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A look at the state of autism resources in Southern Nevada

Tia Baker cleans a desk in a classroom during a media tour at Dorothy Eisenberg Elementary School, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Las Vegas.
John Locher
Tia Baker cleans a desk in a classroom during a media tour at Dorothy Eisenberg Elementary School, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Las Vegas.

We all want our kids to receive a great education in a place that is safe, where the teachers care and where the standards are high. For parents whose child is on the autism spectrum, what the child learns in school can set them up for a stable life in the future.

And the needs of those parents are growing, as autism’s prevalence grows. Here’s just one statistic: the number of children with autism has grown from an estimated 1 in 150 kids in 2000 to 1 in 36 kids in 2020. 

So we’re looking at the state of autism in Nevada today, with a special focus on schools and services for young people diagnosed with autism and their families.

Stacie Skillman, the CEO and founder of 101 Barbershop in Henderson (which gives free haircuts to kids on the spectrum each Tuesday afternoon), said that she was inspired to establish her shop because of the struggles she faced

“I saw how much haircuts meant, and how much they made these babies happy” Skillman said. “There was nothing (in Vegas) offering this, so that was where our autism Tuesday, special needs program came into place.”

While private businesses like Skillman’s are working to provide services to the autism community, in Nevada, formal treatment and educational services are waitlisted and a challenge to get in to — and autism diagnoses are even harder to get. Jennifer Strobel, the executive director of F.E.A.T. (Families for Effective Autism Treatment) of Southern Nevada, said this backlog is exacerbated by provider shortages.

“There’s a huge turnover rate for individuals that work with our kiddos with autism,” Strobel said. “Our reimbursement rate is one of the lowest in the country … We need to do better in Nevada, to make sure we have enough Registered Behavior Technicians and neuropsychologists, to get diagnosed and then in turn get help.”

On top of this, Clark County is already dealing with a shortage of teachers. Class sizes are increasing in all classrooms, including special needs classes. At the same time, some schools in the Clark County School District are cutting back on the numbers of aides in those special needs classes.

CCSD’s KIDS Program, which serves 3 to 5-year-olds with autism, has reduced their teacher’s aides in select classrooms, from two to one, while simultaneously increasing their class sizes from 10 kids to 11. This is potentially in an effort to free up funds (and personnel) to expand the program to more Las Vegas schools: from 161 schools this school year to 183 next year.

The result, said Adonna Miller, an educator who’s spent a decade teaching within the KIDS Program, is a worsening morale among CCSD special education staff.

“The teachers that are in the KIDS Program are very concerned,” Miller said. “I actually know some teachers that are leaving the KIDS Program now … Some are leaving Clark County completely.”

For Drew White-Jacobson, the mother of two children with autism (one of whom was the 11th child in Miller’s class), this adult-to-child ratio is concerning.

“It’s a real safety concern,” White-Jacobson said. “The quality of education is definitely going to go down. I know how much care and attention these kids need.”

The two co-founded the Autism Advocacy Organization for Clark County this May, after CCSD began quietly implementing the changes. They said they want to increase awareness of what’s happening in District schools, so other parents with kids on the spectrum can advocate for high quality, early education.

In a statement, the District said it’s working to ensure that all autism-related special education programs have at least one teacher and one aide for next school year. However, they noted individual schools are free to draw from their pre-existing budgets to hire more teacher’s aides or apply for special funding assistance.

Petition: Enhance ASD Education Services in Clark County
Autism Advocacy Organization
F.E.A.T. of Southern Nevada
101 Barbershop

Guests: Adonna Miller, special education teacher, Clark County School District and co-founder, Autism Advocacy Organization for Clark County; Drew White-Jacobson, mother of two and co-founder, Autism Advocacy Organization for Clark County; Stacie Skillman, CEO and owner, 101 Barbershop; Jennifer Strobel, executive director, FEAT of Southern Nevada

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