School districts throughout the country will soon welcome back students for a new academic year. This includes an increasing number of special needs children identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Since Congress added autism as a disability category to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, the number of students receiving special education services in this category has increased over 900 percent nationally. Itís critically important that educators understand the provisions for providing legally and educationally appropriate programs and services for students identified with ASD.
Research indicates that education is the most effective treatment/intervention for children with ASD. The most recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) <http://idea.ed.gov/explore/home >entitles all students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE encompasses both procedural safeguards and the studentís individual education program (IEP). The IEP is the cornerstone for the education of a child with ASD. When a student is determined eligible for special education services, an IEP planning team is formed to develop the IEP and subsequently determine placement.
Although clinical diagnoses, psychiatric reports, and treatment recommendations can be helpful in determining eligibility and educational planning, the provisions of IDEA are the controlling authority with regard to decisions for special education. While clinical information is professionally helpful, it is neither legally required nor sufficient for determining educational placement. Therefore, itís especially important for administrators, parents, advocates, teachers and non-school professionals to keep in mind that when it comes to special education, it is state and federal education codes and regulations (not clinical criteria) that determine eligibility and IEP planning decisions. Legal and special education experts recommend the following guidelines to help school districts meet the requirements for providing legally and educationally appropriate programs and services to students with ASD.
1. School districts should ensure that the IEP process follows the procedural requirements of IDEA. This includes actively involving parents in the IEP process and adhering to the time frame requirements for assessment and developing and implementing the studentís IEP. Moreover, parents must be notified of their due process rights. Itís important to recognize that parent-professional communication and collaboration are key components for making educational and program decisions.
2. School districts should make certain that comprehensive, individualized evaluations are completed by school professionals who have knowledge, experience, and expertise in ASD. If qualified personnel are not available, school districts should provide the appropriate training or retain the services of a consultant.
3. School districts should develop IEPs based on the childís unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Goals for a child with ASD commonly include the areas of communication, social behavior, adaptive skills, challenging behavior, and academic and functional skills. The IEP must address appropriate instructional and curricular modifications, together with related services such as counseling, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, physical therapy and transportation needs. Evidence-based instructional strategies should also be adopted to ensure that the IEP is implemented appropriately.
4. School districts should assure that progress monitoring of students with ASD is completed at specified intervals by an interdisciplinary team of professionals who have a knowledge base and experience in autism. This includes collecting evidence-based data to document progress towards achieving IEP goals and to assess program effectiveness.
5. School districts should make every effort to place students in integrated settings to maximize interaction with non-disabled peers. Inclusion with typically developing students is important for a child with ASD as peers provide the best models for language and social skills. However, inclusive education alone is insufficient, evidence-based intervention and training is also necessary to address specific skill deficits. Although the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision of IDEA requires that efforts be made to educate students with special needs in less restrictive settings, IDEA also recognizes that some students may require a more comprehensive program to provide FAPE.
6. School districts should provide on-going training and education in ASD for both parents and professionals. Professionals who are trained in specific methodology and techniques will be most effective in providing the appropriate services and in modifying curriculum based upon the unique needs of the individual child.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2010). Best practice in special needs education. In L. A. Wilkinson, A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism and Asperger syndrome in schools (pp. 127-146). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. http://bestpracticeautism.com
Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2ndEdition (2007).