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).

Key Elements to Create an Appropriate Educational Environment for Students with ASD

  • A teacher who sets high expectations for the child and who encourages peer interaction and mentoring
    as appropriate.
  • Special and regular educators who collaborate in instruction and who have a sense of ownership in the process
  • Individualized instruction with decisions based on careful collection and analysis of data focused on measurable
    goals and behaviors
  • Special services are brought into the classroom to facilitate generalization and to prevent stigmatization
  • A collaborative team approach -including regular and special educators, school administrators, supplemental school personnel, and parents or guardians -is employed to set goals and to evaluate progress of the IEP
  • An assumption that all children can acquire skills if instruction is modified to help the child succeed
  • Adapting the school environment by extending school hours or the school year and coordinating with home caregivers.


Goldstein, H., & Ferrell, D. (1987). Augmenting communicative interaction between handicapped and non-handicapped preschool children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 52, 200-122.

Goldstein, H., & Wiskstrom, S. (1986). Peer intervention effects on communicative interaction among handicapped and nonhandicapped preschoolers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 19(2), 209-214.

Grandin, T. (1988). Teaching tips from a recovered autistic. Focus on Autistic Behavior; 1, 1-8.

Gray, C. (1995). Teaching Children with Autism to “Read” Social Situations. In K.A. Quill (Ed.), Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies to Enhance Communication and Socialization (pp. 219-241). Albany, NY:Delmar Publishers.

Gray, C., & Garand, J. (1993). Social stories: Improving responses of students with autism with accurate social information. Focus on Autistic Behavior; 8, 1-10.

Gresham, F. (1982). Misguided mainstreaming: The case for social skills training with handicapped children [abstract]. Exceptional Children, 48.

Harris, S.l. (1994). Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Hodgdon, L.A. (1995). Visual Strategies for Improving J Communication. Troy, MI: QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Siegel, B. (1996). The World of the Autistic Child: Understanding and Treating Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Wagner, S. (1998). Inclusive Programming for Elementary Students with Autism. Atlanta: Emory Autism Resource Center.

Resources for More Information

There are many resources for professionals to utilize for additional information on educating children with autism. Listed below are several of the books, videos, and websites available on this topic.

Helpful Responses to Some of the Behaviors of Individuals with Autism, by Nancy J. Dalrymple, 1992, Indiana
Resource Center for Autism.

Adapting Curriculum & Instruction in Inclusive Classrooms: A Teacher’s Desk Reference, y C. Deschenes, D.G.
Ebeling, & J. Sprague, 1994, ISDD-CSCI.

Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism, by Temple Grandin, 1996, Vintage Books.

The Original Social Story Book, by Carol Gray, 1993, Future Education.

The New Social Stories, by Carol Gray, 1994, Future Education.

Inclusion: 450 Strategies for Success: A Practical Guide for All Educators Who Teach Students with Disabilities, by
Peggy A. Hammeken, 1997, Peytral Publications.

Siblings of Children with Autism: A Guide for Families, by Sandra L. Harris, 1994, Woodbine House. (1995 Literary Achievement Award, Autism Society of America)

Visual Strategies for Improving Communication, by Linda A. Hodgdon, 1995, QuirkRoberts Publishing.

Autism Through the Lifespan: The Eden Model, by David L. Holmes, 1998, Woodbine House. (1998 Literary
Achievement Award, Autism Society of America)

Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies for Initiating Positive Interactions and Improving Learning
Opportunities, edited by Robert L. Koegel and Lynn Kern Koegel, 1996, Paul H Brookes Publishing Co.

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Integration Dysfunction, by Carol Stock Kranowitz, 1998, Perigee Books.

Behavioral Interventions for Young Children with Autism: A Manual for Parents and Educating Students with Autism
Professionals, edited by Catherine Maurice, Gina Green, and Stephen C. Luce, 1996, Pro Ed.

Children with Autism: A Parents’Guide, edited by Michael D. Powers, 1989, Woodbine House. (1990 Literary Achievement Award, Autism Society of America)

Teaching Children with Autism: Strategies to Enhance Communication and Socialization, edited by Kathleen Ann Quinn, 1995, Delmar Publishers.

How to Reach and Teach All Students in the Inclusive Classroom: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Lessons and Activities for Teaching Students with Diverse Learning Needs, by Sandra F. Rief & Julie A. Heimburge, 1996, The Center for Applied Research in Education.

Social Behavior in Autism (Current Issues in Autism), edited by Eric Schopler & Gary B. Mesibov, 1986, Plenum Publishing Corp.

Learning and Cognition in Autism (Current Issues in Autism), edited by Eric Schopler & Gary B. Mesibov, 1995, Plenum Publishing Corp.

Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism? (Current Issues in Autism), edited by Eric Schopler, Gary B. Mesibov, & Linda J. Kunce, 1998, Plenum Publishing Corp.

The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence M. Siegel, 1999, Nolo Press.

Inclusive Programming for Elementary Students with Autism, by Sheila Wagner, 1998, Emory Autism Resource

 A Sense of Belonging: Including Students with Autism in Their School Community (20 minute video), 1997,
Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

Autism: Being Friends (8 minute video), 1991, Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

Breakthroughs: How to Reach Students with Autism (25 minute video), featuring Karen Sewell, awarded “1998 Teacher of the Year,” Autism Society of America, Attainment Productions, 1998, Verona, WI


The Autism Society of America wishes to thank the following professionals for their contributions
to the content of this booklet:

  • Margaret Creedon, Ph.D., Easter Seal Therapeutic Day School
  • Andrew Egel, Ph.D., Professor of Education, University of Maryland
  • David L. Holmes, Ph.D., President/Executive Director, Eden Family of Services
  • Gary B. Mesibov, Ph.D., Director/Professor, Division TEACCH, University of North Carolina
  • Cathy L. Pratt, Ph.D., Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
  • Frank Robbins, Ph.D., Director, Quabbin Valley Educational Consultants
  • Eric Schopler, Ph.D., Founder/Professor, Division TEACCH, University of North Carolina

Autism Society of America 
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 300
Bethesda, MD 20814-3067

The Autism Society of America. ASA is very grateful to the American Contract Bridge League for
underwriting the original publication of this document in booklet form and other publications
associated with our “Public Awareness of Autism in the Schools” Campaign, 2000-2001. This document
can be found on the web site of the Autism Society of America free for download and duplication.