Despite awareness, autistic students face challenges

Apr. 04, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

There’s a reason the symbol for Autism Awareness, which is being celebrated all April, is a puzzle piece: No two children with autism are quite the same, and the disorder can often present a complex set of problems.

Take Cory, 18, and Lucas, 3. Both have autism but couldn’t be more different in terms of how the disorder manifests itself.

Lucas doesn’t talk except to say he has to go to the bathroom, or to repeat things said to him. Cory loves to sing and talk, especially about particular favorites of his, like vacuum cleaners. Lucas likes going to noisy restaurants and zoning in on the noise. Cory, on the other hand, hates loud places, so his family only goes out to eat at odd hours when the crowds are sparse.

But both go to Floyd L. Knight in Sanford — one of just five public schools in the state serving only disabled students — and both have parents who say they appreciate the school’s approach.

“I like this school because they don’t treat them special,” said Amber Markham, Lucas’ mom. “They just look at them like regular kids.”

Darrin Moore, Cory’s dad, said he and his wife, Tracy, moved here several years ago when he became pastor at Beaver Creek Baptist Church. They came from Anson County and said it’s easily 20 years behind Lee County; things were so bad there, they said, that they home-schooled Cory rather than trusting the public schools with him.

But in Sanford, they said, they have full faith in the public schools to take care of Cory. Moore said one of the main reasons he chose Beaver Creek over another church that was courting him, located on the coast, was Floyd Knight.

But not all Lee County parents are fully satisfied with how local public schools other than Floyd Knight handle autistic students.

Laurie McAuley, for example, has a 19-year-old son with autism, A.J. He was diagnosed young, started out at Floyd Knight and didn’t speak until he was 7. Later, he transfered to Southern Lee High School to be exposed to non-disabled students, model their behavior and learn to socialize. He graduated with a non-diploma certificate last year.

But it was a struggle dealing with the prejudices of some students and teachers, said McAuley, who is herself a teacher at SanLee Middle School. She is also co-president of the local chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina and said that public schools, in general, are not very adept at helping autistic students.

“They’ll fight you every step of the way,” McAuley said. “I’m a teacher, and I’ll say that. ... There’s a lot of improvements that need to be done.”

Anne Sessoms, the district’s director of exceptional education, said she thinks Lee County Schools do a better job than many districts in helping autistic students, although she acknowledged there’s room for growth — especially in terms of educating individuals about the disorder.

McAuley said that one of the bright spots was the Southern Lee Junior ROTC.

“It’s more of a brotherhood or a sisterhood, and that’s what he needed,” McAuley said. “And still whenever we go out and see old classmates of his, they’ll come and talk to him. And if I’m out without him, they’ll come up to me and ask how he’s doing. The students and the instructors.”

Sessoms said she wants such experiences to be the norm, and she’s looking into partnering with a university or advocacy group to help train staff, as well as to just encourage better understanding in general.

Julee Snyder, a speech-language pathologist at Floyd Knight, is on a district-wide autism team and said that while understanding and acceptance are improving, there’s still work to do.

“We need to remember that we are talking about people,” Snyder said. “Not a checklist.”

Outside of school, it can be even worse. McAuley helps moderate the local Autism Society chapter Facebook group, and she said she had to make it private because people were going to the page simply to post hurtful comments.

Snyder, however, said things have gotten better for autistic children and their families than in the past — and that autism will only keep becoming more visible.

Statewide and national rates of autism diagnoses have steadily risen recently, she said, due mainly to more awareness. Yet locally, there could be many children still living with undiagnosed autism. The statewide autism rate is one in 58 children, and the national rate is one in 68. But in Lee County Schools, with its 122 autistic children, that’s a rate of about one in 82.