Letter published in the Boston Globe, April 1997

Early special ed can save children - and dollars

The articles on special education in Massachusetts (March 30-31) describe well-intentioned administrators unable to control costs because well-off parents use expensive lawyers to manipulate the system. There is another side to this story, in which something far more precious than dollars is at risk.

Our son has autism, a serious and progressive disease that responds best to early, intensive treatment. Although autism is a medical condition as much as any other childhood disease, by law it is treated by educators, not by medical professionals. By age four, fourteen months after referral to our Town’s special education system, our child could not play with other children, had developed aggressive behaviors, and was still so language-impaired he was unable to answer the question "Do you want apple juice or orange juice?" Concerned that he might not be developing to his maximum potential, and not convinced that the school was giving us complete, impartial information, we began an intensive search, paying for four independent evaluations and talking to parents all over the country. When he was four-and-a-half, acting on information from The Autism Partnership in Milford, MA, we began a home-based treatment program that has set him well on the road to recovery.

Fortunately for our child, we are one of those "well-off families." We paid tens of thousands of dollars for professional services and legal fees before we finally got the school to implement a program that every independent medical expert told us he needed. But for every success like ours there are many other parents of children with pervasive developmental disorders who do not have the time and money to help their children when the school denies, opposes, or delays needed treatment. Because treatment effectiveness falls with age, for those children there may be no second chance.

At age five, our son is still seriously disabled, but he now tells us bed-time stories, reads independently, and is able to interact safely with other children under close supervision. There is no crystal ball, of course, but we hope he will be able to leave the special education system forever within two years. Had we not had the resources and tenacity to take control of his treatment, he might instead face a lifetime of costly support services. Ironically, our "pushy" "disrespectful" and "insulting" attitude (to quote various school administrators) will probably save our society a great deal of money.


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