All posts by Megan McLaughlin

About Megan McLaughlin

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

Disruptive Behaviors: The “Movement Behaviors”


“[School] was a nightmare full of loud sounds, bright colors, and noisy children.  The adoration I received for being ‘so smart’ faded with each grade.  I could not understand what was happening.  Instead of praise, I was constantly getting reprimanded.  Nothing made sense.  Even [the school principal] no longer meant what he said.  He said I could come and see him whenever I wanted, but he lied.  When I rose from my seat, walked out of my classroom, and went down the stairs to the main office to see him, I was in trouble.  ‘Young lady, you cannot just walk out of [the teacher’s] class and come down here.’  Tears welled up in my eyes as I tried to make sense of it.”[1]


Many autistic students move their bodies in ways other students do not (or at least not as regularly).  They may flap their hands, bounce up and down in their seats, twirl in the aisles, hide under their desks, get up and wander around the classroom, or try to leave the room or even the school.  (They may also behave in more disturbing ways.  Meltdowns, self-injury, and aggression towards others will be the subject of another post–for now, I want to focus on the actions just described:  flapping, bouncing, rocking, and various “out-of-seat behaviors” like hiding, wandering, and running away.)


Schools often view these “movement behaviors,” even more than vocalizations, as barriers to the inclusion of autistic students in mainstream classrooms.  Movement behaviors make many teachers uncomfortable because they break the visual pattern of an orderly classroom and appear to undermine discipline.  Some administrators and teachers also attribute disturbing motivations to students who behave in these ways.  They may view certain types of movement as evidence of defiance or disrespect, as acts of wilful disruption.  They fail to realize that autistic students who flap and rock and hide are not generally trying to be disruptive (with a few exceptions, to be described below).


In the first place, because autistic students often do not pick up on social cues from their fellow students, they may simply not understand why they can’t just move their bodies the way they want in school.  If they bounce or twirl at home, they assume that they can also bounce or twirl at school.  They may view demands that they stop as nonsensical, or–especially when their movements are related to sensory issues—they may simply be unable to stop.  As researchers and teachers are slowly coming to realize, movement is often a necessity for autistic children.[2]  Rocking may alleviate dizziness, making a student feel less likely to fall out of his or her seat.  Bouncing may help a child locate his or her body in space, diminishing the terrifying feeling of being “disembodied.”  If a fire alarm suddenly goes off, the only choice for some children will be to run away from an intolerably painful noise.  Many students with autism use movement to distract or protect themselves from sensory overload, or–on the other hand–to gain the sensory stimulation they need to remain focused on their schoolwork.


If some teachers are beginning to understand the connection between movement behaviors and sensory needs, far fewer understand how other factors are involved.  They may not realize that some autistic students move around because of their very eagerness to learn.  A child with auditory or visual differences may rove through the classroom trying to find a spot where he or she can access the information the teacher is presenting.  A child keenly interested in nature or in the trucks rolling down the street outside the school may run to the windows or even outside the school to pursue those interests.  Students bored with their own “toned-down” curriculum may wander around the classroom to catch a glimpse of what other students are doing.[3]


Emotional as well as intellectual issues may play a role.  Jeanne Davide-Rivera, the author of the passage cited above, left her classroom to visit the nice principal she had met her first day of school—the one who had actually told her she could visit him any time she wanted!  She found it intensely confusing when she was told that her behavior was wrong.  In her case, movement was a response to the desire for human connection—a desire autistic students are often assumed not to have.  Movement is even more often a response to anxiety associated with heavy academic or social unease.  In some children, anxiety leads to increased rocking, bouncing, or hiding.  Emotional distress caused by real or perceived academic “failures,” or by cruelty on the part of teachers and classmates often results in “elopement” or bolting out of a classroom or school.[4]


It remains the case, however, that most movement behaviors are either well-intentioned (that is, the student is actually trying very hard to be “good”) or unavoidable (he or she simply needs to move).  Only rarely is autistic “acting up” intended disrupt the class—and even then, this is not always for the reasons teachers or administrators imagine.  To give one unexpected example:  children overwhelmed by the visual and auditory stimuli in their classrooms may discover that they can hear and understand their lessons better from a desk in the hallway, which they then learn they can acquire for themselves through some planned infraction of the rules about movement.[5]  For these children, engaging in “undesirable” movement behaviors becomes the key to learning.


More commonly, however, deliberate misbehavior is a planned reaction to intolerable stress.  It is an undeniable fact that autistic students seldom enjoy school.  Much more often they experience school as “a nightmare” or as “hell.”[6]  Few administrators or teachers understand how painful school is for these students.  Day after day they must endure constant bombardment by sensory stimuli, the terror of (often unsuccessful) social interactions, and—most serious of all—the attentions of sadistic bullies.  (More on bullying in another post.)  After they have suffered for months or even years, some of these students consciously decide to behave in ways they know are wrong, in the hopes of being suspended and allowed to stay home.  The Wrong Planet website (an online forum for those with autism) has had several discussion threads about school suspension, and a common theme is seeking out suspension as a way to avoid bullies.[7]  What is most striking about these posts, however, is how often the authors used this approach only as a last, desperate resort.


So when teachers or school administrators are faced with autistic students who bounce, rock, twirl, and elope, they would do well to consider all the other possible reasons for these movement behaviors, before assuming that their students are simply being disrespectful.







[1] Jeanne Davide-Rivera,  Twirling Naked in the Streets and No One Noticed:  Growing Up with Undiagnosed Autism ([Location Unclear]:  David and Goliath Publishing, 2013), p. 34.

[2] Sadly, there remain so-called “experts” who assume that these children are deliberately misbehaving:  e.g., Deborah Napolitano and David McAdam, “Problem Behavior,” in Tristram Smith, ed., Making Inclusion Work for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders:  An Evidence-Based Guide (New York:  Guilford Press, 2012), p. 304:  “Throughout the day, students continually have a choice [emphasis added] of whether to display the problem behavior . . .”

[3] Consider the case of Laura, described by Paula Kluth, You’re Going to Love This Kid:  Teaching Students with Autism in the Inclusive Classroom, 2nd ed. (Baltimore:  Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2010), p. 202.

[4] See the post by WAautistic guy on a thread about “What Are Your Worst Experiences at School” on Wrong Planet:

[5] Davide-Rivera, Twirling Naked in the Streets, p. 36.

[6] See the thread entitled “Public Education is HELL for Aspie Children:;  skimming through the “School” forum as a whole makes clear why school is so often found intolerable by those with autism.

[7] E.g., the following:“Anyone Ever Threatened with Suspension?” ( and “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?”(


Making Noise

The “disruptive” behaviors of autistic students, commonly adduced in arguments against inclusive education, actually fall into several different categories.  There are the “noisy” behaviors, the “movement” behaviors, and then—much more problematic and harder to defend—the “injurious” behaviors.  I would like to address each in turn.  First:  the “noisy” behaviors.


I have what’s called “cough-variant” asthma—instead of wheezing when I have an asthma attack, I cough.  I’ve had this all my life, but when I was a child it went un-diagnosed and untreated, and I lived with two  chain-smoking parents.  As a result, I did a LOT of coughing.  Sometimes it was just intermittent mild barking, but when I got sick—as I did at least three or four times a year–it became an almost constant, deep-chested, disgustingly gooey, hacking that usually went on for several weeks.  At these times, I coughed all day at school, seldom stopping except to gasp for breath.  Once, in middle school, Suzie H. indignantly informed me that my coughing had made her fail a test.   And in retrospect, I suspect that my coughing distracted and annoyed other students on a regular basis.  But no one ever complained to the teacher or the school administration about it, no teacher ever even mentioned it to me, and I never got in trouble for all the noise I was making.  Presumably, if they thought about it at all, they assumed, correctly, that it was beyond my control.


Students with autism who make noise in the classroom seldom enjoy the same tolerance.  A significant proportion of autistic children engage in regular vocalizations—making random sounds, or repeating words or phrases to themselves—often without even thinking about it.  It’s just something they do.  Others “stim” by tapping on their desks with pencils or their fingers—again, without even thinking about it.   These activities are usually beyond their control, just as my coughing was.  Yet unlike my coughing, this autistic noise-making tends to be seen as extremely problematic, as “disruptive” to the classroom.  Other students, teachers, and administrators get angry, assuming that the autistic kids are doing it “on purpose,” and could “stop if they wanted to.”  In reality, however, the kids don’t usually realize that they are making noise.  If confronted, they either stop for a while and then unconsciously start up again, or they become agitated and do whatever they have been told to stop doing even more.  And then the presumption becomes that they are “defiant.”


The fact is, however, that classrooms are almost never quiet, peaceful places in which everyone listens attentively to the teacher.  Classes are constantly being disrupted by noises outside the school (construction, garbage trucks, sirens, kids laughing and yelling on the playground, etc.),  within the school (squeaky shoes in the hallway, announcements on the public address system, fire alarms, etc.), and within the classroom itself (class pets squeaking and rustling, kids dropping books, coughing, sneezing, and whispering to each other).  If the noises made by autistic students could be accepted as just one among a number of similar distractions, if the noise could be explained to the other students in those terms, and then compensated for by strategic seating, the use of padded cubicles, and the substitution of other forms of self-soothing for autistic students whenever possible, then one of the main obstacles to inclusion could be overcome.  But this would require both teachers and students to look at these behaviors in a different and more tolerant way.







By law, students with autism are entitled to a free, appropriate, public education in the “least restrictive environment” that is “appropriate” for them.  But exactly what environment that should be is an extremely tricky question.  The educational placement of autistic students has given rise to explosive debates in newspapers, on twitter feeds, and during legislative sessions, as well as in EIP meetings, law courts, and even family gatherings.  One reason for this is that every single autistic student is different, and what works for one, will almost by definition not work for others.  But all too often, other factors—which should legally be irrelevant—come into play.  One recent study, for example, has shown that individual state policies and finances may make as much difference as a student’s abilities in determining his or her placement.[1]


The inclusion of autistic students in mainstream classes, alongside their neurotypical peers throughout the day, is theoretically the gold standard, the “least restrictive” of all educational environments.  However, full inclusion is also the most contentious form of placement, and not usually for the right reasons.   Emotion, ideology, and prejudice shape the arguments of both opponents and proponents of inclusion. [2]


On the one hand, it seems clear that full inclusion offers autistic children their best chance for a good education that can lead to college, employment, and independence.  In every other setting (except, under some circumstances, the homeschool), educational offerings are much more limited and future opportunities restricted.  Segregated special education classes and separate “autism schools” usually offer little in the way of real academics, even though they may be excellent at teaching functional living and social skills.  As a result, parents who believe that their kids are capable of academic achievement are often prepared to fight like grizzly bears to keep their kids in the mainstream classroom for all or most of the day.[3]


Grizzliness is necessary because while many teachers and school administrators support inclusion whenever possible, other educators—along with some public figures and some parents of neurotypical students—are vehemently opposed to it.  The reasons given for this vary, but the central claim is that autistic students (usually all lumped together in these arguments, despite the huge differences among them) behave in ways that are disruptive to their classmates and the school.


According to a 1994 memorandum from the federal Office of Special Education, excessively disruptive behavior can be used as a rationale to remove a child from an inclusive educational setting:


If a student with a disability has behavioral problems that are so disruptive in a regular classroom that the education of other students is significantly impaired, the needs of the disabled student cannot be met in that environment.

However, before making such a determination, school districts must ensure that consideration has been given to the full range of supplementary aids and services that could be provided to the student in the regular educational environment to accommodate the unique needs of the disabled student. If the placement team determines that even with the provision of supplementary aids and services, that student’s IEP could not be implemented satisfactorily in the regular educational environment, that placement would not be the LRE placement for that student at the particular time, because her or his unique educational needs could not be met in that setting. [4]

But precisely what behaviors reach the “so disruptive” threshold?  And what proportion of autistic students actually do disrupt classes any more than their neurotypical classmates?  These questions will be the subject of the next few posts.





[1] Jennifer Kurth, “Educational Placement of Students with Autism,” Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 30 (2015), pp. 249-56.

[2] Note, for example, the over-the-top language found on journalist Richard Moore’s Autism page:  He describes autism as an “epidemic” and compares it to a natural disaster:  “Now, in the United States and around the globe, a powerful earthquake of arguable origin has set off yet another health tsunami, which at this very moment is racing across the ocean of our lives, already affecting millions and millions, with millions more still in its path. This time it is a neurological disorder called autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder…”  In writing about education, Moore insists that autistic students (all lumped together) simply “learn differently” than neurotypical or even other special needs students do.   He describes demands for inclusion as largely driven by ideology (while ignoring the “different and less” ideology that drives his own writing).

[3] E.g., the post “Autism and IEPs and Grizzly Mommas . . . Oh My!!”  on the Autism Sparkles blog:  Bear in mind (pun intended), that these ferocious parents are not always right—sometimes the mainstream classroom is simply intolerable for their children, who would be better served as home (if possible), or in a special education classroom with additional academic programming to suit their needs.  More on this below.

[4] Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “Questions and Answers on Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Requirements of the Idea,” November 23, 1994.

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