Maryland State Department of Education statistics indicate Howard County schools have the highest percentage of students diagnosed with autism of any system in the state — a fact many local advocates say is a testament to the area's resources and support system.
For parents with students diagnosed with autism, Howard is seen as a place where they can access in-school and out-of-school information and assistance.
According to 2013 state education department data, Howard County had 764 students with an autism diagnosis — 16 percent of all students. That's well above the state average of 9.8 percent.
The schools' assistance network recently received a boost through the Howard County Autism Society, which in June formalized an official partnership with the county school system to provide resources and promote understanding of the disorder.
One of the society's tools is a new website — specialed.howard-autism.org — designed to help parents of students with special education needs.
The site includes a special-education news center, launched this summer and drawing from other Web-based resources including the Maryland Department of Education. It lists newsletters on autism, Common Core state standards data, support group information and special events for autistic students, as well as tips to help parents prepare students, and themselves, for school.
"This site was not intended for families solely with autism. We looked for [data] that could apply for any family dealing with special education," said Elizabeth Benevides, associate director for autism programs at the Ellicott-City based Hussman Foundation, which provided partial funding for the site. Autism society officials say the site was also funded via a grant from the Howard County Department of Citizen Services.
Benevides, a former member of the Howard County Autism Society board who has a child diagnosed with autism, said the society's resources and structure makes it a magnet for parents throughout the state — and beyond — who seek information and resources.
The site was designed by NextLOGiK, a Columbia-based technology services company. The company's CEO, Kirk Couser, said he and his family moved to Howard County seven years ago from Shelbyville, Tenn., in part to avail themselves of better resources for his son, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
"There would be nights when we would drive two hours to get to Nashville for therapy, hitting rush-hour traffic," said Couser, another former autism society board member. He said his family started looking for a home that offered more resources.
"We started making trips to different places, and with everyone we talked to, Howard County kept coming up," he said.
One of the offerings of the county autism society's special-education news center is a section on resolving parent-school disputes. The site notes that schools are required to provide only "appropriate" services for children with disabilities, and it suggests options for dealing with unresolved issues.
The advice comes with a practical caution: Conflicts with schools are not only normal but inevitable.
The site also offers a "School 411" section that includes information about regional childhood education programs, special-education contacts and county public schools' behavior specialists.
"Many times, parents don't know who to turn to for help outside of their school building," Benevides said. "That really was key for us. We would get call after call from parents that said, 'I'm not getting services at the school. The teachers aren't helping. Who do I call?' They didn't realize there's a whole department outside the school building that is capable of [helping] them."
In addition to information about autism, the website offers resources about attention deficit disorders and behavior and discipline issues.
Benevides said that resources for parents with children diagnosed with autism are much more robust than just a few years ago, when parents relied mostly online social groups.
"You would always see the same parents, disgruntled parents usually," said Benevides. "As a new parent, when I got on that group I learned a lot, but it always wasn't the most positive message."
She said many such groups ultimately shut down. Now, she said, resources like the special education news center give parents of special-needs children reliable information while still offering opportunities to share tips, such as where to go for dentists who serve children with special needs.
"Most of the work we do goes beyond autism. Much of what we put on the website is simply meeting the needs we recognize parents have about accurate information," Benevides said. "Our goal is to teach parents to be better advocates."