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Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)

The purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) legislation is to guarantee that an individual with a disability has the right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment.1 The word “appropriate” in FAPE has both positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, the word indicates that a child with a disability is “entitled to an education tailored to his or her special needs and a placement that will allow them to make educational progress.”2 Unfortunately, that same word can also create conflict between schools and parents as the school is only obligated to provide an “appropriate” education and not necessarily an “optimal” education for any child with a disability. All children with qualifying disabilities who attend public school are provided an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that works to ensure he/she receives a free, appropriate public education. The guarantees under FAPE level the educational playing field for children and adolescents with disabilities as the right to a free and appropriate education “requires that the quality of educational services provided to students with disabilities be equal to those provided to non-disabled students.”3 Without FAPE there is essentially no IEP. Wrightslaw, a leading resource for special education law and advocacy, describes an Individualized Education Program as “the roadmap that describes how the school will provide your child with a FAPE.”1

Individuals on the autism spectrum are provided a free and appropriate education through an IEP that assesses “all areas of a suspected disability.”4 These evaluations determine if a child qualifies as requiring an IEP, what the child’s strengths and weaknesses are , and what related services the child is to receive.5 IDEA states that the term “related services” refers to “transportation, and such developmental, corrective, and other supportive services…as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes the early identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children.”4 The following are some of the related services available to individuals on autism spectrum as part of their IEP:

  • Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology
  • Counseling services
  • Medical services
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Early Identification and Assessment of the child’s disability
  • Psychological services
  • Mobility services
  • Recreation
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • School health services
  • Assistive Technology (if deemed necessary)
  • Social work services
  • Speech pathology
  • Transportation

The previous list only contains a portion of related services available to individuals on the autism spectrum under their IEP. A child that requires a particular service that will benefit his/her education and is developmental, corrective, or supportive is also a related service and should be provided accordingly.6 Every related service, support, and evaluation provided by the IEP is to be done so at the public’s expense, without charge to the parent or guardian of the child, and under public supervision.7

The IEP process can be long and arduous, but it is important for both parties to keep the best interests of the child in mind. As a parent, advocating on behalf of your child for appropriate related services is a necessary part of the IEP process. It is possible that parents and the school agree with the some of the provisions in the child’s IEP, but disagree on others. In these situations it is important for the child to receive the related services that are not in dispute in order to further his/her education as quickly as possible.5 Parents who disagree with any portion of the IEP should make it clear verbally and in writing that they do not agree with a certain portion of the IEP plan, but should opt to sign and implement so that the program can begin for the child’s sake. Afterwards, the parent should write a detailed letter to the school and school district documenting their concerns, what their specific requests for the IEP are, and how the IEP team handled their input. The letter should also detail how their requests were received and should also explain that they agreed to the IEP based solely on the fact that an inadequate program is better than none at all or something to that effect.1 All parents are wise to record IEP meetings to have an accurate record of the meeting’s events. When parents and IEP teams cannot agree on what a free, appropriate public education is for their child they may have to resort to a due process hearing. However, this is best saved as a final option and only for extreme circumstances.

Individuals interested in learning about Individualized Education Programs should read our articles on the IEP Process, Least Restrictive Environment, Procedural Safeguards, and Due Process.