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Autism Spectrum Disorder and Mainstream Public Education

Tammi Reynolds, BA & Mark Dombeck, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

classroom itemsAmerican families of children with autism spectrum disorder received a major boost in 1997 with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This legislation was designed, in part, to help make sure that children would have government supported access to special education opportunities. Though it had been long known that access to special education and proper treatment during childhood could help children with ASD to break out of their isolation, learn how to communicate their needs, and become capable of participating in society in limited ways, access to such educational and treatment opportunities were more limited prior to the act because of their great expense.

IDEA mandated public educational systems to treat autism spectrum disorder as a disability and to provide appropriate care and educational opportunities. In response to IDEA, schools created Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for children with autism spectrum disorder in their districts and began to provide autism support classes and associated special education resources. Though only people with mild autism spectrum disorder may ultimately learn to live independently and become self-supporting, very few people with ASD are so profoundly unreachable today that they require institutionalization.

Thanks to IDEA and similar legislation, many public-school districts in the United States are now mainstreaming children with autism spectrum disorder into the regular classroom when this is appropriate. School-aged children with mild ASD tend to do well in regular classroom settings. Children with more severe delays in communication skills may require a support classroom. Each case is unique. Each child's placement depends on his needs and the school district's ability to provide an environment conducive to learning.

Many children with autism spectrum disorder function remarkably well in school settings. They thrive in structured environments. Once children learn their school routine, they navigate effortlessly through the school day. Making the initial transition into the school setting can be challenging, however. The family and school may decide to use wraparound services to help children become comfortable and familiar with their classroom without interfering with instruction. Some schools have classroom aides who function as a one-on-one guide for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Each child's IEP functions as a treatment plan and legal document outlining specific educational goals for the child. IEPs are designed by an educational institution in collaboration with the child's parents, teacher and special education director. Parents may also include the child's physician or an advocate. IEPs define services that the child will require to reach his or her educational goals. They also specify methods through which each child's progress towards educational goals will be assessed.

Even with special accommodations in place, not all children with autism spectrum disorder can attend public school. A very high percentage of children with ASD also either meet criteria for a separate but coexisting diagnosis of intellectual disabilities or have too many behavior issues to be mainstreamed. Such children are typically educated within each community's intellectual disabilities program