All posts by Megan McLaughlin

About Megan McLaughlin

Historian, gardener, writer, activist, animal lover, autism mom (the kind that supports autistic people...)

Teaching Autistic Children: Perceptual Issues

Another significant, but seldom-recognized problem has to do with perceptual issues.[1]  A student cannot learn if she cannot see or hear what is being presented to her.[2] Very, very few public school teachers understand how perceptual systems—which directly affect learning—work in autistic students.  For example:  many (not all—remember: each autistic individual is different) have difficulties with auditory processing.[3]  It may take them a fraction of a second longer that neurotypical students to turn spoken sounds into intelligible speech, and this is just long enough to cause significant problems, as they constantly try to play “catch-up” with the rest of the class  They may also find it difficult to separate the significant sounds they are supposed to be hearing from background noise.  As a result, these students are often unable to follow a lecture or video, or comply with their teacher’s spoken demands.  Group work is even worse, as the autistic student struggles to separate what his or her own group is saying from what is going on in other groups around the classroom.  There are work-arounds for auditory processing issues, such as special seating near the front of the classroom, close-captioning for videos, the provision of both spoken and written instructions, exemption from group work, etc.  But the teacher must first be aware of the problem before solutions can be found.  Many a well-meaning and thoughtful teacher has caused frustration, withdrawal, even “meltdowns,” by insisting on a phonics-based approach to reading for a student with poor auditory processing skills. For such a student, a “whole-word” approach might work better. [4]


Other autistic kids have trouble with visual processing.[5]  They may be able to see clearly only with peripheral vision, in which case a teacher who insists that they “look at me” is actually ensuring that they will not see what the teacher is doing.  Meares-Irlen, “Scotopic Sensitivity” or “visual stress” syndrome is also often present in autistic kids.  Letters, words and numbers will appear to move around on the pages of a book or on a classroom whiteboard, making it almost impossible to follow what is being taught.  Some students affected by this syndrome may be helped with colored overlays or tinted glasses.[6]  When these don’t work, there are other work-arounds.  My own daughter, for example, struggles with math problems because of “floating” numbers.  She has developed her own (admittedly, rather time-consuming) system of writing out the problems using different colored pencils for different rows or columns.  The colors helped her keep numbers in their proper places.  Reading on an Ipad, with a font size large enough so that only a single line of text appears on the screen can help those with this syndrome with reading.  Teachers can help students find ways to deal with visual processing issues, but—again—only if they are aware of these issues in the first place.


If students can’t make sense of what they hear or see in the classroom, they will inevitably fail in school.  It is up to trained specialists to diagnose their auditory or visual problems, and it is then up to their teachers to find ways to help them overcome these perceptual issues.





[1] On sensory perception issues in autistic schoolchildren, see Olga Bogdashina’s excellent Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Aspergers Syndrome (London:  Jessica Kingsley, 2003).  On sensory experience in autism more generally, see J. Horder, C. Wilson, M. Mendez and D. Murphy, “Autistic Traits and Abnormal Sensory Experiences in Adults,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44 (2014), 1461-69.

[2] There are work-arounds, of course, used in schools for the deaf or blind, but most autistic students are not actually deaf or blind, so these techniques may not work for them, even in the unlikely case that they are offered them.

[3] P. Dawes, D. Bishop, T. Sirimanna, et al.  [“Profile and Aetiology of Children Diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD),” International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 72 (2008), 483–89], found that about 9% of children referred to a clinic specializing in auditory processing disorders also had a diagnosis of autism; this suggests that autistic children are much more likely to have an APD than neurotypical children.

[4] Leslie Broun, “Teaching Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to Read,” Teaching Exceptional Children 36 (2004), 36-40.  See also: Kate Nation, Paula Clarke, Barry White, and Christine Williams, “Patterns of Reading Ability in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36 (2006), 911-19;  Kelly Whalon, Stephanie al Otaiba, and Monica Delano, “Evidence-Based Reading Instruction for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 24 (2009), 3-16; Janet Spector, “Sight Word Instruction for Children with Autism:  An Evaluation of the Evidence Base,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 41 (2011), 1411-22.

[5] Unfortunately, the scientific study of visual processing issues in autism is still in its infancy.  Even the quite recent articles often fail to look beyond the most basic issues of face and pattern recognition:  e.g., Marlene Behrman, “Visual Processing,” in the Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, ed. F. Volker, P. Pelphrey, and D. Powers (New York:  Springer, 2013), pp. 3290-99.  Experienced teachers may offer more reliable information on how visual issues affect schoolwork:  e.g., Bogdashina, Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism.

[6] The Irlen method of using colored overlays and glasses to treat these individuals remains highly controversial, but has proved life-changing for some autistic individuals.  A famous example is that of the late Donna Williams, the Australian writer and autism activist.


What Does This Say About ABA?

Brilliant older daughter recently attended the Association for Behavior Analysis International’s annual conference.  This is an odd convention, because about more than half of the participants are ABA practicioners, who work with autistic childfen, while many of the rest are people who study animal behavior.

A. was presenting the results of her research on dog behavior, and the response was tremendous!  People were so impresssed that they asked whether she was a graduate student, a post-doc, even a professor–whereas in reality she is only a sophomore in college.

However, things changed after her well-meaning mentor disclosed to all her acquaintances at the conference that A. is on the autism spectrum.  At that point, people began to walk up to A. and ask if she was that “sophomore with autism” they had been hearing about.  She found this very embarrassing.  But what really infuriated her was the difference in reaction between the animal researchers and the ABA practicioners.  The former asked if she was “that sophomore with autism,” but then they continued to discuss her research and pose challenging questions (which she enjoyed answering).  The latter, on the other hand, started talking down to her, and even ignoring her completely, directing their questions instead to her mentor.  What does this say about their attitude towards autistic people–can they not even imagine the possibility of a smart, articulate autistic who might be able to teach them something?

The Challenges Facing Autistic Children in America’s Schools

After 1990, the number of young people with autism diagnoses educated in public schools in the United States rose rapidly;  the legal mandates of IDEA ensured that still others were educated in private institutions paid for with public funds.  Overall, then, access to educational institutions has improved dramatically for autistic children within recent decades.  It is doubtful, though, whether many of these children have reached their full educational potential.  Despite greatly improved access to schools, huge challenges continue to face autistic children seeking an education.  Few teachers are adequately trained to meet their learning needs, and indeed, those needs are still poorly understood even by “experts.”  The educational environment remains hostile, from both a sensory and a social perspective.  School buildings and classrooms are full of often unnecessary sensory stressors and distractions, not to mention intimidating bullies.  Moreover, autistic students continue to be disproportionately subject to severe and even life-threatening discipline, often for fairly minor infractions of the rules. These challenges will be the subject of the next few posts on this blog.

The most serious problem by far facing autistic students in American schools, however, is the presumption of stupidity, which leads to appallingly low academic expectations.  In one recent research project, only 56% of the autistic students studied had any academic skills at all listed in their IEP goals.  Their teachers simply did not expect them to reach grade-level academic content standards.[1]  This is because far too many teachers continue to associate autism with intellectual disability, even though, as we have already seen, current scientific research indicates that autistic people have the same range of intellectual abilities as everyone else.  The ability to speak (expressive language), depending as it does on physical capabilities, is certainly not a good indicator of intelligence.  Nevertheless, far too many (indeed, most) schools continue to assign empty labels like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” to their autistic students, based on speaking ability and extremely problematic I.Q. testing.  Those labelled “low-functioning” are generally considered intellectually disabled.  They tend to be be shunted off into special education classrooms, which provide some life-skill and social-skill training, but often almost nothing in the way of academics.


One such individual, Michael Weinstein, describes his school experience in this way:

The school officials tested me and said I had an IQ of less than 70 and would never get a high school diploma, so I spent a lot of time learning how to wipe off cafeteria tables, sort utensils, and make little arts and crafts projects. Although I understood everything that was said to me, I could not indicate in any way, verbally or non-verbally, that I understood them.[2]

Eventually Mr. Weinstein learned to type, enabling him to demonstrate his genius-level I.Q. and his exceptional skills in mathematics.  Similarly, Philip Reyes reports that his teachers “were well meaning but believed I could not understand much of anything because I could not talk or write to communicate that I was smart and understood everything going on around me.”  Instead, Philip says, he was trained like an animal in school, “as everyone tried to make me act normally with candy rewards.”[3]

There is no inherent reason why special education classrooms cannot be intellectually challenging, but in practice they seldom are.  Bright young people may spend years in these classes hearing basic arithmetic facts or the names of colors repeated over and over again, but learning nothing that might later help them as either workers or citizens.  Ido Kedar, another non-speaking autistic, fiercely criticizes the thinking behind these practices:  “The assumption that people with severe autism all have impaired thinking has resulted in the underestimating of the true abilities of thousands of individuals, lack of adequate educational opportunities, isolation, loneliness, boredom, frustration, hopelessness, and a life of entrapment within one’s own body. This price is too high.”[4]


[1] Sara Witmer, and Summer Ferreri, “Alignment of Instruction, Expectations and Accountability Testing for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 29: 3 (2014), 136-38.

[2] Michael Weinstein, “Life with Autism” on the Golden Hat Foundation blog:

[3] “Communication Device Opens Up the World to Nonverbal Autistic Boy, Buffalo Evening News 12/3/15:

[4] Ido Kedar, “Motor Difficulties in Severe Autism,” on the Ido in Autismland blog:

Educational Legislation, 1986-2004

I’ve been wrestling for a while with the organization of this next section. 

I’ve decided to write about legislation here, and save discussion of what actually happened in the classroom for future posts.


Revisions in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) re-shaped the educational rights of children with disabilities in significant ways after 1975, and especially between 1986 and 2005.  To review all the relevant changes would take too much time, so I will focus here on those that most directly affected children with autism.


In 1986, EAHCA was revised and reauthorized (Public Law 99-457) to add early intervention programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities.  For children diagnosed with autism, such intervention usually took the form of speech, physical, and occupational therapies, but also sometimes included Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI), based on the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), as developed by Ivar Lovaas and then modified in various ways by other researchers.  In the early 1990s, there was still considerable resistance to EIBI among special educators.[1]  By 2000, however, EIBI (often identified simply as “ABA”) had become the most frequently recommended form of early intervention—despite the problems it presented for children’s well-being (see my previous posts on “The Normalization Agenda”).  However, even when offered for less than the 40 hours per week recommended by Lovaas, EIBI remained very expensive.  A cost-effectiveness study done in Pennsylvania in the late 1990s estimated that between $33,000 and $50,000/year would have to be spent to provide a child with EIBI.[2]  These high costs were seldom covered by insurance, and few families could afford them.  During the 1990s, a growing number of parents tried to get school districts to provide EIBI, but with only limited success.[3]  It is not clear, therefore, what percentage of children diagnosed as autistic actually underwent EIBI between 1986 and 2005.


In 1990, Congress not only revised the EAHCA, but also re-named it the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—in keeping with the language of the recently passed Americans with Disabilities Act.[4]  The 1990 re-authorization spelled out in greater detail how plans for each student (Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs) would be developed and implemented.  It also added transition plans for those leaving high school, so that public schools now offered services from infancy through adulthood.  Most importantly for our purposes, though, IDEA also modified the list of disabilities covered by special education law.


The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act had used a list of disability categories drawn from even earlier legislation.  The list did not include the still rarely diagnosed condition known as autism—which is why the classification of autism remained under debate in educational circles throughout the late 1970s and 1980s (see my earlier post on “Educating Autistic Children 1975-1990).  In 1990, however, IDEA listed thirteen categories of disability under which children could qualify for special educational services, and for the first time autism was one of these categories.  In the congressional report on the act, autism was defined as a developmental disability, and explicitly distinguished from mental illness.  This had a significant impact on the experiences of students with an actual autism diagnosis (still by no means all of those who actually had autism), because they now lost the highly stigmatized “emotionally disturbed” label that had followed them in many places during the 1980s.


The addition of autism to the list of disabilities covered by federal education law probably contributed to the rapid rise in autism diagnoses during the 1990s.  A major factor in this rise was the broadening of diagnostic criteria, to recognized the existence of Aspergers Syndrome, PDD-NOS, and other forms, as well as “classic” autism—more people now fell within the autism “spectrum” than in the past.  Another reason for the increase in diagnoses was the fact that more professionals in a position to recommend or provide diagnoses were becoming familiar with the condition, through popular books and movies, as well as through scientific papers.  Not only doctors and psychologists, but school districts played a role in identifying autistic children during the 1990s–both because of educators’ growing awareness of the condition, and because federal education law required (and still requires) school districts to identify children with disabilities within the area under their jurisdiction–the “child find” requirement.  The reasons for the change may have been complex, but the reality was clear.  Autism had still been considered a fairly rare condition in 1990, affecting less than 1 out of 1,000 people.[5]  By 2000, however, the Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network reported an average prevalence of  6.7 per 1,000.[6]  In other words, by 2000, the prevalence of was considered to be seven to eight times higher than in 1990.  As the overall prevalence of autism rose, so too did the the number of children receiving special education services specifically for autism:  the number was 22,664 children in 1994; by 2005, it had increased more than eight-fold, to 193,637.[7]  The rapidly increasing number of children being provided with services for autism had a major impact on both the children and their school systems, which will be considered in future posts.


In 1997, IDEA underwent a major overhaul.  Some of the changes were beneficial for children with disabilities.  Educational rights and procedures were clarified, making it easier for parents to obtain services for their children, and for schools to determine how requests for services should be dealt with.  Language was added that encouraged higher expectations, better services and increased inclusion in general education classrooms.  Particularly important was the new requirement that children with disabilities should be included (with appropriate acccommodations) in statewide assessments.  This gave schools a financial interest in ensuring that these children received a decent education.  At the same time, the IDEA act of 1997 strengthened school districts’ rights to discipline children with disabilities–especially if they engaged in violent or threatening activity or drug use, but even if they were simply disruptive (or were simply considered disruptive).  During the late 1990s issues of classroom management and student behavior became especially salient in public debate and in struggles over practice—and the behavior of children with disabilities came under special scrutiny.  In May, 2000, for example, the new senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions (now Attorney General of the United States), in one of his first speeches on the senate floor, attributed the decline of “civility” in public schools to the disruptions caused by disabled children now included in general education classrooms. (The subject for another post.)


Concerns about “accountability,” about making sure that schools provided a real education for all students, were already reflected in the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA, but they featured more clearly in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001.  NCLB was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and was aimed at all public schools receiving federal funding.  These schools were now required for the first time to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), as measured primarily by the scores its students achieved on statewide standardized tests.  The law took into account not only the student body as a whole, but also three specific groups within each school:  children with limited English language proficiency, economically disadvantaged children, and children with disabilities.  95% of each group had to participate in the standardized test for it to be considered valid; test results for each group had to be reported separately to the Department of Education, to ensure that “no child” in any of these categories would be “left behind.” Schools that failed to make AYP over several years were subject to increasingly severe corrective actions, which might in extreme cases include replacement of the entire staff, closing the school down, or transforming it into a charter school.  At the same time, No Child Left Behind required that all teachers be “highly qualified,” with the minimum acceptable qualifications set by the act itself.  NCLB was a deeply controversial act, and its implementation was fraught with all sorts of complex problems and legal actions.  However, it did reinforce the legal principle that public schools were obliged to educate, not merely warehouse, children with disabilities.


Finally, IDEA itself was reauthorized in 2004, with a new emphasis on how disabled children were to be helped.  NCLB had required that all public school teachers be “highly qualified;” IDEA 2004 applied the same standard to special education teachers—they had to have a bachelor’s degree in special education, and be certified or licensed as special educators by the state they taught in.  In addition, if they were going to teach core academic subjects such as math, science, English, and foreign languages, they had to demonstrate “competence” in those subjects. The 2004 reauthorization focused on what teachers did as well as on their qualifications.  Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities should now include only instructional methods and other interventions supported by scientific research which had gone through a process of rigorous peer-review.  This “evidence based” requirement was imposed primarily for the benefit of students with learning disorders, but it applied to all children with disabilities, including those with autism.


By 2005, then, more autistic children than ever before were being served by the American public school system.  By law, these children were entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education,” provided in the “least restrictive environment.”  They were supposed to be taught by “highly qualified” teachers, using scientifically validated instructional methods, and their progress was to be assessed in the same way as that of neurotypical students.  However, there is always a significant gap between what laws require and what actually happens.  This is true in education as much as in other areas of life.  The actual experiences of autistic students in American schools from the 1990s to the present day has been much more complex and from many perspectives less satisfactory.  These experiences will be the subject of the next few posts.





[1] Phillip Strain and Scott McConnell, “Behaviorism in Early Intervention,” Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 12 (1992), 121-42.

[2] John Jacobson, James Mulick, and Gina Green, “Cost-Benefit Estimates for Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention for Young Children With Autism—General Model and Single State Case,” Behavioral Interventions 13 (1998), 201-26.

[3] Mitchell Fell and Erik Drasgow, “Litigating a Free Appropriate Public Education: The Lovaas Hearings and Cases,” Journal of Special Education 33 (2000), 205-14; see also Claire Maher Choutka, Patricia T. Doloughty, and Perry A. Zirkel, “The “Discrete Trials” of Applied Behavior Analysis for Children with Autism:  Outcome-Related Factors in the Case Law,” Journal of Special Education 38 (2004), 95-103.

[4]  Ruth Colker, Disabled Education:  A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (New York:  New York University Press, 2013), p. 88.

[5] See, for example, Lorna Wing, “The Definition and Prevalence of Autism:  A Review,” European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2 (1993), 61-74—based on estimate from a variety of countries including the United States.

[6] Centers for Disease Control, “Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 56 (February 9, 2007), p. 8

[7] Centers for Disease Control, Prevalence of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) in Multiple Areas of the United States, 2000 and 2002 (pamphlet based on the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for February 9, 2007, with additional data), p. 5.


Henny Kupferstein’s Research Study

Henny K. is a doctoral student working on sensory integration.  She also offers piano lessons via Skype to students on the spectrum (both speaking and non-speaking, including those with dyspraxia).  Henny  is currently conducting a research study on childhood behavioral interventions, from the point of view of both autistic adults and caregivers.  To participate, go to this site:

I think the results should be extremely interesting.




In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the growing number of college students on the spectrum.At The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Rebecca Elias and Susan W. White have an article titled “Autism Goes to College: Understanding the Needs of a Student Population on the Rise.” The abstract:Understanding the needs of adolescents and emerging adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)…

via Autism Goes to College — Autism Policy and Politics

How About Some Actually USEFUL Research?

Mu with iPad AAC ©Kerima ÇevikIt begins every February. Just after Valentine’s Day, the build up of hype to Autism Month kicks off with the media blasting “breakthroughs” “new research” “new hope” for autism. We grit our teeth and manage to get through it, but the latest “breakthrough” got on my husband’s last nerve. He…

via Autism Research Battle Fatigue — autism wars

The Education of Autistic Children, 1975-1990

The efforts of advocacy groups such as the National Federation of the Blind, the National Society for Crippled Children (later known as Easterseals), and the Association for Retarded Children (today known simply as the ARC) gradually increased public awareness of disabled children and the difficulties they faced during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.  Under pressure from these groups and from their constituents, Congress began investigating the lack of educational opportunities for the disabled, and then experimenting with legislative solutions, such as offering grants to school districts for the development of (segregated) educational programs for the disabled. These early legislative efforts met with only limited success, however.  In 1971-72, it was estimated that only 17 states were educating even half of their identified children with disabilities; many other states were offering education to less than a third.[1]  At the same time, exposés of the horrible conditions under which disabled children lived in many state institutions were further increasing public demand for the placement of these children in real schools.[2]

Changes were occurring in the courts, as well.  After the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), which highlighted the evils of segregating schoolchildren by race, advocacy groups and sometimes individual parents began bringing lawsuits against school districts for excluding and segregating children based on disability.  Many of these lawsuits failed, but the courts found in favor of the plaintiffs in several significant cases in the early 1970s, establishing the principles that even children with severe disabilities were entitled to an education, and that local districts could not use the excuse of lack of funds to exclude disabled children from school.[3]

The combination of increased public pressure, legislative precedent, and court decisions eventuallly led to the passage of the landmark Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) in 1975.[4]  The EAHCA mandated that all children, even the most severely disabled, must receive a “free, appropriate,public education”—thereby laying the foundations for our current system of special education.  It required that school districts identify the disabled children within their borders and then develop a plan for them to receive the educational services they needed.  In order to be “appropriate,” their education should come as close as possible to that offered to non-disabled peers (while still being tailored to the needs of the individual child), and should be offered in the “least restrictive environment” possible—ideally in the same classroom, or at least in the same school building as their peers.  The Education for All Handicapped Children Act also laid out processes through which concerned parents could challenge a school’s decisions about their child’s education.  In the decades since 1975, EAHC has been repeatedly reauthorized and refined (and in 1990 re-named, as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA).

Passing such a law was a challenge in 1975, but implementing it has proved even more difficult.  To begin with, there have always been funding shortfalls.  In the EAHC, the federal government promised to cover 40% of the costs of educating children with disabilities, but in reality the highest percentage of costs ever covered was around 17% and more often it has been around 11-12%.[5]   Even when the states fulfilled their own financial obligations (which has not always been the case), there has never really been enough money for schools to work with.  One result is that the essential infrastructure for educating disabled children—ramps, accessible bathrooms, signs in braille, etc.—were missing from almost all schools in 1975 and remains substandard in many places even today.  (Fans of the new television show “Speechless” will remember the scene in which the mother of a child in a wheelchair, who has been asked to use the same inadequate ramp used to move the school’s trash bins, sarcastically challenges the school principal to distinguish between people and trash.)

In 1975 most school administrators knew little about disabled children, and even less about the supports they needed to thrive in school; most teachers had no training at all in working with them.  This situation has improved greatly over the decades, although there still remain many opportunities for improvement.  In 1975, however, dealing with kids who were deaf or blind, or those who had motor challenges was considered a major challenge.  The struggle to provide a “free, appropriate, public education” for a psychotic or mentally retarded child, let alone one with the still rare diagnosis of autism, was overwhelming.[6]  The fact is, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed, most educators had never even heard of autism.  (Hence the appearance in education journals during the late 1970s of various articles designed to explain the condition to them.[7])

What, then, were teachers to do when they were assigned to teach some of the few children diagnosed with autism?  At first, far too many settled for simply “killing time.”  The author of a 1980 paper took a very dim view of the schedule in use in one autism classroom she had visited:

Following such a schedule, it seems assured that, after 11,340 hours of educational opportunity over 12 years of schooling, the students would realize 1,800 hours of bathroom; 2,340 hours of snack, choices, circles, and goodbye’s; 2,880 hours of playground; and assuming that ‘centers’ equals ‘instruction,’ 2,520 hours or 2-2/3 years of instruction.  Unfortunately, approximations of such a schedule can be found in too many classrooms for students with autism and other severely handicapping conditions.[8] 

She proposed a much tougher schedule, focused on teaching speech and other “functional” skills to these children.  “Functional” became a buzzword in the field of special education over the course of the next decade, a way of identifying useful life skills ranging from toileting to meal preparation to riding the bus.  The adjective seldom referred to academic skills, because, as we shall see, these were increasingly viewed as inappropriate, or “non-functional” for those with autism.

In early state efforts at implementing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, when autism was mentioned at all, it was typically listed among the emotional disorders, along with schizophrenia.[9]  This was in keeping with the traditional understanding of autism that had prevailed in the United States since Leo Kanner first wrote about the condition in the 1940s.  When teachers and administrators in the late 1970s encountered a child who had actually been diagnosed as “autistic,” they were usually told that the child’s problems were psychogenic, caused by cold, withdrawn parents (more specifically “refrigerator mothers”).  As late as 1985, a handbook written for teachers in mainstream classrooms in Minnesota listed autism as an emotional disorder, although the author noted that “the classification of autism as an emotional disturbance is currently being questioned.”[10]

Its classification was being questioned by educators in the 1980s, because scientists’ views of autism had changed dramatically during the 1970s.  Researchers like Michael Rutter in England and Bernard Rimland in the United States had come to see the condition as a developmental rather than an emotional disorder—as “biogenic,” rather than “psychogenic” in origin.  References to the work of these researchers began to appear in educational journals in the late 1970s,[11] but the new understanding of autism took at least another decade to achieve mainstream status.  Nevertheless, as educators gradually began to accept the idea that autism was a developmental disorder, they also began to adopt scientists’ faulty assumptions about autism and intelligence.[12]  By the late 1980s, children with a diagnosis of autism were automatically assumed to be intellectually disabled (“mentally retarded” in the terminology of the day).  What had been two separate diagnostic categories in earlier decades—the rare “autistic” and the much more common “mentally retarded”—began to flow together to form one.  In educational circles autism came to mean simply mental retardation accompanied by what were usually called “bizarre” behaviors.

And this meant that even those autistic children who appeared quite bright came to be viewed as cognitively impaired—in other words, their apparent abilities were deceptive.  It might look like an autistic child could read, but he was by definition unable to comprehend what he was reading;  it might look like an autistic child could multiply, but she was merely performing rote actions, without understanding what those actions meant.[13]  Attempting to provide further academic instruction beyond what was needed to count change in a store or read a street sign was futile at best.  And so the main subjects taught in classes specifically designed for autistic children were speech and language learning, and “functional” life skills—as evidenced by the frequent appearance of articles on techniques for teaching these subjects in educational journals during the 1980s, and the almost complete absence of articles on ways to teach autistic students academic skills such as reading, writing, or math.

The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 meant, then, that more autistic children than ever before were served by public schools.  However, they were not served well by those schools, partly because of the faulty expectations mentioned above, and partly because of faulty diagnoses.   Few doctors knew much about autism in the 1980s, and they very often misdiagnosed autistic children.  In 2013, there was a brief discussion on “What were you diagnosed with in the 80s?” on the Wrong Planet website. [14]  It turns out, as we might expect, that although many of the participants had been taken to multiple specialists in their childhood, almost none had been diagnosed with autism.  Instead, they received a variety of labels.  Some—those who had good verbal skills and the ability to disguise their autistic characteristics—were declared “normal” (if a little “weird”).  They were often able to remain in general educational classrooms.  A subset of this group was diagnosed with learning disabilities (especially attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and received some supports from their schools.  Most, however, still struggled to learn without supports, suffered from severe bullying, and far too often dropped out.  As one contributor put it:  “Many people with AS back in the 1980s just struggled or coped as best they could without any diagnosis. Unless you had a ‘breakdown’, or were caught trying to commit suicide, or were in trouble with the police (‘delinquent’ or ‘troubled’) you were usually left to sink or swim.” Another reports:  “I was just considered weird, strange, outcast, bullied and generally rejected by my peers. I just learned to function and survive by myself, for myself, with myself.” [15]

Many other autistic children were labelled mentally ill (obsessive-compulsive, schizophrenic, severely depressed, bipolar, socially anxious, borderline-personality).[16]  In theory, the public schools were expected to serve the “emotionally disturbed,” but few were equipped to do so effectively, so most of these children had their educations interrupted by visits to psychiatric institutions.  Still others were labelled “mentally retarded.”  One highly articulate participant in the Wrong Planet discussion describes how she was originally thought to be autistic when she was examined back in 1986; however, her doctor eventually “settled on the diagnosis of Mental Retardation because I did not fit all the requirements for Classic Autism.”[17]  She spent years bouncing back and forth between special education and mainstream classes.

And finally there were the few who were actually diagnosed as autistic.  They, too, were considered “mentally retarded” (usually “profoundly mentally retarded”) because intellectual disabiity had become an integral part of the educational establishment’s understanding of autism.  The new educational outreach to disabled children had little impact on them.  In many states, the autistic and the “profoundly mentally retarded” were still considered “ineducable,” and relegated to institutions where they received only a nominal education.  As Mel Baggs, a non-speaking, multiply-handicapped autistic puts it:  “I spent the majority of my teen years in either no school, institution schools, or special ed. And I knew that to the rest of the world none of us were real.”[19]  In other states, members of these groups were educated either in segregated schools or in separate special education classrooms within regular schools, that focused on communication and “functional” skills.[20]  This meant that many children who were actually quite bright—capable of learning and even excelling at academic subjects—were denied the opportunity to do so by the simple fact of their diagnosis and educational placement.  The educational goal had become simply to have them exhibit fewer “bizarre autistic behaviors,” and perhaps learn a few self-care skills.  And sadly, this remained the goal in many places well beyond 1990.

[1] Cited by Ruth Colker, Disabled Education:  A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (New York:  New York University Press, 2013), pp. 25-26.

[2] E.g., Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan’s Christmas in Purgatory:  A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation (privately distributed, 1966; republished 1974 by Human Policy Press in Syracuse, NY); Bill Baldini’s television reporting on Pennhurst State School and Hospital in East Vincent, PA, 1968; Geraldo Rivera’s television reporting on Willow State School for the developmentally disabled on Staten Island, NY, in 1972.

[3] Pete Wright, “The History of Special Education Law,” on the Wrightslaw website:

[4] Ruth Colker, Disabled Education:  A Critical Analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (New York:  New York University Press, 2013): see pp. 17-43 on the EAHCA.

[5] Marjorie Coeyman, “Leaving No Child Behind is Expensive,” Christian Science Monitor 12/26/2001, p. 19; Christina Samuels, “Special Ed. Law Wrought Complex Changes,” Education Week 35:12 (November 11, 2015).

[6] The statistics commonly used in the 1970s (based on research from the 1960s) placed the prevalence of autism at somewhere between 2 and 4.5 out of every 10,000 people.  Compare this with today’s prevalence statistics, which identify roughly 1.5 out of 100 people as autistic:

[7] E.g., James McDonald and George Sheperd, “The Autistic Child:  A Challenge for Educators,” Psychology in the Schools 13 (1976), 248-56; Glen Dunlap,Robert Koegel, and Andrew Egel, “Autistic Children in School,” Exceptional Children 45 (1979), 552-58.

[8] Anne Donnellan, “An Educational Perspective on Autism: Implications for Curriculum Development and Personnel Development,” in Barbara Wilson and Anneke Thompson, eds., Critical Issues in Educating Autistic Children and Youth (Washington, DC:  United States Department of Education, 1980), p.58.

[9] Jean Mack, “An Analysis of State Definitions of Severely Emotionally Disturbed” (pamphlet), (Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, 1980), p. 10; J. Gregory Olley, “Organization of Educational Services for Autistic Children and Youth,” in Barbara Wilson and Anneke Thompson, eds., Critical Issues in Educating Autistic Children and Youth (Washington, DC:  United States Department of Education, 1980), pg. 13.

[10] Joan Schoepke, “Autism,” in Resource Manual on Disabilities, ed. Polly Edmund, Sue Peterson, et al., (Minneapolis:  Pacer Center, 1985), p. 89.  Oddly, in 1982 Hawaii shifted autism from the “emotionally disturbed” category to “other health impaired:”  Memo from Donnis H. Thompson (State Superintendant of Education) to District Superintendants, Principals, Special Services Teams and Special Education Teachers, “Addendum to “Programs and Services for the Orthopedically Handicapped and Other Health Impaired” Section of “Program Standards and Guidelines for Special Education and Special Services in Hawaii” (September, 1982).  The argument was that autism was distinct from mental retardation, emotional disorder, or learning disorder, and the only remaining category was “other health impairment.”

[11] Glen Dunlap,Robert Koegel, and Andrew Egel, “Autistic Children in School,” Exceptional Children 45 (1979), 552.

[12] See my earlier posts on “Autism and Intelligence.”

[13] Sam B. Morgan, “Understanding the Diagnosis of Autism:  Initial Counseling of Parents and Other Family Members,”, Meeting Their Needs: Provision of Services to the Severely Emotionally Disturbed and Autistic:  Conference Proceedings (Memphis, TN, 1984), pp. 48-49.

[14] “What Were You Diagnosed with in the 80s?” on Wrong Planet:

[15] Posts by One A-N and TalusJumper to the “What Were You Diagnosed with in the 1980s?” discussion on Wrong Planet:

[16] “What Were You Diagnosed with in the 1980s?” discussion on Wrong Planet:

[17] MusicIsLife2Me, “My Possible Wrong Diagnosis of Mental Retardation” on Wrong Planet:

[18] Charles Martel Hale, Jr.  “I Had No Means to Shout” (Bloomington, IN:  1st Books, 1999), p. 25.

[19] Mel Baggs, “Empty Mirrors and Redwoods,” published May 12, 2014 on the Ballastexistenz blog:

[20] See the data provided by Douglas Biklen, “The Myth of Clinical Judgment,” Journal of Social Issues 44 (1988), pp. 132-33.