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Autism: A Growing Challenge for Public Schools

Once viewed as a rare disorder, the diagnosis of autism is becoming increasingly prevalent in the general population.

Some experts believe heightened awareness has led more parents to have their children tested. Others point to the fact that the definition of autism has been evolving, and that children who would have once been considered "withdrawn" or "socially awkward" are now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. There may also be an environmental component.

Right now, one out of every 150 children is believed to have some form of autism. Many experts believe that number may continue to rise.

Autism encompasses a very wide spectrum of behaviors and learning problems: Some children with autism are completely nonverbal, while on the other end of the spectrum, children with milder forms, such as Asperger's syndrome, may be very talkative. The variety of symptoms makes it particularly challenging for parents to recognize the problem, and for schools to help these kids learn.

There's agreement among experts on one recommendation: The sooner that children with autism get help, the more likely they are to develop at least some of the communication skills they need to get by in the world. "Typical" children can learn one skill—say, organizing their notebook—and then apply that skill to other situations. Many autistic kids, however, must learn each skill discretely, through painstaking repetition and one-on-one instruction. That's a big job for a busy public school to tackle.

Historically, many school systems have chosen to educate challenging children in private schools, believing public schools could not deal with their sometimes aggressive and unpredictable behavior. Private placement is very expensive, and also runs against the belief that students with autism can best learn social skills by staying in the classroom with their peers. Federal law also requires that schools provide the "least restrictive" environment for students. Faced with the rapid growth in autism spectrum diagnoses, many school districts are now trying to educate these kids themselves.

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Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.