Education Law

Autism and Hot Issues

  • Autism is a term used to describe a group of developmental disorders
  • It affects millions of Americans, and millions more around the globe
  • Some argue autism is caused by vaccines given to many children, especially in the US. The scientific community - and US courts - disagree
  • People with autism are entitled to special education opportunities
  • They're also entitled to the same legal protections and rights enjoyed by everyone else, like protection against discrimination


Some Facts

The term "autism" is generally used to describe a group of developmental disabilities or disorders that impact a person's abilities to socialize, communicate, and learn. Collectively, these disorders are usually called "Autism Spectrum Disorders." The term "spectrum" is used because the disorders affect everyone differently. There are "severe" and "mild" cases.

Some signs or symptoms someone with an ASD might show include:

  • Avoiding eye contact with others
  • Rocking their bodies or spinning in circles
  • Delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeating words or phrases over and over

It's estimated that 1 in 110 US children have an ASD. There's an estimated 1.5 million in the US with autism, and tens of millions more across the globe. With so many people affected by autism, it's no wonder there are a number of "hot issues" connected with the disorder and how it's dealt with in everyday life. 

The Vaccination Debate

In 1998, a popular and well-respected British medical journal, The Lancet, published a paper indicating that autism can be caused by the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine used in the US and around the world. Specifically, a preservative used in the MMR vaccine, called "thimerosal," which contains mercury, was linked to autism.

After years of scientific research and studies, including one done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no link between the vaccine or thimerosal has been found. In fact, The Lancet discredited and retracted the 1998 paper in early 2010.

Also, in 2009, a federal court denied several parents' claims for money from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The court disagreed with the parents' argument that the MMR vaccine caused their childrens' autism.

The research and the courts didn't stop the debate, though. It rages on. Only time and further research will tell, it seems. In the meantime, you should discuss any concerns you have about vaccines with your child's doctor.


Children in the US are entitled to a free public education. Children with autism are no different. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a federal law designed to make sure that children with certain disabilities, including autism, get a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE).

This means they're entitled to special education programs and services tailored for their specific needs. And, as much as possible, they're entitled to be taught in the "regular classroom" with children their own age. The goal is to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living and to move or "transition" them into the "mainstream society," that is, out of special education and assistance programs.

In addition, the IDEA gives autistic children and their families the right to "early intervention services" long before they begin school. These services include family training, nursing, and physical therapy.

If you or someone you know might benefit from the IDEA, the place to start is with the local school district or health department. An experienced special education attorney may be able to help with any roadblocks along the way.

Work and Other Rights

As a general rule, no one can be denied certain rights and privileges because of his race or sex, for example. And, the rights of people with "disabilities" like autism are protected by many federal and state laws. For instance, someone with autism can't be:

The idea here is to make sure people with autism and other disabilities are given the same rights, dignity, and respect we all demand, deserve, and are entitled to. In a perfect world laws like these aren't needed, but thankfully we have them in our imperfect world.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Because of budget problems, our state legislature is talking about cutting funding for special education services at my child's school. Can we stop it?
  • Can I request a family with an autistic child sit in an area of my restaurant where the child can't disturb my other customers?
  • How can I make my child's school do more to stop other students from teasing and bullying my child?
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