The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 assures a free and appropriate public education to children with diagnosed learning deficits. The 1991 version of the law extended services to preschoolers who are developmentally delayed. As a result, public schools must provide services to handicapped children including those age 3 to 5. Because of the importance of early intervention, many states also offer special services to children from birth to age 3.
The school may also be responsible for providing whatever services are needed to enable the child to attend school and learn. Such services might include transportation, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and any special equipment. Federally funded Parent Training Information Centers and Protection and Advocacy Agencies in each state can provide information on the rights of the family and child.
By law, public schools are also required to prepare and carry out a set of specific instructional goals for every child in a special education program. The goals are stated as specific skills that the child will be taught to perform. The list of skills make up what is known as an "IEP" — the child's Individualized Educational Program. The IEP serves as an agreement between the school and the family on the educational goals. Because parents know their child best, they play an important role in creating this plan. They work closely with the school staff to identify which skills the child needs most. In planning the IEP, it's important to focus on what skills are critical to the child's well-being and future development. For each skill, parents and teachers should consider these questions: Is this an important life skill? What will happen if the child isn't trained to do this for herself?
Such questions free parents and teachers to consider alternatives to training. After several years of valiant effort to teach a child to tie his shoelaces, his parents and teachers decided that he could simply wear sneakers with Velcro fasteners, and dropped the skill from his IEP. After he struggled in vain to memorize the multiplication table, they decided to teach him to use a calculator.
A child's success in school should not be measured against standards like mastering algebra or completing high school. Rather, progress should be measured against his or her unique potential for self-care and self-sufficiency as an adult.
Autism and Adolescence
For all children, adolescence is a time of stress and confusion. No less so for teenagers with autism. Like all children, they need help in dealing with their budding sexuality. While some behaviors improve in the teenage years, some get worse. Increased autistic or aggressive behavior may be one way some teens express their newfound tension and confusion.
The teenage years are also a time when children become more socially sensitive and aware. At the age that most teenagers are concerned with acne, popularity, grades, and dates, teens with autism may become painfully aware that they are different from their peers. They may notice that they lack friends. And unlike their schoolmates, they aren't dating or planning for a career. For some, the sadness that comes with such realization urges them to learn new behaviors. Sean Barron, who wrote about his autism in the book, There's a Boy in Here, describes how the pain of feeling different motivated him to acquire more normal social skills.