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Autism and Education: What Can You Expect From Your Town’s School System?

Autism and Education: What Can You Expect From Your Town’s School System?

By Jeffrey R. Robinson, Ph.D.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Massachusetts law require school districts to provide each child with a disability a free, appropriate, and public education. In addition, in July 2006 An Act To Address the Special Education Needs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders took effect. This law required Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) teams to consider and address seven specific areas of need that often affect children with autism:

* The verbal and nonverbal communication needs of the student.
* The need to develop social interaction/social skills.
* The student’s sensory needs.
* Needs resulting from resistance to environmental or changes in routine.
* Needs resulting from exhibiting repetitive, self-stimulatory, or stereotyped movements.

The need for positive behavioral supports and interventions to address interfering behaviors.

Other areas of need consistent with the Autism Spectrum Disorder that impacts their social and emotional development and their ability to be educated within the general educational curriculum.

Regardless of the diagnosis and any evaluations conducted prior to your child’s enrollment in public school, the school district will want to conduct their own assessments to determine your child’s abilities and deficits, and the extent to which it will impact his/her ability to benefit from regular education.

Once their assessments are completed, a team of professionals (e.g., classroom teacher, speech therapist, school psychologist, occupational therapist, and others depending upon your child’s needs) will come together to discuss their findings and recommendations. These professionals, along with the school administration and you, the parents, will form the nucleus of your child’s IEP Team.

The IEP Team is charged with the responsibility of developing specific objectives and goals, and incorporating them into the educational plan. The IEP is a legally binding contract between the school district and the parents to provide a specific set of services, supports, and interventions that are designed to instruct your child to meet the identified objectives and goals. Each service your child receives is enumerated by duration of contact (with professional staff), the setting, and the frequency (e.g., times per week).

Parents should consider a few other IEP components. Will your child require an extended school year? If your child is at risk of substantial regression because of the time away from school during the summer, the IEP team should consider services during the summer. Many school districts have summer programs for children who are at risk of meeting the substantial regression criteria.

Another consideration is whether your child’s disability results in behavior that would be a violation of the school district’s code of conduct. Some children with autism exhibit behavioral extremes resulting from frustration, an inability to effectively communicate, and visual and auditory experiences that adversely affect their sensory system.

If this describes your child, it is highly recommended to discuss the school’s response to your child’s behavior in advance. Too often parents are called to remove their child from school due to behavioral excesses that negatively impact the child’s classroom. Should this be the school response, it may be a signal that the school is ill-equipped to effectively address the behavioral challenges your child presents.

A third consideration is transportation. A school district is obligated to offer transportation services. It may be in the form of specialized transportation or a monitor on the regular school bus (e.g., depending upon the age of the child and the parent’s ability or willingness to provide transportation). Once all terms of the IEP have been agreed upon, both the school district representative and parents sign the agreement. The term of the IEP is one year, and it provides the educational blueprint for your child during that year.

Other aspects of the IEP process include quarterly reporting of progress toward meeting the objectives and goals by all service providers and the classroom teacher. Most importantly, parents should be aware of their rights as it pertains to their child’s IEP.

Regardless of the timing, parents have the right to reconvene the team at any point during the year. The request must be made in writing to the special education director or administrator. The right to reconvene the team is two-way. The school may also request to reconvene the team if there’s been a significant and unexpected change in the child’s behavioral or educational presentation. During the supplemental meeting, if the school district proposes a change to the signed IEP, parents have the right to reject the proposal and exert their “stay put” right. In essence, nothing can change until there is an agreement reached through the team process or the result of a bureaucratic decision through the Bureau of Special Education Appeals.

Autism services in public school at its best are supportive and nurturing, delivering the requisite academic and support services that enable your child to be successfully educated with their typically aged peers in an inclusive setting. At its worst, the process is divisive, antagonistic, and incredibly adversarial, rife with rejected educational plans, independent evaluations by content experts, legal bills, and hearings with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals.

As with most things in life, the educational experience for parents of children with autism is somewhere in the middle. As a parent, you are your child’s best and most important advocate. If you begin to feel overwhelmed by the process, know there are resources you can access to help you through the process. The Federation for Children with Special Needs is an organization that can provide guidance as you navigate the special education maze.

Jeffrey R. Robinson, Ph.D. is CEO of Behavioral Concepts. BCI provides Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services to Central Massachusetts children with autism and their families.

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