Monday, July 6, 2020

Legal and Appropriate Educational Programs for Students with Autism


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Since Congress added autism as a disability category to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the number of students receiving special education services in this category has increased over 900 percent nationally. The number of students receiving assistance under the special education category of autism over the past decade has increased from 1.5 percent to 9 percent of all identified disabilities. Autism now ranks fourth among all IDEA disability categories for students age 6-21. It’s critically important that parents and educators understand the provisions for providing legally and educationally appropriate programs and services for students identified with autism.
Research indicates that education is the most effective treatment/intervention for children with ASD. The most recent re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) entitles all students with disabilities to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE encompasses both procedural safeguards and the student’s individual education program (IEP). The IEP is the cornerstone for the education of a child with autism. When a student is determined eligible for special education services, an IEP planning team is formed to develop the IEP and subsequently determine placement.
Although clinical diagnoses, psychiatric reports, and treatment recommendations can be helpful in determining eligibility and educational planning, the provisions of IDEA are the controlling authority with regard to decisions for special education. While clinical information is professionally helpful, it is neither legally required nor sufficient for determining educational placement. Therefore, it’s especially important for administrators, parents, advocates, teachers and non-school professionals to keep in mind that when it comes to special education, it is state and federal education codes and regulations (not clinical criteria) that determine eligibility and IEP planning decisions. 

According to IDEA regulations, the definition of autism is as follows:
(c)(1)(i) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in this section.

(ii) A child who manifests the characteristics of ‘‘autism’’ after age 3 could be diagnosed as having ‘‘autism’’ if the criteria in paragraph (c)(1)(i) of this section are satisfied.
Guidelines

Legal and special education experts recommend the following guidelines to help school districts meet the requirements for providing legal and appropriate educational programs and services to students with autism.
1. 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.
2. School districts should make certain that comprehensive, individualized evaluations are completed by school professionals who have knowledge, experience, and expertise in autism. If qualified personnel are not available, school districts should provide the appropriate training or retain the services of a consultant.
3. School districts should develop IEPs based on the child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Goals for a child with autism 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 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.
4. School districts should assure that monitoring of student progress 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.
5. School districts should make every effort to place students in integrated settings to maximize interaction with non-disabled peers. Inclusion with typically developing students is important for a child with autism as peers provide the best models for language and social skills. However, inclusive education alone is insufficient, evidence-based intervention and training is also necessary to address specific skill deficits. Although the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision of IDEA requires that efforts be made to educate students with special needs in less restrictive settings, IDEA also recognizes that some students may require a more comprehensive program to provide FAPE. 
6. School districts should provide on-going training and education in autism 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.
Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Key References and Further Reading
Individuals with Disabilities EducationImprovement Act of 2004. Pub. L. No. 108-446, 108th Congress, 2nd Session. (2004). 
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.

Mandlawitz, M. R. (2002). The impact of the legal system on educational programming for young children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 495-508.
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.

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). Best practice in special needs education. In L. A. Wilkinson, A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism and Asperger syndrome in schools (pp. 127-146). 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.

Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). Best practice in special education. In L. A. Wilkinson, A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools (pp. 157-200). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Zirkel, P. (2014). Legal Issues Under IDEA. In L. A. Wilkinson (Ed.), Autism spectrum disorder in children and adolescents:  Evidence-based assessment and intervention in schools (pp. 243-257). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 
Yell, M. L., Katsiyannis, A, Drasgow, E, Herbst, M. (2003). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate programs for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 182-191.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and  Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBTHe is also editor a best-selling text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and AdolescentsEvidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
©Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD

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