Your Child's Rights
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was most recently revised in 2004 (and, in fact, renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, but most people still refer to it as IDEA). The law mandates that the state provide all eligible children with a free and appropriate public education that meets their unique individual needs.
The IDEA specifies that a child is legally entitled to receive early intervention services or special education services if the child meets the state eligibility requirements that define disability. Autism is mentioned specifically in the IDEA as a condition that constitutes a disability. Therefore, if your child has been diagnosed with an ASD, this diagnosis is generally sufficient to determine that your child is entitled to the rights afforded by the IDEA.
The IDEA establishes an explicit role for you as a parent in planning and monitoring your child's individual education program. You are entitled to be treated as an equal partner in deciding on an educational plan that contains the elements that your child needs. This provision enables you to be a powerful advocate for your child. It also means that you, as a parent, must be not only an active participant, but an informed and knowledgeable participant of the IDEA process as well.
What is a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE)?
The key word here is appropriate. Your child is entitled to an appropriate education---one that is tailored to your child's special needs. Your child is entitled to an appropriate placement---one that will allow your child to make educational progress.
The problem is that the determination of what is appropriate to the needs of your child is not always straightforward. Determining which services and interventions are appropriate for your child, and therefore which ones will be provided for your child, is a collaborative process that may involve considerable negotiation.
What is “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE)?
Your child is entitled to the least restrictive environment. This means that your child should be placed in the environment 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. A child with a disability, if appropriate, should be mainstreamed to take classes with other public school students without disabilities. This can sometimes be accomplished with accommodations, or even a one-on-one aide to assist your child. The aide should be trained and educated in autism.
Again, what is appropriate in this case depends on your child's unique needs. It may be more appropriate for your child to be placed in a special education program, in a special needs school, or in a home instruction program, rather than the regular education classroom.
Early Intervention Services
The first educational placement for a young child on the autistic spectrum is usually made through an Early Intervention program. The IDEA provides federal grants to states that institute programs to provide early intervention services for children with disabilities, including autism. Any child younger than three years of age who has a developmental delay or a physical or mental condition likely to result in developmental delay is eligible to receive early intervention services. If your child is determined to be eligible, these early intervention services must be provided to you at no cost.
EI service offerings vary widely. They should, however, be determined by the child's needs, not just what happens to be available or customary in your area. The document that spells out these needs and the services that will be provided to meet them is the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), which should be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child. The IFSP is a written document that describes your child's current levels of functioning and anticipated outcomes (goals) and enumerates the specific services that will be provided to meet the skill-based needs of your child and the needs of your family.
Early intervention services may be directed either toward your child or your entire family. Early intervention services for your child may include special instruction such as ABA, speech and language instruction, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychological evaluation. Early intervention services for families may include training to help the family reinforce or generalize the child's new skills and counseling to help the family adapt to the changed circumstances associated with having a disabled child. Early intervention services are aimed at minimizing the impact of disabilities on the development of your child.
Special Education Services
The IDEA requires that states provide special education services to children with disabilities beginning at the age of three. Special education services are provided by local school districts. Therefore, if your child has been receiving early intervention services through the state early intervention office, you will stop working with this office, and you will begin to work with the special education department within your local school district.
The focus of special education is different from that of early intervention. Whereas early intervention focuses on the entire family and seeks to minimize the overall developmental impact of your child's disability, special education services ensure that your child receives an adequate education, regardless of disabilities or special needs.
The document that spells out your child's needs and how these needs will be met is the individualized education plan (IEP). Like the IFSP in Early Intervention programs, the IEP describes your child's strengths and weaknesses, sets out goals and objectives, and details how these can be met within the context of the school system. Unlike the IFSP, the IEP is almost entirely about what happens within school walls.