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In the 1960s autism was a rare diagnosis – only 4 to 5 cases per 10,000 children. Current estimates range from one in 500 children to one in 1,000 children having “autism spectrum disorder” or “pervasive developmental disorder.” These disorders cause significant and pervasive impairment in thinking, feeling, language and the ability of the student to relate to others.

Autism spectrum disorder includes five forms of autism: Asperger disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, Rett disorder and “pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified” also known as atypical autism.

A student who is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder is not automatically qualified as a disabled student with autism. To qualify for special education services, the disorder must adversely affect the student’s educational performance. Therefore, “higher functioning” students may not be entitled to special education despite their diagnosis.

According to the State Education Department, the defining features of autism are:

  • Impairment in socialization.
  • Impairment in verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Restrictive repetitive patterns of behavior.

For a school-aged child, a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder may mean that the child is unable to read social cues and body language, may have difficulty in forming, maintaining and expanding relationships, may suffer anxiety and need repetition or exhibit ritualistic behavior frequently and may not understand what is said to him in the same manner as other similarly aged students.

Once the district’s Committee on Special Education classifies a student as a student with autism, state regulations entitle that student and his family to certain mandatory special education services. According to the regulations, the district must provide autistic students with instructional services to meet the student’s individual language needs for a minimum of 30 minutes daily in groups of two or less. If the CSE recommends a group of six or less, the student must have 60 minutes of language instruction per day.

The district must also provide counseling and training for parents, enabling them to perform follow-up intervention at home. Parents may decline these services but it is the responsibility of the school district to offer the services in the first place.

In addition to the mandatory services for autistic students, a student classified as autistic has available to him the full range of special education services. School districts are charged with providing the student with an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Often, with students whose symptoms are less severe, this may mean the student is placed in the regular education setting with special education supports.

However, if a student classified as autistic is placed into a regular education classroom or a program with non-autistic students, the autistic student must receive “transitional support services” from a special education teacher who has taught students with autism. Transitional support services are defined as temporary services provided to a regular or special education teacher to aid in the provision of appropriate services to a disabled student who is transferring into the program.

In other words, the CSE must assign a teacher who has worked with autistic students previously to work with the program teacher to help the transferring autistic student adapt to the new program. The transitional services are temporary in nature and once the student has adjusted to the new program, the services may be removed from the student’s individualized education plan.

School districts classifying students with autism should be aware of the mandatory services under state regulations. School districts that have already classified students with autism should review their individualized education programs to ensure that the mandatory services have been recommended and are being provided.

Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts.

This article was written by Wendy DeWind, managing partner of Hogan, Sarzynski, Lynch, Surowka & DeWind, LLP.