Education has been shown to be among the most effective treatments for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The most recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) entitles all students with disabilities to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). In fact, the National Research Council (2001) recommends that all children identified with ASD, regardless of severity, be made eligible for special educational services under the IDEA category of autism.
The individualized education program or plan (IEP) is the cornerstone for the education of a child with ASD. It should identify the services a student needs so that he/she may grow and learn during the school year. Parents, teachers and support professionals play a key role in the development, implementation, and evaluation of the child’s IEP. All share the responsibility for monitoring the student’s progress toward meeting specific academic, social, and behavioral goals and objectives in the IEP. Although the type and intensity of services will vary, depending on the student’s age, cognitive and language levels, behavioral needs and family priorities, the IEP should address all areas in which a child needs educational assistance. These include academic and non-academic goals if the services will provide an educational benefit for the student. All areas of projected need are incorporated in the IEP, together with the specific setting in which the services will be provided and the professionals who will provide the service. School districts should ensure that the IEP process follows the procedural requirements of IDEA. This includes actively involving parents in the IEP process and adhering to the time frame requirements for assessment and developing and implementing the student’s IEP. Moreover, parents must be notified of their due process rights. It’s important to recognize that parent-professional communication and collaboration are key components for making educational and program decisions.
The content of an IEP should include the following (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004):
- The IEP should be based on the child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Goals for a child with ASD commonly include the areas of communication, social behavior, adaptive skills, challenging behavior, and academic and functional skills. The IEP must address appropriate instructional and curricular accommodations and modifications, together with related services such as counseling, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, physical therapy and transportation needs. Evidence-based instructional strategies should also be adopted to ensure that the IEP is implemented appropriately.
- A statement of the child's present level of educational performance (both academic and nonacademic aspects of his or her performance).
- Specific goals and objectives designed to provide the appropriate educational services. This includes a statement of annual goals that the student may be expected to reasonably meet during the coming academic year, together with a series of measurable, intermediate objectives for each goal.
- Appropriate objective criteria, evaluation procedures and schedules for determining, at least annually, whether the child is achieving the specific objectives detailed in the IEP.
- A description of all specific special education and related services, including individualized instruction and related supports and services to be provided (e.g., counseling, occupational, physical, and speech/language therapy; transportation) and the extent to which the child will participate in regular educational programs with typical peers.
- Accommodations should be specifically documented in the IEP. Accommodations refer to the adjustments made to ensure that the student has equal access to educational programming by removing, to the extent, possible, barriers to successful classroom performance. Adjustments may be made to (a) instructional methods, teaching style, and curricular materials; (b) classroom and homework assignments; (c) assessment tools and ways of responding; (d) time requirements; and (e) environmental setting. Once accommodations are made, the student with special needs is expected to meet the standards of all students.
- The initiation date and duration of each of the services to be provided (including extended school year services).
- If the student is 16 years of age or older, the IEP must include a description of transitional services (coordinated set of activities designed to assist the student in movement from school to post-school activities).
School districts should assure that progress monitoring of students with ASD is completed at specified intervals by an interdisciplinary team of professionals who have a knowledge base and experience in autism. This includes collecting evidence-based data to document progress towards achieving IEP goals and to assess program effectiveness. School districts should also provide on-going training and education in ASD for both parents and professionals. Professionals who are trained in specific methodology and techniques will be most effective in providing the appropriate services and in modifying curriculum based upon the unique needs of the individual child.
Information and tips on writing and developing measurable IEP goals for learners with ASD are available from the following:
Kabot, S., & Reeve, C. (2014). Curriculum and Program Structure. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 195-218). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Myles, B. S., Adreon, D. A., Hagen, K., Holverstott, J., Hubbard, A., Smith, S. M., et al. (2005). Life journey through autism: An educator’s guide to Asperger syndrome. Arlington, VA: Organization for Autism Research.
National Research Council (2001). Educating children with autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. C. Lord & J. P. McGee (Eds). Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Twachtman-Cullen, D., & Twachtman-Bassett, J. (2011). The IEP from A to Z: How to create meaningful and measurable goals and objectives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wagner, S. (2014). Continuum of Services and Individualized Education Plan Process. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 173-193). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2010). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism and Asperger syndrome in schools. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wilkinson, L. A. (Ed.). (2014). Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents: Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Wilmshurst, L. & Brue, A. (2010). The complete guide to special education: Expert advice on evaluations, IEPs, and helping kids succeed (Second Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is a school psychologist and author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also the editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.