More students attending Johnson County schools receive assistance in and outside class for conditions ranging from speech delays to autism.
In 2012, 3,778 local students received help such as speech, physical, behavioral and other therapies in and outside school that is more than double the 1,568 students who got services from local programs in 1983, according to Pam Wright, executive director of Special Services Johnson County.
The numbers are climbing for multiple reasons, local officials said.
During the past 30 years, the number of students attending area schools has increased as the local population has grown.
And about 20 years ago, the federal government began expanding the definitions of special needs to include conditions such as autism, which increased the number of students who work with special education teachers during the school day and receive therapy and assistance from other local programs.
Hundreds of area toddlers and infants also receive occupational, physical, speech and other therapies provided by the central Indiana First Steps program, a state and federally funded program that helps children who are born with disabilities or experience delays.
The number of Johnson County children receiving therapy through First Steps varies from year to year and has fluctuated from 527 in 2009 to 433 last year, counselor Katarina Groves said.
Here are the numbers of Johnson County children who have received assistance through the First Steps program in recent years:
SOURCE: First Steps
Count going up
The number of students with special needs at Johnson County schools has more than doubled since 1983. Here’s how the number has increased:
As the numbers have grown, local agencies, including the Adult & Child behavioral mental health center and the county probation, have been working more closely together to ensure they provide as much assistance as they can to families of children with special needs. School districts also have been working to find more ways to include students with physical or mental disabilities in traditional classrooms. For example, Greenwood schools is adding a director of special education, who will help ensure that students in special education programs receive as much attention as they need without being separated from other students.
First Steps also encourages parents to learn how to become advocates for their children so they’ll know early how to best work with their child’s teacher or therapists, Groves said.
When parents find out their toddler or infant has a developmental delay or disability, they don’t always know where or how to find therapy or other help for the child. First Steps can connect families with social workers if they’re struggling with how to handle their children’s diagnosis, and it can connect them with other area assistance programs, Grove said.
“A lot of these families, it’s going to be a lifetime process,” she said.
First Steps counselors and therapists conduct each child’s therapy at that child’s home. Some children might not need any additional help once they’re 3 years old. If they do, Groves said, First Steps will work with the children’s parents to show them what additional resources are available through their school system or whether they should consider certain preschool programs.
“Their focus is helping families make transitions and find that next step,” she said.
As children with special needs grow older, most of the help they receive comes from special education teachers at their school. Until a few years ago most special education teachers worked with students outside class, but recently teachers have been looking for more ways to include students in traditional classrooms, while still giving them the individual attention they need, according to Wright and special services social worker Sandra Finney.
“Kids weren’t always included if they were different,” Finney said.
If a teacher or principal thinks a student needs more therapy or assistance than the school can provide, the family can be referred to a committee that includes officials from special services, the Adult & Child behavioral mental health center, the probation department and other agencies. Those organizations meet to discuss other resources available in Johnson County that could help.
Having multiple agencies work together is helpful because different programs already might know about a child’s history or circumstances. If a student with special needs is referred to the group, officials already will know what programs or resources have been tried and what new approach makes the most sense, Finney said.
“You have everybody there at one time. So it really helps avoid losing a kid,” she said.