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Friday, September 30, 2011

Los Angeles Times Editorial

In an editorial, The Los Angeles Times urges Governor Brown to sign the California insurance mandate:

Researchers have found that a person's brain makes crucial internal connections partly in response to genetics and partly in response to interactions with the environment. Autistic children don't interact in the usual way, so their brains don't make the proper connections. Applied behavioral analysis attempts to provide the interactions they'd been missing, encouraging their brains to adapt and make the right connections. Studies have shown that these techniques can help autistic individuals of any age, for example by teaching them to communicate effectively. And when preschoolers receive an intense program of applied behavioral analysis, they may make so much progress that they no longer need special education classes.

The therapy is offered to preschoolers by regional centers for the developmentally disabled, which are jointly funded by the state and federal governments. But the regional centers treat only the most severely disabled, leaving many parents to come up with the tens of thousands of dollars needed to pay for private care. Those who can't must rely on the special education classes provided by increasingly strained school districts.
The editorial is well-intentioned but is not quite accurate in describing what regional centers do. Regional centers provide some services after the preschool years -- indeed, through adulthood. In practice, however, many families have contended that the services are inadequate.

Los Angeles Families for Effective Autism Treatment has a more comprehensive explanation:

School districts and regional centers are required by law to provide services for individuals with developmental disabilities, including autism. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), with a few exceptions, regional centers have the responsibility for providing needed supports and services to qualified children until they are three years old. At that time, the school districts assume primary responsibility for providing educational supports and services for disabled children until they complete their schooling. At that time, regional centers resume primary responsibility.

If your child is under age 3, the Regional Center is responsible for providing services through the “Early Start” program. This program is mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The California legislature has found that early intervention services “represent an investment of resources, in that these services reduce the ultimate costs to our society, by minimizing the need for special education and related services in later school years and by minimizing the likelihood of institutionalization.” The Legislature has recognized that time is of the essence in that "[t]he earlier intervention is started, the greater is the ultimate cost-effectiveness and the higher is the educational attainment and quality of life achieved by children with disabilities." Regional Centers are required to provide services to infants and toddlers with developmental delays in one or more of these five areas: cognitive development; physical and motor development, including vision and hearing; communication development; social or emotional development; or adaptive development. Regional Centers also provide services to children who have conditions that have harmful developmental consequences, or have a high risk of developmental disability. The regional center is required to determine a child’s eligibility for services by conducting an assessment by a multi-disciplinary team of qualified individuals. Services provided through the Early Start program include special instruction, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, respite and other services, depending on the child’s needs.

If your child is over the age of 3, both the school district and the regional center have a responsibility to provide services. School districts are required to provide a “Free Appropriate Public Education,” also called FAPE, which is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). School districts must provide specialized instruction and related services without charge. The services must address all of the child’s special education and related service needs, and must be based on the individual needs of the child and not on the child’s disability. Generally speaking, school districts must provide a “floor of opportunity” in which the child may obtain “meaningful educational benefit.” School districts are not required to provide the best possible educational program. Special education law also requires that a student be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) and that removal of a student from the regular education environment occur only when the nature or severity of the student’s disability is such that education in regular education classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily. In 2004, IDEA was amended significantly and passed into law. Many of the provisions in this new IDEA law will become effective on July 1, 2005.

Regional Centers provide services to individuals with developmental disabilities under California’s Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act. The Lanterman Act requires regional centers to provide developmentally disabled people with those services and supports that will allow them, “regardless of age or degree of disability, and at each stage of life” to integrate “into the mainstream life of the community” and to “approximate the pattern of everyday living available to people without disabilities of the same age.” The Act also states that persons with developmental disabilities have the right to treatment and habilitation services and supports which foster the individual’s developmental potential and are “directed toward the achievement of the most independent, productive and normal lives possible.” The Act contemplates that the regional centers will work with consumers and their families to secure “those services and supports that maximize opportunities and choices for living, working, learning and recreating in the community.” It is possible for a school district to provide a child a FAPE without providing those supports and services required for them to meet the Lanterman standards. In such a case, regional centers are to meet those unmet needs. However, parents must make a good faith effort to obtain those services and supports from their school district before the regional center is required to provide them. Further, regional centers have a responsibility to advocate for services from the school district and any other potential “generic” funding sources.