Evolution of Autism in Public Schooling

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Autism, a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts, has been a controversial topic in schooling for all of time.  (Webster).  Throughout history, the concept of Autism has come to mean different things.  Initially, Other Learning Disabilities was the broad category that encompassed all types of disabilities.    In response to a vague category, public schools dealt with these disabilities in various ways that are different than strategies often used for children with Autism today. How did the teaching strategies for this population change from the 1930’s to the present and why did these changes occur?


Prior to the 1960’s, children with disabilities were often neglected and excluded from the public school system entirely.  Moving forward, the sixties was a time period where the disabilities were more widely accepted; although, there were still few disabled children in the public school system. In the 1970’s, the passing of a federal law permitted disabled children to obtain a free public education however; the treatment of the children in the schools did not change directly due to the law.  This did not occur until outraged parents made a splash in the public sphere through a series of lawsuits.


In the 1930’s, disabilities were just beginning to become recognized. In America, children who were disabled were often instituted, ignored, or neglected.  Language for the time described these children as “mentally retarded”, “daft”, or plain “stupid”.  (Quinn 1).  Families in this time period who had disabled children moved downward in social status, were frowned upon, and were socially ostracized. Disabled children were religiously viewed as Satan’s children and were a result of the parents’ sins prior to childbirth.  (Ravensbergen 1).  The life expectancy was no more than twenty years of age and they were very empty years of life for not only the children but the families as well.  Often children were shipped off to institutions, which resembled prisons.  (Quinn 2).  They were left to rot away and were intentionally meant to be kept out of the way of those who were “normal” in society.  Due to the lack of compassion, care, and acceptance of the disabled children, early public schools were never forced to create a program to educate this part of the population.


The term “Autism” did not come into our country’s common vocabulary until the 1960’s.  (Googlegram).  However, while the term became prevalent, it was extremely rare for children of the 1960’s to be diagnosed with Autism.  (Connecticut State Department of Education 97).  All disabilities during this time period fell into the category of “mental retardation” and therefore were dealt with extremely poorly or not dealt with at all within the public school system.


Change did not occur until the 1960’s when disabilities became positively visible in the eyes of parents.  In order for a disabled child to be educated, the burden laid on his/her parents.  The only real options were home schooling or extremely pricey private institutions.  (specialednews 6).  In 1961, John F. Kennedy created the presidents panel dealing with mental retardation.  This was instituted as a result of parents who began to protest the rights of their disabled children.  (specialnews 8).  His panel called for the state to be aided by the government in order to provide an education for disabled children.  Continuing on the timeline, in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was created.  This act allows for accessibility of a free education.  (OSPI 1).  In the early 1970’s, one in every five students with a disability was educated in the public school system.  (USDE).   America was now in a period of special education innovation and parents were eager to make progress.


In 1971, Janet Taggart, Katie Dolan, Cecile Lindquist, and Evelyn Chapman (four moms from Washington State who were tired of the way their children were being neglected) were able to create a law, which would later be passed in congress.  (Johnson).  The law was titled Education for All and it provided students with disabilities equal access to a public school education. The work of these four mothers would later serve as a blueprint for IDEA.  (Johnson).  This is the first account where we witness parental involvement and action in order to provide a better life for disabled children.


It was not until 1975, that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was approved.  This was a law which stated that all local public schools must provide a free education for all disabled children without any additional cost to the parents.  It was intended to provide a basis for disabled children to survive in life past primary schooling.  IDEA contained six principles, all of which allowed disabled children and their parents to have rights for the first time in public schools.  The first was Zero Reject, which basically eliminates the possibility uneducable children failing to receive an education. (Heward 1).  Nondiscriminatory Identification and Evaluation refers to the testing done in order to identify a child as being disabled.  It must be culturally and economically fair for all children.  Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) “protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, including federal funds”.  (Russlyn 1).  The fourth principle is LRE or Least Restrictive Environment.  This means that the disabled child should be in class for the longest amount of time with nondisabled children until it becomes disruptive for either party.  (Heward 3).  Next, Due Process safeguards are a set of guidelines to ensure the parent’s rights in the entire special education process.  Lastly, Parent and Student Participation refers to the necessity and encouragement of making decisions together for the benefit of the child.


It was not until after IDEA was passed that the percentage of disabled children receiving education in public schools in comparison to nondisabled children increased.  (ed.gov 32).  “About 95 percent of school-age children and youth
ages 6–21 who were served under IDEA in school were enrolled in regular schools” (ed.gov32).  “Third, with one sweeping motion more than one million children were added to the public school system.”  (Hoskin 1).  It is important to note that even though IDEA was in effect, this did not separate different disabilities within the school just yet.  They still all fell under the broad category of retardation.  Autism identification was still rare at this time.


While the public schools were mandated to adopt these terms for all disabled children, this did not mean the practices changed within the classroom.  Yes, disabled children were now allowed and accepted in public schools and yes, there was now a plan for them.  However, it did not mean they were respected.  The term IEP came into effect a few years after IDEA was introduced.  IEP stands for Individualized Education Program.  (specialednews 4).  It is unique to each child’s needs and is reviewed yearly.  It contains things such as goals, objectives, current levels of functioning, and time schedules for the child.  It contains techniques used to help the child as well.  During the 70’s and up until the mid 90’s, public schools used techniques such as scream rooms, restraint, and verbal abuse.  Scream rooms were often rooms with a single color wall, contained a chair/desk, no windows, and a door.  They were used for children with disabilities as a form of punishment.  A characteristic of children with Autism is self-infliction of pain.  The children would be kept in these rooms for hours at a time and would often scratch the walls, hit their heads, or cause harm to their bodies as an escape from insanity.  Verbal abuse was utilized to deal with these children because teachers lacked patience and did not necessarily care about the children because they were still undervalued in society.

Typical "Scream Room" in Connecticut Public School 2012 Jordan Fenster
Typical “Scream Room” in Connecticut Public School 2012 Jordan Fenster


What aided IDEA to truly change the strategies used in schooling?  The answer is parental involvement.  Unfortunately, it took several devastating occurrences, which led to lawsuits, ultimately allowing the public to put pressure on the public school system to change its tactics. The use of restraint was a common practice all the way up to the twenty-first century!  An article written in 2004 tells the story of a boy named Cedric.  Cedric was fourteen years old and was classified with a disability.  He had a history of violent behavior and which was unknown but the special education teachers were using restraint techniques in order to control his meltdowns.  His teacher had put him in a hold on the ground after a dispute about lunch and when his mother was called to come to the school, he had already been pronounced dead.  This raised controversy in the court and raised the question as to how many children were really being disciplined in schooling with this technique?  Was it allowed because the children were in special ed? Cedric’s mother did not let her son’s death go unnoticed and did not let schools go unpunished.


In 2004, well after IDEA, parents of nine-year-old Jan Rankowski sued Falmouth school for banning their son.  Jan was a young boy with Autism and was enrolled in school with a placement in special education.  There were complaints about Jan bothering other children in the playground and possessing “autistic-like” characteristics.  This ultimately led to the school banning Jan until a professional evaluated him.  Jan’s form of Autism severely altered his social skills and made it very difficult for him to carry out an appropriate conversation with anyone he came into contact with.  The only thing that helped Jan’s conditions was to continually socialize him with others.  With this being said, his parents could not understand how the school thought a ban would be keeping their son’s best interest at heart.  “By banning the kid from the most social part of the day, you’re ensuring that he won’t be able to learn social skills. It’s almost like saying, ‘You don’t know math, so we’re not letting you in the math class,” said Wayne Gilpin of Future Horizons.  The article written by Sarah Leitch proceeds to explain how ultimately Jan had to be home schooled and was banned from playing in his playground.  “The boy’s parents say they hope their lawsuit will force schools to treat disabled or home-schooled children the same way as other children. Others across the country are watching the case as the number of children diagnosed with Asperger’s continues to climb”  (Leitch).


It was a combination of cases like the above and many more that pressured scientists and schooling systems to create alternate methods.  Shortly after several very public lawsuits came out, ASD was discovered.  ASD is Autism Spectrum Disorder.  This resulted in a scale of assessment used to determine if a child had Autism and if so how to go about intervention.  (Rell 7).  The spectrum was very significant because it raised the number of children who were diagnosed.  This proposed a problem for the public schools.  Ultimately, it forced them to create a separate learning program and strategy for children with Autism.  Technically, children who diagnosed as having ASD qualify for IDEA.  However, it is treated quite differently than an emotional disorder, which was once in the same category.


Shifting to the present time period in public schooling, there is a list of techniques proven to be most effective for children with Autism.  Early intervention is the earliest and can be provided federally for children after the age of three.  Individualized and Intensive programming has been implemented in schools and parents must be notified for each PPT (Planning and Placement Team) meeting in order to determine an appropriate IEP for his/her child.   Teachers must make sure the assignments are clear and on point.  If there is a change in schedule, it is important for the teacher to tell the children because children with Autism are meticulous about their schedule.  There are vocal devices to help children communicate.  Often teachers create a picture book with basic labeled functions for the children to point to and aid in verbalization.  As a teacher or paraprofessional, it is required under the public school system, to be certified in ABA training.  The number of children diagnosed with Autism has risen to about one in every eighty born.  This can be attributed to a number of reasons however, a large one is that more research has been done and more appropriate classifications are now able to be made.  Children are correctly diagnosed and can now receive the help they need in the public school system.  There is no question that there is more work to be done and the public school system will forever be evolving in an attempt to eliminate all flaws.


Not too long ago, The Atlantic published an article called How My Autistic Son Got Lost in the Public School System, by Amy Mackin.  This article was published recently in January of 2013.  The article relates the brief history of a young boy named Henry (not his real name for privacy purposes) who was diagnosed and treated for his Autism Spectrum Disorder.  His parents were extremely on top of their game, started with early intervention, provided necessary resources, and their son still managed to slip through the cracks at school.  Part of Henry’s disorder was his ability to strictly follow rules.  Mackin explains how the teacher had certain bathroom breaks for the children allotted during certain times of the day.  In an attempt for Henry follow the rules, he would pee in his pants.   “When he had an accident, he was too ashamed to tell anyone, so he sat in his own urine for hours. Not one staff member at the school ever noticed.”  (Mackin 3).  The article goes on to tell more stories of how Henry was mistreated, not necessarily on purpose, but because public schools were not trained to deal with such disorders.

“The problem is that public schools are mostly worried about academics and test scores. They have to be—their success in those areas dictates the percentage of state and federal funding they get. Few schools have designated psychologists (most often, multiple schools share the same one). Teachers aren’t psychologists, and asking them to be is not fair.” (Mackin 6).

Ultimately, Henry’s parents chose to home school him because they could not sleep at night worrying about their boy at a public middle school.  His mother worked to make this story public and widely known.  Her hopes were to change another child’s experience in middle school and allow other parents to send their children to school without apprehensiveness at all times.  As alarming as the date of this article may be, it helps us realize that the public school system is still far from perfect and parents will continue to push for quality.

These strategies may have never been discovered or put into place if it were not for persistent, active, parents willing to dedicate their lives to correcting the system and pressuring schools to treat disabled children with the respect they deserve.  The law of IDEA surely aided in the appropriate action but it was much more that allowed our public schools to take steps in the right direction in terms of educating those with disabilities.  Parents serve as the primary advocates and catalysts of these movements.  The public school system has shifted from not even accepting children with disabilities, to putting up with them legally, to treating them with disrespect, to caring, and finally improving techniques day by day.  It has been a long road to the creation of equality but the hopes are that one day children with Autism will be equipped with skills to lead healthy, normal lives.  The shift is bittersweet because it has been paved by sad stories of disabled children and the passion of their parents to create a different destiny for other children.



Works Cited


Connecticut State Department of Education “Division of Teaching and Learning Program and Service” Bureau of Special Education July 2005


“Education.” Restraint Can Dispirit and Hurt Special-ed Students. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-05-18-restraint-special-ed_n.htm>.


“Education for All Handicapped Children Act.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_for_All_Handicapped_Children_Act>.




“Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).” Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. <http://www.k12.wa.us/Esea/default.aspx>.


“Euthanasia Program.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 10 June 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005200>.


|Johnson, Scott F. Esq. Special Education & Educational Standards. NHEdLaw, LLC. Retrieved July 1, 2007. http://www.nhedlaw.com/special%20education%20and%20standards.doc


Leitch, Sara. “DISABLED CHILD BANNED FROM PLAYGROUND, PRAISE GOD! – Islam/Christianity/Judaism Dialogue.” ShiaChat.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <http://www.shiachat.com/forum/topic/41073-disabled-child-banned-from-playground-praise-god/>.


Mackin, Amy. “How My Autistic Son Got Lost in The Public School System.” The Atlantic. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/how-my-autistic-son-got-lost-in-the-public-school-system/266782/?single_page=true>.


“National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <http://nces.ed.gov/>.


Quinn, Pat. Public Health IL. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.idph.state.il.us/timeline/history1930.htm>.

Ravensbergen. “The Family with a Handicapped Child and the Congregation.” Spindle Works. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.spindleworks.com/library/ravensbergen/hand.htm>.


United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. History: Twenty-Five Years of Progress in Educating Children With Disabilities Through IDEA. Date of Publication Unknown. http://www.ed.gov/policy/speced/leg/idea/history.pdf


“The History of Special Education in the United States.” The History of Special Education in the United States. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014. <http://www.specialednews.com/the-history-of-special-education-in-the-united-states.htm>.


“History of SPecial Education Law.” Wrightslaw. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.wrightslaw.com%2Fbks%2Flawbk%2Fch3.history>.


Public Schools: A Compendium. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.



Weber, Mark. (1992) Special Education Law and Litigation Treatise (Horsham, PA: LRP Publications,


One thought on “Evolution of Autism in Public Schooling”

  1. The introduction offers an interesting research question about how and why teaching strategies for children with autism changed from the 1930s to the present. In response to this question, the essay argues that exclusion gave way to greater acceptance of autistic children in public schools in the 1960s/70s, and makes a more interesting argument that treatment of children in school did not change as a result of legislation, but rather parents’ litigation (presumably against school districts that did not comply with the federal law). Still, while the RQ promises to tell us about “teaching strategies,” the thesis actually refers more directly to enrollment policies and litigation.

    The body of the essay draws on a range of secondary sources to try to tell a broad story about changes that occurred with 1970s federal laws such as IDEA, and some parts are more persuasive or effectively written than others. Breaking down the different parts of IDEA law works well, but a richer essay would tell us more about when and how these provisions actually influenced teaching strategies, as promised in the research question. For example, the essay claims that “public schools used techniques such as scream rooms, restraint, and verbal abuse” from the 1970s through the mid-1990s (with a photo from 2012), but doesn’t tell us anything about how often teachers used them, or how & why advocates opposed them, or any sources for this broad claim. (Similarly, the Cedric 2004 story has no supporting sources.) Also, the essay asserts that “teachers lacked patience and did not necessarily care” about autistic children, which is a broad generalization without support here. I do not doubt that poor and abusive treatment of special needs students occurred. But a richer essay on teaching strategies might have focused on what happened when mainstream classroom teachers (with limited training or support) were expected to teach a different population of special needs students. It’s a rich, complex story, which you hint at later in the essay about Henry in 2013.

    Overall, this interesting essay may have been more successful if the research question had been shifted from teachers to parents, since they seem to be your real focus. For example, it could have asked: How have parents of special ed students (and autistic students in particular) challenged schools to educate their students different since IDEA? This might have helped you to focus on families’ political and legal actions (similar to the Washington State 1971 example you briefly mentioned) or to explore parents’ stories that became more influential because they changed policies and practices, rather than plucking isolated individual families stories from the web. For example, here in CT a landmark parent-led special ed case is the PJ vs CSDE settlement agreement in 2002 (see http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/deps/SA/SA_PJ_Final02.pdf). While not about autism per se, it’s the type of source that tells a larger story of change than just one family.

    It’s clear that special education rights interests you a great deal, and I encourage you to continue digging into this field for future academic coursework and perhaps your senior research project.

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