Why Identify Autism in Schools?

Eligibility for specialized education services is provided for all students based on need – not eligibility category.  Schools may not limit access to specific services or programs to be provided only to individuals with a specific eligibility determination – children who need the services have equal access, regardless of the educational eligibility category that the IEP team chooses.

The eligibility category serves as a short-hand – a “quick heads-up” for educators regarding the primary obstacles in a student’s educational participation and performance.  By deciding that “Autism” is the most appropriate – or primary – eligibility determination for a student, the IEP team is indicating to the student’s current and future educators and school-based therapists that difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors and interests impact the student’s ability to pay attention in school, participate in classroom activities, learn new skills, demonstrate knowledge, maintain previously mastered skills, generalize concepts, develop and apply adaptive work behaviors, or otherwise participate in the educational opportunities available to other students.

Sometimes a student has a clinical diagnosis of autism and the most relevant obstacles to the student’s educational performance are better described with a different eligibility category, such as “Social-emotional” or “Speech-language” or “Intellectual Disability”.   Using a different educational eligibility category than “Autism” is not incompatible with a child meeting medical criteria for autism – its just a different decision based on a different question – what is getting in the way of this student’s educational participation and performance?

Sometimes a student has a clinical diagnosis of autism, but doesn’t need specialized educational services.  A clinical diagnosis does not automatically translate into an educational identification.  This is a decision for each student’s IEP team to decide together – parents and educators make this decision in a collaborative process.  The category the team chooses opens the door to specialized services, but doesn’t prescribe or limit what those services may be. 

There are some downsides, or risks, of not including “autism” in the primary or secondary eligibility determinations when a student clearly presents with co-occurring impairments in social interaction, communication and range of behaviors and interests.  For example, some students with autism are served under the eligibility category of “speech-language impairment”.  This is absolutely appropriate if it is the student’s access to language that most impacts her educational participation and performance, as the “speech language” category sends a message to educators and school-based therapists that interventions to support communication, speech and/or language will be important for this student.  HOWEVER, if the adults in the student’s life (the educators and the parents) are not aware that the student also presents with limited social and emotional understanding, insistence on doing things the same way every time, and problems coordinating attention and behavior (all tendencies of learners with autism), then those adults may:

·         Interpret the student’s behavior differently:  Without knowing that a student has an ASD, others are likely to attribute more personal responsibility or “blame” for the student’s difficulty following social rules or regulating their emotional state, when, in fact, the child’s neurobiological condition underlies these challenges.

·         Respond differently to the student:  Students viewed as willfully disobeying an adult are more likely to be punished than instructed; whereas students viewed as “not getting it” are more likely to be instructed than punished.

·         Fail to provide the appropriate modifications and supports to encourage and actively teach positive behaviors at school and at home

·         Assume that gaps in learning reflect either a lack of student effort or inconsistent family support or poor instructional practice.  If the child has ASD, the teacher may be excellent, the family appropriately responsive and nurturing and STILL the child is likely to have gaps in his or her knowledge and skills.

In other words, understanding if ASD is in the picture informs the educational process and alerts us that traditional expectations, parenting approaches and instructional strategies may not be sufficient to promote meaningful growth and learning.  Sometimes qualitatively different approaches to parenting and teaching are necessary to help kids with ASD learn and develop. 

As the student gets older -- and expectations increase in social understanding, emotional regulation, initiation and completion of work, organization of tasks, and flexibility in thinking and behavior – many youth with ASD will struggle (even if they didn’t as younger children).  Older students may struggle more with understanding social rules, staying organized, asking for help, protecting himself against bullying, regulating emotional responses to frustration or disappointment, tolerating mistakes or managing changes in routines.  No matter how the challenges manifest, being open and upfront about how autism symptoms impact a specific student is important for how parents, educators and the students themselves think about the student’s individual strengths and needs. 

Understanding if ASD is in the picture informs the educational process and alerts us that traditional expectations, parenting approaches and instructional strategies may not be sufficient.  Sometimes qualitatively different approaches to parenting and teaching are necessary to help kids with ASD learn and develop.

On the other hand, if the student is not identified at all (but likely has an ASD), then:

·         Adults may assume he behaves differently from his peers because he is unmotivated, stubborn or not working hard; when, in fact, he may be neurologically unprepared to participate in academic activities in the same manner as his peers.

·         As the student gets older -- and expectations increase in social understanding, emotional regulation, initiation and completion of work, organization of tasks, and flexibility in thinking and behavior – many youth with ASD will struggle (even if they didn’t as younger children).  Perhaps the challenges will be in understanding social rules, staying organized, asking for help, protecting himself against bullies, regulating emotional responses to frustration or disappointment, tolerating mistakes or managing changes in routines.  No matter how the challenges manifest, the struggles for intellectual bright children with unidentified ASD puts them at significant risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. 

Collaborating on the educational identification can promote effective home-school communication by providing us with a deliberate task for educators and families to engage in together, resulting in a shared understanding of what is impacting a student’s educational participation and performance.  With this shared understanding -- along with all of the other information that has been gathered by the educational team regarding what works and doesn’t work for the particular student – the IEP team can move to making educational programming decisions, based on strengths and needs and not on specific eligibility category.