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Autism and Education

In the United States, every child has the right to a free and public education. The United States is the forerunner in passing legislation that dictates individuals with disabilities can partake in the equality every member of this nation enjoys (see Americans with Disabilities Act). The legislation discussed below provides services to help individuals with disabilities have the same opportunity for an education as any other child. The following summary focuses on educational services provided to individuals with autism through legislation.

Educating a child with autism begins with the parents and they must work hand-in-hand with the school system in planning and providing an education for their child’s individual needs. The 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allows a family to do just that. Under this act, special education services are provided for children with disabilities, including autism. The law, which was revised in 2004 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act “specifies that children with various disabilities, including autism, are entitled to early intervention services and special education.”1 The state must provide an appropriate educational program for a child, regardless of their developmental level. According to Autism Society2, the six principle rights mandated in IDEA are as follows:

  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  • Appropriate Education
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Parent and Student Participation in Decision Making
  • Procedural Safeguards

IDEA allows parents to fulfill an important role to plan and provide for their child’s future. Parents are encouraged to be an “active participant in planning and monitoring [their] child’s unique program and legal rights.”1 Parents and the school district should equally decide on an education program that adheres to a child’s specialized needs.

Under IDEA, the persons conducting the evaluation to determine the educational needs of the child must assess “all areas of suspected disability.”3 This includes, but is not limited to, health, vision, hearing, communication abilities, motor skills, and social and/or emotional status.4 Parents may opt to provide consent for the school to conduct only some of the evaluations. For example, the parents may decide to have their child’s psychological evaluation performed by their personal psychologist while providing consent for the school to conduct the necessary school evaluations. Under IDEA, children with disabilities “have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”5 IEPs are designed specifically to meet the child’s unique needs. Free and appropriate education (FAPE)and related services must be provided for any child with a qualifying disability by the school district at no cost to the parents.6

Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)
Children with autism may require related services to achieve an “appropriate” education in school. Related services, may include transportation, occupational therapy, physical therapy, social work services, and speech pathology, just to name a few, and guarantee that a child can be provided an educational program that most benefits their specific needs.7 These services are provided by the public education system at no cost to the family. Much how autism disorder requires multiple treatment methods based on the individual needs of a child, public schools must provide specific educational programs that meet the needs of any individual. However, schools are only required to provide “appropriate” solutions and “not necessarily an ‘ideal’ program or the one you feel is best for your student.”2 According to the Autism Society2, the principle mandates of FAPE are as follows:

  • Special education and related services have been provided under public supervision and direction and at no charge to the family
  • Special education and related services meet the standards of the state educational agency
  • Special education and related services include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education
  • Special education and related services are provided in conformity with the Individual Education Program (IEP)

Without meeting the guidelines of IDEA, states cannot receive federal funding. To determine the appropriate minimum requirements, the child will undergo an evaluation for an Individual Education Program (IEP).

Individual Education Program (IEP)
IDEA guarantees that children with disabilities are able to learn in a least restrictive environment. A least restrictive environment is one “in which he or she has the greatest possible opportunity to interact with children who do not have a disability and to participate in the general education curriculum.”1 The idea of a least restrictive environment, otherwise known as mainstreaming or inclusion, may not necessarily be the most beneficial action for an individual with autism and their peers. Parents should have their child undergo an individualized evaluation before determining the best way to educate their child. These EVALUATIONS provide the foundation for your child's IEP. Professional and accurate evaluations are an invaluable resource for the IEP process. They help determine everything from your child's accommodations to their placement. Some children benefit from a classroom environment, but it “may or may not be more appropriate for your child to be placed in a special education program, in a school for children with special needs, or in a home instruction program.”1 After an evaluation, an IEP team will develop a learning program based on the individual’s needs. The administrator of the IEP generates goals for the individuals and monitors their progress throughout the year. The IEP will provide supplementary aids and related services based on this evaluation. An IEP plan will constantly be re-evaluated and changes can be implemented at any time if either party (the IEP supervisor or parents) is unsatisfied. Children who do not qualify as needing special services can be given a 504 plan to help further benefit their education. Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, but differs from IDEA in that Section 504 “does not require the school to provide an individualized educational program (IEP) that is designed to meet child’s unique needs and provides the child with educational benefits.”8

The IEP team determines what related services are necessary for the child to receive a free and appropriate education through their evaluation. IDEA9 states that the IEP team must be composed of the following members:

  • parents of the child with a disability
  • at least 1 regular education teacher (given that the child is participating in a regular education environment)
  • at least 1 special education teacher
  • a qualified representative of the local educational agency, an individual who can interpret instructional evaluation results, who may be a member of the team described above
  • other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate
  • and whenever appropriate, the child with a disability

Once the IEP is developed for the child, a parent or guardian has the right to seek out an independent evaluation at public or private expense if they disagree with the evaluation.4 Independent evaluations must be considered by the IEP team if the chosen professional meets the appropriate criteria set up by the state. The school may be able provide parents with a list of professionals in your area that can assist with conducting an effective evaluation. For further assistance in finding qualified professionals please visit our Resource Guide. According to IDEA9, the IEP must include the following:

1. A statement evaluating the child’s present academic achievement and functional performance, including:

  • How the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum;
  • How the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities;
  • For children with disabilities who take alternate assessments aligned to alternate achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or short-term objectives;

2. A statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, designed to-

  • Meet the child’s needs that result from the child’s disability to enable to the child to be involved and make progress in the general education curriculum; and
  • Meet each of the child’s other educational needs that result from the child’s disability

3. A description of how the child’s progress towards meeting those annual goals described above will be measured and when periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting annual goals will be provided. Generally, these periodic updates will be provided in addition to the child’s quarterly report card.

4. A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services to be provided to the child, or on the behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child-

  • To advance appropriately to attaining annual goals;
  • To be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum in accordance with subclause 1 and participate in extracurricular and other non-academic activities;
  • To be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and non-disabled children in the activities described above;

5. An explanation to the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and activities described above;

6. A statement of any individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on state and district wide assessments;

7. The projected date for the beginning of the service and modifications described above, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services and modifications;

8. Finally, beginning no later than the first IEP to be in effect with the child is 16, and updated annually thereafter to include-

  • Appropriate measurable post-secondary goals based upon age appropriate transition assessment relating to training, education, employment, and where appropriate, independent living skills;
  • The transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the child in reaching those goals; and
  • Beginning not later than 1 year before the child reaches the age of majority under state law, a statement that the child has been informed of the child’s right under this title, if any, that will transfer to the child on reaching the of majority.

Individualized education programs is a comprehensive curriculum designed to not only benefit your child’s education now, and can also provide a solid foundation for their education throughout their entire lives.

Re-Evaluation for IEP
Ideally, the contents of the IEP will evolve with the needs of the maturing child. According to IDEA, the IEP must be re-evaluated “at least once every 3 years, unless the parent and the local educational agency agree that reevaluation is unnecessary.”9 A parent or teacher may request that the content of the IEP be re-evaluated if they feel the child is not meeting the short-term objectives documented in the IEP. IEP’s are often reviewed on an annual basis. Re-evaluations are necessary as children continue to make progress. The re-evaluation should consider all areas of the IEP. The IEP team will ultimately determine if the child does indeed require special services. The features of the “IEP must be prepared and agreed upon before placement decisions are made. The placement may not be chosen first, then the IEP written to fit the placement decision.”4

Other Education and Disability Acts
Section 504 and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) are monumental laws designed to protect those with disabilities. Section 504 is “a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).”10 Basically, 504 states that the civil rights of people with disabilities are to remain intact and no agencies receiving federal funding are able to discriminate based upon a disability.

In general, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act states “schools must have written permission from the parent or eligible student in order to release any information from a student's education record.”11 The law applies to the records of all individuals and not just those with disabilities.

An equally important law is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was enacted in 1965. The ESEA “emphasizes equal access to education and establishes high standards and accountability. The law authorizes federally funded education programs that are administered by the states. In 2002, Congress amended ESEA and reauthorized it as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).”12 The law is designed to help schools maintain a certain level of academic achievement.

Individuals with learning disabilities take a different exam known as the Alternate Assessment based on Alternative Achievement Standards (AA-AAS). The test allows schools to help meet performance targets for certain subjects, since proficient scores are counted towards the overall assessment of the school. However, only 1% of scores can be used to benefit schools in this fashion.13

Parents and educators need to maintain an open dialogue when discussing their child’s educational future, regardless of their child’s cognitive abilities. To help design a proper learning program, parents must provide information about a child’s behavior at home and educators must be truthful when discussing the child’s actions in the classroom. Legislation, like IDEA, guarantees that any child can receive a beneficial education in the United States, despite a mental disability.
Click here, to read the IDEA 2004 legislation in its entirety.