Jewish World Review August 16, 2001 /27 Menachem-Av, 5761

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

The "autism" dragnet -- 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.

Another sign of autism: "Speech and/or language are either absent, delayed, or disordered." This dragnet would bring in the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, India's mathematical genius Ramanujan, Nobel Prizewinning economist Gary Becker, and physicists Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and Albert Einstein -- among many others.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, people are pushing for a federal dragnet to find "autistic" children and subject them to "treatment" that none of us would want to undergo. They assure us that "experienced professionals" can identify autism in children as young as two years of age.

Even assuming that this is true, how many highly trained professionals are available to evaluate the vast numbers of children who would be caught in a nationwide "autism" dragnet? Would the whole country become Nebraska writ large?

Many children have already been labeled "autistic" or "retarded" on the basis of evaluations that lasted less then ten minutes -- and many of these evaluations have later been contradicted, either by more highly qualified specialists or by the course of events as the child developed.

Parents need to seek out the best available medical and other evaluations of a child with problems. But that is very different from a federal dragnet

controlled by armies of bureaucrats who can plague parents and children alike. Parents of late-talking children have reported that they have been urged to allow their kids to be labeled "autistic" in order to get federal money that can be used for speech therapy. Maybe that has contributed to the "increase" in autism we hear about -- which in turn has contributed to the stampede for a new federal program.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate