Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Courts

March 25, 2011

The Centers for Disease Control has determined that 1 in every 110 children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD used to be a rare and low-incidence disability—it wasn’t even mentioned in the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act. Yet, by the law’s 1990 reauthorization (and renaming as IDEA), autism was added to the listing of disabilities. This soaring prevalence of ASD has had a profound but often unnoticed impact on law and policy. 

First, parents brought pressure through litigation and lobbying to find the cause of the skyrocketing of ASD. Over 5,000 vaccination lawsuits were filled—with parents winning only one! No cause has been found by the research and no causal connection with vaccinations has been identified by the federal courts. While vaccine efforts continue, the focus has turned to cure with hundreds of cases brought under IDEA and the passage of hundreds of state laws. Now, we’re beginning to see the ramifications of the growing prevalence of ASD in our nation’s family and juvenile courts—in all types of cases including child protection, custody, visitation, termination of parental rights and even divorce.

At next week’s NCJFCJ in Reno, the session on ASD and the courts will discuss what ASD is and isn’t, how it is diagnosed and what courts can do in cases involving children with ASD, as well as the emerging family court case law and the questions that need to be asked in custody, visitation, child protection, adoption and divorce cases to ensure meaningful decision making.

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