Prince George’s County schools autism programs expand to fill growing need

April 4, 2012

Learning that her son Robert was diagnosed with autism was overwhelming enough, but Theresa Dupree of District Heights knew in 2006 that he would need more help than Landover’s William Paca Elementary could offer at the time.

One month into the first grade, Robert transferred to Seat Pleasant Elementary School’s autism program. Today, the 11-year-old is one of about 60 students in the school’s program, the largest of Prince George’s County Public Schools’ seven elementary autism programs.

Dupree noticed the difference the specialized program made right away. Her son received extra help in speech therapy, had one-on-one time with instructors and interacted with other children in group settings. Seat Pleasant even had a special sensory room for Robert and his peers, where students could scream and roll around until they were centered and calm again for instruction.

But like other students with autism, Robert takes regular classes as well.

“He takes his science class with [the] general education [students],” Dupree said. “They are awesome. I don’t know if they explained to them about the [autism] spectrum, but the students help as well. If they notice Robert needs help, they help him.”

Robert is part of what continues to be a growing number of students in Prince George’s, and the country, identified as autistic, prompting the school to schedule a conference this month to raise autism awareness.

Autism is defined as a developmental disorder, and symptoms could include delayed speech, avoiding eye contact and having “obsessive interests,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Embrace Autism awareness conference will take place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 14 at Seat Pleasant Elementary School. It will feature workshops on child-parent communication and finding community resources for parents of autistic children. Training will also be available for law enforcement on how to recognize people with autism.

The number of Prince George’s County Public Schools students identified as autistic has risen from 606 in the 2004-05 school year to 1,139 in 2011-12, said Joan Rothgeb, director of special education for Prince George’s County Public Schools. She attributes that to more research being done nationally about the disorder, which makes it easier to identify characteristics of a student on the autism spectrum.

One in 88 children in the U.S. has a form of autism, according to the CDC and the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network.

Rothgeb said there have been specialized county school autism programs for five years, and the goal is to eventually integrate autistic students into general education classes.

In Prince George’s, there are six other schools that serve elementary school students with autism: Beltsville Academy, Glenn Dale Elementary, Bowie’s Kenilworth Elementary, College Park’s Paint Branch Elementary, Suitland’s Skyline Elementary and Fort Washington’s Tayac Academy.

Rosaryville Elementary in Upper Marlboro will replace Tayac as a site in the next school year, said Nikki Steptoe-Coleman, a county school system autism specialist.

But not every county student diagnosed with autism needs to be in an autism program, Rothgeb said. Students can receive help from specialists in their neighborhood schools, depending on how much therapy they require.

In addition, students may not need to continue into a specialized program in middle and high school depending on their individual progress, Rothgeb said.

Although the number of students diagnosed has increased over the years, Rothgeb said, the school system does not need to further expand the program.

Rothgeb said the idea to have a conference was driven by the community’s desire to embrace all its students, regardless of disability.

“It resonates how accepting we are and understanding of the appreciation for inclusion,” Rothgeb said.

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