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Students with autism reach record high for city schools

The Winchester Star - 4/26/2018

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — The city’s public school system is educating a record number of students with autism.

That’s according to schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukulem, who has said funding for special education is a priority in the school system’s proposed $55.5 million budget for fiscal year 2019.

Sarah Kish, director of special education for Winchester Public Schools, said 67 of the city’s 633 special education students — 10.8 percent — are autistic.

“We had 54 in 2014,” Kish said. “Our population hasn’t spiked, but our number of students with autism has gradually increased.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean more children are being born with autism, Kish said, but rather that awareness and understanding about the condition have improved.

“We’re having earlier diagnoses, more diagnoses,” she said.

April is Autism Awareness Month, an opportunity to learn about the lifelong condition caused by different combinations of genetic and environmental influences.

The common perception of autism — constant repetitive motion; difficulties with speech and communication; failure to form emotional bonds; adverse reactions to loud noise, bright lights and other stimuli — only applies to the most severe variations of the disorder.

Autism comes in many forms and degrees, and symptoms vary significantly from person to person. For example, some people with autism are outgoing and affectionate, while others are introverts and express frustration through biting, hitting and kicking.

Some children enter the school system with a pre-existing medical diagnosis of autism, Kish said, while others with developmental delays and other indications of autism are deemed eligible by administrators for special-education programs.

“There’s a wide spectrum of services afforded to these types of students,” Kish said.

Some 5-year-olds with autism enter the school system unable to talk, but Kish said there are ways to help them learn.

“We can use assistive technology,” she said. “It’s intensive work with our speech therapists to find out the root cause [of a child’s inability to speak].”

Autism is more prevalent than most people realize. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data that state one in 68 children have some degree of autism.

“There’s always that shy child who chooses not to engage,” Kish said. “The difference is, these students [with autism] can’t engage. They may long to engage, but they just can’t do it. They may not have the language or social development needed to engage.”

Many students with autism have trouble focusing on schoolwork because they’re affected by seemingly minor sensory issues that, due to the disorder, can become overwhelming.

“Sometimes the clothes they are wearing can become a distraction to their academics because they’re uncomfortable,” Kish said. “It can be loud noises, it can be the light being too bright and overstimulating their senses. It impacts them to a magnitude that we could probably never imagine.

“I always think of it as having a hole in the toe of your sock and it bothers you immensely, and you can’t concentrate on anything else,” Kish said.

Many students with autism learn coping techniques that allow them to integrate into standard school settings, she said, but others need therapy and individualized education in a quiet environment with few other people.

“The setting that allows them to best access their education, that’s the key,” Kish said. “A lot of times with autism, it’s trial and error.”

Winchester Public Schools is obligated to address the needs of each student with individualized action plans developed with input from teachers, specialists, administrators and parents.

Sometimes the educational teams discover that students with a medical diagnosis of autism don’t require specialized instruction and can function just fine in traditional classroom settings.

“They are able to maneuver throughout the school and be very, very successful,” Kish said.

Autism can’t be cured, but educators and therapists have learned a variety of ways to teach people with the disorder to adapt and be successful in school and beyond.

“It’s usually the family and the school system working together,” Kish said. “I’ve seen students who have developed vocabulary and were able to compensate for their sensory needs. They are blossoming and, to my surprise, going on to college.

“In my career, from what I saw in the beginning to what I see happening now, it’s just amazing and so wonderful for children.”


For more information about autism, visit the Autism Society of America at and Autism Speaks at To learn more about special-education programs offered by Winchester Public Schools, go to

— Contact Brian Brehm at


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