Preparing for Autistic Children's Teen Years

North Jersey's autistic population is growing up, and school districts that have scrambled to start classes for the youngest students are turning their attention to the teenage years.

"This is the generation of parents that fought for high-quality programs starting at age 3," said Gary Molenaar, director of instruction at the Bergen County Special Services District. "Now these kids are aging up through the middle and high school years, and they want the same quality of service."

New classrooms for high school students are opening in Dumont and Rockleigh. In Ridgewood, a middle school dedicated to providing autism services opened this year with 24 students from Bergen, Passaic and Essex counties. Administrators expect it will grow eventually to serve 78 children. In Franklin Lakes, a new class for middle school students will open in September and it already has a waiting list.

Expanding services for older students is a pressing need.

In Bergen County, nearly two-thirds of students with autism were found to be between the ages of 6 and 13 in a 2006 survey of 73 school districts. More than one-third of administrators said they were concerned about having adequate secondary school classes in the future.

"The input is that this is going to be a graph that looks like this," said county Special Services Superintendent Robert Aloia, pointing skyward.

Throughout North Jersey, autism programs have long waiting lists at public and private schools alike. The state has the highest rate of autism recorded in the United States, at one in 94 children, according to a 2006 federal report. There is no clear-cut cause for the increase, though growing awareness is a factor.

The disorder is associated with repetitive, socially inappropriate behaviors and impairs the communication and sensory input skills children need to learn. Individuals with autism are diagnosed by their behavior and usually are described as being "on the spectrum," a reference to their wide range of abilities. Some may never speak. Others may learn to function normally as adults.

As students enter their teenage years, they pose a double challenge for educators.

Schools must continue the rigorous, data-driven behavior modification lessons that have become the gold standard in well- regarded North Jersey programs. But they must do so outside of the controlled classroom environment in order to teach students to use their hard-earned social skills in unpredictable settings.

"You might learn something in school, but have difficulty generalizing that in the community," said Roberta Wohle, director of the Office of Special Education at the state Department of Education. "You want students to have opportunities within the community, in a structured way, to help practice those skills."

At the Washington@Ridgewood program for middle school students run by the county special services district, each day's schedule includes lessons and "errands." One frequent assignment: Place lunch orders for the staff and pick up the food. Students earn a tip for their efforts, and then head to the local drugstore or supermarket to spend the money.

"They practice how to find products, how to ask people questions and how to talk to people who they don't know," said teacher Karen Piasecki. "It's also practice in counting money, and learning to wait for your change."

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Time is of the essence as children approach the end of their elementary school years. Learning is labor- and time-intensive for many students with autism, who lose their entitlements to school and therapy when they turn 21.

"Ten or 11 years might seem like a long time, but truly, it might not be for the individual with autism who requires a lot of repetition to learn skills," said Linda Meyer, executive director of NJ COSAC, an advocacy group. "Your goal in adolescence is to pick what's functional for the individual to learn, so they can be as independent as possible when they graduate."

Kathy Kienz's son Ryan, 13, attends the private Epic school in Paramus. In school, he is learning skills that hopefully will foster independence later in life, such as how to visit a gym. At home in Clifton, he has learned to make his own bed and load the dishwasher.

Kientz, who leads a local support group for parents of adolescents with autism, said she hopes that Ryan's years of schooling will prepare him for life after age 21. But she worries about a persistent dearth of services for a growing group of teenagers and adults with autism.

"We know it's coming," she said. "We know we've already got a population of adults that aren't being served, and we've got one in 94 children being diagnosed in New Jersey. We have some time now to prepare."

Source: Record, The; Bergen County, N.J. Tuesday, 27 May 2008, 15:00 CDT

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