autism advocacy

“Autism” has its root in the Greek word “autos,” which means “self.” It describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction.

“De minimis” is a Latin expression meaning “about minimal things.” It describes the lowest applicable standards applied in legal distinctions.

Put those together and you have the foundation for a unanimous recent Supreme Court ruling regarding a student with autism. That March 2017 decision reversed a 2008 opinion that had applied the “de minimis” standard in rejecting a parents’ claim that a school’s provisions for their autistic child were inadequate.The 2008 circuit decision (Luke P.) had added the word “merely,” saying that the benefits offered to a disabled student “must merely[my emphasis] be ‘more than de minimis.’”

This reversal, based on a new case brought on behalf of a student with autism, essentially determined that providing the mere minimum of services was denying students their rights to individualized instruction and therefore their chances of meaningful educational progress.

So, given this ruling and removing the word “merely,” I wonder about how policy makers and others will consider “de minimis” with regard to autism specifically.Will educators and policy makers take this opportunity to place the ruling in the context of research evidence and data about autism, particularly early detection and intervention?

What if “de minimis” came to be based on knowledge and science leading to improved societal impacts not least of which would be economic in terms of greater numbers of contributing citizens and fewer requiring exceedingly costly social services?

Current evidence is compelling. “What all children on the autism spectrum have in common is difficulty relating to their world and the potential to improve, sometimes dramatically if they are diagnosed and treated early in life…”according to Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Director of the University of Washington Autism Center.(; The Importance of Early Detection; Rosen, Peg, 2)

“That’s because the younger we are, the more adaptable our brains are,” adds Rob Beck, former Autism Society of America President and CEO. (; The Importance of Early Detection; Rosen, Peg, 3) Medical opinions agree, “…early identification and intervention either before or while brain connections are being established may enable optimal prognosis.”(Pediatrics, Vol 136, Supplement 1, October 2015; p S2)

As with all child development issues it is not just about the child but includes parents and other primary caregivers. Parents will be the first to notice “something” and should rely on their instincts and urge that pediatricians pay attention diagnostically to recommend interventions as early as possible. “A key part of early intervention is teaching parents how to elicit responses and get the best out of their baby,” says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore.(; The Importance of Early Detection; Rosen, Peg, 3)

So, perhaps “de minimis” with regard to autism will include a bit more etymology “…in diagnosis [Greek] and treatment, there also comes empowerment [French and Latin] and hope” [LateOld English; Germanic]. (; The Importance of Early Detection; Rosen, Peg, 5)

Edward R. Wilkens, Ed.D.

Special Projects Advisor

Ed Wilkens served as a Vermont public school principal for 19 years across all grade levels pre-K through grade 12. He lives in Charlotte, VT with his wife and enjoys reading with his grand kids. 

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