Monthly Archives: January 2013

School Identification of Autism: Over-Identification

Journalists report significant public debate and awareness over the growing numbers of children identified medically as autistic.  In the 1940s of course the condition was just being discovered and therefore was under-identified in U. S. schools.  Now school psychologists, speech-language pathologists and special educators must fight through all the issues mentioned in the press.  The implication is that autism is now being over-identified in U. S. schools.  A recent conference reported out the following:

“Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are estimated to occur among about 1% of children in the U.S. This is in line with estimates from other industrialized countries. However, the identified prevalence of ASDs has increased significantly in a short time period based on data from multiple studies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM)”

Network (  / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  Tom Harkin Global Communications Center | 1600 Clifton Road, N.E. | Atlanta, Georgia

Right now identification is being driven by medical diagnostic theories and protocols, a confound for proper special education identification in schools.  The use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, sets up a conflict of epistemology as to school special education placement decisions.

Epistemology  is “… the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity…” A question is whether “…the primary task of epistemology is to provide justifications for broad categories of knowledge claim or merely to describe what kinds of things are known and how that knowledge is acquired.”  Merriam-Webster online.

Diagnosis based solely on medical criteria is invalid for educational decisions for reasons we have pointed out routinely (i.e., diagnostic “dualism”*).  Not all autistic individuals  qualify for special education, and some succeed at post-secondary institutions.

Medical diagnosis can be a negative factor in a child’s life because of the high respect educators and parents have for medical personnel.  The risks are:

1.  The child is  automatically put in special education based on medical criteria only;

2. The nature of the placement as to least restrictive environment and intensity is distorted for optimal learning until high school graduation;

3. The child receives the social stigma of the labels “special education pupil” and “autism;”

4. Instruction is less demanding when special education placements are made;

5. Isolated instruction reduces opportunities for social communication, a featural deficit of autism.

6. Autistic pupils are often retained indefinitely in special education whether assistance is needed or not;

7. Expectations for high school graduation are reduced by special education status.

8. Medical diagnosticians do not follow through on the long-term educational implications of medical diagnosis, such as attending yearly IEP meetings.

9. Medical assessments do not include “dynamic assessment” in the vein of Response to Intervention.

Astute parents often learn that their autism spectrum children can do things the experts didn’t predict.

*”In philosophy of minddualism is the assumption that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical,[1] or that the mind and body are not identical.[2] Thus, it encompasses a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, and is contrasted with other positions, such asphysicalism, in the mind–body problem.[1][2]”  Wikipedia   


Special Education Over-identification: A Parent Speaks

Naomi Boyle On January 3, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Dear Dr. Panagos:

I am delighted to hear that you are considering writing a book on the issue of over-identification of disabilities in schools. I am a parent who sold a house to move out of a school district so that my child would not become what I call a “victim of over-identification.” I have heard of several parents who have done likewise. Several years have passed since we made that move, but the mission was accomplished, and it was a decision I never regretted.

But sadly there are many parents that quite frankly don’t have a clue. They become convinced by the study teams that their child is “special.” They become convinced by the bio-psychiatry industry that the underlying problem has nothing to do with the environment and can only be attributed to some not so well defined, ever changing, subjectively diagnosed, alleged, biological cause outside of their control. The parents have no idea of the funding incentives that encourage schools to engage in over-identification. In fact the phrase “over-identification” hasn’t even entered into their vocabularly. Not only do parents have no clue about how IDEA funding works, they haven’t even heard about the Medicaid and third-party reimbursement profits school districts view as limitless revenue streams. In my opinion, a book educating America on over-identification is sorely needed.

Schools often cite their IDEA numbers to convince the public that there has not been an increase in “identified” students. Of course those numbers are limited by Congressional Act and almost every school is at or near the max if not slightly over. But we never hear how many students are placed on 504 plans, or a “mini IEP.” or an IEP “for related services only,” or an “individul health plan” or on a “functional behavior plan. ” I have talked to many parents whose kids are on non-IDEA plans of some sort or another and because the parents don’t understand education law, they are just as convinced that their child has a disability as are the parents of children placed on full fledged IDEA IEPs that the school districts cite as their “special education” population. The consequence is that the psychological damage for these inappropriately placed children can be just as grave. I hope your book addresses these victims of over-identification as well.

You state that you would like to address the issue of disproportionality in special education. When I taught elementary general music many moons ago in Southwest rural Georgia, I witnessed first hand true “disportionaltiy.” The district’s African American population was approximately 30% but when I walked into the EMR classrooms somehow I was seeing classes that were approximately 90% African American. But years later when I had my own child and enrolled her in a public elementary school in a middle class suburb in Johnson County, Kansas, I witnessed something much different. The school had only 1-2% of the students on free and reduced lunch, and demographically it had a white, non-Hispanic population in excess of 95% (and most of the other 5% were Asian). Yet I noticed on the school’s website that there were 13 special education paras on staff in a little elementary school with only 400 students, and team meetings occuring in the fall every morning and every afternoon in the glass conference room adjacent to the principal’s office. I can’t call that disproportionality, it appeared to me that it could only be called pure unadulterated over-identification. Yet, many experts in the field speak of disproportionality as if it is synonymous with the phrase “over-identification,” and I can tell you based on my experiences it is not. I think the best way to describe disproportionality is as a sub-set of over-identification.

Please in the name of the millions of children in this country currently and about to become “victims of over-identification” write this book. Perhaps a good title would be “Over-Identification Awareness.” And I will say a prayer when it comes time for you to find a publisher.

Library of Congress, via CBS News: "Child labor photos from 1911The child labor photos Lewis Hine took in the early 1900s were meant to shock Americans into reforming child labor laws. Decades later, many of these photos are getting a fresh look, thanks to one man's efforts to link the subjects to their living relatives. This photo taken in Winchendon, Mass., in Sept. 1911, shows Mamie Laberge at her workstation. She is under the legal work age. 

Caption information from "The Library of Congress."

Library of Congress, via CBS News: “Child labor photos from 1911
The child labor photos Lewis Hine took in the early 1900s were meant to shock Americans into reforming child labor laws. Decades later, many of these photos are getting a fresh look, thanks to one man’s efforts to link the subjects to their living relatives. This photo taken in Winchendon, Mass., in Sept. 1911, shows Mamie Laberge at her workstation. She is under the legal work age. 

Caption information from “The Library of Congress.”