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As we reported yesterday, the American Psychiatric Association has proposed eliminating the diagnosis of Asperger's disorder. Children with this diagnosis are often highly intelligent, but they can have social problems that make it hard to thrive in school.
The new definition would place kids within an expanded definition of autism. And these words matter. They matter a lot when its a label you're putting on your kid. The change could affect families trying to get special education services in the public schools, as NPRs Larry Abramson reports.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Parents of children with autism turn to the federal law that guarantees a free public education for students with disabilities. Kids with autism clearly qualify - for kids with Asperger's it's been much less clear, especially in California.
Melinda Bird, senior counsel with the advocacy group Disability Rights California, says that the current guidelines used by psychiatrists present parents with a confusing set of symptoms.
Ms. MELINDA BIRD (Disability Rights California): And so parents and school districts spend unnecessary time arguing about whether a child meets every one of these nuanced criteria.
ABRAMSON: Bird says California school districts regularly question whether kids with Asperger's disorder need special ed services because theyre often very verbal and very sharp.
The new proposed guidelines could ease that confusion by eliminating Asperger's, as well as the unfortunately named Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. That change may make it easier to get services, and could speed up what has become a lengthy process. Melinda Bird says that's good for both parents and school districts.
Ms. BIRD: Who will no longer have to try and slice and dice a child up into these different eligibility categories, and everyone will be able to get on about the business of educating children in need.
ABRAMSON: But special education is seldom that simple. Many attorneys say that getting kids recognized as eligible for services is not their biggest challenge. It's getting the services the families actually want, whether it's tutoring or placement in a special school. Steven Greenberg, a special ed attorney in Northern California, says with or without the Asperger's category, schools draw a line in the sand.
Mr. STEVEN GREENBERG (Attorney): Schools often balk at private placements, at having to pay for a placement outside of public school.
ABRAMSON: Because private placements can cost districts tens of thousands of dollars a year per student. Greenberg says the issue boils down to whether parents in an individual case are happy with what schools offer.
Mr. GREENBERG: What do you do with that diagnosis and the eligibility? Does the child stay in the public school? Should they be disciplined as other students who do not have the disorder?
ABRAMSON: An important question, since disabled students have protections against being expelled when they act out. Educators who work with these students say they are concerned about the end of Asperger's for another reason: they feel they're losing a valuable tool which signaled what these kids need. Dania Jekel runs the Asperger's Association of New England.
Ms. DANIA JEKEL (Aspergers Association of New England): It sort of let the teachers know, the professionals know, that there are a particular set of supports that are needed for these children.
ABRAMSON: Like other professionals, many educators say theyve become accustomed to the Asperger's label; they're concerned the new category could just complicate things for kids who already face a lot of challenges.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.