Georgia leads the nation in the rate of autism among our children, at one child in 98, compared to the national average of one in 110, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means there are also plenty of children with autism in our DeKalb County schools.
As we round out National Autism Awareness Month, some parents are discussing how schools are addressing the needs of autistic students.
Autism can include a number of developmental issues, from delayed speech to trouble processing information. One common challenge can be a difficulty in forming social relationships with others. All that can make getting an education tough.
Stone Mountain mother Jerrie Williams, whose son, Micah, is on the autism spectrum, has mixed feelings about how well our public schools are doing.
“DeKalb County will absolutely help you figure out what is best for your child. What I like about DeKalb County is we have a lot of administrators that at one time worked with students of exceptionality. So, there are many administrators who are more than willing to step in,” said Williams.
"However, for the first two years at Stone Mountain Middle School, it was really rough. It was difficult for us because the school feels like they are the experts, and they feel like they can handle the situation.”
Williams said she had to be “very adamant” about making sure the school’s plan for her son was fully shaped to his needs and reflected all his medical information.
But, she said, it helped that the school knew it was required to help her son succeed by a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
One tip: Williams says parents can pick their own teams of educators in school to help students at risk of failing or falling behind. “It is that way in all DeKalb County schools if parents choose," she said.
Areva Martin, author of “The Everyday Advocate: Standing Up For Your Child with Autism or Other Special Needs” and mother to a 12-year-old autistic son, says there are a couple of keys to a good education.
“One, knowing what your legal rights and entitlements are to public education, which many parents don’t know, is where you start. You should ask, what is available and what am I entitled to from my public school?”
She recommends parents make an appointment with the head of their child’s school to sit together and talk about what’s available. The specific programs may vary between schools and districts, even though federal and state laws set out the public school’s legal obligations for special needs students.
“But no matter what, in every public school there should be some team of people who have a unique skill set in terms of servicing children on the autism spectrum.”
DeKalb has an Autism Department at the county level, which can be reached at 678-676-2129 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingend_of_the_skype_highlighting. The department's website www.dekalb.k12.ga.us/support/autism.html says it offers support to teachers and parents and various ways to help, which include observing the child, creating plans of action and training teachers and parents.
Many parents are also creating learning environments for their children outside of the classroom by using some local resource groups.
The Jim Cherry Teacher Center, in Stone Mountain, has a large selection of books, products and technology that parents can use. Williams says the staff members are very informed.
“Parents are allowed to go there and check out whatever type of books we need. There is a lot of equipment they have to help your child develop vocal skills if they are nonverbal,” she said. Their phone number is 678-676-2400.
There is also the Marcus Autism Center, a nonprofit that offers some of the nation’s most comprehensive services, programs and information for children with autism and related disorders. The DeKalb Autism Support Group meets there May 4 at 11:30 a.m. For more information, visit www.marcus.org.
Parent To Parent of Georgia is also a popular place to turn for more information on how to educate a child with disabilities. This organization offers a bevy of practical information, such as a database of offices to contact when creating a learning plan for your child and even details on how to build your skills as an autism advocate. To get started, log on to p2pga.org.
Martin believes that services will only continue to grow for children with autism and their parents.
“As more kids are being diagnosed, more school districts around the country will develop programs that are made to address the needs of kids with autism.”