50 Years of Change: Looking at the Laws that Protect and Advance People with Autism

Over the last 50 years, we’ve come a long way in protecting and advancing the rights of people with autism and other disabilities. Take a look at some of the laws that have increased their ability to access healthcare, education, employment and housing. Plus, discover what other exciting changes are coming soon!

  • 1970s – Before the 1970s, children with disabilities were often denied access to education. But that all started to change with the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, Section 504. This Act protects and advances the rights of students with disabilities who are in programs and activities that receive federal funding – like public schools. It also gives people with disabilities the right to reasonable accommodations or special help.1
  • Then, in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was created. It ensures that children with disabilities receive a free education based on their unique needs at public schools across the country.2
  • 1980s – After the Education for All Handicapped Children Act expanded in 1986, families of infants and toddlers with disabilities became eligible for free early intervention services.2 A couple of years later, the Fair Housing Act also expanded and began protecting people with disabilities, including autism, from discrimination in housing.3
  • 1990s – Starting in 1990, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act underwent two major changes. First, it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Second, autism was added as a disability category, making it easier for children with autism to get special education services – at no cost to families.2
  • During this same period, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. It protects people with disabilities from discrimination at work, on public transportation, in businesses that are open to the public, and more.4
  • 2000s – today – To support autism awareness, research and treatment, the federal government passed the Combatting Autism Act in 2006.5 Then, in 2014, it was renamed the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support (CARES) Act.6 Today, this Act continues to provide funding for autism prevalence tracking, medical training and other autism services.
  • Then in 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was enacted. It requires health insurance plans that offer coverage for mental health and substance use disorders to provide the same level of benefits as they do for medical and surgical conditions.7
  • In California, the 2012 Senate Bill (SB) 946 began requiring insurance plans and policies to cover behavioral health treatment such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy.8 And as a result of the 2021 California SB 855, commercial health plans and policies now have to cover all mental health disorders, including autism, under the same terms and conditions as other medical issues.9
  • Coming soon – Recently, the Biden Administration proposed a new rule in the same spirit of the California Senate Bill (SB) 946, that would give families the same access to mental health benefits as physical health benefits. This means that health plans across the country would need to remove barriers that often prevent people from getting access to the care they need. It’s estimated that this rule would help improve mental health care for 90,000 people.9

Even though people with autism and other disabilities have more rights than ever before, there is still plenty of work to do to create a more inclusive world. If you would like to be part of the change that is breaking down long-standing barriers and biases, join us at Catalight.


[1] Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: What You Need to Know

[2] About IDEA

[3] History of the Fair Housing Act

[4] Introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act

[5] Fact Sheet: Combating Autism Act of 2006

[6] Autism CARES Act

[7] California State-Regulated Insurance Coverage

[8] DMHC Takes Action to Ensure Health Plans Comply with California’s Mental Health and Substance Use Parity Law

[9] FACT SHEET: Biden-⁠Harris Administration Takes Action to Make it Easier to Access In-Network Mental Health Care