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Do Parents of Children With Autism File More Lawsuits?

As the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased over the last few years, new research finds these students are disproportionately involved in lawsuits about whether they are getting a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting as required by federal law.

A new study by Lehigh University education and law professor Perry A. Zirkel, recently published in the Journal of Special Education Leadership explores this issue.

Professor Zirkel found that children with autism were involved in nearly a third of a comprehensive sample of published court decisions concerning the basic tenets of federal special education law. He also found that when comparing this litigation percentage with the percentage of students with autism from 1993 to 2006, the ratio was approximately 10 to 1. In other words, Zirkel writes, "special education court cases are over 10 times more likely to concern a child with autism than the proportion of these children in the special education population."

Does that mean children with autism are more often being denied services they're entitled to compared with other children with disabilities? Not necessarily, though it's hard to say for sure.

Professor Zirkel's report says advocacy groups may be part of the reason behind the high number of cases involving children with autism. "As a result of the disparity between interest groups' prescriptions and school districts' prevailing practices, with the underlying mutual motives of high costs and methodological controversy, it is not surprising that the parents of children with autism would be more prone to litigation than the parents of children with other disabilities." (Interest groups, what do you say to that?)

Special education has a reputation for triggering conflict between parents and school districts to the point that when President George W. Bush signed the 2004 version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act into law, he noted that the latest iteration of the law was intended to be less litigious.

"When schools are so busy trying to deal with unnecessary and costly lawsuits, they have less time to spend with students. So we're creating opportunities for parents and teachers to resolve problems early. We're making the system less litigious so it can focus on the children and their parents," he said at a White House press briefing at the time.

Regardless of those changes in the law, however, there are still plenty of conflicts between parents and school districts over special education services and placement.

But in the case of autism, there's more to the story of so much litigation. Professor Zirkel says, aside from advocacy groups' involvement, the disproportionate number of autism-related lawsuits may be because of school systems' limited success in effectively addressing this complex disability, one that scientists and researchers and families still have a lot to learn about.

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