IN response to what is being described as an alarming spike in the number of children diagnosed with autism, the Ministry of Education, through the Education System Transformation Programme (ESTP), has embarked on a major thrust to improve the capacity of local educators who are required to treat students with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Recent data collected in several countries point to an increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism.
Regarding the situation in Jamaica, Maureen Samms-Vaughan, professor of child health, child development and child behaviour at the University of the West Indies (UWI), says there has been a 10 to 15 per cent increase in the number of children born with autism annually.
In real terms, this figure means that approximately 500 children are born with this condition each year.
According to the United States-based National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders characterised by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour.
"Children with an ASD may fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with other people. They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can't understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don't watch other people's faces for clues about appropriate behaviour," the Institute explained as it presented an overview of the condition.
The increase in the population of children with ASD has resulted in significant challenges for parents as well as for many of the country's educators.
As part of its mandate to improve provisions for special education, the Ministry of Education, through the ESTP, last week held a three-day capacity building exercise for education officers from the Ministry's Special Education Unit, as well as other special education practitioners employed to several public and private institutions that cater to children with varying forms of special needs.
At the end of the training exercise on Wednesday, guest presenter Hal Houseworth, behaviour analyst and applied behaviour specialist and trainer with Trumpet Behavioural Health Company in the USA, disclosed that over the past five years there has been a tremendous increase in the availability of information on autism. "There has been an increase in awareness over the last 20 years, and especially over the last five years where more people are becoming aware of what the best practices are, and in turn we are seeing more attention being paid to people being affected by autism," Houseworth said, as he explained how the education system will benefit from the just ended professional development exercise.
"It was great, we were able to provide professional development to the staff and hope we will have better outcomes for the students," the international autism expert outlined.
Kimela Jarrett Johnstone, a special educator from the Windsor School of Special Education in St Catherine which has campuses in Spanish Town and Greater Portmore, described the education ministry's initiative as a blessing.
"It was good, it was good, a lot of information over the three days but very good, and the other thing is that we will be able to go online to do some of the courses that are offered by AutismPro."
She added that as a result of the added exposure to the latest research findings on autism, she will be better able to assist her students as well as her coworkers.
"I can see it helping me a great deal, because using the programmes you can actually chart the behaviour patterns of the children so as to implement interventions and measure progress."
Head of the Ministry of Education's Special Education Unit Miss June Hamilton also commented on the success of the professional development exercise.
"While officers were aware of some of the issues covered over the period, a lot of additional information was provided. Years ago we learned about applied behaviour management and so this was basically reinforcement, along with learning some new knowledge," she said.
Special Education Coordinator on the Education System Transformation Programme, Dr Michele Meredith who organised the exercise said the event was overwhelmingly successful.
"We wanted to focus on applied behaviour analysis as a fundamental part of assessment and intervention to allow teachers to be better able to provide meaningful intervention for children on the autism spectrum," she said.
Meredith added that the initiative formed part of the overall strategy to improve offerings in the area of special education, and was closely aligned to the needs assessed in the special education subsector, and concerns raised at the Special Education Conference (2011) and subsequent consultations with special education practitioners and other professionals.
The training will be delivered in regional training sessions across the education system.
Education Minister, Rev Ronald Thwaites has highlighted Special Education and Early Childhood Education as priorities for 2013.