Autism Research Expands, Parents Seek Education Alternatives
> 11/29/2007 11:31:24 AM

Despite the groundbreaking research emerging nearly every week from autism studies performed around the world, the condition remains one of the most frustrating and controversial mental illnesses, and as the functional differences in the brains of affected patients become clearer, many parents have begun to demand expanded academic alternatives for their autistic children.

Further evidence of physical abnormalities in autistic children reinforces the neurological basis of the many problems encountered by affected patients, particularly in the areas of social interaction and information processing. In the latest clinical report, researchers at institutes specializing in the condition used increasingly sophisticated brain scan techniques to illustrate characteristic differences between the grey matter of control subjects and that of those diagnosed with the high-functioning Asperger's Syndrome variation. The average age of subjects in the study was 11, but its ultimate goal was to move toward developing more effective early intervention treatments for the condition. Experts now agree that, the earlier the disorder can be detected, the greater the chances of counteracting its effects.

Autistic patients were found to have larger areas of grey matter, or functioning brain tissue, in the parietal lobes, where cells called mirror neurons help regulate behavior by allowing patients to imitate, empathize with and learn from actions they see performed by others. Larger amounts of grey matter in the parietal lobes usually denote higher IQ's and sharper perceptive skills, but this trend did not hold true for autistic subjects because the material in question, despite its abundence, does not function properly, hence the difficulty assessing and relating to the actions of others that so commonly hampers autistic patients. The fact that subjects involved in the study were only of the Asperger's variety limits the results somewhat, but all types of autism have been linked to mirror neuron abnormalities in the past, and research clarifying that relationship will hopefully prove helpful to all patients.

"The fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States" has also made necessary the creation of a federal panel specializing in autism research that aims to design policy to help those whose autism threatens to facilitate irreparable delays in their cognitive and emotional development. Considering the simple fact, demonstrated by this and numerous preceding studies, that autistic children's neurological abnormalities make it more difficult for them to relate to and interact with other kids, the resurgent movement on the part of parents to place their autistic kids in publicly funded specialty classes is understandable. Of course, some counter that independent classes or schools will only lead to a greater sense of isolation and compound the considerable social challenges faced by autistic children, and the notoriously thrifty federal government agrees; the percentage of disabled students (including autistic kids) who spend a majority of their school time in regular classes has increased considerably in the last 15 years. But the unique qualifications of autistic patients simply require specialized educational approaches, even when they're placed in classes with unaffected students. Most require outside instruction, which can prove costly and, for some parents, impossible.

Yes, independent classes will also inevitably create higher public education budgets (the average annual cost to educate a special-ed student in a standard school is $16,000, and the same stat at a public specialty school ranges from $28,000 to $42,000), which is undoubtedly why most legislators will continue to oppose them. But practicing fiscal responsibility and attending to the needs of the thousands of American children affected by autism need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps the most convincing point in the pro-special ed camp: standard teachers do not have the specialized training and personal experience required to offer autistic students the best possible education. Many of the strongest proponents of independent classes and schools are parents who once believed that their disabled children could only progress when assimilated into classes with normal kids but found that the social isolation and ridicule from which they suffered was far worse in those scenarios. And the public school system owes equal academic opportunity to every student. We must find a way to offer special instruction to those who need it so badly.

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