Are schools required to ensure students with autism make effective progress in social skills?

Direction instruction and related services need to be provided to ensure students with disabilities affecting the ability to make social relationships make effective progress as part of the IDEA.  An oft-missed consideration of effective progress for students with autism spectrum disorders (and others with related disabilities) is effectively teaching the skills to promote social growth and functioning.  Instead, many districts instead focus solely on academic grades when evaluating effective progress.

My son, who is 15 and has autism, wrote this last night:

“i want lots of friends i want there to be someone who is never annoyed with me and i want people to be nice to me and like me and i want my friends to hug me and i want my friends to think i am handsome”.

Every kid wants a friend.  Just one good friend.  Even most kids with autism. links to a recent Bureau of Special Education Appeals decision which hits me especially hard.  My son was in this program for 3 years in elementary school.  My daughter was in class with the student with autism whose parents successfully convinced the hearing officer that he had not made effective progress socially and that the proposed junior high program would not allow him to do so.  Ironically, their (elementary)program for my son was splintered and caused major regressions; how I wish I was only writing about inability to make effective progress

Every kid wants a friend.  Just one good friend.

Based on my experience as a mom and as an advocate, a huge part of the problem stems from the fact most districts consider kids with autism the same, in practice, for purposes of inclusion.  A group of kids on the spectrum, not necessarily similarly-abled, is assigned an aide and these groups of 2 -3 are placed in one inclusion class per grade.  Not evenly divided, there is simply not enough staff to support individualized inclusion.

I’ve seen students who are highly behavioral and those who would formerly be considered Aspergers who are all enrolled in a substantially separate classroom.  They travel “as a pack” to an inclusion classroom, usually with one paraprofessional.  Instead of making inclusion a true part of the school culture and including students with autism in every classroom, they are put in one.  To fight to get out of that model requires advocating for a 1:1 paraprofessional and that is no walk in the special education park either.

Despite many enormously talented aides, how can you differentiate gen ed instruction and provide individualized IEP supports to 2 or 3 different students?  Even the most gifted educators I’ve seen in practice struggle to do so, because students learn so differently.  The tools  (ie: behavior chart with reminder, behavior program with reinforcement, non-verbal cues, light physical cues, etc.) used to support classroom participation are not easy to provide to 3 kids at a time.  One thing an aide who worked with my son, not while he was in the district named above but earlier in his educational career, told me that she probably would get fired for saying is that support Andrew and his peer with ASD was not able to be balanced as the peer required much cueing and behavioral support, while Andrew would sit at circle time or participate in more activities compliantly, but no one was ever sure how much he was truly getting out of it.  The gen ed teacher was lovely, but the para’s efforts were mainly expended on the higher need student.

This is not isolated.

Below is one of the most infuriating statements I’ve ever heard, and it happens to have been said by the Assistant Special Education Director in the case referenced above:

“The world does not change for the disabled”.

No one expects that it will beyond being accepting of those with special needs.

The collective we, especially those charged with teaching children as part of the IEP team, need to provide  students the skills to access their world, and not be treated as disabled souls to be pitied. Students with autism and all disabilities have a right to learn how to be a true part of their class, not a visitor to inclusion, and yes have a friend.  There is a friend for everyone.

The BSEA got it right this time; perhaps that district will now acknowledge it needs more supports to support children with autism.  Good grades alone do not equal effective progress.

For excellent, parent-friendly legal analysis of this case, you might want to check out former MAC attorney now in private practice Dan Perlman’s blog:

My son at 15 is still searching for a friend, that one true friend, who he can talk to about appropriate and expected topics and have true conversations with.  He’s getting there and in his new, excellent special education program he now has the tools, and the teacher support, to make and sustain those connections.

(I am not an attorney and anything written on this page should not be construed as legal advice.  I am a mom and an educational advocate with 10 years experience, mostly working with students with autism and related disabilities).