Autism continues to be on the rise. Much has been learned about this disability and ways we can support individuals and families that are impacted with an autism diagnosis. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is known as a developmental disability characterized by deficits in social interaction, restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. This definition took many decades to form and many families persevered through feelings of isolation, blaming and feeling responsible for their child’s deficiency of social skills, their inability to fit in, and adjust to what the world saw as "normal" or typical childhood behavior. By the end of the 1970s, theories that ASD was a mental health disorder or that mothers were to blame were disproved.

Oftentimes the questions are asked, “Where were all these kids before we knew about autism?” and “Are we overidentifying kids with autism?” As physicians, psychiatrists and professors came across more and more people with similar characteristics, they were able to identify autism as an official diagnosis in the early 1950s. In 1980, autism was identified as a developmental disability. This means that the condition begins during the early years of life and may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually lasts throughout a person's lifetime. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been tracking the prevalence of ASD since 2000, when it was identified in 1 in every 150 children at age 8. Fast forward to 2020, when the overall prevalence of ASD among children aged 8 years is 1 in 54 children.

Progress has been made in identifying children earlier in their development. Early childhood screenings around 36 months have been a key factor in early intervention. Research shows that the earlier the diagnosis (than age 8), the sooner children can get services, which greatly impacts life outcomes. Because there is a broad range of typical development from birth through age 7, careful consideration is given to early identification of autism in children. A team of trained professionals work with the parents to determine if a diagnosis of autism is appropriate. When there is a diagnosis of autism, evidence based practices (EBPs) provide teaching techniques that support student learning and achievement.

Reading and math curricula have been around since the 18th century, history and science too. However, at the end of the 20th century there was not yet a research based and standardized curriculum for teaching students with autism and other developmental needs. Many of us were in our teen years in 1997. Most of us can recall the days when peers who were different were sent away to learn. Those that teach children with autism have been pioneers in developing strategies and methods these past 30 years. There’s been no manual or teacher’s guide to follow every day. In 1997, the STAR curriculum (Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research) was first published. It was and continues to be the gold standard for schools helping children learn functional routines as well as academic and social communication skills. Students who learn in the STAR program have a much higher level of independence as they grow into adulthood.

This school year five special education teachers at Prairie Elementary are being trained in and implementing the STAR curriculum with their students. In November, six middle school and high school special education teachers are being trained in the LINKS curriculum (Linking Assessment and Instruction for Independence), which is the secondary version of STAR. Staff have been excited to have standardized and structured curriculum that embeds the evidence based practices. They work with national trainers, a board certified behavior analyst, and ISD 518’s certified autism experts to bring high quality instruction to our students with autism. It is exciting and deeply rewarding to teach students who would otherwise spend their day very anxious, overwhelmed and unable to learn because of it, learning the academic skills, routines and social communication skills to be successful and contributing community members in the future. Other benefits of the STAR curriculum include: ABA-based, provides a comprehensive curriculum-based assessment and documents progress on IEPs, is aligned with Common Core State Standards, is shown to be effective in public school settings, and comprehensive materials for instruction.

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With at least one million U.S. boys and girls with autism not to mention the rapidly growing number of adults with autism — It is likely that each of us will know someone in our lifetime with autism. Families and professionals need our support. Every child matters. The call to action is clear. We must heighten our efforts to educate families and educators about autism’s early warning signs and diagnose children at a younger age. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the better the long-term outcome. The next child impacted could be one you love. The next parent filled with worry about their child could be you or someone close to you. Together we can make a difference and make the world a better place for those impacted by autism.

For more information regarding autism, the STAR or LINKS programs, please contact Prairie Elementary School or https://starautismsupport.com/SOLS-Learn-More.

If you have concerns about your child not developing as most children do, please contact any one of the schools to share your concerns. The Milestone Tracker app (https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/) or the Help Me Grow (https://helpmegrowmn.org/HMG/DevelopMilestone/index.html) website is available to help you, too.

Allison Eitreim is District 518's assistant director of special education.