Educating Children With Autism, and Advocacy Action Alerts Concerning the Re-Authorization of IDEA
The Autism Society of America
Educating Children With Autistic Spectrum Disorders
An Overview of IDEA and H.R. 1350
ASA Position on H.R. 1350
The Autism Society of America (ASA) has not endorsed H.R. 1350, the U.S. House of Representative's version of proposed reauthorization for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), because the bill falls short of many critical requirements for students with autism. ASA has not denounced H.R. 1350 either because the House did take into consideration many of the recommendations ASA made for preserving and in some cases enhancing provisions of the law that are important for the autism community. ASA's recommendations have been distributed to the Senate and will be considered over the summer as the Senate moves forward with IDEA.
The ASA appreciates the positive components of the legislation, including teacher training, the recognition of the need for the best practices, and maintaining the classification of autism as a disability. At the same time, we are working with Congress as the bill moves to the Senate chamber to revisit various aspects of the bill, such as the discipline provision, the wholesale elimination of the manifestation process, the weakening of due process protections for parents, the elimination of short-term objectives and benchmarks, and limiting the availability of lawyers to represent parents, among others.
Advocating for the rights of individuals with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) is one of the most important activities that the Autism Society of America (ASA) performs and one to which the organization is deeply committed. ASA has been the voice of the autism community on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years and works closely with Congress and the federal government to fight for legislation, programs and services that support and protect the rights of individuals with autism.
One of the key laws safeguarding the rights of persons with ASDs is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, more commonly known as IDEA. Originally crafted in 1975 and most recently amended in 1997, IDEA is a cornerstone piece of legislation designed to ensure that individuals with autism have access to a "free appropriate public education." Through this legislation, America's public schools, as a condition for receiving federal funding, are required to make education available to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.
The ASA has been working with Congress on IDEA since its inception. The ASA was at the table in the early 1970s when the original law - the Education for All Handicapped Children Act - was first drafted. In the 30 years since its passage, IDEA has been amended several times (most recently in 1997), and ASA has continuously worked with Congress to ensure that language and provisions of importance to the autism community are not removed or altered and to push for the inclusion of new provisions that will further safeguard the rights of children with ASDs.
Authorization for IDEA expired in 2002, and the bill has been up for reauthorization since that time. In April 2003, a new version of the bill - "Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act" (HR 1350) - was drafted and approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. A related bill was to be released by the Senate on June 12, 2003.
Throughout this time, ASA has been working with Members of Congress and their staff to ensure that language protecting children with autism is not removed or altered and has made additional recommendations for new language that would further enhance the protections needed for our children.
ASA Recommendations on IDEA
In early 2002, Autism Society of America developed recommendations on the reauthorization of IDEA and has been working with Members of Congress and their staff, agency officials, and the entire disability community to communicate our position.
Below is an overview some of these recommendations:
Autism classification. Maintain the disability classification system currently found in IDEA, including the category of "autism." Losing the classification would be particularly detrimental to students with autism and the systems that serve them because: 1) the categorization enables educators and families to more efficiently determine the research-based educational strategies designed specifically for students with autism, 2) the education system statistics on students with autism are the most comprehensive data available on autism (there is no health care database on autism), and 3) a classification system based on severity of disability may result in the continued placement of students with autism in more restrictive educational environments than necessary.
This language has been preserved in the current version of H.R. 1350.
Teacher training. A mechanism to support educators interested in working with autistic students should be implemented. A vast majority of general and special education teachers have received little or no training on how to address the unique needs of children with autism spectrum disorders. It is imperative that teachers, paraprofessionals and related services personnel receive specialized training specific to autism.
Thanks to ASA's work this year, the current version of H.R. 1350 includes a provision for teacher training that is specific to autism. ASA fully supports the inclusion of H.R. 1700, the Teacher Education for Autistic Children Act of 2003, which was introduced by Representative Christopher Smith (NJ) and Representative Mike Doyle (PA).
Prohibit the cessation of services. The cessation of services to students with disabilities should remain prohibited under a reauthorized IDEA. Too often, the behaviors of students with autism spectrum disorders are interpreted as willful and manipulative. Those who misunderstand the disability believe that with punitive actions, these students would "shape up." Unfortunately, oftentimes, behavior is an indicator of a poor program that neither supports the student nor teaches them a better way of responding. Manifestation determination requires educators to assess whether a misbehavior was a manifestation of a disability. That process has been a mechanism that has provided a safety valve against some of the more punitive measures.
The current version of H.R. 1350 eliminates manifestation requirements. The ASA believes these must be included.
Retain the one-year IEP. A one-year IEP (Individualized Education Plan) ensures school system accountability for measurable goals and objectives and ensures that student progress is continually and consistently evaluated. A three-year IEP, which has been recommended by some advocacy groups, would undermine the educational progress of students with autism.
The current version of H.R. 1350 includes a voluntary option for a three-year IEP. While the purpose of the change is to decrease paperwork, the ASA believes this may not be the most effective method in the long run. The IEP should be a living document that is continually re-examined and refocused. School districts that appreciate this concept embrace the practice of revisiting the IEP on a more regular basis. School districts that are less diligent would likely use the provision as a method to delay programming on a regular basis. While ASA supports the concept of reducing paperwork, we fear that this would hinder family-school collaboration.
Transition planning. ASA recommends that the age range for comprehensive training planning for individuals with autism begin at age 14 rather than age 16. While current federal law allows transition planning to begin before age 16, this occurs only when it is deemed appropriate by the IEP team. For students with autism who are likely to need multiple support systems as they reach adulthood, transition planning should begin as early as possible.
The current version of H.R. 1350 does not reflect these recommendations.
Best practices. IDEA should include language requiring that "best practices" be developed for autism as well as other disabilities. ASA's recommendation includes language emphasizing the need to incorporate best practices into Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSP) and Individualized Education Programs (IEP).
The current version of H.R. 1350 does include best practices, though they are not included within the provisions ASA recommended.
Screening and intervention. IDEA should strengthen family-centered systems of services across multiple programs and funding streams to ensure that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with autism are prepared for school and can reach their potential. ASA supports adding early screening to provisions aimed at addressing early diagnosis and intervention of all eligible children.
The current version of H.R. 1350 does not reflect these recommendations.
Monitoring and enforcement. Reform monitoring and enforcement systems so that they are meaningful and effective. ASA recommended that the IDEA be amended to include a provision to analyze student outcomes focusing on educational results for students, education in the least restrictive environment, parental involvement, and the extent to which resources are directed as to the areas of greatest need.
The current version of H.R. 1350 does not include the language recommended by ASA.
Fully fund IDEA. When Congress originally enacted Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, in 1975, Congress authorized the federal government to pay 40 percent of each state's "excess costs" of educating children with disabilities.
The lack of proper funding for special education services has the unintended consequence of pushing parents into legal proceedings in order to obtain appropriate services, making the special education system highly litigious and forcing school systems to place more emphasis on procedure, thereby increasing complaints about the level of paperwork associated with special education.
Procedural changes. Procedural changes found in the current version of HR1350 cut back forcefully on the ability of parents to participate in or monitor the process: voluntary binding arbitration, a one-month waiting period, and a one-year statute of limitations.
While the concept of binding arbitration may appear to be an enticing strategy for quickly resolving disputes between schools and parents, ASA is concerned that it could be an inadvertent trap for parents who have little to no experience in legal proceedings. The Act should not put parents in the position of choosing between the right to judicial appeal and a timely dispute resolution. In fact, parents must never be forced to give up their right to judicial appeal in the special education system. Procedural expediency must never supplant mechanisms for determining the student's best interest.
H.R. 1350 limits the ability of a parent to file a complaint for a violation that is more than one year old and it prohibits parents from raising issues that were not raised in the complaint or discussed in the proposed pre-due process meeting. The due process hearing is less formal than a judicial proceeding and should provide the opportunity for a thorough examination of all issues impacting the child's education. The purpose of the due process hearing should be to determine if the schools have appropriately provided FAPE and other safeguards to address the needs of the student, and, if not, what remedies can be agreed upon to avoid further proceedings.
These new prohibitions could result in the arbitrary withholding of information important to full consideration of the appropriateness of the placement and/or services currently being provided to the student, and, ultimately, additional complaints and due process hearings to cover new information - thereby adding more layers rather than simplifying the system.
ASA's hope is that constructive engagement with the Congress will be productive toward addressing some of these critical concerns in the Senate version, while preserving the positive elements of the legislation as passed by the House. The ASA leadership recently articulated the organization's position on IDEA reauthorization in a letter to Congress. Click here to view in its entirety.
Although we are working with Congress to address our concerns with IDEA, the Autism Society recognizes that all the answers will not be found in the reauthorization. Implementation of IDEA is uneven across the country. The regulations crafted by the U.S. Department of Education to implement the legislation will also affect how our students will fare in our schools and classrooms. The Autism Society of America looks forward to continuing to work with the Congress, and when it comes time, the Department Education, to ensure that students with disabilities receive the highest quality education.
Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10-17 percent per year. Currently over 65,000 children with autism attend school. And that number is on the rise. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as it stands today, ensures that children with autism learn the skills necessary to thrive after leaving the educational system.
IDEA is a significant federal statute that ensures education services for persons with autism and their families. In its essential form, IDEA is a good law that has transformed the lives of children with disabilities and their families, allowing millions of children with disabilities to receive appropriate early intervention, preschool and special education and related services.
ASA will be working to educate Senators who will be considering Senate version in committee and potentially on the Floor later this year. Encourage productive negotiations among Senate, House, and White House decision makers.
Call to Action
At the appropriate times throughout the process, ASA will be calling on ASA's members and Autism Advocates to contact their Congressmen through out "Action Alert" system. The messages to be relayed will reflect the status of the legislation at that time.
ASA will announce these Action Alerts on our Web site and through our electronic e-mail newsletter, ASA-Net. If you do not already receive ASA-Net, we encourage you to sign. You can do so, by visiting ASA's homepage and clicking on "Free e-Newsletter."
To acces ASA's current Action Alerts, click here, or visit the ASA Web site and click on "Advocacy."
For More Information:
For more detailed information on IDEA, please refer to the following documents, which can be linked to directly by clicking on the appropriate document below or which can found via the "advocacy" section on ASA's Web site.
1) "Proposed Recommendations of the ASA on the Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)"
2) "Comparison of IDEA 1997 Law & 2003 Reauthorization"