Every citizen is granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (among other things). But on the whole, children are not considered full-fledged citizens until they reach the age of 18, at which time they are adults (unless they somehow manage to become emancipated at a younger age). So whether children have autism or not they technically enjoy no legal rights. And yet, there are legal issues pertaining to the protection of children, and to their health, well-being, and access to public services. This is especially relevant for kids with disabilities, since they may face discriminatory practices without the ability to speak up for themselves. And when it comes to children with special needs, such as those who suffer from an autism spectrum disorder, the law makes allowances for both education and specialized services.
A good place to start is with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1974, and subsequently amended and expanded in 1997 and 2005. This act guarantees that children will have access to a free and appropriate public education, regardless of any disabilities they may suffer. Autism is one of the disabilities specifically outlined by this law. Other legal rights afforded to children with autism are outlined in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, by which special services must be provided to disabled children in the course of their education (when not covered by IDEA). For example, schools unable to provide for the special needs of an autistic child (if specific facilities or professionals are required) must find a way to make such services available, either by way of private schooling or other off-campus arrangements.
But how can you use these laws to the advantage of your child? There are several steps that must be taken. First and foremost, you’ll have to secure an independent expert evaluation. Schools may perform such an evaluation on your child if they feel (or you inform them) that autism is possible. This will result in a recommendation that addresses your child’s particular educational needs. However, you should keep in mind that schools have a lot of children to think about, not just yours, and they also have a budget. Plus, school psychologists are often woefully uniformed on the topic of autism. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will intentionally bilk your child, but if a lapse in education occurs because you didn’t exercise due diligence, your child will be the one who suffers for your oversight.
After you visit an expert (or several) and receive recommendations for your child’s educational needs, you must turn copies over to the school district for review. This will be followed up with a meeting to create an individualized education plan (IEP) for your child. The IEP will be based on recommendations by the school, reports from outside experts (obtained by you), and the input of the parents. It’s important to realize that at this point, the school is trying to spend the least amount of money possible, so you need to come prepared with evidence that backs up your claim to all services afforded your child under the law. You may even want to hire an attorney if you feel that you’re being railroaded, lied to, or simply denied your child’s right to education and special services. As the parent of an autistic child, the onus is on you to know the law and uphold it on your child’s behalf.