Educational Options

by Marlene Gundlach on August 26, 2008

There are special education laws in place to protect the rights of autistic children. Knowing what these laws are and what types of services they protect is the first step in getting your autistic child the education they need and deserve. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Determining Eligibility

The IDEA was established to improve the academic options for children with disabilities. A child is eligible for services under IDEA if they are diagnosed with a qualified disability and because of that disability, need special education services. There are 13 disability categories, and to qualify, a child must match the criteria in one of those 13 categories. The 13 categories are:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-Blindness
  3. Hearing Impairment
  4. Mental Retardation
  5. Orthopedic Impairment
  6. Speech or Language Impairment
  7. Visual Impairment
  8. Deafness
  9. Emotional Disturbance
  10. Learning Disability
  11. Traumatic Brain Injury
  12. Multiple Disabilities
  13. Other Health Impairment

In addition to being in one of the 13 categories, a parent also has to show that the child’s education is adversely affected by the disability. If your child has maintained decent grades in school, the school may not see a need for special education services. However, as a parent you must also see that your autistic child’s socialization, language skills, and level of communication are being addressed. Requesting an evaluation is the first step in determining eligibility.

Steps for Gaining Access to Services

Your child’s eligibility will be determined by a team of professionals from the school. This team may include the child’s teachers, principal, school counselors, school psychologist, doctors, and of course you, the parents. Your particular school may already have a team in place to complete this step in the eligibility process and may have a pre-determined plan to follow. The steps may include:

  • First, parents or school personnel refer the child for evaluation. 
  • The team will address the areas of concern and develop a plan for assessing the child.
  • The child will receive a comprehensive evaluation by the team to provide the necessary information about the areas of difficulty. The assessment can include a combination of observations, interviews, and specialized testing.
  • Upon completion of the evaluation, the team will meet to discuss whether your child will benefit from an IEP (Individualized Education Program). All members involved with the process, including parents, will be present to study the results of the assessment and develop a plan that is appropriate for your child’s individual case.
  • During this meeting, it will be determined if your child meets the eligibility requirements for special education under one of the 13 categories of IDEA.
  • If the child is eligible, an IEP will be developed. This is a plan designed specifically for your child and includes the necessary accommodations that will help him/her be successful in school.
  • The plan will take effect once parents agree with the steps laid out in the IEP.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

It is the school’s responsibility to ensure that a child’s IEP is being carried out just as it was written. Parents should always have a copy of the IEP, as should each teacher and service provider that works with the child. This way, everyone involved knows his/her responsibility within the plan. As part of the 2004 Reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, parents must now be included as members of the group that “makes decisions on the educational placement of the child”.

A child with an IEP has annual goals set and these are measured and reported to parents. This allows all involved to gauge if the student is making progress toward the goals. The IEP itself must be reviewed by the IEP team at least once a year. Parents do have the right to request that this be done before the annual date. When this meeting is held, parents and all team members must be invited to attend. Parents are encouraged to suggest changes in either the goals presented or the means by which these goals will be met. If parents are not satisfied, they may request additional testing or evaluation, or can ask for a due process hearing. Should all avenues be exhausted and parents still feel their child is not succeeding under the current IEP, they have the option to file a complaint with the state education agency.

An autistic child on an IEP must be reevaluated at least once every three years; this process is called a triennial. This is to determine if the child stills meets the requirements as a “child with a disability” as defined in the IDEA. Parents and teachers should not hesitate to request that this evaluation take place sooner if they feel conditions require more immediate action.

When the correct steps are taken to develop and implement an IEP, it is an invaluable tool for autistic children and those who educate them. 

Section 504

Section 504 is a federal law that was established to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities when participating in programs that receive federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education. It is intended to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students who qualify.

Who is Eligible?

If children do not qualify for IDEA, they may still be able to receive services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A student is eligible for Section 504 if they have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In the case of an autistic child, the major life activity is education. To determine eligibility, the school must perform an assessment. The assessment process for Section 504 is less extensive when compared to the one performed under IDEA.

How Does a Parent Access Services Under Section 504?

The process begins the same as IDEA with a referral to the school’s special education team. This request can be made by the child’s parents or teachers. If the team determines that the autism limits a child’s learning, then a 504 Plan is designed to accommodate the educational programs and provide necessary aids and services.

What Happens After the 504 Plan is Written?

Under Section 504, the accommodations made for a student come directly from the regular classroom teacher. Some sample accommodations may include:

  • Adjusting the number of homework problems without changing the level or content
  • Extended time for test-taking
  • A quiet place for the child to work with minimal or no distractions
  • Adjust seating arrangements
  • Meeting with school counselor

What Do IDEA and Section 504 Have In Common?

Not all autistic children will qualify for services under both Section 504 and IDEA. The programs are both set up to meet the same goals. Under both programs, public schools are required to provide free and appropriate education under the least restrictive environment. Schools need to provide accommodations to keep the autistic child’s educational process as normal as possible. Both programs also provide opportunities for parents to request that changes are made to the plan their child is following.

Which Plan Should We Choose?

Ultimately, the decision as to which program to follow is determined by the school and parents. Some autistic children will perform better under the IDEA because it offers a more extensive assessment process and provides the IEP for documentation. There are also more services available to students under the IDEA. However, if it is determined that your child does not qualify for services under IDEA, Section 504 is definitely a beneficial option. Because the assessment process is less involved, Section 504 is easier to implement and provides opportunities within the child’s regular classroom.

Much of this information was gathered from the Children and ADHD website. These same educational supports are in place for children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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