17. Special Education Overidentification 2011: Autism

The school identification rate for autism has increased in recent years.  From this observation one can say the condition was under-identified.  One can also say it is heading toward over-identification rate.  More data are needed.

According to the Center for Public Education, autism as a category has grown fast and now it “accounts for around 4 percent of all students with disabilities.”

Special education: At a glance / The Center for Public Education

Autism more recently has been placed under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder.  It is telling.  There are many variations of symptoms to sort out.  Some children are highly verbal, and others are not.  Attention and memory are involved.  The social skills criterion is emphasized.  Awkward gate and balance are seen.  Eye gaze is averted.  The voice can be husky in quality.  Special gifts such as number memory are documented.  Eye-hand coordination for writing is poor in some children.  Unchecked narratives on or off topic are witnessed.  Some are quite intelligent in the gathering of facts.  Verbal children with a good flow of language have difficulty following discourse rules for turn taking, topic reference and perspective taking.

And we do not know enough about the uniform effects of autism on performance in the general curriculum.  Typically it is uneven and not always bad.  Reading is key to early education and defining autism as a reading disorder brings up interesting questions.

No one specialty has all the tools necessary for proper educational assessment.  This can lead to mis-evaluation.  Indeed the disorder has been a mystery for many years for the most part and the average educator has a hard time sorting out the problems.

The growth of the number of ASD children placed in special education could reflect inaccurate assessments and / or increasing public and professional awareness.


In April of 2011, a flurry of news reports indicated early identification of autism is desirable and possible through behavioral observations of speech, social and non-verbal communication.  There are risks here for later school special education placements and over-identification:

First, early detection is often made by doctors  Medical diagnosis might not hold and predict developmental advances.  How the early behaviors are transformed by cognitive development along the lines of Jean Piaget’s definitive theory is not predicted.

Second, stress is not placed on “dynamic assessment” (pre-post, baseline, clinical trials) to evaluate the effects of treatment and to produce data to limit special education placement.  The diagnosis of autism could change with involvement in preschool reading programs.

Third, the medical diagnosis might cause parents to have an inflexible views of their children’s abilities to the point where they continue to believe in the medical diagnosis when social communication is improving and falling within normal limits.

Fourth, there are huge translation problems as infants moves through stages of IDEA 2004 criteria (cf. Birth to Three).


 “We need to understand where and how at-risk children are admitted into special education. We need to know who decides and by what criteria. With this sort of information we can begin to control misidentifications through school leadership.  A starting point is state-to-state early intervention programs.”

Infants and toddlers from 0 to 3 years can receive early intervention services under Part C of IDEA 2004. Then autistic child moves into Part B with a transition meeting with the local school district (LEA).  Criteria change.  

The early program will be pre-academic and preschool.  There will be a “wait to fail” period before the child transitions to a final IDEA category.  Psychologist must come into play to use tests and scales to redefine autism.  It is not automatic that the autistic child will be found eligibility for special education.  He or she still has to qualify because the medical disability must impact progress in the general curriculum.

When the autistic child is seven the medical personnel  who made the early diagnosis will not be present at the IEP / eligibility meeting but parents are likely to continue to refer to it as authoratative.


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