Parents protest cuts to autism program in Arlington

Some Arlington County parents are protesting a proposed cut in the number of aides who help students with mild forms of autism function in mainstream classes.

Several years ago, the county began offering a program with more structured support to help high-functioning students in middle school and high school — those often diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome — with social skills that they need in the classroom. About 60 students are enrolled in the program.

The proposed school budget would cut $271,000 from the program by eliminating about half of the aide positions. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget next Thursday.

“We believe that these children can’t succeed in the regular classroom without the right support,” said Gordon Whitman, the father of a seventh-grader in the autism program at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Whitman said the extra support made his son’s transition to middle school very successful. His son has a teacher “who knows autism inside and out” and works with him on social skills during a specialized class for students with autism. Also, two highly skilled aides follow Whitman’s son and about 10 other students to support them during their mainstream academic classes.

Brenda Wilks, assistant superintendent of student services for the school system, said it is likely that a smaller number of aide positions would be cut because the number of students enrolled in the program has increased since the budget was introduced.

She added that any reduction in classroom assistants would be offset by specialized training for all teachers and staff members.

Such students often benefit from extra help with organization and coping strategies to minimize stress and frustration.

Nearly 1,000 people have signed an online petition protesting the changes.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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