Definitions and Diagnoses in the DSM-5

The definition of autism is changing. The new definition, in the D.S.M.-5, is more strict. When it changes, many people who were previously considered autistic will no longer be eligible for the educational services that were available with their old diagnosis. This change seems like, in part, a reaction to the massive increase of cases of autism—and the financial burden on school districts with those students:

I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer at a great place in Los Angeles—The Help Group. They work with a variety of students on the autism spectrum. I am concerned that this new definition may prevent many of their students from receiving their, research based, educational benefits.

I found several good articles about how this new definition may affect students on the autism spectrum in The LA Times, New York Times and at abc news.

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Warrior Parents

In this LA Times article, the term warrior parents refers specifically to parents of students diagnosed with autism and attending a Los Angeles Unified School District school. These parents must be “warriors” because “getting a wide array of help for an autistic child can require waging a small war with the gatekeepers of state and school district services.” And parents, many of them white and armed with lawyers, are ready to fight.

 

The article included this disturbing chart:

Racial disparities

The level of autism services also varies by race and ethnicity. Here are figures on average spending per autistic child across the developmental services system.

Source: California Dept. of Developmental Services. Graphics reporting by Alan Zarembo
Data analysis by Sandra Poindexter

 

For several years, I taught in an urban public school. (All my students were either African American or Latino/a). Most parents were kind, but timid when it came to their education concerns. This was especially true for parents whose first language was not English. Last year, I sat in on a variety of IEP meetings. (These meetings determined services for students with disabilities like autism.)  Some of these meetings were awful. Either the parent took what they were offered, typically the bare minimum of services, or they had a lawyer and were given whatever the lawyer requested. It felt horribly unfair. If I advocated for a student without an advocate (warrior parent or attorney) to get more services, I would be waging war on my school’s already fragile budget. I was, and still am, conflicted about how to deal with this process.

 

Thus, the services are doled out disproportionately. According to the article, “L.A. Unified expects to spend more than $50 million this school year to provide 1,182 autistic students with aides from private companies. Those students represent 11% of the district’s autism cases.” With school budgets already stretched thin, I wonder where the money for a new service comes from? More importantly, I wonder how LAUSD can provide its students appropriate educational services so parents don’t need to resort to attorneys, or aggressive, warrior like, behavior.