Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Autism Spectrum Disorder, Inclusion, and Special Education Issues

On the basis of the relatively high proportion of mediations and due process hearings brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) filed by parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it's reasonable to conclude that school districts are having only a limited amount of success in addressing the needs of students with this complex disability.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that ASD is the second most common serious developmental disability after mental retardation. ASD is currently described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition (DSM-4 TR) as a group of developmental disabilities that cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, and encompass five subtypes: including autism, Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder. According to the CDC approximately 1 in 110 children in the United States have ASD. Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that in 2007 around 250,000 children with ASD, ages 6 through 21, were served under the IDEA.

Under the IDEA students with disabilities should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate ("least restrictive environment"). They should have access to the general education curriculum, or any other program that non-disabled peers would be able to access. The student should be provided with supplementary aids and services necessary to achieve educational goals if placed in a setting with non-disabled peers. Among reasons for educating students with ASD in inclusive educational settings is to provide them with opportunities to interact with nondisabled peers so they may learn and practice social and communication skills. However, many of these children manifest disability-related behaviors that cause them to be rejected by the same nondisabled peers with whom they need to interact.

Inclusion is unlikely to be successful for many children with ASD unless their school districts provide them with a sufficient amount of appropriate and individualized specially designed instruction so they can learn and practice appropriate behavioral responses to the situations that challenge them. Even when this is provided, inclusion still may not be successful unless and their school districts also provide education for their nondisabled peers that encourages them to interact with their classmates who have ASD and discourages them from engaging in behavior that constitutes bullying and harassment. When schools fail to adequately meet the needs of students with ASD, and fail to engage nondisabled peers in supporting them, research demonstrates that they can expect the aberrant and undesirable behaviors on the part of both groups to increase.

Before nondisabled peers can be trained to understand and interact with their classmates who have ASD, the school personnel working with both groups must have the knowledge and skills needed to understand and appropriately explain the altered manner in which students with ASD experience school environments and interactions, the ASD-related differences in communication and social skills, and the kinds of matters that contribute to discrepant behaviors. Unfortunately for all students, a number of educators and school administrators don’t know enough about ASD and how to write IEPs setting out methods and techniques that are likely to assist individual students with ASD -- and/or they may not be very good at implementing them.

Parents filing actions under the IDEA appear to be telling school district administrators and teachers that rather than blaming their children for being "poorly behaved," educators need to do a much better job of providing effective evidence-based interventions and programs that meet individual needs. Given the apparent gap between educator preparation and the level of preparation needed to provide children with ASD with a free and appropriate education (FAPE), this further indicates that public education agencies need to step up the amount and quality of education programs for educators and school professionals in order to provide them with sufficient information and training in the use of the specific methodologies and techniques that are most effective in providing appropriate services and modifying curriculum based upon the unique needs of individual children with ASD.

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