Legal Obligations

Many people with autism also have associated language delays and mental retardation, while others have average or above-average intelligence but the same communication problems. Although, there are many medications to help with some symptoms of autism–the major treatment for autism is early and ongoing educational intervention. This falls on the responsibility of the public school system.

The IDEA guarantees all school-age children with learning disabilities (including autism) a “free and appropriate public education,” and a 1991 addendum to the act extended that guarantee to preschool children as well. The act also requires that school districts draw up an individualized educational program (IEP) for every child in special education. Parents, school psychologists, school administrators and teachers meet to hammer out the IEP, which specifies the student’s educational goals and the services that the school district will pay for–anything from treatment in a hospital-affiliated autism clinic to placement in the school district’s own program.

Behavioral Intervention

ABA is the main treatment that parents ask for. ABA therapy for autism makes use of the idea that when people–autistic or otherwise–are rewarded for a behavior, they are likely to repeat that behavior. In ABA treatment, the therapist gives the child a stimulus–like a question or a request to sit down–along with the correct response. The therapist uses attention, praise or a tangible incentive like toys or food to reward the child for repeating the right answer or completing the task; any other response is ignored.

Bridging the Research-to-Practice Gap

Unfortunately, most school districts can not afford the immediate costs of such programs. However, Ron Leaf came up with the idea to incorporate ABA principles in a classroom setting. He also set up a hands-on training classroom and demonstration site where rotating groups of district teachers spent six weeks learning ABA methods full time. Leaf and his colleagues also met with parents to explain the new program and teach the parents how to provide the necessary in-home support. And, they helped the school district train its own home-program tutors, because the district also provides between 15 and 20 hours per week of home therapy.


Winerman, L. (2004). “Effective Education for Autism.” Vol. 35. No. 11. Pg. 46.

American Psychological Association