Autism in the Classroom: The Story of Government-Mandated Special Education

The American government can be pretty silly sometimes. It has built bridges that lead nowhere, funded studies to determine whether the chicken or the egg actually came first, and somehow succeeded in shutting itself down eighteen times in the past forty years. However, every now and then, it manages to get something right. One of these miracles occurred in 1975, when President Gerald Ford signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Despite some of the bill’s shortcomings, it accomplished much in providing neurodiverse children with more opportunities and a better education—a huge step forward in leveling the playing field for all individuals, no matter their neurological makeup.

IDEA mandated that schools serve the educational needs of students with ASD, and evaluate students for “disabilities” at no cost to the parents.

IEPs encouraged collaboration between a student, their parents, teachers ad administrators.

This stipulation led to the establishment of special education programs all across the United States of America, and made a quality education much more accessible to the neurodiverse community. The quick growth of special education programs stemmed from IDEA’s requirement for the creation of Individual Education Programs (IEPs), individualized academic plans established by a student’s teachers, administrators, and parents. Once the IEP was established, schools were required to fulfill it to the best of their abilities.

As a result, America has seen a sharp increase in the number of people enrolled in special education programs—rising from 3.3 million in 1977 to 6.2 million in 2000. A higher percentage of neurodiverse students have begun enrolling in public school, and in 2013, their graduation rates increased to a much-improved 61.9%. Special education has become the norm, and it is no longer unusual to see students with ASD walking the same hallways as neurotypical individuals.

Before IDEA’s passage, educational standards varied tremendously from state to state, and neurodiverse students were often looked down upon, and cast aside as atypical or stupid. The law has done much to provide students with ASD the same opportunities afforded to neurotypical children. IDEA did its best to give those students the educational aid they needed, as well as the tools to succeed later in life.

Autism awareness is still a huge issue, as negative connotations still surround the neurodiverse community.

Though there is still much work to do, as neurodiverse students still struggle socially and academically when compared to their neurotypical counterparts, IDEA has done much to decrease the negative stigma surrounding neurologically diverse children. The bill’s passage showed the government’s prioritization of equal education for all citizens, spurred the growth of special education programs, and represented an important turning point for the neurodiverse community.

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  1. I liked how you discussed the rise in special education in American public schools. From your post, it seemed that the government’s implementation of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was a positive move by the government. I’m curious if there are some opponents to this legislation. For example, I wonder if there have been instances where special education teachers, administrators, students, or parents felt that the regulations were actually limiting their special education programs.

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