As more and more children are being diagnosed with autism, public school systems are making significant strides to provide high-quality programs.

Darien's director of special education and student services, Robin Lawler-Pavia, said she has seen substantial progress in the types of programs schools offer for autistic children. She first started working with autistic students in 1976 and arrived in Darien in 1999 with a specific task in mind: develop programs that will keep autistic children in the district.

"When I first started, there were only 12 students in the program I was working in," Lawler-Pavia said. "When I came to Darien in 1999, there were only two children with autism who were attending."

One of the reasons autistic children were educated out of district was due to them being misdiagnosed as emotionally disturbed, Lawler-Pavia said. As a result of so many students being educated out-of-district, many schools decided it wasn't worth it to develop their own programs.

"It didn't make sense to create a program for only one student," Lawler-Pavia said.

However, since coming to Darien, Lawler-Pavia has seen the rate of autism skyrocket. With the increases in the number of autistic children, greater effort has been put into developing programs for the students to keep them in district, she said.

"Based on all the research, most students with autism combine a social, sensory and behavioral piece into the program," Lawler-Pavia said. "Any good program is also trans-discretionary so that special education teachers, speech therapists, parents, psychologists and other educators are involved in the process."

More recently, schools have started hiring board-certified behavior analysts. Lawler-Pavia said the inclusion of the analysts in fairly new but not the skills they bring to the table.

"BCBAs have been around for about 10 or 11 years," Lawler-Pavia said. "The skills they bring with applied behavior analysis has been around for years. When I started in 1976, we were using those skills."

The formation of a national board to certify the behavior analysts was done in an attempt to create more integrity within the profession, Lawler-Pavia said.

"There needed to be some form of minimum requirements that needed to be met in order to be certified," she said.

As schools continue to develop new and better programs Lawler-Pavia said one of the greatest challenges in the profession is designing a program that works for each student.

"Every student is unique and just because one students has autism that doesn't mean they will be like the next five students who also have autism," she said.

Darien's schools have seen an increase in the number of students with autism and Lawler-Pavia said the school works closely with parents to meet the needs of the students. Looking toward the future, Lawler-Pavia said the inclusion of Scientifically Research Based Intervention is helping to place students where they belong.

"Before you get to special education you're in regular education and there are multiple tiers of support," Lawler-Pavia said. "Since we've started using SRBI, the line has been blurred between special education and regular education."

In a report for special education given to BOE members, for the 2010-2011 school year, Darien has 51 students enrolled with autism. That number represents an increase of six students since the previous year, the report says.

Even as school districts continue to strengthen their programs, more students are being diagnosed with disabilities, Lawler-Pavia said.

"Some of that increase is due to higher functioning students who weren't being diagnosed," she said. "However, that's not the whole picture."

The Centers for Disease Control recently released a report that said 1 in 110 children will be diagnosed with autism. Lawler-Pavia said the number of cases in the U.S. is still comparable to those around the world.

"It's a problem around the world and not just in the developed areas," Lawler-Pavia said. "It's pretty prevalent everywhere."

A more local focus shows Darien and New Canaan have almost identical populations of autistic children, Lawler-Pavia said. What makes Darien particularly attractive to parents with autistic children is not necessarily different from what attracts parents whose children don't have disabilities.

"We have very good schools," Lawler-Pavia said. "Sometimes I'll ask a parent what brought them to the area and often it's that their husband was transferred to the New York area or they see Darien is right on the train line."

Lawler-Pavia said all parents, regardless of their child's abilities, want to enroll their children in the best schools possible.