WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN EDUCATIONAL DETERMINATION AND MEDICAL DIAGNOSIS OF AUTISM?

Parents are often surprised to learn that a medical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) does not automatically entitle a student to special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).  It is important for parents to understand the differences between a medical diagnosis and an educational determination of eligibility for special education services so that they can appropriately advocate for their children.

Autism ASD

Medical diagnosis of ASD:

People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age. In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items. Again, the symptoms of people with ASD will fall on a continuum, with some individuals showing mild symptoms and others having much more severe symptoms. This spectrum will allow clinicians to account for the variations in symptoms and behaviors from person to person.

A medical diagnosis of ASD is made by a doctor or other specially trained clinician by using symptom criteria set in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). DSM-5 eliminated the subcategories established in the DSM-IV and grouped all the conditions under the name of Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

Under the DSM-5 criteria, individuals with ASD must show symptoms from early childhood, even if those symptoms are not recognized until later. This criteria change encourages earlier diagnosis of ASD but also allows people whose symptoms may not be fully recognized until social demands exceed their capacity to receive the diagnosis. It is an important change from DSM-IV criteria, which was geared toward identifying school-aged children with autism-related disorders, but not as useful in diagnosing younger children. Under DSM-5 the doctor/clinician is looking for symptoms that limit and impair everyday functioning, but this should be interpreted broadly.

Educational determination of eligibility:

By contrast, educational eligibility is decided by a team comprised of the student’s parents and various school professionals. The team must find that he student qualifies for services under IDEA. The purpose of IDEA is to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free and appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” See 20 USC section 1400(d)(1)(A)

Eligibility for special education services is based, rather, on an educational determination of a disability. The Team will consider the following questions to determine if a student is eligible :

  1. Is there a disability?  IDEA requires that the student have at least one of the fourteen specified disabilities and need special services.

  2. Is the student not making effective progress due to the disability? It is possible for a student to have a medical ASD diagnosis but not qualify for special education services. If this is true of your child, consider a 504 Plan where they could qualify for other services, such as accommodations.

  3. Does the student need specialized instruction to make effective progress?

  4. What related services does the student need to access the general curriculum?

Have questions or concerns about your student? Contact us to discuss further:

E.M. Curran & Associates LLC

10 Tower Office Park
Suite 406
Woburn, MA 01801
Phone: 781-933-1542
Fax: 781-933-1549
ellen@emcurranlegal.com

CHANGES COMING FOR MASSACHUSETTS ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS

English Language Learners ELLs

A fifteen year old law governing how English Language learners are taught in Massachusetts schools was repealed last November. The former Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) law was controversial from its inception. Many ESL as well as regular classroom teachers expressed concerns over the restrictive English-only model didn’t serve all students well.  In addition there were many reports and studies done that raised concerns that the needs of the students were not being met because the teachers were not adequately trained in how to support and educate the English language learners.

As a result of these reports and studies, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice notified Massachusetts education officials that teachers were inadequately trained in how to educate English learners and the SEI model and required the state to come up with a new solution to bridge this gap. In response the state created the RETELL program – Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners – which required teachers in core academic subjects to take a graduate-level course provided by the state in SEI instruction.  The RETELL program has had mixed results across the state.

The new law called “Language Opportunity for Our Kids," Chapter 138 of the Acts of 2017, commonly referred to as the LOOK Act aims to provide school districts with more flexibility as to the language acquisition programs they choose to meet the needs of English learners, while maintaining accountability for timely and effective English language acquisition.

The new law has many important points but here are just a few key effects:

Increased Input from Parents and Guardians

Allows parents/guardians of English learners to select any language acquisition program offered by the district, provided that the program is appropriate for the age and grade level of the student.

Allows parents/guardians to request a transfer of the student to another language acquisition program available in the district, subject to approval by the superintendent.

State Seal of Biliteracy

Directs the Board to establish the State Seal of Biliteracy. Districts may award the seal to students who meet the state criteria in attaining a high level of proficiency in English and at least one other language.

Educator Qualifications

Requires districts to verify prior to the beginning of each school year that each educator in an English learner program is properly endorsed for that program.

Language Acquisition Programming Flexibility and Oversight

Provides districts with flexibility in choosing a language acquisition program that best fits the needs of their English learner population, while ensuring accountability through Department oversight.

Requires districts that intend to offer a new sheltered English immersion or alternative instructional English learner program in the next academic year to submit the required information to the Department and the district's parent advisory council by January 1 of the current academic year; this means that new English learner programs may commence no earlier than the 2019-2020 school year.

Have questions or concerns about your student? Contact us to discuss further:

E.M. Curran & Associates LLC

10 Tower Office Park
Suite 406
Woburn, MA 01801
Phone: 781-933-1542
Fax: 781-933-1549
ellen@emcurranlegal.com