Federal policy for children with special needs emerged in two forms: legislation passed by Congress and a series of decisions by the courts. Some states and local communities had previously established services and policies for children with special needs, but these policies were limited and widely scattered. Congress decided that a federal mandate was necessary to provide a more unified set of services and to keep parents from frantically running from community to community, and state to state, in search of needed assistance for their children. This chapter reviews briefly the key legislation and court decisions that currently form public policy with regard to children with autism and then comments on the adequacy of services and resources.


IDEA Regulations

The first key federal legislation relevant to children with autistic spectrum disorders was the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94–142) in 1975. This legislation has been amended many times since and now carries the title of Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) (P.L. 105–17). However, legislation can only set the rules; it cannot guarantee that they will be carried out or followed faithfully. The citizens’ recourse, when they think the law is not being faithfully administered, is to turn to the courts for help. By the end of 1999, almost 150 cases seeking more appropriate educational programs for children with autistic spectrum disorders were in the hearing rooms of the courts (Mandlawitz, 1999). So, clearly, there are serious policy issues still unsettled in this special area.

Children with autism are specifically included in the IDEA legislation (U.S.C. 1401(3)(A)):

The term ‘child with a disability’ means a child:

  1. with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness) speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance (hereinafter referred to as ‘emotional disturbance’) orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments or specific learning disabilities and

  2. who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

The regulations (34 C.F.R. 300.7 © (1)) further define autism: Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environ-

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