Meeting the challenges of autism and education

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Next week (TESS, May 13-20) is Autism Awareness week. Many have already had their awareness of autism raised over the past few months by the continuing controversy over the safety of the MMR triple vaccine which dominated the headlines on a number of occasions.

What has perhaps not received quite so much publicity are the alarming statistics surrounding autism. It has been established that as many as one in 175 primary school children has a clinical diagnosis of autism (Dr Fiona Scott, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University) and the estimated increase is currently around 20 per cent per year (Taylor, 1999).

Whether this dramatic increase is due to the MMR immunisation programme, or other environmental triggers, remains a hotly debated issue. However, what cannot be debated is the need for additional educational provision for these children. How are education authorities going to meet this challenge?

One measure which a number of authorities in Scotland have now seen fit to implement is to support parents who choose to run intensive home based programmes for their autistic children. Currently there are around 30 families in Scotland who have chosen to use intensive applied behavioural analysis (ABA) progrmmes with their children.

These programmes, based on the work of Dr Ivar Lovaas, aim to teach the children in very small steps all the skills they will require for entry to a mainstream school setting, starting from as early an age as possible. Parents have beenconvinced by the very positive results from Dr Lovaas's research and see this method as one of the few which will enable their child to access the mainstream curriculum.

Many of the 30 families using this programme are supported by Caryn Mello-Kennedy, an ABA consultant from North Carolina. Caryn has been visiting some of the Scottish families on a six-weekly basis for over two years now and will be opening a branch of her company, A Bridge to Learning, in Edinburgh this summer.

This is not only good news for families of autistic children, desperate to try to teach them the skills normally developing children acquire naturally, it could also be good news for education authorities trying to attain educational inclusion for a population whose disability currently makes this very difficult to achieve.

Michele Bell

Mother of Lewis, aged seven, a P1 pupil at Claremont primary Alloa, who has been on an ABA programme for nearly three year

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