Knowledge of autism helps overcome education difficulties

by PATRICK HARRINGTON

According to a report published by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests.”

Since the ability to learn specific things is limited by the condition, children often are not well-received by teachers, administrators or other students at their school.

That was the case for Thomas Wallin, a 9-year-old student who attended Jordan Ridge Elementary. He was suspended an excessive number of times in violation of his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP federally insures children with disabilities to have certain rights in school that help their education.

Thomas’s mother, Faith Wallin, did not know what to do in response to the mistreatment of her son and his condition. According to Wallin, her son’s condition was not being tolerated by the faculty and staff of the school, so they resorted to just suspending him. The actions taken by the school were in blatant violation of the IEP that had been set up for Thomas. She contacted the Disability Law Center of Salt Lake for assistance.

The Disability Law Center (DLC) was put in place as a pro bono law institution to assist families and individuals with disabilities in cases ranging from education to tax and pension cases.

“We provide an invaluable service to the community,” said John English, a second-year law student and advocate at the DLC. “Without our help, a lot of disabled people would be taken advantage of in a society that they may not be able to handle. The payoff is that we are giving a voice to people that otherwise wouldn’t be heard at all.”

Legal action may need to be taken in certain instances, but before that can happen, people — parents in particular — are urged to learn about their case.

Faith Wallin did her homework. “When Thomas was diagnosed with both ADHD and high function autism at age 7 or 8, I established an IEP for him because I knew that it would affect his schooling. The IEP protects him under certain laws and rules,” Wallin said.

An IEP, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is a required, custom-tailored education plan for every public school student who has a disability and/or receives special education. It is set up according to the needs of each student and their specific disability, so teachers and parents have an easier and more efficient time during the child’s education.

Obtaining information about laws that protect children with special needs may be difficult if the parent does not know where to look. The U.S. government has established a system of education centers across the nation to ensure that every parent with a disabled child can learn how to protect their rights.

According to the Autism Society of America, a nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md., “Every state is federally required to have a Parent Training and Information Center, where parents of children with disabilities, particularly autism, can go to learn how the government laws that are currently in place can help them in educating their children.”

Created in 1984, the Utah Parent Center is funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The center’s director, Jennie Gibson, is a parent of a disabled child. She has taken multiple steps to help improve the situations of families with disabled children.

“We offer help to disabled children from birth to age 22 or so, and we have created a support group for their parents so they can understand how to help their child the best they can,” Gibson said. “When it comes to the protection of children’s rights, we have a comprehensive education system to help parents learn about IEPs, including new Web seminars and group IEP meetings on the second Thursday of every month.”

Although this information is readily available for families of disabled children, it seems many members of the public school system are not educated on how to deal with disabled students, especially ones with autism.

“It can be hard for people to recognize if a student has autism or if they are just acting out,” Wallin said. Since autism can be a difficult disability to recognize, teachers may respond to an autistic child in the wrong manner.

Adina Zahradnikova, senior advocate and team leader at the DLC of Salt Lake, said there is a trend with children with autism in the public school system.

“There are certain school districts that have more problems than others when it comes to dealing with autistic students,” she said. “Historically the Granite School District has worked very well with their disabled students and us as well. Other districts like the Jordan School District [which Thomas was enrolled in] seem to have more trouble.”

What causes certain districts to perform better with disabled children than others? “It is all subjective to the faculties in any given district, there isn’t exactly any specific rhyme or reason to it,” Zahradnikova said.

Specific schools for children with autism are now in operation, a response to the number of autistic children in schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10 percent of 8-year-olds in the U.S. were identified as having some form of autism. Three counties around metro Salt Lake City were included in the 2002 survey.

In Salt Lake City, the Carmen B. Pingree School for Children with Autism was established in 2002. The school works with Valley Mental Health and was designed to give autistic students a balanced education and institute behavior change.

The creation of specialized schools like the Carmen B. Pingree School offers a unique educational option for families with autistic students. The school serves nearly 250 students in preschool, elementary and secondary school settings, but that is only a fraction of the autistic students in Salt Lake City.

What can the rest of the families do for their autistic children to ensure they are being treated justly in public schools?

“We were able to institute an educational seminar for the teachers in the Jordan School District, on how to properly teach and handle students with autism,” Wallin said. Although her goal was met legally, the result did not seem to permanently affect the faculty in Wallin’s eyes. “I have been told by other parents that the school is still having all sorts of problems with autistic students,” she said.

While public education is still the only option for most autistic children, their parents can ensure the quality of their child’s education through the help of government laws and community organizations. “With IEPs and federal regulations, all families with a disabled member have ground to stand on in any type of legal injustice of the disabled student. Education is the key to preventing any problem with a disabled child,” Zahradnikova said. 

As information becomes more available via the Internet, a larger web of help is being spun in the autistic education community. Intolerance of health issues is no longer accepted, thanks to the extensive programs and public information provided to families of disabled children. Families of autistic students like Thomas Wallin’s can learn what rights they have in the education process. By knowing those rights, it makes it easier to ensure the quality and fair treatment of their child.

One Salt Lake family struggles to improve autism awareness

by PATRICK HARRINGTON

“The school psychologist said that Thomas would need to be institutionalized one day … which was very startling,” said Faith Wallin, recalling what she was told after he was unable to deal with Thomas’ behavior triggered by his autism.

Thomas is not the only autistic child in the state, even in his school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002, 10 percent of 8-year-olds in the U.S. have a form of autism.

Thomas Wallin was an eager 3rd grader at Jordan Ridge Elementary (located within the Jordan School District in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley) when he was suspended due to repeated incidents of behavioral problems, including acting out in class and making inappropriate comments to teachers.

The problems and subsequent suspensions were not due to the student’s disregard for authority, but rather the inability of the school’s staff to deal with Thomas’ high-function autism and ADHD, his mother said. As a result, Thomas was suspended for more than 25 days from school, which was in direct violation of federal law.

Even before Thomas was diagnosed with autism in October 2007, his parents had obtained an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The IEP sets certain guidelines for teachers to follow when working with a student with a disability, and are enforced by federal law.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the purpose of  the guidelines set by the government is to help public schools and families of children with disabilities understand their rights under  the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

One of those guidelines is that any student with an IEP cannot be suspended more than 10 days in a school year for behavioral problems. Wallin was confused about how to approach the situation although she knew that something was wrong.

“The principal, teachers and even the school psychologist struggled when dealing with Thomas. Something needed to be done in order to prevent this from continuing,” Wallin said.

“My sister is a school principal and she spelled out a lot of the rules for me. I knew that the school had broken rules, but what could we do to stop it?” she said.

Thomas works with professionals at Valley Mental Health and they recommended Faith get help from the Disability Law Center of Salt Lake. “The people at Valley Mental Health said my case had some legs to stand on and the legal people at the DLC could help me with the issue. We didn’t have the funds to hire a private lawyer and it was our best option,” she said.

The main issue for Wallin in the resolution of the case was the proper education of the school’s staff on how to deal with autistic children. “I didn’t want to sue for money, because that would overlook the issue. I just wanted the autistic students and their families to have a better experience with their school,” she said.

Originally assigned to the case was Adina Zahradnikova, an eight-year employee of the DLC and senior advocate. Any case that comes to the DLC involving educational problems with a disabled person, she spearheads the project.

“Thomas’ case is fairly common. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with children with special needs, so they react without fully understanding the rules that are in place,” Zahradnikova said. “The initial step that is taken with a case like this is to interview the prospective client and make sure their case is viable. We will analyze the case from both sides, then serve a letter to the school and district administrators explaining the action we are going to take.”

At this point Zahradnikova decided to take a sabbatical for personal reasons, and handed the case to a fellow DLC advocate. “I needed a break, so I handed the case to the competent hands of John English,” Zahradnikova said.

English is a second-year law student at the University of Utah who has worked in special education for the better part of a decade.

“This is my passion. I do enjoy this area of health and disability law as well as special education. Working with people like the Wallin family is very rewarding,” English said. “Faith Wallin was great to work with, because she was very reasonable. With her we devised the basis of our resolution that we suggested to the Jordan School District.”

The district was asked to hold a seminar, so educators at Jordan Ridge Elementary and from other schools within the district could learn how to better work with children who suffer from autism.

The Jordan School District sent both the DLC and Faith Wallin a packet with the material covered in the teacher seminar. Included was a roster listing all 51 teachers in attendance and a certified letter that the special needs education had been completed. At that point the case was closed.

“From a legal standpoint, I think the outcome was a huge success. We achieved everything that we wanted, I feel,” English said.

Even though the legal goals were met, Wallin sees a need for more improvement. “Although the seminar was taught, and the teachers may have a better understanding how to deal with autistic children, parents say they are still having problems at that school,” Wallin said.

Thomas switched schools in September 2008.

“Throughout the experience, I was so impressed by the work the DLC did for us. The level of professionalism was high and I was amazed by the concern they showed for our case,” Wallin said. “When attending support groups for parents of autistic children, I always recommend the services of the DLC to any parent struggling to find help for their child in any setting.”