Editor's note: Picking Up the Pieces is a Daily Press special series covering autism. The three-part series will focus on one autistic boy's experience, with coverage from three different perspectives: the parent, the teacher and the community.
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ESCANABA - Every year more and more families are being touched by the affects of autism. What was once a diagnosis given only to the most severely impaired has broadened, and it was only in 1990 that Congress added a separate disability category for autism to guarantee special education services. With the expanded definition and legal recognition has come a need for more community services and public awareness.
Andrew Paul Claes, director of special education at Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District, poses for a photo in his office at the ISD. Claes said many cases of autism are detected during kindergarten screening. (Daily Press photo by Ilsa Matthes)
"When we talk about autism, we're talking about a broad spectrum of symptomatology," said Andrew Paul Claes, director of the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate District Special Education Department.
According to Claes, many students are found to have an autism spectrum disorder during kindergarten screenings or through the Early On program provided by the Delta, Menominee Public Health Department. This program screens preschool-aged children for developmental delays. For older children, the DSISD has a special screening program called "Child Find."
"We run, kind of like a clinic on a monthly basis," explained Claes. "It's screening, essentially, where parents sign up if they have suspicions that their child has some kind of disability - it doesn't have to be autism."
Parents who are interested in the Child Find program should call the Special Education Department of the DSISD at 786-9300.
Because some students with disabilities like autism learn differently than others, they may require specially-catered educational programs. Those programs are designed by what is known as an "Individual Education Plan team." The team is comprised of the student's parents or guardians, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, an administrator, professionals involved with the student, and the student as appropriate.
Individual Education Plans are different for students with different levels of impairment.
"It could be as easy as some accommodations in the classroom to programming at the Learning Center," said Claes.
The DSISD also operates the Learning Center for students who are severely cognitively impaired. "We have a number of students with autism at the learning center, but, again, the students that are there, in a more restrictive environment, are there because they're more severe," explained Claes. "They generally have more significant cognitive impairment and/or social impairments that are associated with autism," he adds.
For teachers and community members, training is available through START, the Statewide Autism Resources and Training program. Recent START programs have been taught locally through video teleconferences.
"We will likely be able to provide other modules in years to come," said Lacy Lauzon, DSISD behavioral consultant and representative for the Upper Peninsula Autism Network.
"If you've met one student with autism, you've met one student with autism. No two students are the same," said Lauzon.
Last June, UPAN held a presentation at Bay College on Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Two hundred people signed up for the event.
The Escanaba Public Library is also drawing attention to the issue of autism. On Tuesday, the library will host a book discussion on "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," by Mark Haddon. The book is about a 15-year-old autistic boy who finds a neighbor's dead dog in his yard.
The discussion will take place in the city council chambers at 6:30 p.m. and be moderated by a social worker and a speech therapist. Recent library acquisitions on the topic of autism and autism spectrum disorders will also be featured, as well as artwork from local students. Call 789-7323 or visit www.escanabalibrary.org for more information about the discussion.