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Autism Treatment Should Include All Needed Therapies, Says Ed. Dept.

Behavior-focused treatments for children with autism should not take precedence over other therapies those children may need, such as speech and language therapy or occupational therapy, says a "Dear Colleague" letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

The letter states that some schools may be exclusively relying on applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, therapy, instead of looking at a child's full spectrum of needs. ABA strategies teach a student socially desirable behaviors, but educational programs should be developed "based on the unique needs of a child with a disability," the July 6 letter said. Behavioral needs should be only one part of a school district's evaluation.

The letter was written at the request of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which advocates on behalf of school-based speech and language pathologists and related professionals. Neil Snyder, ASHA's director of federal advocacy, said ABA has grown so well-known as a treatment for autism that members of his organization have been told that schools will only offer ABA, or that insurance will pay only for ABA for children with autism.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wrote a similar advisory in 2014, saying that Medicaid can be used to pay for speech and language therapy, among other treatments

Along with ASHA, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network was among the groups applauding the Education Department's advisory on ABA

"We've seen these increasing double standards where students often present with motor disabilities or speech disabilities, but they're placed only in ABA programs," said Julia Bascom, the organization's deputy executive director. "Our students have the right to have their actual needs addressed." 

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