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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Number of island students with autism continues to rise

Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón

By The Star Staff

The number of students with autism in Puerto Rico went up by 932 over the past school year, Education Associate Secretary Jessica Díaz Vázquez said.

The number of autistic students went up to 7,575 compared to 6,643 in the past school year, Díaz Vázquez said during a public hearing of the Special Committee for Legislative Monitoring of the Education Department’s (DE) Special Education Program.

“There has been a significant increase in the number of students within the autism spectrum, more than doubled. I believe the department must reflect on how to serve this growing population,” Committee Chairwoman María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón said. “We need more specialized teachers but also [need to be] more willing to explore other methodologies that can be useful. I always insist with the Department that we need to pause and reflect on the effects of the pandemic on our students. The fact that the number of new referrals and diagnoses increased so much when we returned to face-to-face classes should be an alert for us to think about whether we are facing clinical problems or an inability for the system to function remotely.”

Díaz Vázquez noted that the enrollment distribution of students within the autism spectrum by educational region is 7,575.

“They are divided with the San Juan region having the largest number of students with 1,597,” the DE official said. “The Bayamón region follows it with 1,315, the Arecibo Region with 1,024 students, the Ponce region with 992, Caguas with 979, Mayagüez with 951, and Humacao with 717 students. … More men are diagnosed within this spectrum than women.”

The Puerto Rican Independence Party senator asked the agency official why a higher statistic is being seen in Puerto Rico compared to other jurisdictions. Díaz Vázquez responded that there are several hypotheses, and the one favored by most specialists is access to evaluations. She said students were being sent for psychometric assessments and not necessarily for autism.

“Now an evaluation is done on autism. It has been one of the trends,” the official said. “Also, access to information. … Being alert affects sending students to be evaluated.”

Likewise, Díaz Vázquez noted that the number of students with autism has been increasing.

“In 2018, the total was 5,530 students; subsequently, each year it increased, but the most significant increase occurred last school year, whose total was 6,643 and [that number] increased to 7,575 at present,” she said.

Santiago Negrón also asked how many autism specialists the Education Department has. Díaz Vázquez said some 200 teachers are specialized in autism and recognized that that is not enough to serve the population. However, she said, the agency is making the necessary efforts for recruitment within the existing limitations.

When asked by New Progressive Sen. Migdalia Padilla about the increase in students with autism, Kiomarie Ramos, a former teacher and current consultant for the STARS and LINKS curriculum, said the rise is a function of one in 66 cases being diagnosed -- a significant increase, she said.

Regarding the methodologies used by the agency to treat students with autism, Díaz Vázquez said those recommended and used for students are the TEACH Methodology, Comprehensive Intervention Model for Autism, Montessori Methodology, STAR Program and LINKS Curriculum.

Meanwhile, Yolanda González, an assistant professor in the Graduate Studies Department at the University of Puerto Rico, advocated for a personalized assessment in the first stage.

“While it is true that the DE needs to improve preparation for adult life, it is also true that after the DE, the alternatives are almost nil,” she said.

González stressed that a broad assessment should be repeated at the end of the school year to identify achievements, stages in which goals are reached, and to plan for the future.

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