School classroom

Montana education officials want to change the criteria for identifying children with autism by creating a checklist of characteristics, a proposal that disability rights advocates say would lead to a drastic reduction of educational services to autistic children.

The changes proposed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen would require that students show 14 of 30 characteristics to qualify as having autism. Examples include "does not use gestures for communication" and "does not initiate or maintain eye contact while interacting with others."

The checklist was developed because the current criteria were established nearly two decades ago and doesn't reflect new knowledge, state Office of Public Instruction officials said.

"The sole reason for the change is to better identify students with autism using modern research and knowledge," said Doug Doty, the agency's Autism Education Project statewide coordinator. "We all work to make life better for kids, not to reduce services."

The proposed new rules have been developed with input from parents, special educators, special education administrators, speech-language providers and school psychologists, officials said.

Disability Rights Montana attorney Tal Goldin said no other state has such a checklist.

Montana's plan is not based on science and would create the most restrictive system in the nation for identifying a child with autism, he said.

"The long-term result is that kid is going to fail because kids with autism need very intensive services and very specific services," Goldin said.

Autism is a developmental disorder of varying severity that can affect language and social interactions. Estimates indicate that as many as one in 40 children have autism.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to prepare individualized education programs for children identified with autism. The plans assess the students' abilities and needs, set goals and aim to modify behavior.

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If the new criteria is adopted by the state Office of Public Instruction after a public hearing, the immediate effect would be a drop in the number of children with autism who are coming into the school system requiring individual plans, Goldin said.

Current students identified with autism are re-evaluated every three years, in most cases. Those students would start being cut from programs when they don't meet the new criteria in their evaluations, Goldin said.

The Office of Public Instruction's Doty disputed that prediction.

"We do not know how the rule change will affect the number of students with autism in future years," Doty said. "We do not anticipate that the number of students with autism will decrease."

Montana receives about $40 million a year in funding for special education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. There were 17,143 Montana students 6-21 being served under the act, and 874 have autism, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

Montana public education agency statistics put the number of children with autism in public schools at 1,488 for that age range. The state number includes all students who have autism, including those with other disabilities, while the federal number is students identified with autism alone.

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