"If you show me 100 kids with autism, 60 percent would not have been diagnosed that way 10 years ago," said Bryna Siegel, director of the Autism Clinic at UCSF. They would have been "mentally retarded" or "learning disabled," or listed as having a "speech and language" disability, she said.
What Siegel says here is very important. Ten years ago autism was still an abstract concept in the mainstream consciousness and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was the craze, with millions being prescribed Ritalin. Many of the people now diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome were or would have been misdiagnosed with ADHD, as I was. Those with classical autism may also have been diagnosed with mental retardation if the people around them didn't have access to good literature and information about different cognitive disorders. It's very easy to blame the rise in autism diagnoses on something like vaccinations, as that comes with the notion that, if we just get rid of vaccinations, we could do away the disorder. It's far more likely that the rise in diagnoses is a result of increased public knowledge about autism.
Federal law says that from birth to 22, everyone with a disability is entitled to a free education "appropriate" for their unique needs.
But students with autism can't always count on educators to know what's appropriate because, as the state autism panel found, they have yet to agree on what services are beneficial or cost-effective.
One reason for the indecision is that autism shows up differently in different people: Some can speak; some can't. Some are bright; some aren't. Some behave unpredictably; others behave with robotic consistency.
If federal law really does say that those with disabilities have the right to a taxpayer-paid education that accommodates their special needs, that is a great case for a voucher program. Under a voucher program, a child's parents would be able to choose from private schools that are more directed towards students with disabilities and use the voucher to pay for it. It's worked in Sweden, and it would work here too if it weren't for the teacher's unions, who are interested in maintaining America's "one size fits all" Soviet-style public school system.
Jonah Kasoff's teacher, Rosie Lukanc, is that kind of educator. She began working with autistic children at age 12 as a teaching assistant. She earned a "moderate to intensive educational needs" degree from Ohio University in 2004 and did student-teaching with autistic children.
"Humor is a great motivator," said Lukanc, who sings and jokes with her students, keeping each one engaged. "My students like to laugh just as much as any other kid."
This put a smile on my face. I remember hearing for years that kids with Asperger's were adverse to humor. I think it's more likely that they have their own sense of humor that can be far different from "normal" people.