Ensuring a Free and Appropriate Education for Your Special Needs Child

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Updated on Dec 17, 2013

Today, one in 166 individuals is diagnosed with autism, a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person’s lifetime. Autism, which is part of a group of disorders called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), is more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls.

It impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others, and it’s associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe. Some children with autism struggle to learn to count to 20 by the age of 5.

Giving these children an appropriate education is a daunting task. In addition to coming to terms with the fact that their child is different, parents must learn a foreign set of terms and navigate a sea of differing opinions about the best way to educate the child. Just dipping the toe into the waters unleashes a flood of alphabet soup: LRE, TSA, APE, IEP, IDEA, and more. What does it all mean and where do you start?

Consider All Your Options

When parents meet with school district representatives for the first time to consider their child’s individual education program (IEP), they are faced with many confusing choices. Should you choose the least restrictive environment (LRE) over a costly private therapeutic school? Do you want your child fully included in regular classes, or enrolled in a special day class with only children with special needs? Or, should you go with the collaborative model? Classroom modifications or adaptations? Should your child have a temporary support assistant (TSA)? Should he take adaptive physical education (APE) or regular P.E. classes? Do your research to find out what you think is best for your child.

You Don’t Have to Reach a Decision Alone

The Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) requires that children with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education.” But deciding which school placement is best for a child with autism is almost impossible for parents to do … alone. The choice of a child’s placement is a decision parents and school district specialists should arrive at together, in agreement, after a thorough series of evaluations performed by the school district, and if necessary, private consultants as well.

Diagnosis Is Key

There is fairly consistent agreement that intensive early intervention is the only proven method of increasing the chances that a child with autism will be mainstreamed in a general education class, which is the preferred model for most school districts. Many districts even provide special preschool classes for children who are diagnosed early. After a child is diagnosed, parents, school district representatives and others such as teachers or speech therapists, get together for an IEP meeting to determine what they believe will work best for the child academically. If you have hired private assessors, such as speech pathologists or therapists, they are also welcome to present their findings at the IEP.

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