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Supreme Court Decision to Impact Employability of Adults with Autism

The start of spring brought with it a spark of hope to millions of families who are affected by autism. On March 22, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of an autistic child stating that he deserved a public education that takes into account his unique circumstances, which was more than the previous “de minimus” standard used by some lower courts. The decision affirmed the belief that all children should be given the opportunity to achieve their academic potential. In fact, Justice Roberts stated that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” regardless of their learning disabilities. [Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (March 22, 2017)]

In order for state public schools to receive federal funding, they must meet standards set by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The statutory law requires that children with diagnosed disabilities, which include autism, must be offered an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) that takes into account the level at which a child is currently performing, and sets up appropriate and measurable goals and objectives for each year of his/her education.

But issues arise when parents and educators disagree regarding the goals of an IEP. It is then that the question becomes “how much progress is enough progress?”

A previous Supreme Court decision held that a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) was a “basic floor of opportunity” where children with disabilities had access to special education and other services or therapy which are “individually designed to provide educational benefit.” [Board of Educ. v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176 (1982)]

The Court understood that because schools were addressing a wide spectrum of children with disabilities, it would be cumbersome to set one standard test to determine how much progress was enough to be considered an “educational benefit.” Instead, it held that as long as a child receives personalized instruction with sufficient support to permit the child to benefit from his/her education, the requirement of FAPE is satisfied.

Based on the Rowley decision, states have used a variety of standards to determine how much educational benefit a student should receive. Some have likened the variation to a Chevy vs. Cadillac approach, stating that states are only required to provide “some” educational benefit, not the “best” education money can buy. With no federal standard, the quality of education a child receives could be diminished if he/she happens to live in a state that uses the bare minimum standard (“de minimus”), like the 10th Circuit state of Colorado in Endrew F.

Endrew F. rejects the “Chevy”-minimal standard. Instead, the Court held that, “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Clearly, a child with disabilities who can be challenged academically should be challenged according to his/her potential, far more meaningful than just ensuring that he/she makes some progress. Endrew F. ensures a quality education for all children, including those on the autism spectrum.

One in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the current estimate is that of the 1.5 million individuals with ASD, 80% are under the age of 22. As these children transition from school to adulthood, the issue becomes meaningful employment and independent living. It is estimated that 90% of those with ASD are either unemployed or underemployed.

However, many of these adults are perfectly capable of earning competitive salaries using their unique skill set and talents, if given the right opportunities and accommodating environment, as they were in the school setting. The Endrew F. decision means better education, which means high school graduates will be even better prepared academically. But if they cannot get a job, what good is that education?

That’s where The Spectrum Works comes in. We seek to bridge the gap between corporations and adults with ASD – educating and training both employers and potential employees to be able to use the talents, education and gifting of these graduates in meaningful and gainful employment. Not only will this reduce the drain on the welfare system, but it would increase revenue for both the corporation and the economy in general. It’s a win-win situation for all involved.


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