Montgomery County Public Schools is planning to open autism centers at three high schools in the new school year, as the district grapples with a fivefold increase in the number of students diagnosed with autism over the last decade.
In the 2000-2001 school year, 266 students on the autism spectrum enrolled in MCPS. By 2010-2011, that number had jumped to 1,642, as autism became better diagnosed thanks to its federal classification as a disability and more awareness of the disorder's symptoms. In the past year, MCPS added 179 students with autism, including at least 62 who moved into Montgomery County with the diagnosis, said Chrisandra Richardson, associate superintendent for the Office of Special Education and Student Services.
The picture is further complicated by the number of autistic students from diverse backgrounds who may not speak English, in addition to their cognitive disability, school officials told the Montgomery County Council at a hearing on Monday.
"It's a growing issue, and we're struggling to reach these families," said Kris Secan, the school system's instructional specialist for autism.
After training school staff in August, the school system plans to open autism resource centers at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg and John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. The district recently restructured its elementary centers, which are not autism-specific, and is operating autism centers at three middle schools.
Richardson said her department has spent the past six months consulting with 117 schools and training about 2,000 Montgomery school staffers in de-escalating the acting-out behaviors associated with autism.
Officials also tested a program with bus drivers, after some incidents in which police had to intervene with situations involving autistic students on school buses.
"And we had zero incidents from the date of the training onward, which I think is fabulous," Secan said.
But special education staff acknowledged they also need to ramp up efforts to reach the diversifying swath of students who have special needs, such as immigrant families who may not speak English. About 13 percent of Montgomery students receive English for Speakers of Other Languages services.
Monday was the first day on the job for a new trilingual psychologist with "vast experience" with autism and English-language learners, Secan said.
"We have a long history of offering parent groups of different types," she said, "and they have been successful for periods of times, and then not."