Educating Students on the Autism Spectrum: Individuals With Disabilities Act

— Autism Society
Updated on Jul 28, 2009

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, tailored to each child’s individual needs. This law guarantees all children, regardless of their abilities, the right to obtain educational benefits from their educational setting.

As autism affects approximately 1,500,000 individuals in the U.S., and proper implementation of this law is of utmost importance to many families and to the education community at large. For children with autism, it is particularly important to provide opportunities to learn through a variety of educational options - from typical
school settings to more specialized settings.

The Individualized Education Program

No matter the level of disability, the educational program for an individual with autism must be based on the unique needs of that person. To help determine what sort of learning environment would be best for a person with autism, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) should be developed. In the IEP, a collaborative team that includes the classroom teacher, other professionals who work with the child, administrators and the child’s parents or guardians set forth the educational goals, objectives, and evaluation standards for the child. Clearly stated, measurable goals to chart the child’s progress are a vital component of the IEP, which is reviewed annually or more
frequently, if necessary.

All areas of the student’s development should be addressed specifically in the IEP, including academic achievement, social and adaptive behavioral goals, and development of fine and gross motor skills. The development of communication skills (critical for students with autism) should be a vital component of the IEP. It is
important for the IEP to not only address areas of need, but also to outline ways to build upon a child’s strengths in specific subjects or skills. Support services, such as occupational therapy to address the sensory needs of students with autism and speech therapy to advance the student’s ability to understand and use language, must be included in a child’s IEP when appropriate.

The IEP should also delineate any necessary adaptations to the learning environment or to school programming. Examples of adaptations to the learning environment include the physical placement of the student in the classroom, using visuals to enhance communication, or other modifications to the classroom.  Examples of adaptations to the school programming include extending school days, lengthening the school year to include summer months, and/or extending education programs into the home environment.

The Role of Parents and/or Guardians

Parents or appointed guardians should be viewed as vital members of the educational team. They often have a thorough understanding of the nuances of their child’s ability to learn and socialize. Parents, more than anyone else, know the child’s areas of strength and weakness, and they can give valuable input on setting goals for the student.

Frequent communication between parents and teachers is essential to helping the child generalize what is learned in school and at home to other settings. Often parents and teachers will communicate daily through a notebook that the student carries to school and back home each day. Monthly or more frequent meetings to troubleshoot problems and to evaluate the current program and goals may be necessary, too. Ideally, these meetings should include all parties involved in the creation of the child’s IEP. The team should consider exchanging telephone
numbers and e-mail addresses to make communication more immediate and efficient.

Failure is certain when the child with the disability is placed within the regular education setting with no backup support, no specialized training of the teachers, and no education of the classmates (Gresham, 1982).

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