Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Autism rising
quickly in Hawaii

State numbers have nearly
doubled since 2001,
highlighting a shortage
in qualified teachers

The number of autistic children in Hawaii's public school system has nearly doubled since 2001, putting the state on "the high end" of a national trend, state education officials said yesterday.

There were 1,143 students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, last month, up from 656 students in August 2001, Department of Education officials told the Board of Education yesterday.

Autism includes a range of neuropsychiatric disorders affecting a person's ability to interact socially and communicate, causing unusual and repetitive behavior.

Although Hawaii's increase tracks a nationwide trend, the state's numbers are "on the high side," said Marilyn Jakeway, the department's education specialist for autism.

Dr. Paul Ban, director of the department's Special Education Services Branch, said it was nearly impossible to determine the cause of the increase in autism, which is variously blamed on genetic, environmental and other factors.

"I don't think anyone has a handle on the root causes of autism," Ban said.

The increase comes during a transition in care for autistic children begun in 2001, from the Department of Health to the Department of Education, and as schools face new demands for more qualified special-education teachers.

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act of 2004 requires that all special-education teachers be "highly qualified" under a range of criteria.

With teachers of all kinds scarce across the country, Ban said Hawaii was a "little behind the eight ball" in terms of trying to make up a "5 to 7 percent" state shortfall of special-education teachers.

However, he said a recent recruiting push, both locally and on the mainland, is expected to bear fruit. Though the IDEA law went into effect on July 1, he said the department has until a year from now to meet the teacher requirements.

The department's takeover of care for autistic children has gotten a mixed response from parents. Maung Kyi, whose 14-year-old son is autistic, said a lack of continuity in providers has hampered his son's progress.

"We get a lot of promises from the DOE about this and that, but all we want is continuity. That's the most important thing to an autistic child," he said.

Ban acknowledged that the department's takeover of autistic care is "in transition" and said that there is high turnover in personnel, which he blames on "burnout" in those dealing with autistic children.

Much of the care provided to autistic students is handled by private providers contracted by the state, but the department plans to move to a system of more direct care, and has begun pilot projects to test the idea.

Although autism is on the rise, the percentage of students with learning disabilities and other special-education needs has held steady at around 12 percent of the 180,000-student population, Ban said.

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