The College of Education, Leadership and Counseling community recently marked World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), which kicks off April as Autism Awareness Month. In recent years, research and understanding around autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has dramatically increased – and so has the number of individuals identified with the disorder. The prevalence of ASD creates challenges and opportunities for parents, educators and health professionals.
When the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) came out in 2013, disorders such as autistic disorder, Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) were all grouped into one – Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the purpose for combining these disorders was that the “separate diagnoses were not consistently applied across different clinics and treatment centers.”
Overall, the umbrella term of ASD is meant to reflect a more accurate understanding of the current knowledge about autism. The change was based on studies by the Neurodevelopmental Work Group, part of the National Institute of Mental Health. According to this group, the fusing of disorders into ASD will improve the diagnostic process without limiting the criteria used to diagnose ASD or substantially changing the number of diagnoses. ASD is one of the 13 disability categories under which students can qualify for special education services. While educators don’t diagnose students with ASD, they can determine that a student is eligible for services under this disability category.
Since 2006, Lynn Stansberry Brusnahan, Ph.D., has been a faculty member at the University of St. Thomas, where she oversees the ASD programs in the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling. She is also the mother of a child with ASD.
She explained that there are currently two criteria involved in medically diagnosing ASD. The first of these is an individual’s challenge with social communication; those with autism lack what is known as “social reciprocity,” or the back-and-forth interaction between people, which is visible at an early age. The second criteria is described as a “restrictive range of interest.”
“As we develop, we learn and become interested in things from those around us,” Stansberry Brusnahan said. “Individuals with autism sometimes develop fewer interests because they engage in fewer social interactions. Fewer interests may be viewed by some as repetitive behaviors and restricted interests.” Someone with autism might focus intently on particular things. But as Stansberry Brusnahan pointed out, this is not necessarily negative.
“A person with ASD can take those restricted interests and really make them great things,” she said. “That’s why some individuals with autism are well known in their areas of interest and possess college degrees and even PhDs.”
The Civil Rights movement, particularly in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) which ended legal segregation in schools, initiated the move towards equal education for all. As a result, in more recent history, the Individuals with Disability Education Act (2004) says that all kids, regardless of disability, have a right to free and appropriate public education.
“It’s precisely because of that philosophy that at St. Thomas we focus on advancing the common good,” Stansberry Brusnahan said. For the special education department at St. Thomas, it is a high value to educate future teachers so that they are able to serve students with autism in the “least restrictive environment,” a challenging endeavor considering the rapidly changing diversity of the classroom.
“In order to adapt to these needs,” Stansberry Brusnahan said, “we are giving educators the skills to provide that least restrictive, free and appropriate public education – and the place to start that is in a general education classroom.”
The field of special education, and ASD in particular, is growing – so schools, parents and educators are all learning how to respond and adapt.
“We didn’t used to identify kids with having this disorder until much later because people didn’t know what autism was,” Stansberry Brusnahan said. “But now with the increase in numbers and awareness, we’re catching autism at much earlier ages.”
To improve these identification methods, Stansberry Brusnahan noted that practitioners in the field of ASD are developing more intensive early intervention strategies. “Children that were previously non-verbal, for instance, now have the opportunity to gain language because we start working with them when they were younger,” she said.
Though she acknowledges the significant financial investment that schools and governments have to make in order for earlier intervention, she believes that the outcome of such methods are well worth the efforts: “With early intervention, you provide individuals the opportunity to gain skills contributing to less challenging behaviors, and a growing ability to speak and socialize.”
ASD is becoming more prevalent. Whether or not there are actually more children with ASD, or whether there is a growing sensitivity to the issue and broader diagnoses, is open to speculation. However, the statistics remain, and they are astounding. In 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released that about one in sixty-eight children have autism on a national average, and the prevalence of autism has risen by six to fifteen percent from 2002 to 2010.
Despite this increase, Stansberry Brusnahan says that there is still a shortage of special education teachers, and there is always a need to keep up with qualifications for teachers that will meet the needs of students.
Though educators face challenges, Stansberry Brusnahan is particularly proud of the fact that St. Thomas is helping to make sure that students with autism have teachers who understand their needs.
“But we are not just about understanding,” she said. “We also want to impart to teachers the mindset that an educator can expect great things from all students—we want to focus on unlocking potential.”
An Educator’s Perspective on Autism Spectrum Disorder is the first part in a series of articles from the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling examining how the prevalence of ASD affects educators, parents, health professionals and other community members.