Autism's changing face a challenge for schoolslawjournalbuffalo.com | Sep 17th 2012
The number of children diagnosed with autism (or an autistic spectrum disorder) has soared over the past decade. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that one in 150 children had some form of autism. By 2008, that number increased to one in 88. While the cause of this increase continues to be a topic of debate, school districts nonetheless have to be prepared for the challenge of educating students with autism.
What makes this challenge particularly daunting is the fact that the definition of autism is not firmly established. Previously, autism was an umbrella term that included several "autistic spectrum" disorders, such as Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) and Asperger's Disorder, among others. The publishers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the main psychiatric diagnostic manual in the United States, are currently in the process of revising the diagnostic criteria for autism. The proposed revisions consolidate several of the autistic spectrum disorders and identify four criteria for diagnosis: (1) persistent deficits in social communication; (2) restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior; (3) symptoms that are present in early childhood; and (4) a totality of symptoms that impair everyday functioning.
The proposed changes to the DSM essentially alter the landscape in which autistic children will be diagnosed. Some critics of the proposed changes argue that the new definition will dilute the autism diagnosis and cause fewer children to be identified with this disorder. Others argue that the changes will have little to no effect - the new criteria simply provides a more efficient and accurate method to identify autistic students.
In either event, schools must remain aware of the identifying characteristics of autism and be ready to evaluate and identify students who may possess this disorder. Schools must likewise be prepared to provide individualized services and instruction in order to assure that the student's autism is not hampering his or her education. The failure to meet these requirements is a potential violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and/or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).
Because autistic students can display a wide range of characteristics relating to their disability, there is no cookie-cutter program that can be provided to these students. Rather, each child must be individually assessed, and recommendations regarding services must be specifically related to that assessment. New York State, however, does mandate that schools provide certain services automatically for autistic students. For example, schools must assure that autistic students receive instruction to meet their "individual language needs" and provide parent counseling and training. If the school places the student into a class composed solely of other students with autism, the class cannot exceed six students, and must include at least one supplementary adult with the teacher. In any class including autistic students, the age range of the students in the class cannot exceed 36 months.
Beyond the New York State regulatory requirements, there are a number of other factors that schools must consider. Often, a student with autism has a high need for sensory input. Various modes of sensory input will often calm the autistic child, and cause him or her to be more amenable to learning. As such, many educational programs for autistic children include some form of sensory stimulation. This may be as simple as allowing the student to place a cushy pad on his or her seat, or be as involved as allowing access to a service animal.
Schools often must develop plans to help autistic children transition between activities, and include some form of behavior analysis/intervention. Depending on the severity of a student's condition, an autistic student could be fully integrated into the general education curriculum or be placed into a full-day residential program.
Not surprisingly, schools and parents often have differences of opinion regarding the best methods to educate an autistic child. Issues regarding educational methodology, related services (such as speech, physical or occupational therapy) or classroom setting can all prompt a parent to file an impartial due process hearing under the IDEA. The school district then has the burden of proof to demonstrate that the instruction and services that it provides to the student are appropriate.
Litigation involving autistic students is growing, largely in correlation with the increased number of autistic children attending schools. This litigation can be very technical. Schools and their attorneys must be continually aware of the latest research regarding autism and understand the various educational methodologies for autistic students.
As autism continues to have a major and increasing effect on schools, it will become more important to have a detailed and evolving plan in place to deal with related challenges, and to have a team of advisers in place ready to handle issues as they arise. By doing this, schools can hopefully avoid litigation and/or defend their educational program if they are named in a legal action.
Ryan Everhart, a partner at Hodgson Russ LLP, concentrates on education and labor law, with a particular focus on special-education law. [email protected]
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