BY LIBBY NELSON
Abington Heights Middle School teacher Mari Hendershot, right, teaches a class for autistic
students on Friday. JASON FARMER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Charts for the days of the week and months of the year. A clock for learning to tell time. Plastic
counters for math lessons. A science lesson explained in pictures along with words.
Some things in Mari Hendershot's classroom might seem out of place in a middle school.
But her Abington Heights Middle School classroom is unique - the district's first venture in using its
own resources to serve autistic students, said special education director Sam Sica.
Like programs for autistic students elsewhere, it serves a growing population.
In 1990, there were no students with autism enrolled in public or private schools in Northeastern
Five years later, there were 65. By 2005, there were 299.
As the numbers continue to expand, districts are searching for ways to best educate a group of
students who often have little in common besides a diagnosis.
The rapid rise in the numbers of students with autism mirrors trends across the state and country.
About one in every 150 children is born with autism, according to Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention statistics. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States.
In Pennsylvania, there were more than 30 times as many autistic students in 2005 as there were in
Explanations for the growth vary. One theory proposes that changes in criteria for diagnosis lead to
children being classified as autistic who previously might not have been. Others point to
environmental or genetic factors.
"Diagnoses have gone up and there are many, many more people identified," said Pamela Wolfe,
Ph.D., Penn State University associate professor of special education and co-author of "The Autism
"It means that, in many cases, teachers and administrators are kind of playing catch-up, trying to
The autism spectrum is diverse. Some students need little help to participate fully in regular, even
advanced, classes. Others spend much of their day in special classrooms.
"There's a full array of differences that these kids have," said David Angeloni, coordinator of
special education for the Valley View School District. "There are autistic kids that are fully included
in regular education. There are kids who are gifted or mentally retarded or have behavior
disabilities or emotional disabilities."
Meeting diverse needs
Even in special classrooms such as Ms. Henderson's, which helps students with more severe cases
of autism, abilities vary widely depending on the student and the subject.
Among her four students, there are reading and math skill levels that range from kindergarten to
third or fourth grade. And people with autism can have trouble grasping abstract ideas, which can
make explanations more difficult, she said.
So she models the thinking process for her students, breaking the abstract ideas into more
concrete steps. To better understand numbers, she and her students graph the changes in
temperature from day to day. A science assignment taken from the regular classroom is illustrated
for beginning readers, with a picture over each word.
The curriculum itself is not revolutionary. But by dealing with autistic students through a district
program, she and Abington Heights are in relatively uncharted territory.
Until recently, intermediate units have handled most of the support services for districts.
As the population of autistic students grows, districts are taking on more responsibilities for
themselves, said Clarence Lamanna, Ed.D., director of special education for Northeast Intermediate
"I believe that as the numbers begin to increase and as parents are more in tune, districts will look
very hard at operating their own programs," he said. "I see (intermediate unit involvement) as
Abington Heights would like to serve all students through district programs eventually, Mr. Sica said.
"I don't know if we'll ever be able to house all the kids," he said. "But we're making every effort."
Other districts are breaking away from the intermediate unit to create their own programs, most
paid for by state or federal grants.
"Pennsylvania has really been a leader in terms of programming for children with autism," said
Maria Farrell, supervisor of special education for the Delaware Valley School District, which started
its second autism classroom this year. "Parents feel more comfortable having their kids in public
school, whereas before it was an anomaly not to find a special school."
Sharing a classroom
Special classrooms, whether provided by the district or the intermediate unit, are the exception.
About half the state's autistic students now spend at least 40 percent of their day in a regular
classroom, meaning teachers are dealing with students they would have rarely seen 10 years ago.
Autism "was such a puzzle and a mystery at first," said Mr. Angeloni, who remembers the first
autistic students diagnosed in Lackawanna County. "The diagnosis of autism was misunderstood,
misdiagnosed, a newly developing category, whereas nowadays there are a zillion books and
Changes in federal law, which mandates that schools include students with disabilities in the regular
classroom as much as possible, have also led to changes in schools' techniques.
Some students spend an hour or two in a support classroom and the rest of the time with their
peers. Others are served through "co-teaching" - pairing a classroom teacher with a special
Programs are moving toward co-teaching and inclusion, meaning the need to train classroom
teachers in autism will intensify, Dr. Wolfe said.
"They're going to need to be training general educators that these children are going to be in their
class," she said. "They are not what many teachers have been trained to do."
For some regular teachers, teaching students with autism comes with apprehension about a
disorder they might know little about.
"Given the spectrum, I imagine there must be some fear attached to 'I'm going to have this child and
I don't really know much about autism,'" Ms. Farrell said. "We provide as much information as we
can to get rid of the fear, or at least get rid of some of the fear."
Northeastern Pa. (Intermediate Units 18 and 19)
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©The Times-Tribune 2007