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Focus on autism

Posted: May 2, 2009 8:57 p.m.
Updated: May 3, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Frankie Peters, Ty Heid, and Angel Gutierrez pull trading cards and toy characters from their "treasure chest" as they play together at Heritage Park on Friday.

 
When Angel Gutierrez was taken for his first haircut, his mother noticed something that bothered her.

While there, Angel stared at the rotating ceiling fans in the store. Then he began flapping his hands while making weird noises, Maria Gutierrez, his mother, recalled.

Gutierrez soon took her son to the doctor, where she was told that not all children develop in the same way, Gutierrez remembers.
Still puzzled, Gutierrez, who with her family lived in Downey, enrolled her son in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

As her son turned 2, Gutierrez began noticing that Angel, who now is 10, wouldn't communicate with her. In some instances, he began hitting his head with his open hand.

More visits to the doctors followed as the family moved frequently, and mixed diagnosis came back.

Angel's behavior worsened and he was unable to connect with his peers. Sometimes he would sit in the sandbox and pour sand all over his body, his mother said.

The Gutierrez family moved again. Angel repeated kindergarten. Another doctor advised Gutierrez to take parenting classes.
Then came a diagnosis that seemed to suggest the root of the problem.

An evaluation found that a sensory disorder, along with the possibility of autism, existed, Gutierrez was told.
"It was the first time I heard the word autism," she said.

Gutierrez turned to the Internet, researching autism on her own.

While she did that, Angel was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a decision Gutierrez was quick to appeal.

She put together a video of her son throughout the years, pouring sand on himself, flapping his hands and sucking on his shirt.

Just shy of the age of seven, Angel was diagnosed with autism, the disorder Gutierrez for so long had suspected.

But what to do?

Angel has repeatedly been placed in general-education classes, where he was taught at a pace that frustrated him, Gutierrez said.

"My son didn't have any early intervention," Gutierrez said. "All of these years, my husband and I, (it was) just lots of love and patience."

About two years ago, the Gutierrez family decided to make another move, this time to Canyon Country, to begin treating their son.

New to the area, Gutierrez joined Santa Clarita Autism Asperger Network (SCAAN), where she connected to families who had children with autism.

The move changed her life.

"No longer was I a bad parent. I felt that I was understood," she said.

Through the support group, Gutierrez organized play dates for Angel while networking with other parents about the hurdles they face with their children.

"Overall, our children don't get to feel different," she said.

Now part of the Sulphur Springs School District, Angel is enrolled in special day classes designed for students with special needs. He receives one-on-one tutoring at home to boost his personal skills.

Santa Clarita Valley elementary school districts have seen a significant increase in the number of students with autism over the last few years, school district officials said.

The number of students with autism is on the rise at Sulphur Springs School District, said Paul Frisina, director of special education.
For the 2007-08 school year, the Sulphur Springs district had 88 students with autism.

Years earlier in 2004-05, the number was about 50, he said.

He credits improved diagnosis by physicians and psychiatrists who are more aware of autism.

"Something has definitely changed in the last few decades," Frisina said.

One out of 75 students at Saugus Union School District, which has an enrollment of about 11,000 students, is diagnosed with autism, said Toni Tellez, program specialist at Saugus Union School District.

At Newhall School District, there has been a 242-percent increase in the number of students with autism over the last eight years, 2007-08 figures show.

In 2000, Newhall School District had 26 students with autism.

For 2007, that figure swelled to 95 students.

The steep increase in is line with a 247-percent increase in the number of autistic students over eight years across the state, the figures show.

"All of us here have seen the enrollment go up dramatically for autism," said Todd Fine, director of pupil services for the Newhall School District.

Fine, and other district officials, credits a new approach to diagnosing autism, along with a greater awareness of what autism is.

"I think that autism is a kind of disorder that is able to incorporate kids that previously might have been understood as mentally retarded," he said.

Depending on the severity, autistic students can be placed in special day classes, or in general-education classes.

At Sulphur Springs, district officials take into account the social needs of a student with autism as social development is often the biggest hurdle for students with autism, Frisina said.

"We keep the class sizes a lot lower," he said.

General-education classes typically hold between 20 to 30 students, while special day classes have between 12 and 13 kids, he said.

The classes generally have more instructional aides who teach individualized curriculum to the students, he said.

At Sulphur Springs, students with autism are placed in classrooms with other special-needs children, he said.

Teachers who specialize in teaching autistic children are placed in those classrooms.

Newhall School District meets the needs of autistic students by modeling a program started by the William S. Hart Union High School District.

"We are the only elementary district in the Santa Clarita Valley to have developed the high-functioning autism program," Fine, of the Newhall district, said.

The program brings together high-functioning autistic students to work on specific concepts, like problem solving, in a smaller class, he said.

The ultimate hope at Newhall School District is to integrate autistic students into the general-education program as much as possible, he said.

It's that integrated approach to education that encourages families, like the Gutierrez family, who have autistic children to move to the local community and enroll their children in elementary school districts.

"In the Santa Clarita Valley, there are families that specifically move here to take advantage of the fact that we do have some excellent programs (for) students with autism," Fine said.

Since his diagnosis, Angel has made a lot of progress, Gutierrez said.

And the support group's approach seems to pay off.

"It's easy to make friends," Angel said about SCAAN. "We all speak the same language."

Angel said he's found common interests among his friends.

Gutierrez has high hopes for her son, thanks to the support he receives at school and at home.

"I'd like to see Angel as an independent, reliable citizen," she said. "The sky is the limit for my son. My son will go to college. He will graduate. My son will be successful because we have faith in him."

Gutierrez sees growth in herself as well.

"We became better parents. We now see the world through his eyes," she said.

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