When you have a child with a disability, it may seem that you've been dropped in the middle of a whirlwind of information and buzzwords. You'll hear things such as inclusion, behavior modification, functional analysis, IDEA, IEP, due process, evaluation and sensory integration. There are lengthy federal regulations that need to be read and understood, and disability magazines filled with one view or another about controversial issues. Some of the decisions you'll need to make may come from areas where you don't feel adequately informed. Of these important decisions, many will be in the area of education.
Educating children with autism is a challenge for both parents and teachers. These children are individuals first and foremost with unique strengths and weaknesses. Some may be of average to above-average intelligence, while others may be below average. Academic goals need to be tailored to that individual's intellectual ability and functioning level.
The first step in obtaining special education services is for your child to be evaluated. The evaluation can be done when your child is first suspected of having a disability (pre-placement evaluation) or when your child's level of functioning changes in one or more areas (re-evaluation). There are two ways in which a child can be evaluated under the regulations of IDEIA:
- The parent can request an evaluation by calling or writing the director of special education or the principal of the child's school. If you call, also put your request in writing, keeping a copy for yourself. This should be part of your routine communication with anyone concerning your child's education. Follow-up all telephone calls with a letter summarizing the conversation. This way, the other party has the opportunity to make corrections to any misunderstood information, and you have a paper trail in case of a disagreement with the school system.
- The school system may also determine that an evaluation is necessary. If so, they must receive written permission from the parent before the evaluation can be conducted.
An evaluation should be conducted by a multidisciplinary team or group of persons, which must include at least one teacher or other specialist with specific knowledge in the area of the suspected disability. IDEIA requires that no single procedure be used as the sole criterion for determining an appropriate education program for a child. The law also requires that the child be assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including but not limited to, health, vision, hearing, communication abilities, motor skills, and social and/or emotional status.
If the parents disagree with the results of the evaluation, they may choose to obtain an independent evaluation at public or private expense. A list of professionals that meet state requirements may be requested from your school or you can choose one on your own. If the professional chosen meets appropriate criteria set up by the state, then the school must consider his/her evaluation in developing an IEP.
If a child already receives special education services, the above standards apply for re-evaluation. A re-evaluation must take place at least every three years. It may, however, be conducted more often if the parent or teacher makes a written request. An evaluation may also be done in specific areas of concern. A re-evaluation of all areas of suspected need or one for particular areas may occur if parents feel their child is not meeting the short-term objectives of the current IEP.
Parents who feel their child's placement should be changed need to have a basis for their request. For example, a child may be exhibiting problem behaviors that were not previously exhibited. It may be necessary to reassess his placement or develop new behavior techniques to address this area. As a first step, an evaluation by a specialist familiar with ASD behaviors could be requested. The IEP can then be changed to reflect the results.
For example, a child may have an annual goal to increase her language production and comprehension skills, but is not meeting the objectives developed in her IEP for this goal. The parent may wish to request that a re-evaluation be done with a speech therapist who has knowledge of autism. It may be determined from the results that an increase in the number of hours of therapy per week is necessary.
A re-evaluation of all areas of suspected need may come prior to the scheduled annual IEP meeting. If the child has made significant progress since the last evaluation, the treatment, placement and therapy recommendations may not be applicable. A re-evaluation addressing all areas would become the basis for a more appropriate IEP.
Parents may suggest that professionals with knowledge of autism be present at the school for these evaluations. The school does not have to use the suggested professional, but may appreciate the assistance in finding a qualified person. As explained above, if the parents disagree with the school's evaluation, they do have a right to acquire an independent evaluation.
The evaluation (school or independent) should become the basis for writing the child's IEP. The IEP must be prepared and agreed upon before placement decisions are made. The placement may not be chosen first, then the IEP written to fit the placement decision.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.