When people hear the words "special education" what do they think of?

I think of my sister and how special education teachers in Fairfield gave her the keys to a succesful life.

Children with many different learning disabilities require special education. There's autism, Down syndrome, ADD/ADHD and others.

What would happen if you had a child with special needs, but your son or daughter couldn't get the help needed to progress through school because the government cut funding?

In February 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a Republican initiative to cut special-education by $557 million. Although the money later was restored -- at the expense of other education programs -- special-education advocates are worried about the future.

Cuts in federal funding would deprive children with leaning disabilities of what they need.

Schools wouldn't be able to have as many paraprofessionals or special education teachers for the many kids who need their skills.

The number of children being diagnosed with autism is rising.

The ratio of children with autism to the general population some years ago was one in 150. More recent research puts it at one in 91. Among boys, it is one in 58.

That increase means greater demand for special education teachers. But budget cuts lead to larger classes and less individual attention for children who need it the most to succeed.

These teachers have a special gift. Not everyone is able to handle children with disabilities. These teachers need to have all the patience in the world.

In a mainstream classroom, a teacher cannot pay attention to each individual child. And special needs children can be a distraction, making teaching a greater challenge.

That's why we have special education teachers, or in mainstream classrooms, paraprofessionals who can give one-on-one attention to special needs students, helping them and reducing distractions to the rest of the class.

Growing up, my older sister Brittany and I were in the same grade. She has special needs and was held back. Before we started kindergarten at North Stratfield School, Brittany could barely speak. When she got to school, it took a lot of work to get her to fully understand what was going on.

But she had a special ed teacher, Mrs. Prins, who is the most amazing woman. Ruth Prins was the calmest teacher I had ever seen. She knew exactly what Brittany needed and when Brittany needed it. She even got Brittany to start speaking and understanding language.

She's one of the reasons I'm pursing a career in special education.

After elementary school, Brittany had good special education teachers at both Fairfield Woods Middle School and Fairfield Warde High School. They helped her get to where she is now. If it wasn't for these teachers and programs, I don't know if I would have a "real" sister.

If it weren't for these teachers and programs, Brittany would have been a different person. Our parents moved to Fairfield because they wanted to best special education program possible. If it didn't exist, my sister would've been mainstreamed from the beginning.

Some towns don't know what to do with their disabled students. If governments continue cutting budgets, schools aren't going to have anything to do with their special needs students. There will not be anything to do with them except keep them in the mainstream classrooms or isolate them.

I understand that budget cuts need to be made, but governments need to think about what's going to happen if special education funding is cut. Kids would fall short of their potential, and their chances of having full, productive lives would be reduced.

If you are someone like me -- with a family member whose life was improved by special education -- think what that person's life would be today without it. That loved one's special education classes are what got them where they are.

I know my life and Brittany's life would be completely different if it was not for Mrs. Prins and the teachers that helped my sister learn what she needed to succeed.

Danielle Schwartz is a Fairfield resident who attends the University of Hartford.