Although the number of autistic students has grown dramatically in Contra Costa County, school districts don't receive adequate state and federal funding to pay for their mandated education, district officials say.
In Mt. Diablo district alone, the total annual cost of the special education programs is $37.7 million more than the district receives in state and federal funding, including about $4.8 million that is spent transporting students.
"(The students) typically have myriad services, which include speech pathology, occupational therapy, behavioral services, counseling and social skills groups," said Mildred Browne, assistant superintendent for special education in the Mt. Diablo school district.
The number of district students ages 0-22 with autism has nearly doubled in the past seven years, from 269 in 2005 to 540 today. This growth is mirrored at county and state levels.
In Contra Costa County, the number of autistic students grew from 926 in 2005 to 1,666 in 2010. California's numbers ballooned from 34,668 to 65,908 during that time.
The reason for this huge increase is a topic of continued debate, said Katie Gaines, who oversees some autism programs operated by the Contra Costa County Office of Education.
Many people believe more children have the disability, she said, while others speculate that doctors and educators have become better at diagnosing it. The expansion of criteria used to diagnose the disability could also play a role, she said.
Autism is characterized by atypical development in socialization, communication and behavior, according to a Mt. Diablo district special report. Symptoms can also be accompanied by abnormal learning, cognitive functioning, attention and sensory processing.
The disability is called a "spectrum" disorder because it can range from mild to severe and require a range of services. Goals for each student vary, depending on where they are in the spectrum, said Carolyn Patton, the Mt. Diablo district's special education administrator.
Some will graduate and go onto college, while others will learn life skills so they can live independently. Some -- including those with other disabilities or special needs -- may need more intensive classroom settings of one adult for every two students, she said.
"They often have complicated behaviors -- more of what you would think of as stereotypical autism, with high sensory integration needs, screaming, repetitive movement, pacing, head-banging, those types of things," she said.
The Mt. Diablo, San Ramon Valley and West Contra Costa districts have so many students with disabilities that they have formed their own Special Education Local Plan Areas. Smaller districts often contract with the county to provide the intensive services, which can cost a minimum of $27,280 per student, but may reach $60,000 a year in some non-county programs, Gaines said.
To save money and educate students in the "least restrictive environment" according to law, many districts are also starting up their own programs. The Mt. Diablo district opened magnet elementary and middle school programs three years ago for high-functioning students who are mainstreamed in classes with non-special education students. The magnet programs helped save the district more than $1 million in the first two years, which would have otherwise been spent sending those students to nonpublic schools.
Ellen Terminello, who teaches preschoolers in the Valle Verde Elementary magnet program, said she and other teachers challenge autistic children so they learn to adapt in society.
"You don't want to mollycoddle them," she said. "You want to give them the appropriate skills so they can persevere. That's the power of this work."
Number of autistic students ages 0-22
Mt. Diablo Contra Costa California
school district County
2005 269 926 34,668
2010 475 1,666 65,908
2012 540 Not available Not available
For more information about autism in the Mt. Diablo school district, read the On Assignment blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment.