officials with the special-education cooperative say parents should have their children tested as soon as they feel there might be an issue.
“The testing for determining the eligibility for autism has improved,” Niemeier said. “That is a huge piece with all of this. Being able to look at those signs and attributes of behavior is a big deal.”
Since the diagnosis for autism is increasing at such a high rate, first-time parents are more aware of it, and that’s a good thing, local educators say.
Parents with concerns are encouraged to contact Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services right away, regardless of how young their children are, Niemeier said.
The agency also offers free screening and evaluations to give parents and caregivers information.
While early intervention can change the life of a student, for educators, dealing with each child presents different challenges.
“It’s like figuring out the puzzle and finding out what works for each child,” Niemeier said. “Some of our children with autism are non-verbal and will need support their whole life, but others may need a smaller level of support. That’s why that early intervention is so key, to have that understanding.”
Research shows early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development from birth to age 3. According to the CDC, early intervention for children with autism can help them learn important skills such as talking, walking and interacting with others.
How will districts deal with increases?
Cox’s autistic children both have difficulty with communication.
They’re currently attending a two-day-a-week summer service through the special-education agency at J.B Stephens Elementary School.
“It’s good for them because they need structure and routine,” Cox said. “It helps their transition back into school go much smoother.”
Children with autism need structure built in to their days, Antle said. It’s why many autistic children are not allowed to attend general education classes.
“That day needs to be the same day in and day out,” Antle said. “Even the structure of the verbiage that you use with that student needs to be consistent,”
Still, Niemeier said the special-education cooperative is trying to be proactive in dealing with the increasing number of autistic students.
This past school year, the inter-local worked closely with officials from IRCA, who provided training and support on a variety of teaching strategies.
“The collaboration has been very beneficial as we increase our level of training for all staff within the six districts,” Niemeier said.
Officials from IRCA worked with special-education teachers at Greenfield Central Junior High, Doe Creek Middle School, Mt. Vernon Middle School, Eastern Hancock Elementary, Pendleton Elementary and Northwest Shelby Middle School. They helped them to better understand autism and strategies for dealing with it among children.
“The decision to work with these schools was based on their needs in their buildings,” Niemeier said. “That went on for an entire year with 10 different meetings. There was a lot of built-in professional development.”
While that is helpful, Pratt said IRCA officials would like to see more money put into services beyond school assistance.
“Without funding to implement what scientists are discovering about autism, it’s a waste of time,” Pratt said. “To say we’re now going to start taking money and figuring out how we’re going to support the children who have very different needs is an overwhelming thought, but it has to happen.”
Cox said he’s been on a state waiting list for months to receive help for his two children when they’re not in school.
He’d like to see state and federal agencies become more in tune with the increasing autism numbers among students and offer help in and out of the classroom.
“The people who are in direct contact with the kids, their teachers, are doing all they can with what they have, but they don’t have the resources,” Cox said.
“I am sure the people at (Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services) are doing all that they can,” he said. “The problem is they don’t have the tools they need to do their job.”
While Niemeier admits more funding to increase staff would be ideal, the addition of new technology is making a slow, but steady difference. IPads, for example, have helped teachers do more with the students.
While that is a positive sign, it’s not an answer as far as Pratt is concerned.
She said without more programs in and out of schools to help families deal with autistic children, society is sitting on an issue that will one day soon explode.
“At some point or another we’ve got to support these people,” Pratt said.
“What we’re seeing is when individuals don’t receive the kind of programming they need, we’re seeing families and individuals getting into crisis that become overwhelming and costly.
“We hear about kids who all too often become aggressive at home, and their parents are afraid for their own personal safety, and we try to help parents and we try to find out the options available, and right now their options are taking them to the emergency room or calling the police.”