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.

Educate Yourself

Parents who educate themselves prior to an IEP have the advantage. Become familiar with the various educational options for children with special needs, especially in your area or school district. Talk to other parents of special needs kids well in advance of your IEP. If you come into the meeting with an idea of what school placement and special services you think best suit your child, you’ll be able to be more active in the discussion and less likely to be overwhelmed.

You Can Dispute IEP Results

No matter how much preparation is done, families are often unhappy with the IEP process, the child’s school placement, or the services provided to the child. If this is the case, you can file a due process complaint, which requires school districts to conduct resolution sessions with you and a member of the IEP team. If an agreement cannot be reached, you can proceed to mediation, or a hearing where an administrative law judge will determine an outcome.

Emphasize Full Disclosure

The bitter relationship that often develops between school districts and parents over appropriate placement can sometimes be avoided when there’s a greater emphasis placed on full disclosure. School districts should openly discuss the various theories and concepts related to educating children with autism, and you should offer truthful information about your child’s behavior outside of school. Withholding information by either side is not only inefficient, but it’s harmful to your child. Making the most appropriate placement for the child should be the ultimate goal.

Areva D. Martin is managing partner of Martin & Martin, LLP in Los Angeles. She practices civil litigation with an emphasis on labor and employment, special education and disability law.