Growth of Autism: From Isolation to Integration
An average of 1 in 88 children in the United States are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). The number of students throughout the public school system identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder has rapidly increased in the last decade. ASD can occur in all ethnicities, racial groups, and socioeconomic levels and is much more common in males than females. Due to the strides that the Special Education Department of Connecticut has made, it is much easier for children with ASD to be able to grasp the tools they need to live a happy normal life. Yet, there has been an increase in prevalence rate in CT from “.12 to .23 between 1998 and 2001” which leads many parents questioning the support their children are receiving in our public school system. (Connecticut Department of Education, 2001) How have special education programs for students with autism in Connecticut public schools shifted from 1975 to today?
Special Education Programs were nonexistent back in 1975, and today they exist because of the laws that have been enacted and implemented into our public schooling. They have helped shape what our Special Education Program is today. Prior to 1975, it was not uncommon for children with cognitive or emotional disabilities, deafness, blindness, or the need for speech therapy to be home schooled or sent to a private school. It was not until 1975 that two federal laws, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which provided a “right to public education for all children regardless of disability” and required schools to provide individualized or special education for children with qualifying disabilities. (Special Education News) It is evident that there has been many strides and efforts within our special education program to help better accommodate the students’ needs, yet there is still a necessity for major improvement within our professionals training prior to employment.
Autism is one of the fastest growing disorders and one of the toughest to diagnose. Due to the variety of different symptoms and signs it becomes almost impossible for parents to catch within their own children. Autism can very well be one of the most confusing disorders to understand, which is why many questions have still remained unanswered. It usually develops within a child by age three. It directly affects communication and interaction between other children and adults. It is characterized by behaviors of the child and what are known as “spectrum disorders,” these can greatly vary between each individual. Individuals with ASD may experience issues with behavior, development, cognitive, and psychological emotions. Symptoms of ASD include but are not subjected to; social interaction and nonverbal communication development failures, body language, and facial expressions. Other indicators are lack of compassion and lack of interest. Nonverbal communication development failures include delay in speech or in some cases very little to no speech at all, issues with creating conversation and keeping conversations, repetitive use of language, and difficulty understanding what someone is communicating. Typical body language features that are found are body rocking, pacing back and forth, and hand flapping. There is no direct cure for autism but there are treatments that can help a child with ASD. A parent can put their child in behavior training and management, specialized therapies, and in some cases certain medicines can help. (WebMD) Behavior training and management “uses positive reinforcement, self-help, and social skills training to improve behavior and communication” (WebMD). Certain types of treatments have been successful in the past such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children (TEACCH), and sensory integration (WebMD). Specialized therapies include “speech, occupational, and physical therapy” (WebMD) They are essential in helping the individual with ASD and must be present in the child’s early life in order help better their future interactions with others. Speech therapy assists the child with their communication skills and verbal language. Occupational and physical therapy can improve “any deficiencies in coordination and motor skills” (WebMD). Some medicines are used to help decrease depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors in the child. (WebMD)
Before the 1975’s children with mental learning disabilities children were often neglected or even excluded from education in the public schools. In the early part of the 20th Century parents formed “advocacy groups to help bring the educational needs of children with disabilities to the public eye” (special education news). It wasn’t until 1961 when President John F. Kennedy created the “President’s Panel on Mental Retardation” (special education news). This panel was to give guidance to the states by federal aid. Then in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson. This act helped provide funding for primary education, and “is seen by advocacy groups as expanding access to public education for children with disabilities” (special education news). Although these events did begin to introduce special education for students with disabilities it was not until 1975 when two federal laws changed history. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) (P.L. 94 – 142) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were both enacted in 1975. (special education news) The EHA enforced that all children regardless of their disability had a right to free public education. (government publishing office) And the IDEA required that all public schools must provide individualized special education for children with “qualifying disabilities” in order to receive public funds for the state (special education news).
Prior to the IDEA, “over 4 million children with disabilities were denied appropriate access to public education” (American Psychological Association). IDEA has four major sections broken up by letter; section A, B, C, and D. Part A states the basic foundation for the entire Act it defines the terms that are used throughout the Act and introduces the Office of Special Education Programs (Which is responsible for administering the terms of the IDEA) (American psychological association). Part B indicates the education guidelines for students ages 3 – 21 years old. It enforces that states are required to educate students with disabilities (Martin, Martin. & Terman, 1996). Part C highlights the need for identifying all children with disabilities. It sets the guidelines of funding and what services will be provided to the child from birth to 2 years of age (American Psychological Association). Lastly, Part B recognizes the national activities to be undertaken so that they can advance the education of the child with disabilities. Some include grants, transitional services and support programs that can help contribute to the child’s overall success. (American Psychological Association).
The IDEA will grant financial support for state and local schools, but in order to receive such funding each district must abide by six main principles. (1) “Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education, (2) When a school professional believes that a student between the ages of 3 and 21 may have a disability that has substantial impact on the student’s learning or behavior, the student is entitled to an evaluation in all areas related to the suspected disability, (3) Creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The purpose is to lay out a series of specific actions and steps through which educational providers, parents and the student themselves may help reach the students goals, (4) That the education and services for children with disabilities must be provided in the least restrictive environment and those children be placed in a “typical” education setting with non-disabled students, (5) Input of the child and their parents must be taken into account in the education process. (American Psychological Association). And (6) “When a parent feels that an IEP is inappropriate for their child, or that their child is not receiving needed services, they have the right under IDEA to challenge their child’s treatment (due process)” (Kastiyannis, Yell, Bradley, 2001; Turnbull, Huerta, & Stowe, 2004). During this time in the 1970’s it is important to understand that even though these acts were in place they did not specifically help children with autism or any other disability. All children with any type of learning disability were placed under the same type of educational support.
It was not until the 1990’s when the Individual Education Plan came about where autistic child started to gain the help they needed. The Individual Education Plan also known as IEP, was a document set in place to help disabled children receive a “quality education that he or she would not otherwise receive” (special education news) It was under the IDEA and stated that it must be established for any child that qualifies for special education services. This was also very helpful to parents because they were allowed to submit an evaluation request (special education news). After the evaluation is complete the results are used to create an IEP for the student, yet again if the parents are still dissatisfied with the outcome they can request an independent evaluation and request that is it funded by the school district. (special education news) If the student receives the eligibility then the school will then schedule a meeting (Planning and Placement Team Meeting) with the parents to discuss the evaluation, and create an IEP. IEP’s must be revisited yearly, and can be viewed at any time. (special education news) Before the IEP children with disabilities were treated horrible, especially children with ASD. One major case titled, PJ, ET, AL, v State of Connecticut, Board of Education ET AL, filed in 1991 changed the history for children with disabilities.
Example of Parents could request an independent evaluation
The PJ case is one of the most well-known cases in special education history. It was filed in 1991 by “five school-age children with mental retardation and their families against the Connecticut State Board of Education, the State Commissioner of Education and certain local school districts alleging violation of 20” U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A). It was certified as a class action lawsuit on December 13, 1993. The court defined the class as “All mentally retarded school-age children in Connecticut who have been identified as needing special education and who, on or after February 20, 1991, are not educated in regular classrooms.” “ C.A.R.C. v State of Connecticut Board of Education, 2:91CV00180 (JAC), Ruling on Motion to Reconsider Denial of Motion for Class Certification, slip op. at 6 (D. Conn. December 13, 1993). The settlement was eventually approved by the court on May 22, 2002. The class membership consists of children with label mental retardation / intellectual disability on or after February 20, 1991 (Civil Action No. ::291CV00180 (RNC). The state settled the case with the Plaintiffs, and agreed to take further steps toward improving the educational system set in place for child with intellectual disabilities. The federal court maintained its jurisdiction, this was so monitoring could be put in place to track the progress the State makes towards the goals that were set in place by the Agreement. (Civil Action No. ::291CV00180 (RNC) Today, the State Department of Education has put an emphasis amount of pressure on the school districts to remove any self-contained programming with kids with disabilities. This is to create a “Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)” that can assist the student with their focus. There are “highly detailed color-coded maps of the State reviewed with administrators regularly” due to the PJ case settlement. (State of Connecticut Department of Education)
On November 22, 2005 fifteen families from across Connecticut brought light in the Hartford Superior Court and challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s Educational System. The Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) helped push this case and included children of all districts in Connecticut. On “September 7, 2016, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled in the longstanding case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell” (Hartford Courant) Education policy issues were discussed yet the main issue was the relationship between the State and local governments as it related to public schools funding. It was argued that the state’s failure to properly fund its public schools has affected thousands of students in Connecticut by limiting their future beyond grade school. The CCJEF v Rell case is another example towards better accommodations for children with disabilities in Connecticut.
Today this lawsuit is still ongoing and has already produced many positive outcomes. The advocacy efforts have led to the creation of the Governor’s Commission on Education Finance (2006) and to the increase in education funding that were passed by the 2007 Legislature. (CT Coalition for Justice in Education Funding). It is important that we are pushing towards providing suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities to the children of Connecticut. In light of this issue, I have also found a study conducted in 2004 that clearly shows how much more work needs to be done in helping children with disabilities specifically children with ASD.
In a study, conducted in winter of 2004 by Paul W. Cascella and Catherine S. Colella, school speech – language pathologists (SLPs) were found to be highly underprepared for the challenges inherent in school service delivery for children with ASD. They looked at school speech – language pathologists and their academic preparation and clinical training prior to being hired. They utilized a rating scale and random sampling of Connecticut school speech – language pathologists about their paraprofessional education and current knowledge of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Each participant had a minimal amount of pre professional academic or clinical preparation in ASD, and no differences were found in how speech – language pathologist were trained over the past 30 years. School speech – language pathologist were reported with relatively stronger knowledge of the types of general behavior and communication characteristics found in children with ASD and less knowledge of the education assessment and intervention formats. With the prevalence of children with ASD, speech – language pathology graduate programs must begin to enhance their paraprofessional education in order to provide “school – based speech – language pathologists with specific training to meet the communication needs presents by schoolchildren with Autism Spectrum Disorder” (Cascella and Colella). Although this study was conducted 13 years ago there was an article written in the New Haven Register by Michelle Tuccitto Sullo in 2013 that quotes many school officials stressing this exact issue.
Sullo begins her article by stating, “If students with disabilities are going to succeed in regular classrooms, their instructors need to have the training and preparation to teach them” She went in depth and interviewed several different individuals ranging from school teacher, principles, to lawyers in special education. Each individual did not deny that there is a necessity for better training with the teachers who deal with children with ASD. (Sullo New Haven Register). An attorney from Sherman named Jennifer Laviano, who represents families of students with disabilities in cases where there is a disagreement over the education plan, said “whether teacher have adequate training depends on the disability, and the majority of disabled students have learning disabilities. I don’t think many teachers are adequately trained to deal with autism” (Sullo New Haven Register). It was found by the State Department of Education that a need for training is in need. The department’s Bureau of Special Education’s Annual Performance Report, released in February of 2013 showed monitoring that “specifically indicated a need for training in strategies like co-teaching and differentiated instruction.” (Sullo New Haven Register). It was stated that training had been offered, yet it was to meet the needs of students in co-taught classrooms. Sullo concluded that the report “indicates that teacher training geared toward helping disabled students achieve academically continued through job-embedded, school level and district level professional development”. Yet through this effort given by the state there is still a need of more support and push for better training in order for the teachers to not fall short.
It is clear that special education in Connecticut has taken dramatic strides from 1975 to today. The push for personal assistance with children of ASD has been brought to light by cases like the PJ, ET, AL, v State of Connecticut, Board of Education ET AL and the CCJEF v Rell case. Also the law of the IDEA aided the beginning steps toward helping disabled children have an equal opportunity in education. Without such measures taken the special education programs in the Connecticut public schools would be non-existent. It has been a long battle for these children and families that have suffered over the years, and it is through such cases that we can learn from to better help accommodate every student. The hope is for one day that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder will be able to have access to a free equal education that allows them to live a long, happy life.
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