In The Politics of Autism, I write about the experiences of different economic, ethnic and racial groups. Inequality is a big part of the story. Affluent school districts have more resources than poor ones. Educated professionals are better able to protect their children's interests than poor people who never went to college.
Attorneys have become major figures in the world of autism, because people often need legal counsel to get services from school districts and other government agencies. Soon after a diagnosis of autism, parents seek advice from those who have already been on the path. And soon they will hear, “Get a lawyer.”
The rights approach puts a great burden on parents to serve as advocates for their children. Highly-educated, affluent parents are in a better position to do so than the poor and uneducated: for one thing, their social networks are more likely to include lawyers and expert witnesses.
When classes resume at Portland Public Schools this fall, three students with autism will receive more personal care than another 15 of their classmates with the same disorder.
One of those children will have a district-employed therapist dedicated to him full time, and will also have his personal therapist in the classroom for four hours a week.
Another roughly 15 students with autism who used to receive daily help from their personal therapists won't get the same care. Their therapists—paid for by their parents' insurance—may only observe from the back of the class for a maximum of two hours a week. Instead, they will receive help from therapists paid for by the district, who will split their time among the kids.
The difference? Three families had the money to sue the school district. The others didn't.
"Only the families who could spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal services were able to get their services restored," says Paul Terdal, a parent who sued the district in 2017 and eventually settled, obtaining extra care for his son.
The families who sued the district are among those who have insurance plans that cover "applied behavior analysis," a well-regarded form of autism therapy. But not all families have such health care.