As an attorney representing children with special education needs in Connecticut, I remember all too well the climate we faced over a decade ago, when the “first wave” of parents of children with autism were starting to challenge the appropriateness of the programs offered by their school districts.
Back then, merely getting districts to acknowledge that a child HAD autism, let alone understand what it was, was a fight.
Over the last decade, we have made a great deal of progress in getting our public schools to acknowledge the particular needs of children with autism. Unfortunately, it is rare now to hear a special education director state that they have never had to educate a child with autism before. We went from “what is autism?” to “how do we know he really has autism?” to “he might have autism but he’s only 3 and he really can’t tolerate a full day of services” to “he might need a full day of services but not ABA…we don’t want to turn him into a robot,” to “we agree he needs ABA but we have our own consultant.”
Therefore, whether by choice or by necessity, districts have been forced to consider programming options for kids with autism spectrum disorders.
Just when I thought we were getting close to an understanding, a new frontier has emerged: special education services for kids with “high functioning autism.” I am not entirely sure what “high functioning autism” is from a clinical perspective; I was an English Major who decided to go to law school, and later to represent parents in special education cases. However, the clients who I typically see described as falling into the category of “HFA” are generally kids who are cognitively capable (at least as measured by standard assessments) and who continue to demonstrate significant deficits in pragmatic language and social skills, and also children diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder.
These are the kids who might be at or above “grade level,” but who are unable to create or sustain appropriate relationships with peers.
I am very much opposed to creating a hierarchy of need, whereby certain children with certain disabilities are supposed to get higher priority than others. No child is more important than another, although some cases are more urgent than others. So please do not interpret what I am about to say as suggesting that we should ignore the needs of kids with more significant needs, whether on the autism spectrum or not.
Yet, kids who have been diagnosed with either Asperger’s Disorder or are considered as having “HFA” are being routinely under-served by our public schools.
School districts have finally accepted autism in its “traditional” presentation (if that even exists), but they are both resistant to, and therefore ill-equipped for, programming for kids whose autism is more subtle. I am finding that districts are not just opposing the kinds of specially designed supports necessary to allow these kids to benefit from and interact within their public school environments, but that merely continuing eligibility under the IDEA has become a challenge. Heaven forbid you ask for 1:1 paraprofessional support to facilitate social interactions between a child with HFA and their peers…what I see are school staff gasping at some requests and responding with things like “but he isn’t non-verbal” or “we don’t see any behaviors that would justify a para.” When parents express concern about the program, special education administrators hear “more services” instead of “different” services.
What I find so frustrating about this new area of dispute is that so many of these kids have a real chance at a successful future, if only the school districts would do it right.
When will schools realize that their “penny wise” approach is so very “pound foolish”? I certainly hope that it won’t take another ten years.