Thomas Sowell

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health have launched a campaign to get a government program created to "identify" children with autism at age two and then subject them to "intensive" early intervention for 25 hours a week or more. It sounds good, but so have so many other government programs that created more problems than they solved.

Just who is to "identify" these children and by what criteria? A legal case in Nebraska shows the dangers in creating a government-mandated dragnet that can subject all sorts of children to hours of disagreeable, ineffective or even counterproductive treatment for something they do not have.

A four-year old boy, whom we can call Bryan, was diagnosed as "autistic" and put into a program in which he grew worse instead of better, despite the protests of his parents. Eventually, these parents sued the school district, calling in as their expert witness Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt University.

Professor Camarata examined Bryan and concluded that he was not autistic and should not be kept in the program that was not doing him any good. However, the hearing officer sided with the school district, for reasons that are a chilling example of what can happen when bureaucratic criteria prevail.

According to the hearing officer: "The difficulty of the testimony of Dr. Camarata, is that it is obvious that he is frequently relying on a medical definition of autism, as opposed to the one contained in Nebraska Department of Education Rule 51." But, since autism is a medical condition, the problem is with the bureaucratic rule, not the medical definition.

When is a child autistic in Nebraska? According to the hearing officer, the "criteria established by the Nebraska Department of Education in order for a child to be verified as having autism" involve "varying degrees of atypical behavior" in a number of areas. These criteria reflect a lockstep view of how every child is supposed to develop.

Given that lockstep vision, "precocious or advanced skill development" in a child "while other skills may develop at normal or extremely depressed rates" is one of the criteria for autism. Similarly when the "order of skill acquisition frequently does not follow normal developmental patterns." In other words, if other kids can ride a tricycle before they can read and a particular kid can read before he can ride a tricycle, then he is in trouble.

Another sign of autism, according to bureaucratic rule 006.04B2b: "The child's behavior may vary from high levels of activity and responsiveness to low levels." If X turns him on and Y leaves him cold, then he is on his way to being labeled "autistic" in Nebraska.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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