Individual Education Plans came about as a result of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) passed by Congress in 2004. The act calls for every public school district to provide a free and appropriate public education to all students, including those with special needs. In today’s environment, many of those special needs students have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In order to ensure that those children’s needs are being met, IDEA requires that an IEP must be separately designed and written for every qualifying student that outlines:
- Present level of academic and functional performance
- Measurable annual goals and the metrics used to quantify progress
- Special-education and related services required to meet those goals
- Modifications to equipment or other school programs that will be required
- Other data regarding scheduling and attendance plans
- Transition plans as the child progresses toward graduation
These documents can run to twenty pages and have up to thirteen different sections covering those aspects in excruciating detail. They can be a real challenge for parents of kids with ASD to understand and interpret, but they are designed to give those kids an equal opportunity to education with their peers. If you are one of those parents, understanding the process and purpose of individual education plans will give you real power to help your child navigate the school system and get the best possible education.
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Is Your Child Eligible For an IEP?
The IEP process starts with a determination of eligibility. Your child won’t receive an IEP unless they meet state and federal requirements qualifying them as having special needs. This part of the process can be the most painful and aggravating for parents, requiring testing, evaluation, and frequently some debate among various experts over both the nature and the degree of any disabilities.
Since autism was added as a diagnostic category in the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the mid-1980s, it has been well-established as a qualifying disability for special education assistance. However, since autism is a spectrum disorder, it can still be difficult to diagnose. The extent of services that schools are required to provide may vary significantly depending on the level of support a patient with ASD requires.
States are required under IDEA to assist with the process of getting a diagnosis, however. Child Find is a program (the exact processes vary from state to state) that seeks out possible special needs students and attempts to identify them in the school system. But you can also requested that your child be evaluated and the state is required to conduct an appropriate evaluation.
IEPs Are Collaborative Documents
IEPs are written with input from teachers, therapists, doctors, and other specialists who collaborate to decide how best to provide services. Together with the student and parents, these people form the IEP team that both designs the program and evaluates its effectiveness.
Although the teams are required to work for consensus, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that IEPs comply with legal requirements falls to school officials. This can create tensions between parents and the schools, a frequent source of complaints about the process.
An important precept of the IEP is that the programs described must fit a standard known as the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE is the principle that individuals with disabilities should, to the greatest extent possible, be educated together with their peers without disabilities. This is a nod to the idea that separate but equal is never truly equal. Placing IEP students in general education classrooms is usually accomplished through accommodations such as:
- Special education co-teachers in the room
- Assistive devices for hearing or vision
- Special learning materials such as large-print textbooks or e-readers
- Additional classroom protocols for individual assistance
But there are still circumstances in which separation is necessary, either for the benefit of the IEP student or their classmates. IEPs seek to minimize this but may not do away with it entirely. For example, if a student with ASD is too disruptive to allow their classmates to hear and understand the teacher in class, it may be more appropriate for them to be in a separate classroom with individualized assistance.
An IEP can also call for services to be provided outside the classroom if they are deemed necessary and proper to the child’s education. For example, many IEPs support applied behavior analysis services outside of school when those therapies are determined to be beneficial to the student’s progress in school.
IEPs Are Not Static
IEPs are subject to periodic review. This ensures that they continue to meet the student’s needs even as they progress through both their educational advancement and courses of treatment that may alter how their symptoms present and effect them. It’s been shown that many children with autism show improvement over time, particularly when they receive ABA therapy consistently and from an early age.
About ten percent of kids with autism show dramatic improvement by the time they reach their teen years. This has obvious impacts on the level and type of support they require. Differences in classroom structure and instructional styles and with their peer groups as they move from grade to grade might also change the way they are assisted.
IEPs for students with ASD frequently include elements intended to:
- Diminish schedule changes and provide more structure than is necessary for general education students.
- Include in-home therapies or training for parents to ensure continuity of care.
- Include training or instruction for teachers on ABA reinforcement techniques to ensure consistency.
- Offer social skills support to manage and improve interactions between the student and their peers.
- Outline teaching techniques that take advantage of communications skills that students with ASD may be more familiar with, such as visual presentations of problems or concepts.
As most parents of children with autism understand, it can require a lot of experimentation to determine the right way to approach those kids and manage their behavior. The ability to alter IEPs and update them with the best methods is a valuable part of the program, and you should not hesitate to take advantage of it to keep pace with how your child learns and advances.