Life could have been a lot less complicated for Mandy Commons if she'd stayed in Lawrence after high school.
If she had, then she could have avoided fighting Pittsburg school officials two years ago to get what she considered an appropriate education for her autistic son, Bryce.
But then she wouldn't have had the satisfaction of raising awareness of autism in the Pittsburg school district and helping guarantee a better learning environment for future generations of autistic children.
"It was worth the battle because even though I was after the education for my son, look what I did down here," she said. "Yeah, I could have taken the easy road, but with the statistics the way they are and autism growing, it wouldn't have helped."
Commons, who graduated from Lawrence High School in 1990 and then moved to Pittsburg to attend Pittsburg State University, is now one of four Kansas representatives for a national organization called Unlocking Autism. As part of Autism Awareness Month activities, she'll travel on Sunday to Washington, D.C., to take part in a national rally to raise awareness of the developmental disability that's being diagnosed more frequently now than ever. Then on April 27, National Autism Awareness Day, Commons and the other Unlocking Autism state representatives will hold a rally at the Capitol in Topeka.
Their message: More money is needed for education because autism has become more prevalent than Down syndrome, childhood diabetes and childhood cancer combined.
"They put all this research money into those, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing; I'm just saying there's something wrong here because autism is being called the silent epidemic and we need to change that," Commons said.
An uphill battle
Although Mandy and Chad Commons began noticing differences in Bryce when he was 18 months old, it wasn't until he turned 4 that a Kansas University Medical Center doctor officially diagnosed autism.
Like many parents of autistic children, the Commons didn't want to believe their son had the disorder.
"At first, we thought he was deaf. I think it was part of our denial thing," Mandy Commons said. "We had him tested in Lawrence. His hearing was fine."
After she finally came to terms with the challenge of raising an autistic child, Commons' next battle was to ensure Bryce got the education he deserved.
"Bryce is high-functioning, and so the ability to learn is there ... but it was just a real battle to get his own para, to get her trained," Commons said. "Nobody down here was trained in autism. They were violating lots of his rights."
Federal law requires public schools to provide an appropriate education to every child, regardless of disability, though people argue about the definition of "appropriate."
In Lawrence, it means assessing individual students' needs, drawing up an individual education plan, pairing autistic children with paraeducators if necessary and sometimes placing those children in special autism cluster programs.
It's a model that seems to be successful. Families have been known to move to Lawrence from other states just to put their children in the district's autism program, which has grown from 15 students in 1995 to 60 students today, said Doug Eicher, executive director of special services for Lawrence public schools.
The program takes a behavioral approach, he said, meaning autistic students are taught behaviors such as how to answer questions, how to behave and react to certain situations.
"We have to break things down for the children so they can learn what needs to be done," he said. "The younger this happens, the better the outcome will be."
Insisting on quality
Commons said it took constant nagging, a few conversations with members of the Kansas Board of Education and the threat of a lawsuit to get Pittsburg school officials to listen to her.
During the course of her struggle, Commons said teachers and administrators would ask her why she didn't just move to Lawrence.
"I'm in the state of Kansas, and his rights are the same here in Pittsburg as in Lawrence," Commons said. "I don't see why he can't have the same education here as he would in Lawrence."
Now Bryce, who turned 6 in February and will finish kindergarten this spring, spends 90 percent of his time in the regular classroom with other students and has a para at his side full time.
"He has great eye contact now, and he's speaking much better," Commons said.
Diagnosis on the rise
The trick to designing a proper education for autistic children is that no two are the same.
"You can't just have this recipe and expect it to work with every child," Commons said.
Although autism occurs in varying degrees of severity, most autistic children begin life normally but then regress in speech, social and physical skills, according to the Autism Society of America. They have difficulty communicating with others and relating to the outside world. In fact, they often withdraw completely into worlds of their own creation.
Statistics cited by Unlocking Autism show that doctors diagnosed autism in one out of 10,000 cases 10 years ago, but today, in some states, the rate has jumped to one in 150 cases.
Eicher said that if parents are concerned that their toddler might be showing signs of autism, they should contact their pediatrician and try to intervene early.
"We know through research that the earlier the intervention with kids with autism, the better," he said.