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A technical debate about autism may lead to savings and better special education of the learning disabled in rural Minnesota schools.

Officials are debating how best to handle the growing number of autistic children in the school system. Minnesota saw a near ninefold increase in children diagnosed with autism over the past decade.

Still, the state has no special education license dedicated to autism. This means special education teachers trained in other areas work with autistic children, sometimes unaware of techniques that are effective with them.

The debate is coalescing around two options: create a new Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) special education license, or create an umbrella special ed license with endorsements in the various special areas, including ASD.

An umbrella license could greatly ease the crunch rural school districts and families face when it comes to special ed students. Rural districts that have only one or two students with learning disabilities are required to hire a teacher to work with them, yet they have trouble attracting applicants for such a part-time job. So districts often share teachers with other districts, or families open-enroll their children in another district with proper special ed programs.

But even some districts that may be able to hire a special ed teacher can’t find one. Half of Minnesota superintendents said there is an “extreme shortage” of special ed teachers. They fear that a new ASD license would further diminish the special ed teacher pool.

Mary Powell, director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, has pushed for an ASD special ed license for many years. She said special ed teachers need more information about ASD. She said motivation techniques that work for one disability could be ineffective with ASD students.

“Children with Emotional Behavioral Disorders are on a program based on consequences,” she said. “For example, if you swear at the teacher, you can’t go to the library. But a child with autism will never understand why he can’t go to the library. They don’t have the same cognitive command of their behavior.”

The need for ASD teachers is not going away. According to the state Department of Education, the number of Minnesota children from birth to age 21 diagnosed with ASD went from fewer than 1,000 in 1996 to 8,678 in 2005. In the 1990s, the U.S. population increased 13 percent while people diagnosed nationwide with ASD rose 172 percent. ASD in the United States costs about $90 billion a year, 90 percent of which is spent in adult services. Experts say that amount can be cut by two-thirds with early diagnosis and intervention.

Minnesota offers special ed licenses in seven areas. Teachers who want to study ASD must take course work on their own initiative.

Meanwhile, the state has created a loose network of ASD-informed teachers who offer advice about working with ASD students. But the Autism Society of Minnesota points out that Minnesota law requires someone with “expertise and experience” to be part of any Individual Education Program team. That’s not happening with most ASD students.

That’s why the Autism Society thinks it’s important to have an ASD license. Powell took her case to the Minnesota Board of Teaching in June. The board creates and regulates teacher licensing. Board members were receptive, but wanted more input from ASD and special ed experts.

Karen Balmer, BOT’s executive director, arranged two forums and invited teachers, administrators, professors, parents and others to comment. She received hundreds of comments, which she will present to the board in November. Balmer said most of the comments favor two options: a full license for ASD or a special ed license with an ASD endorsement.

She added that there was a strong interest in creating a general special education license with endorsements in the current subjects and ASD. This would allow teachers to get a license and earn more then one endorsement.

Powell of the Autism Society is open to either option. “These issues are complicated,” she said. “There is a lot of agreement that teachers need more ASD training with high standards, but if these changes cause a massive problem with hiring, that defeats the purpose. We need to look at all the options.”

The board’s decision is expected in December.

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