Federal judge rules that Asperger's syndrome is a disability
January 31, 2006
PORTLAND, Maine --A York County girl who suffers from Asperger's syndrome is entitled to special education services even though she completes her homework, behaves well in class and scores well on tests, a federal judge ruled.
U.S District Judge D. Brock Hornby ordered School Administrative District 55 to assemble a team of teachers and specialists to design an appropriate learning program for the girl, identified in court documents only as "L.I."
In his ruling, Hornby said the girl's parents demonstrated that the disability adversely affects her educational performance "and is thus eligible for special education under (federal law) due to her Asperger syndrome and her depressive disorder."
Richard O'Meara, the family's lawyer, said the decision recognizes that social development is an important part of education, along with academic studies.
"Education is so much more than academic performance," O'Meara said. "Hopefully, this will put that debate to rest once and for all."
While Hornby overturned the district's decision to deny services, the judge also denied the family's reimbursement request for the two years of private school tuition it has paid since taking her out of public school in 2003.
Nonetheless, advocates for the disabled hailed the ruling as a victory.
The decision clarifies the question of who is eligible for services, and it will have an impact both in the state and beyond, said Peter Rice of the Disability Rights Center of Maine.
Eric Herlan, lawyer for SAD 55, declined to comment until he has reviewed the 48-page ruling, which was issued Monday afternoon.
Asperger's syndrome is a milder variant of autism. The name comes from Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian who described the syndrome in 1944.
Hornby's ruling described Asperger's as a "clinically recognized pervasive developmental disability" with symptoms that include "limited interests or an unusual preoccupation with a particular subject to the exclusion of other activities."
School is challenging for Asperger's students because they often have poor social skills and difficulty communicating, Hornby wrote.
L.I., who attended public schools in Hiram and Cornish through 5th grade, performed well academically but in the fourth grade her teachers noticed that she looked sad, anxious and had a difficult time making friends.
When she was in sixth grade, she stopped studying and attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on several medications. A psychiatrist evaluated her and diagnosed her with Asperger's syndrome and "depressed mood."
A team assembled by the school, however, denied special education services to her "since there was no adverse impact on her academic progress." Her family appealed but the decision was upheld by an independent hearing officer.
O'Meara said the decision could have a broad impact. "It should qualify kids for special education even when academically it seems they are able to succeed in school," he said.