Autism Alliance of Michigan celebrates Supreme Court decision

The education system failed Miguel Luna Perez. In 2004, the 9-year-old moved from Mexico to Michigan with his family. Young Miguel had not had any formal education, and his parents quickly enrolled him in the local public school district. Miguel is deaf. Upon entering school, he couldn’t speak words in English or Spanish. He couldn’t use sign language. He could not read or write. When Miguel left school twelve years later, his speaking and language skills had not advanced significantly.

“His parents were told he would graduate with a certificate of completion not a diploma, despite being named to the Honor Roll in all four years of high school,” says Colleen Allen, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAoM).

“Parents of children with physical or cognitive challenges—like those living with autism—often experience their own challenges navigating the educational system through all stages of their children’s lives.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) encourages involvement from parents and guardians to ensure there is a full team supporting each child with physical or cognitive challenges. The school year may open with the establishment of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which outlines the goals and support services a child may need to succeed during the school year. Public schools are required to offer the IEP free of charge and use it to assign classes and specialists and to track progress through the year. IEPs are developed for students with physical conditions, such as vision or hearing impairments, cognitive deficits, and for students with invisible disabilities, such as autism, ADHD, and other developmental delays.

“To ensure your child can fully participate in their IEP and succeed without missing time away from learning due to illness,” Allen says. “It’s equally important to focus on your child’s overall health and wellness, include regular doctor visits, and keep up routine vaccines like the one for COVID-19.”

Autism Alliance of Michigan helps parents navigate education challenges

To ensure children living with autism can maximize the educational, well-being, and socialization benefits of being in school, AAoM guides parents and caregivers through the myriad of potential education system challenges with the help of one of its trained navigators.

“It is important to ask for assistance whenever there is a question or concern—whether it’s about resources, support or necessary steps to ensure your child can fully realize the advantages of the school experience,” Allen says.

IEPs are powerful tools for guiding a student’s education and development, but they do fail. Miguel Luna Perez had an IEP, which required his school district to provide him with an educational aide who knew sign language and could translate lessons for Miguel. Miguel’s parents, both Spanish speakers, believed the school district was attending to Miguel’s needs until they learned that the aide assigned to their son did not know sign language well enough to support Miguel’s education. Miguel lost years of education, while his parents, relying on good grades and honor roll certificates, had no idea that their son was losing ground every year. When they learned Miguel would not receive a diploma, they decided that intervention was essential.

“AAoM’s Navigators have access to networks, contacts and resources across Michigan—including those related to local school districts,” Allen says. “They can help parents avoid the situation the Perez family found themselves in.”

Miguel’s case makes it to the Supreme Court

The Luna Perez family filed a complaint with the State of Michigan under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and eventually settled with the school district. Even though Miguel attended the Michigan School for the Deaf for four years, he still struggles to communicate. Assessments indicate he will have difficulty finding employment and will likely never attend college. After the settlement under IDEA, Miguel sued the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for unspecified damages to address emotional harm and lost economic opportunity that occurred due to his inadequate education. That’s how Miguel landed in the United States Supreme Court — and opened the door for other families seeking redress — including those with a child living with autism.

“Although there are laws and protections for disabled students who have not been served well by the public education system, they are often difficult to access and are always time consuming,” Allen says. “We encourage families to stay on top of the situation to avoid this kind of tragic outcome, but even with the best intentions that doesn’t always happen. The Supreme Court decision on Miguel’s behalf underscores that individuals with disabilities have rights.”

Miguel’s case went to the Supreme Court after lower courts ruled against him, saying the law precluded his case from moving forward because Miguel had not exhausted all the procedural hurdles required under IDEA. Miguel attended the Michigan School for the Deaf under IDEA, but IDEA does not offer monetary damages. Today, at 27, Miguel has difficulty communicating and is unemployed. He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act for monetary compensation, and the Supreme Court decision allowing his suit to move forward may help Miguel and many others.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan provides information and resources for families and individuals living with autism.

What the decision means for people living with autism
In the opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that

“Whether (the law) bars lawsuits like ours holds consequences not just for Mr. Perez but for a great many children with disabilities and their parents.”

Gorsuch went on to write that the exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that seek relief also available under IDEA. “And that condition simply is not met in situations like ours.”

AAoM and other organizations supporting the disability community celebrated the decision.

“It is not easy for individuals with autism and their families to navigate the education system, the medical system, employment issues, and the legal system,” Allen concludes. “The Supreme Court decision affirms the rights of our community and the entire disability community. We hope to help families avoid similar situations, but it is good to know that there is a legal opinion – from the highest court in the land – protecting us.”