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Montana public school officials are revising their plan to create a checklist to identify children with autism amid criticism that the proposal was too restrictive and could misidentify some students.

The revised proposal released earlier this month by the state Office of Public Instruction still includes a list that includes most of the characteristics of autism that were in the original plan, and a minimum number of those characteristics a student must display to be eligible for individualized education plans that are required for children with disabilities.

But the new version would lower that threshold, in addition to eliminating two characteristics and changing the wording of others.

The changes were made after a public hearing in March held by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen in which some groups and individuals said they were worried that some children with autism might be overlooked by the new standards. The Office of Public Instruction has extended the comment period on the proposal to July 22 because of the changes.

"Superintendent Arntzen wanted to be sure that all comments were taken into strong consideration and our specialists felt that some of the feedback did warrant changes to be better responsive to the needs of schools and parents," agency spokesman Dylan Klapmeier said Tuesday.

Doug Doty, the agency's Autism Education Project statewide coordinator, previously said officials don't anticipate the number of students identified with autism will decrease under the changes.

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.

The original proposal would have required that students show at least 14 of 30 characteristics of autism, such as "does not use gestures for communication" and "engages in repetitive physical behaviors such as body rocking, spinning self, finger flicking and/or hand flapping."

Within those 14 characteristics, a minimum number would have to be met in each of three areas: six characteristics in "social communication," five in "social interaction" and three in "restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests."

The new proposal still includes the checklist, but it lowers the requirement from 14 of 30 characteristics to eight of 28 characteristics. Plus, the minimum requirement in each of the three categories is now one, under the new plan.

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The current criteria also lists characteristics of autism, but does not set a minimum number a student must meet to qualify, and disability advocates have said no such requirements exist elsewhere in the nation.

Officials for the state agency say the proposal is necessary because the current criteria is dated, having been developed nearly two decades ago. The new rules were developed with input from parents, special educators, special education administrators, speech-language providers and school psychologists.

Montana education officials say there were 1,488 students with autism in the state last year.

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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