Proposed Asperger's definition could impact special ed budgets

By Allen Young
Great Solutions for Education
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In an effort to curb the over-diagnosing of certain mental disorders, the American Psychiatric Association has proposed incorporating Asperger's syndrome into a new, expanded category of autism.

The proposed broadening of the definition of autism to include Asperger's in the nation's official diagnostic guide has raised questions over whether the result to schools would be more student's qualifying for special education.

Experts in the field disagree on the impact.

Stephen Rosenbaum, staff attorney with Disability Rights California, a national advocacy firm, said that the changes to the diagnostic guide could very well "open the door" for children qualifying for special education under the federal criteria.

"Does that mean they will get (special education) services because of that? Maybe yes, maybe no," he said. "The constellation of services and instructional techniques is individualized."

The bottom line for schools, he added, is that if more students became qualified for special services under this new system - district costs would have to keep pace in terms of personnel and equipment.

Steven Greenburg, a Santa Cruz-based special education attorney, disagrees. He argued that some of the 13 criteria encompass a range of psychiatric disorders that include Asperger's, and children with severe cases of the disorder are already identified under the current system.

The amount of kids qualifying for special education services, he said, would not change with different terminology for Asperger's.

"Twelve categories doesn't mean that there's only 12 disorders. It means the disorder has to fit into a category," said Greenburg, adding that Asperger's tends to fit into the 'other health impaired' category.

Both parties agree that the final determination for special services comes from the Individualized Education Program, and that is always decided on a case-by-case basis.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act contain 13 categories of mental disorders that are used to determine whether a student qualifies for special education. Autism is one of the 13 categories; Asperger's is not.

But a student who qualifies for one of the 13 categories does not automatically receive special education services. The student's family, along with school personnel, use the federal criteria along with other information about the child to determine whether he or she qualifies for special instruction and the amount of additional services they qualify for.

The district maps out the student's academic and emotional needs and goals. That plan is called the student's Individualized Education Program.

Officials from the California Department of Education said that changes to the diagnosis guide would have no impact on special education eligibility.

The fifth edition of the guide, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, will not be published until 2013. An official from the American Psychiatric Association said it is likely that the draft language regarding Asperger's syndrome will not be removed from the final version.