What Is A "Peer"?

In testimony, a school principal described a day when Jan came to the playground with his mother. The plaintiff's attorney asked if there were other children present, and the principal said yes, there were fourth-graders and first-graders there. At one point, she stated that, "his peers, the fourth graders," went back to their classroom; Jan continued to play on the playground with the first-graders. Note that she drew a distinction between the nine year olds - his chronological peers - and the first-graders - implicitly "non-peers".

According to this narrow definition, "peers" are the same chronological age, and that's that — there are no other elements to consider. This concept of "peer" is fair to use when one compares neurologically typical children to each other; however, it is prejudicial to use the yardstick of neurologically typical development to scrutinize and condemn the behavior of an autistic child.

The DSM-IV definition of autism includes the following criteria:

"Failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to develop mental level"
"Delays or abnormal functioning in at least one of the following areas, with onset prior to age 3 years: (1) social interaction..."

Jan's intellectual development outstrips his behavioral and emotional maturity, falling into the category of "very superior". Regarded in this way, he could be considered a peer of many high-school students.

His mother later testified about her son's level of emotional development, as compared to neurologically typical children of the same age. Jan's development has been professionally evaluated practically every month for several years. At the chronological age of nine years, his emotional and behavioral development compared in some aspects to that of a four year old, and others to that of a six year old.

First graders are generally six years old. Even after the departure of the fourth-graders from the playground, this autistic boy was still playing with his peers. His autistically-typical level of emotional and behavioral development was that of a neurologically-typical six year old. The six-year old first graders were as much his peers on an emotional and behavioral level as the nine-year olds were his peers on a chronological level. Furthermore, the social/emotional domain is the one in which he needs compassionate support and encouragement if his development is to continue in a healthy direction.

It is therefore unreasonable and inherently biased against autistic children to limit the definition of the word "peers" to chronological peers. In the context of the hearing, the principal's limitation of the word "peer" to chronological peers betrays her unacknowledged prejudice.

August 22, 2004

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