It is April and, once again, it is an important time to promote autism awareness and acceptance through National Autism Awareness Month.
The New Jersey Speech-Language-Hearing Association (NJSHA) will join with many other advocates to draw more attention to the fact that tens of thousands of people across America are facing an autism diagnosis this year.
New Jersey still has some of the most alarming statistics in the nation, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that one out of every 26 boys and one out of every 108 girls in the state are being identified with an autism spectrum disorder. That is based on the review of health and educational records of 8-year-old children.
There is no doubt that New Jersey lawmakers need to be concerned, especially when we consider that, in 1966, researchers estimated that only about one in every 2,500 children had autism. As we mark Autism Awareness Month, we expect to read many opinion-editorials on these pages from our elected officials, demanding action to curb these rates.
What we need to hear is a call for additional state aid to support programs in public schools that identify children with autism and provide resources they need to better succeed in their education. NJSHA has met with elected representatives who have said they recognize the need for substantial change in the special education funding formula. Unfortunately, this has not yet happened.
NJSHA proposes that state lawmakers consider special services as a separate expense that should not be tabulated as part of the 2 percent spending cap. It would give school districts the breathing room to do what is right, as opposed to financially expedient, when it comes to deciding the needs of children with autism. Special education funding must be sufficient, equitable, transparent, universal and accountable.
Because autism is a language-based disorder, speech-language therapy is the most frequently prescribed service. Unfortunately, without adequate funding, crucial services are often cut.
Our association questions how school districts can manage, support and expand resources to a growing population of children with autism, while each school district is required to stay within the state’s 2 percent cap on property tax increases. It is time for the state to find an alternative way to fund special education that does not further impact local property taxes. “Do more with less” has been the passive strategy for years, but has that expectation become unrealistic?
There are so many line items in a school budget competing for state aid. Special services, which supports programs for these children in need, seems low on the priority scale.
NJSHA, a member of the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform, hopes the state will finally establish a single way for determining the cost of special education and tuition, both public and private. Controlling costs and eliminating waste could allow for more state aid without further impacting budgets.
Moreover, it is time for New Jersey to provide supplemental aid to school districts offering highly specialized, intensive special education programs, ensuring there is enough funding to keep children in public schools with their peers and friends. Children cannot just be brought back into district without appropriate programs, which cost money. As such, the state must find a way to fund its mandates for special education outside the cap.
This April, and throughout the year, there needs to be strong voices in the halls of Trenton, and within the communities across the state, focusing on children with autism. We can no longer expect or demand special services teachers to create miracles if the dollars are not there to support new initiatives, resources and staff.
The “squeaky wheel gets the grease” should not be the standing policy in determining which children receive attention and which do not, based on the financial situation at the moment.
NJSHA does not stand alone in our call for more school funding. Quinnipiac University recently released a poll that shows 63 percent of New Jersey voters want the state to spend more to improve all public schools, compared to 34 percent who did not.
For NJSHA, which promotes the highest standards for speech, language and hearing services in New Jersey, we hope for more appropriate funding so that children with autism can productively interact with the world around them.
Sue Goldman of Somerset is a Licensed Speech-Language Pathologist and a member of the New Jersey Speech-Language-Hearing Association.