Speaking Up for Special Needs: Autism Discrimination in Public Schools

Article Placeholder Image
By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on September 16, 2015 12:16 PM

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that impacts one in 68 children born in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Kids who suffer from ASD have difficulties with emotional expression, communication, and appropriate behavior, making them difficult to manage.

But autistic children are entitled to attend public school and receive an appropriate education, and there are legal protections in place to ensure this. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees free education to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible, so schools must accommodate an autistic child in order to receive federal funding.

Improving on an IDEA

Amended in 2004 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, the special education law is often still referred to by its more practical acronym IDEA (creating some confusion). And the idea behind IDEIA is that there are six basic principles that provide the framework for special education services in the public school system:

  • Free Education
  • Appropriate Education
  • Individualized Education Program
  • Least Restrictive Environment
  • Parent and Student Participation in Decision Making
  • Procedural Safeguards

Put the principles together and you have a legal promise from the federal government that a special needs child is entitled to appropriate public education, based on an individualized plan which is developed with input from the student and parents and places the child in the least restrictive environment possible.

Procedural safeguards are in place should the process break down. There are allowances for mediation and negotiation where schools and parents do not see eye-to-eye on an inidvidualized education plan. Parents may also request a due process hearing. But note that this is a legal proceeding and requires guidance from an attorney.

Finally, complaint resolution procedures exist to enable individuals or organizations to point out if local educational agencies have violated legal requirements. The complaint must cite a specific violation of the IDEIA and the educational agency must respond to and resolve the complaint within 60 days.

Be the Voice for Autistic Students

Practically speaking, parents of ASD kids must advocate for their children. The legal guarantees do not amount to much if no one monitors the school and ensures that specific special needs are addressed.

Parents who work with their child's school to set up accommodations are more likely to be able to assess their plan's progress and success and to move for changes if necessary. Children with ASD may also experience discrimination at school, and -- given their difficulties communicating -- their parents must be especially vigilant.

Because children who suffer from autism often have no voice, parents must speak up about special needs and any suspected discrimination. This is not just a protective act on behalf of one child but can help to improve the understanding of teachers and administrators. Speaking up will also improve the experiences of other special needs kids in the public school system.

Related Resources: