One Salt Lake family struggles to improve autism awareness

by PATRICK HARRINGTON

“The school psychologist said that Thomas would need to be institutionalized one day … which was very startling,” said Faith Wallin, recalling what she was told after he was unable to deal with Thomas’ behavior triggered by his autism.

Thomas is not the only autistic child in the state, even in his school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002, 10 percent of 8-year-olds in the U.S. have a form of autism.

Thomas Wallin was an eager 3rd grader at Jordan Ridge Elementary (located within the Jordan School District in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley) when he was suspended due to repeated incidents of behavioral problems, including acting out in class and making inappropriate comments to teachers.

The problems and subsequent suspensions were not due to the student’s disregard for authority, but rather the inability of the school’s staff to deal with Thomas’ high-function autism and ADHD, his mother said. As a result, Thomas was suspended for more than 25 days from school, which was in direct violation of federal law.

Even before Thomas was diagnosed with autism in October 2007, his parents had obtained an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The IEP sets certain guidelines for teachers to follow when working with a student with a disability, and are enforced by federal law.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the purpose of  the guidelines set by the government is to help public schools and families of children with disabilities understand their rights under  the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

One of those guidelines is that any student with an IEP cannot be suspended more than 10 days in a school year for behavioral problems. Wallin was confused about how to approach the situation although she knew that something was wrong.

“The principal, teachers and even the school psychologist struggled when dealing with Thomas. Something needed to be done in order to prevent this from continuing,” Wallin said.

“My sister is a school principal and she spelled out a lot of the rules for me. I knew that the school had broken rules, but what could we do to stop it?” she said.

Thomas works with professionals at Valley Mental Health and they recommended Faith get help from the Disability Law Center of Salt Lake. “The people at Valley Mental Health said my case had some legs to stand on and the legal people at the DLC could help me with the issue. We didn’t have the funds to hire a private lawyer and it was our best option,” she said.

The main issue for Wallin in the resolution of the case was the proper education of the school’s staff on how to deal with autistic children. “I didn’t want to sue for money, because that would overlook the issue. I just wanted the autistic students and their families to have a better experience with their school,” she said.

Originally assigned to the case was Adina Zahradnikova, an eight-year employee of the DLC and senior advocate. Any case that comes to the DLC involving educational problems with a disabled person, she spearheads the project.

“Thomas’ case is fairly common. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with children with special needs, so they react without fully understanding the rules that are in place,” Zahradnikova said. “The initial step that is taken with a case like this is to interview the prospective client and make sure their case is viable. We will analyze the case from both sides, then serve a letter to the school and district administrators explaining the action we are going to take.”

At this point Zahradnikova decided to take a sabbatical for personal reasons, and handed the case to a fellow DLC advocate. “I needed a break, so I handed the case to the competent hands of John English,” Zahradnikova said.

English is a second-year law student at the University of Utah who has worked in special education for the better part of a decade.

“This is my passion. I do enjoy this area of health and disability law as well as special education. Working with people like the Wallin family is very rewarding,” English said. “Faith Wallin was great to work with, because she was very reasonable. With her we devised the basis of our resolution that we suggested to the Jordan School District.”

The district was asked to hold a seminar, so educators at Jordan Ridge Elementary and from other schools within the district could learn how to better work with children who suffer from autism.

The Jordan School District sent both the DLC and Faith Wallin a packet with the material covered in the teacher seminar. Included was a roster listing all 51 teachers in attendance and a certified letter that the special needs education had been completed. At that point the case was closed.

“From a legal standpoint, I think the outcome was a huge success. We achieved everything that we wanted, I feel,” English said.

Even though the legal goals were met, Wallin sees a need for more improvement. “Although the seminar was taught, and the teachers may have a better understanding how to deal with autistic children, parents say they are still having problems at that school,” Wallin said.

Thomas switched schools in September 2008.

“Throughout the experience, I was so impressed by the work the DLC did for us. The level of professionalism was high and I was amazed by the concern they showed for our case,” Wallin said. “When attending support groups for parents of autistic children, I always recommend the services of the DLC to any parent struggling to find help for their child in any setting.”