The fundamental challenge in finding an appropriate placement for the student with higher-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome is meeting the child’s emotional or behavioral needs yet not short-changing him or her academically. Notwithstanding the various challenges the student may have related to the disability, the student may likely be extremely bright. Many day therapeutic day programs are well-equipped to help the student develop social skills and learn to maintain a sense of equilibrium, but many programs lack academic rigor for the student.
A recent due process case from Massachusetts recognized this placement tension for a student with Asperger’s whose parents had unilaterally placed him in an out-of-state private residential program that they believed better met his needs. The hearing officer, in agreeing with the parents, stated that although the school district was not required to provide a program that would maximize the student’s potential to ensure FAPE, the school still needed to consider the student’s potential in order to determine whether or not he was receiving “meaningful benefit” from the IEP. To be meaningful, the student must be able to progress, even when his potential is high. In this particular case, the student had challenges with reading fluency and poor social skills. Additionally, he could be argumentative and withdraw socially. Yet the student was very talented mathematically and desired to attend college where he would study math. The hearing officer stated that the placement proposed by the school failed to provide FAPE. Although the program specialized in students with Asperger’s and could help with the social skills and learning issues, its three teachers, none of whom had content certification, could challenge the student academically. The program, which was unable to offer students any science labs, had also not sent any students on to college. This relatively flexible view of the FAPE requirement is new twist and one that is not applied in all cases, making this case very interesting to see if it gets applied in other cases.
So what does this ruling mean for other students with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism whose families are seeking appropriate placements? Although the Massachusetts due process case is not legally binding on other hearing officers in other states, it can be very persuasive to hearing officers who are pondering placement decisions. School districts do not want to incur the high expense of sending off their students to private residential placements, but they need to meet the needs of the student. Conversely, parents might prefer to have their children remain at home and be educated locally. Perhaps this Massachusetts case will prod school districts and therapeutic day schools to develop more well-rounded programs that will address not only the behavioral and social components of the disability, but also to challenge and stretch these students academically where their talents can shine and they can fulfill their transition plans. There are unmet opportunities that this case highlights.