Individualized Education Plan for Autism
In 1975, Congress established the Education for All Handicapped Children Act to protect the rights of disabled children and their parents. Today, this act is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, every child is entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). These provisions enable children with autism and other disabilities to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) tailored to their specific strengths and weaknesses.
An IEP is important for children with autism. In fact, autism is one of the 13 disability categories listed in IDEA. The law mandates that children with autism must have an IEP. The autistic spectrum is diverse, and no two people with autism will experience the same set of symptoms. Having an IEP for your autistic child can help them develop skills and knowledge at an appropriate level and pace.
Requesting an evaluation
The IEP process begins with an evaluation request. The evaluation may include diagnostic assessments, observation, and intelligence quotient (IQ) assessments. The school factors this information in when deciding whether the child is eligible for an IEP.
Parents may ask the school to evaluate their child for special education eligibility. Each school may have different procedures, but they generally involve submitting a written request to the school’s special education administrator.
You do not have to use formal language in the letter, but you should make your intentions clear. Include the following information
- School’s name, address, and the name of the special education administrator
- Your name and address
- Your reasons for concern
- Evidence that supports your concerns, including observations from a teacher or family doctor, report cards or samples of your child’s work, and the results from private screening or testing
- Your signature.
The timeline for response to an evaluation request begins when the school receives your signed and dated consent to evaluate your child. You can shorten the wait time by including a statement that your signed letter also represents your consent for evaluation.
With your consent, the school can initiate an evaluation if they feel one is necessary. Although you are within your rights to refuse consent, it is usually in the best interests of your child to allow the evaluation to proceed. It is a good idea to research the tests the school will use ahead of time to determine whether they will work well for your child. For example, a test that relies on verbal interaction may not be appropriate for a nonverbal child. It may help to have private screening done as well. Ask your insurance provider to make sure your plan covers any outside testing.
Receiving a response from the school
After you give your consent for an evaluation, the school can respond in one of three ways. First, they may continue to monitor your child and offer limited intervention through Response to Intervention (RTI). If the school chooses this option, they should provide you with an idea of how long the monitoring process will continue.
Second, they can refuse your request. The law requires they send you prior written notice, a formal letter explaining the school’s decision. The school must include the following information.
- The action the school is denying or proposing
- Reasons for their decision, including all evidence considered
- Any other options considered and the reasons for rejecting them
- Influencing factors in the decision-making process
- Notice of your protection under procedural safeguards
- Contact information for people who can help you understand your rights and your child’s rights under IDEA
If you have reason to believe the school’s refusal violates IDEA, you may appeal their decision. Follow the procedure outlined in the procedural safeguards provided when the evaluation was initiated.
The third way the school can respond is by agreeing to evaluate your child. They have 60 days from the time of receiving your written consent to complete the evaluation. If you included a consent statement in your evaluation request, the 60-day period begins the day the school receives your letter.
Setting up an IEP meeting
As a parent, you have specific rights under IDEA. Some of these rights pertain to the IEP meeting. The school must give you advance notice of the IEP meeting so you can make arrangements to attend it. Both parties must agree to the meeting time and place. You also have the right to understand and be understood during the meeting. In other words, the school’s representatives must satisfactorily explain the contents of the IEP. If you are deaf or speak a language other than English, they must also provide an interpreter.
The law requires that certain people be on the IEP team. They may include
- At least one educator from a regular classroom, if your child will not be in the resource room 100 percent of the time
- Someone qualified to interpret the evaluation results and use them to help create goals
- A special education instructor
- A school representative, usually the Principal or Special Education Administrator
- At least one parent
If appropriate, you should also include your child in the IEP meeting. Giving your child the chance to provide input will help them with future goal-setting and decision-making skills. If you need to speak frankly with other team members when your child is not present, let school officials know ahead of time.
Creating SMART goals
To clearly assess your child’s progress, the IEP team must set goals that are easy to evaluate. One way to do this is by using goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timed. For example, an academic goal might read, “At the end of this school year, Jane will be able to read at a 4.5 grade level with 75 percent or better reading comprehension.”
The team needs to find a balance between challenging your child to grow and having unrealistic expectations. For instance, if your child is in eighth grade but understands math on a fourth-grade level, they may not be ready for algebra classes by the end of the year. A more realistic goal would challenge them to conquer fractions or multidigit problems within the given time frame.
Social and life skills goals
In addition to academic goals, an IEP can also address social development and life skills. These areas can be especially important for children with autism. If your child needs occupational or physical therapy, the team can create goals for these sessions as well. Social skill development activities might include matching pictures of facial expressions or body language with emotions or spending more time in a regular classroom. Life skill development could range from learning how to button clothes or tie shoes to understanding how to balance a checkbook.
During the IEP process, you will also have the opportunity to request accommodations for your child. As with goal setting, it is important to provide necessary support without making tasks so easy that there is no room for growth. Some common accommodations include receiving assistance in narrowing answers for multiple-choice questions, testing in a small group environment, or using a calculator for complex math problems.
Assistive devices are also classified as accommodations. Assistive devices are not limited to children with hearing or visual impairments. They can also include items like an MP3 player to help tune out classroom noise, an exercise ball that allows fidgeting instead of a regular chair, or putty for sensory stimulation. Using devices like these can help your child focus on classwork or stay calm in a social situation.
Finalizing the IEP
If both parties agree to the IEP, they will sign and date the final document a few days after the meeting. If you do not agree with provisions in the document, you do not have to sign it. Try to work with school officials to find common ground. If necessary, you may initiate a dispute resolution process as outlined in the brochure that explains your parental rights. You should receive a copy of your rights before or during every IEP meeting. An Expert can help you determine the best way to proceed.
Reviewing or changing the IEP
IDEA mandates an IEP review every three years, but most schools assess and adjust individual education plans each year. If a concern arises mid-year, do not worry. You can request an IEP review at any time. Some of the reasons for requesting another review could include additional concerns about your child or adjustments because they met their goal early. Make your request in writing. State the changes you are asking for and the reason why those changes are necessary.
Advocating for your child
Parents of children with autism are often their greatest advocates. Use these tips to help your child flourish in their learning environment.
- Help your child transition to a new classroom by preparing a letter for the teacher. If appropriate, ask your child to help you. Introduce them to the teacher, and provide strategies that help your student focus or stay calm in stressful situations. Use an upbeat tone and offer your support if needed.
- Buy a large binder, dividers, and a three-hole punch to help you keep track of documents. Keep copies of letters you send to the school, finalized IEPs for each year, evaluation records, and other relevant documents.
- Research autism advocacy groups. Autism support and research is a growing field. New therapies and ideas become available on almost a daily basis. If you find an idea that will help your child, present it to school officials.
- Remember that you are not in this alone. Being an autism parent is both challenging and infinitely rewarding. Build a support network of advocates, other parents, and special education staff. When you take the opportunity to connect with other individuals, you will find the best ways to help your child blossom.