During the last legislative session, State Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, introduced legislation to expand the availability of special education training to Texas teachers, influenced, in part, by the growing number of students with autism. The bill included a small stipend for participation to encourage additional training, but after passing unanimously in the Senate, it died in the House.
Now some lawmakers are exploring the idea of building charter schools for special ed students and integrating them into existing campuses. They’re looking, in particular, at a New York City charter school for autistic children that is located inside a public school. “I absolutely believe that a charter school system is viable for Texas,” says state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. Another “ideal option,” Shapiro says, is putting autism charter schools on state university campuses, where they could draw on university money, staff and expertise.
The quality of Texas special education programs for autistic students runs the gamut, and the number of autistic students in classrooms decreases as children get older, TEA data shows. Some mental health advocates speculate that the reason for that trend is that parents take their children out of public schools and seek education instead in a private or homeschool setting.
“A lot of parents just get frustrated, and they just don’t see the point in continuing. It’s a lose-lose for everybody,” says Colleen Horton, program officer at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
One of the biggest frustrations for parents, Horton says, is that schools don’t adequately prepare students with autism to transition into adult programs and participate in the community. Districts are required by law to provide special education services for students until they are 22 years old, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to enter the world. “We can teach them for 12 to 15 years, but if we are not preparing them for something after that, many end up sitting on the couch with nothing to do,” Horton says.