Diagnosis

Does an Autism Diagnosis Mean a Child Needs Special Education Services

If your child was recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you might be wondering what comes next? I work with parents and families on a daily basis, so I know from first-hand experience that you have lots of questions and concerns about the well-being of your child. One of the most common questions I hear from parents relates to their child’s education—does an autism diagnosis mean my child needs special education services? 

Most parents are surprised to hear that the answer is no. While many children with ASD receive special education services, an ASD diagnosis does not automatically qualify a student for special education. With that being said, I want you to find comfort and hope in knowing that there are plenty of resources and services available for children with special needs. Kids with autism have lots of legal rights and protections, especially when it comes to their education. So regardless of the diagnosis, your child can still get a proper education and have access to all of the services that they’re entitled to.

I wrote this comprehensive guide to answer all of your questions on the subject. I’ll start by giving you some background information about the laws in place for special education services. Then we’ll dive deep into the eligibility requirements and additional services beyond special education to accommodate children with ASD. 

Everything You Need to Know About Special Education Services For Children With Autism

Below you’ll find the answers to all of your questions about an ASD diagnosis and how it relates to special education services:

  • Understanding “IDEA” and Why It Matters For an Autism Diagnosis
  • How Special Education Eligibility is Determined
  • What Happens if My Child Doesn’t Qualify For Special Education?
  • Other Available Services

Understanding “IDEA” and Why It Matters For an Autism Diagnosis

Before we continue, I want you to have some background information about IDEA and its impact on special education. IDEA stands for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was initially enacted back in 1975. 

This US federal education law has gone through some changes over the years and was recently revised with amendments in 2004. In fact, the law has been renamed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act. But it’s still known by the original acronym, IDEA.

The law mandates that all states provide eligible children with a “free and appropriate public education to meet their unique individual needs.”

Autism is just one of many disabilities covered under IDEA, meaning an ASD diagnosis is usually enough for a child to access the rights afforded by the law. 

One of the most important parts of this legislation is the parent’s role in their child’s education. As a parent, federal law entitles you to be an equal partner with the public school system when determining an appropriate plan for your child and their needs. In simple terms, this means you can be an active participant in both the planning and monitoring of a tailored education for your child.

Free and Appropriate Public Education

The term “free and appropriate education” is a key part of IDEA. It essentially says that children with special needs have the right to an education that’s tailored to their specific needs. Certain accommodations, modifications, or placements can allow children with ASD to continue their education and make progress through the public school systems.

But “appropriate” doesn’t necessarily mean best or optimal. That’s where IDEA is a little ambiguous. So it’s up to parents, teachers, therapists, and other educators to determine what’s considered appropriate for each specific child. This collaborative process may include some negotiations between parents and the school system. IDEA grants you the right to be an advocate for your child and be included in the decision-making process.

Least Restrictive Environment

Another key aspect of IDEA is the term “least restrictive environment.” This means that every child, regardless of disorder or disability, should be placed in an environment where they have the best opportunity to interact with other children.

In simple terms, children with an ASD diagnosis should still be placed in the general education classrooms to receive an inclusive education with their peers.

Sometimes accommodations or modifications can be made in the classroom for a child with ASD. For example, a paraprofessional or aide may work with the child one-on-one while still remaining in the general education classroom. 

How Special Education Eligibility is Determined

Just because a doctor diagnoses a child with ASD, it doesn’t mean that the child is automatically eligible for special education. To qualify for special education services and an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the child must also meet the criteria as defined by IDEA.

While autism is one of the 13 disability categories under IDEA, there are some exceptions to this rule. Exclusions related to autism are explained in IDEA Section 300.8 – Child With a Disability

In simple terms, a medical disability alone isn’t always the same as an educational disability defined by federal law. If the disorder doesn’t impact the child’s educational process, an IEP is not guaranteed. 

So who determines the eligibility for an IEP

In most cases, a professional in the school district will conduct the evaluation. This can either be done at the parent’s request or at the school’s request. If the request comes from the school district, a parent must give consent before an evaluation begins. 

For example, your child’s pediatrician may initially suspect ASD and refer your family to a specialist. That specialist might be the first person to give the diagnosis. But when you approach the school with this news, the school district may request an evaluation from their own psychologist. If this evaluation shows that the child’s diagnosis will impact their educational progress, then creating an IEP would be the next step.

Whether you’re an educator, parent, or guardian, if you suspect a child has a learning disability it’s important to take action. Here’s a guide I wrote, “What To Do When You Suspect a Child Has a Learning Disability“.

What Happens if My Child Doesn’t Qualify For Special Education?

If the school district doesn’t deem your child eligible for special education services, you still have some options. 

First, you can always request an independent evaluation if you feel like the school district’s evaluation isn’t accurate. If that evaluation doesn’t change anything, then you should see if your child qualifies for special accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Similar to IDEA and IEPs, a medical diagnosis alone doesn’t automatically qualify a child with ASD for a 504 plan. 

However, qualifying disabilities for a 504 plan are much broader than the ones defined by IDEA. Section 504 doesn’t have specific disability classifications for education. 

Students with any disability that can interfere with the child’s ability to learn will generally qualify for accommodations in a 504 plan. While 504 plans aren’t technically considered to be part of special education, the accommodations can still provide your child with the resources they need to receive a proper education. 

Other Available Services

Special education services aren’t the only resources available for children with an ASD diagnosis. As a parent, I want you to fully understand your options to ensure your child gets the best possible care and education. 

Early Intervention Services

If a child younger than three years old has been diagnosed with a developmental delay or a condition that could result in a developmental delay, they may be eligible for early intervention (EI) services. Eligible children can have EI programs provided at no cost to the family. 

These programs vary significantly based on location. But nationwide, EI services are designed to address a child’s specific needs as opposed to what’s normally available in that particular state. 

The purpose of EI is to reduce the disability’s impact on a child’s development. Examples of EI services could include physical therapy, speech and language therapy, applied behavior analysis, psychological evaluations, family training, and more. 

Rights to Assistive Technology

Federal law entitles students with disabilities to assistive technology. This can be defined as any piece of equipment that will increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of students in the classroom. 

School districts are required to identify any technology that would benefit a child when they’re creating an IEP. If they determine that technology will benefit the child’s education, it’s the school district’s responsibility to provide those devices. As a parent, you should always insist that assistive technology services are formally included in a written IEP.

Extended School Year Services

If your child is regressing during off-time from school, they might be entitled to extended school year (ESY) services

ESY programs are offered during long breaks, like summer vacation. The child isn’t taught new skills during the educational sessions. Instead, the services are designed to prevent educational regression during breaks.

This is another reason why it’s so important for families to be involved with their child’s education. If you notice that your child is regressing during breaks, don’t be afraid to speak up and communicate your observations to the school system. 

Conclusion

In many cases, a child with an autism diagnosis will ultimately receive special education services. But an autism diagnosis alone isn’t always enough to make this decision final. There’s still an evaluation process that needs to happen, which will ultimately determine if the child is eligible for an IEP. 

Beyond special education services, there are lots of other options for families to consider. Examples include a 504 plan, early intervention services, assistive technology, and extended school years. As a parent, it’s really important for you to understand your rights, your child’s rights, and be involved in this process. If you still have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask! Comment below or email me! I’m here to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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