WEST ORANGE, NJ -  April is Autism awareness month, and the West Orange School district continues to utilize research and information to meet the needs of its autistic students. 

At the monthly Special Education Parent Advisory Committee meeting, Corinne Catalano, Assistant Director for Consultation Services at the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University, discussed the latest findings and diagnostic criteria on autism.

Last week, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released its report on information gathered during 2010, and said that 1 in 68 children nationwide have some form of autism. Additionally, in a test group of children in Union County, NJ, 1 in 45 children had some form of autism, and 1 in 28 boys had some form of autism.

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New Jersey is the No. 1 state for autism in the nation. State Senator Theresa Ruiz, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced Bill S1039 on January 30, 2014, which would "direct the State Board of Education to develop autism spectrum disorder endorsement and require all teacher preparation programs to include a special education component". In the face of what appears to be staggering 2010 figures on autism, the education community is concerned what the 2011 figures will look like.  

Catalano discussed the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, revised in May, 2013, renaming autism as Autism Spectrum Disorder. The new diagnosis now contains two broad criteria and three levels of severity.  

Also included is a new diagnosis of Social Communication Disorder, which includes difficulties with social communication skills yet lacks the repetitive behaviors and restricted interests typical in autism.

To read more about the DSM-V changes, visit http://www.autismspeaks.org/.

Catalano discussed some of the 'newer thinking' in autism spectrum disorder, which wants to pull focus away from external behaviors and focus more on brain research. Ami Klin, a noted autism researcher, is developing a "new early detection method that uses eye-tracking technologies to gauge babies' social engagement skills and reliably measure their risk of developing autism".

Research appears to dispute the notion that autism may be induced by vaccinations. Studies point to genetic factors, and more research is needed on environmental factors, but there is still no fully integrated "theory of autism".

At this time, there are many strategies, interventions, and educational approaches available, with the National Institute of Mental Health noting "As no definitive behavioral or developmental intervention improves all symptoms for all individuals with ASD, it is recommended that clincial management be guided by individual needs and availability of resources".

Three books were recommended for the group: the first, "Look Me in the Eye" by John Elder Robison, who has ASD.  Robison says, "All those child psychologists who said John prefers to play by himself were dead wrong.  I played by myself because I was a failure at playing with others."

The second was "Pedro's Whale" by Paula Kluth, PhD, about encouraging a child's fascinations; and the third, "Carly's Voice: Breaking Through Autism," by Arthur Fleischman with daughter Carly Fleishman, who is non-verbal and diagnosed with ASD.

For the special education teachers, professionals, and parents present at the March 31 meeting, Catalano was equally interested to know what they wanted people to be aware of during Autism Awareness month.

The first, and most unanimous response, was that each child must be viewed as unique. When it comes to ASD, one size does not fit all, and a combination of different therapies and education, involving both the school district and parents, is key to providing a successful foundation. Another wish: to de-stigmatize ASD.  Parents and educators believed the 'bar should be kept high' because ASD kids, just like 'normal' ones are gifted and special. All educators agreed that ASD children in the West Orange school district, whether in special education or general education classes, were 'accepted and cared for' by their non-ASD classmates.

"Information on ASD is evolving rapidly," said Catalano. "Parents are advocates and know their kids best.  The most successful strategy is a team approach between parents and educators."

Catalano invited the group and community to several ASD events at MSU during the month of April. The flyer with accompanying information about the free events is attached as a jpeg.