FEAT Houston frequently receives inquiries from parents of children with autism spectrum disorders who are seeking information on public school district programs in the Greater Houston Area. Many parents want to know whether there is a public school for their child that utilizes an intensive ABA intervention model (1:1; extended hours) or, at the least, employs data-based behavior analytic teaching practices within the typical higher teacher-student ratio model.
The parents on FEAT Houston’s Board of Directors and other parents with whom we network all seem to agree that public school services in our area are not strongly research based. Moreover, because of the importance of local control and site-based management in Texas, the quality of programs for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) varies not only district-to-district but also campus-to-campus within a single district.
Special education program quality is very teacher and administrator dependent. The districts or classrooms that gain a reputation for employing some ABA-based methods may not provide the same level of services the next year when staff changes or the number of children in the program outgrows the capacity. Many school districts offer programs for students with autism spectrum disorders only on certain campuses, so just assuming your child will attend the school in a neighborhood to which you relocate does not always guarantee your child’s attendance at that school. This can be a disappointment for parents who have researched an area and heard good things about a particular school. Finally, a program which meets the needs of one child may not be designed to meet the needs of another child even though both children have the same label of autism. That’s why it is crucial for parents to identify what skills their child needs to work on to assure that a program is designed to meet those specific needs. Finally, a program that is viewed positively by one parent may be viewed quite differently by the parents of another child with the same diagnosis.
By networking at parent support group meetings (FEAT-Houston, Family 2 Family, Autism Society of America, etc.) and participating in internet listservs it is possible to hear about a good school in your area or another neighborhood and visit it to discuss the program with the staff. Often, however, campuses will not allow you to observe a program for student “confidentiality” reasons. When visiting the program it is crucial to “get a feel” by speaking to the principal, the special ed director and the teacher who will work with your child.
It may also be useful to check with the private ABA providers listed on the FEAT-Houston website under Resources to inquire about their relationship with the local school district and any experience they may have had transitioning children into district programs. A positive relationship may signify that staff embrace applied behavior analytic teaching principles.
Knowing your child’s rights, building a positive working relationship with school staff, and advocating for your child unemotionally is the most effective way to help your child receive an education that is appropriate for him or her. In that regard, there are several good organizations that assist parents in navigating the special education services maze: The ARC of Greater Houston, www.thearcofgreaterhouston.com, and Partners Resource Network – the TEAM Project, www.PartnersTX.org, can assist parents in learning to advocate more effectively. Also, www.texasprojectfirst.org is a great resource for learning about your family’s rights under the law.
Advocating to ensure your child receives research-based educational programming is essential to improve public school programs. Unfortunately many programs have a long way to go in applying behavior analytic teaching techniques and training staff to take and use data to make daily decisions about progress and the effectiveness of programming for children with autism. In 2008, when the Texas Education Agency revised the Commissioners’ Rules to bring them in line with IDEA2004, they also revised the autism supplement. The new autism supplement includes the requirement that schools consider scientifically validated methods, including ABA, when planning educational programs for children with autism. Because of this, we anticipate increased efforts to improve teaching methods, especially if parents set high expectations and make those expectations known both inside and outside of the Admission, Review and Dismissal process of the public school system.
The Southern Disability Law Center (SDLC) has a Resource Manual entitled Legal Strategies and Effective Educational Practices for Preventing the Suspension of Students with Disabilities – A Resource Manual for Parents and Professionals. The Manual addresses numerous legal strategies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as well effective educational practices for preventing the suspension of students with disabilities. Click here to download a copy.