If you suspect that your child has autism or has been diagnosed with autism, you should contact your child’s school district to request an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for your child. However, your child’s diagnosis alone does not guarantee eligibility for special education services. Once your child is diagnosed with autism, the next step is to request your child’s school to evaluate your child for special education and get an IEP.
An IEP can make a big difference in your child’s education experience. You are your child’s biggest advocate. Advocating for your child’s rights to receive the support and services needed to succeed in school is vital. Getting an IEP can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Your child’s IEP will help document and outline your child's specific educational needs.
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological disorder that can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Autism can range from very mild to severe. Some children with autism are nonverbal and need assistance with daily activities, while others may be highly verbal and have advanced skills in subjects such as math or music.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the term used to describe various symptoms and severity levels associated with autism. It is a spectrum disorder, and people diagnosed with autism can have a range of symptoms and severity. Some people with autism are considered high functioning, have milder symptoms, and can live independently. Others can be low functioning, have more severe symptoms, and need significant support. It can present in many ways, so getting an accurate diagnosis from a qualified professional is essential.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines autism as “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.”
An IEP is a legal document that guarantees your child will receive the appropriate special education services to meet their unique needs. To start the process, gather information about your child and what services they need. You'll also need copies of their evaluations and any other documents related to their educational history. You will also want to make copies of any homework, tests, or any other schoolwork that can help explain their struggles. Then, schedule an appointment with your school district's special education office to start the process of requesting a special education evaluation to get them an IEP.
What if I Suspect my Child has Autism but doesn't have a Diagnosis?
If you suspect your child may have autism, the first step is to talk to your child’s pediatrician. Your child’s pediatrician can refer you to a developmental pediatrician, child neurologist, or psychiatrist for further testing. These professionals will use a combination of diagnostic tests, behavioral observations, and assessments to determine if your child meets the criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Don’t get frustrated with the process because getting a diagnosis can sometimes take a while.
What if my Child's School Denies my Request for an IEP?
It can be frustrating and discouraging if your child’s school denies your request for an IEP. If you think your child’s evaluation is inaccurate, you can request an individual independent evaluation conducted by a professional outside your child’s school district. Your child’s school district pays for the independent evaluation. If your child’s school denies your child’s IEP, you have a right to appeal their decision. In addition, you can request a due process hearing from your state’s education department. A due process hearing is a legal proceeding where you can present evidence to show why your child needs an IEP.
What will be Included in my Child's IEP?
You will meet with your child’s IEP team to discuss your child’s evaluation. You will discuss your child’s academic progress and needs during the meeting and create personalized goals. Your child’s IEP will include the following eight sections:
- Present Level of Educational Performance
- Measurable Annual Goals
- Progress Tracking
- Special Education Services
- Duration of Services
- Participation in Mainstream Classrooms or Least Restrictive Environment
- Testing Adaptations
- Transitional Goals and Services
What Measurable Goals will Help my Child?
Your child’s measurable goals are based on their present level of educational performance. Goals can include academic, behavioral, functional, or other educational skills. When setting measurable goals for your child, it’s essential to consider your child’s strengths and challenges. It’s also important to remember that measurable goals should be specific and realistically attainable. For instance, instead of setting a goal of “improving communication skills,” it would be more effective to break down the goal into smaller, specific tasks such as practicing conversational turns or articulating words clearly.
Ultimately, measurable goals should focus on progress and improvement rather than perfection or reaching a specific benchmark. By setting measurable goals, your child’s school can track your child’s progress and adjust as needed to support their development. Measurable goals should be specific, realistic, and achievable.
What Accommodations can Help in the Classroom?
It is essential to work with your child’s school to develop accommodations to help them in the classroom. Accommodations should be based on your child’s individual needs. Some common accommodations that can help support your child include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Structured class schedule
- Low distracted work area
- Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones
- Frequent breaks built into the schedule for students who need to decompress
- Preferential seating near the teacher or in low distraction areas
- Small group work
- Access to the resource room
- Sensory breaks and dedicated sensory spaces
- Exercise breaks and dedicated exercise spaces
- Classroom aides
- One-on-one aide
- Allow the usage of a weighted lap blanket
- Avoid unnecessary touch
- Avoid usage of fragrances such as perfume and air fresheners
- Use scent free cleaners
- Limit use of florescent lighting
- Visual supports
- Weighted blankets
- Allow objects to chew on
- No use of sarcasm
- Communication aids (augmentative and alternative communication devices, sign language)
- Provide written copies
- Visual cues for common requests
- Allowing the use of computer
- Visual or written, rather than auditory, instructions
- Assistive technology
- Note taker
- Tests read to the student
- Familiar proctor
- Extra time on tests
- Extra time to complete assignments
Social and Behavioral Accommodations
- Having a plan for unstructured times such as recess, lunch, afternoon pickup
- Avoid surprises
- Minimize transitions
- Creating a de-escalation plan
- Positive reinforcements
Emotional and Self-Regulating Accommodations
- Priming to explain the schedule and upcoming activities
- Frequent breaks
- Established routines
- Warning and preparation when changes are anticipated
- Low distracted work areas
- Allow frequent breaks
- Exercise breaks
- Allow fidget /stim/sensory toys
- Allow special seating
- Visual schedules and graphic organizers
- Inclusion of a no-restraint/seclusion letter
Can I Ask for Assistive Technology?
Advocating and requesting services to help your child succeed in school is essential. If assistive technology helps your child in school, you should insist that assistive technology devices and services be included in their IEP. Your child’s school can’t use the excuse there aren’t funds for these devices or services. If your child’s school determines that assistive technology will benefit your child, your child’s school district is responsible for providing your child with those devices and services. The school must also allow your child to take the device home. You should also request that your child’s teachers and aides be trained on using the devices in their IEP.
Getting an IEP for your child with autism can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Taking things one step at a time and getting help from professionals will ensure that your child receives the education they deserve. Working with your child’s teachers and school can create an IEP to help your child succeed in school.