Diagnosis

Understanding the Autism Evaluation and Assessment Process for Special Education

If you believe your child has autism, you may wonder how this affects the child’s educational future. As part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government guarantees that all children with qualifying disabilities have the right to receive a free public school education that is appropriate for their needs. Autism fits within the parameters of IDEA as a qualifying disability.

Typically, school districts will use the special education classroom to meet the child’s educational needs under IDEA. As part of this assessment, students may spend part or all of the school day in the special education classroom. The final determination of the student’s needs will depend on an evaluation process at the school.

As a parent or guardian, you cannot simply tell the school district that you believe your child has autism to begin using special education classes. Your child must go through an assessment process. The school uses this assessment to determine the best path forward for the child’s educational process. We will help you understand exactly what this assessment entails and your role in it.

Understanding How the School Performs the Autism Evaluation Process

While obtaining my master’s in teaching with a focus on special education and behavioral disorders at Seattle Pacific University, I gained a passion for helping students with autism. I choose to dedicate my professional life to trying to help these students.

Having worked for many years in a large public school system in Washington state, I have extensive experience with helping children with autism find the benefits they need in the classroom. I appreciate the dedication of special education teachers and school administrators in helping students with autism achieve success. I also appreciate the passion of parents and guardians in advocating for their children. 

Ultimately, the best path forward for the child depends largely on performing the evaluation process successfully. Students with a diagnosis of autism have such a wide range of potential symptoms that it is extremely important to have a personalized plan in place for the student’s best chance at success in school. The autism assessment process delivers the required individualization.

  • Diagnosing a Child With Autism
  • Performing the Special Education Evaluation for Autism
  • Creating the Child’s IEP
  • What Should I Do If the School Denies My Request for Special Education Services?

Diagnosing a Child With Autism

Before seeking to enroll a child in special education classes to help with autism symptoms, parents or guardians may want to seek a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Parents who have concerns about their child who is showing some early signs of autism will want to speak to a doctor about these issues. Early diagnosis of autism is important for the child’s educational future.

As we mentioned earlier, the federal government considers autism a disability under IDEA. According to the Ohio Department of Education, autism is a developmental disability that leads to communication and social difficulties. Such challenges can involve both verbal and nonverbal communication. This disability may significantly affect the child’s ability to perform successfully in the classroom.

For a parent or guardian who believes his or her child may have autism, a screening process can lead to the diagnosis. Understand that no specific medical test exists that would definitively diagnose a child with ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Seeing a Doctor for an ASD Screening

A trained medical professional usually can perform the diagnosis. The majority of pediatricians and family doctors will be able to make the diagnosis determination. A doctor will study the child’s behavior to look for signs of ASD. The doctor also will review the child’s developmental history when considering an autism diagnosis, which may include having the parent or guardian answer specific questions about the child hitting developmental milestones.

Some doctors may be able to make a diagnosis of ASD for a child as young as 2 years old. Other children do not show the signs until they are much older. When it comes to making an assessment about autism for a child to qualify for special education classes, the earlier the doctor can make the diagnosis, the better.

Having the School Initiate the ASD Screening

As another option, a child may qualify for special education services in the school when a school official makes a recommendation for an ASD assessment. IDEA spells out that schools must do everything possible to identify children who need special education services.

It also is possible for the parent or guardian to initiate a request with the school for the assessment. However, the school does not have to accept this request. Always make this request in writing, so you have an official documentation of the request, just in case you choose to challenge the school’s refusal.

Remember that the school will be screening to determine how the ASD disability is affecting the child’s ability to learn. Having a pediatrician’s diagnosis of autism for your child may be a helpful starting point for the school’s assessment, but it will not guarantee the school will place your child in special education classes. The disability must affect the child’s ability to function in the classroom.

Performing the Special Education Evaluation for Autism

Once the school district agrees to the evaluation and assessment for your child, you should receive a written notice from the school. You must respond with an agreement in writing to allow the assessment to take place. The school then must complete the evaluation within a set time period, usually 60 days. (Each state sets its own deadline for completing the evaluation.)

To perform the assessment, multiple people will participate in the process. Educational professionals on the team will have experience in measuring the effect of autism symptoms on the child’s ability to have success in the classroom. You also will be part of this team. No one knows your child better than you, and you will have valuable insight into your child’s needs and capabilities.

As the parent or guardian, the assessment team will be looking for a number of insights from you, including:

  • Actions that lead to frustration for the child
  • General attitude of the child toward school
  • General temperament of the child
  • Child’s ability to express ideas, either verbally or nonverbally

Ultimately, the team wants the parent or guardian to provide observations of how the child interacts with others and how the child’s ASD affects his or her ability to have success in school. If you have reports from medical professionals or from past assessments of your child’s disability, you can submit these to the team as well.

Some smaller school districts may not have the professionals on staff who can successfully perform this evaluation. If not, the district will need to hire outside professionals to perform the evaluation. The district should pay for all aspects of this assessment. Parents would only pay for any assessments or diagnoses that occur outside of the school’s evaluation process.

Specific Aspects of the Evaluation

As mentioned earlier, no specific test exists to guide a medical professional to make a diagnosis of autism for a child. Similarly, no single test will give the evaluation team the information it needs to make the final recommendation. The team will consider a number of different tests and observations, including:

  • Academic capabilities
  • Social interactions
  • Behavioral issues
  • Emotional skills
  • Communication skills
  • Self-care skills

In this type of evaluation, the team members will specially make observations and use testing measurements regarding the child’s ASD disability. During the assessment, the team will be looking for markers that show the child may need the help of special education services to deal with particular aspects of the child’s autism. The team also will consider the severity of the child’s ASD disability.

All of these observations will help the team make a final recommendation regarding whether the child will benefit from special education services at school. 

Do I Have to Agree to Allow the School to Do the Assessment?

You do have the right to refuse this assessment, if desired. Understand, however, that if you refuse to allow the evaluation to occur, your child will not be eligible to participate in special education services. 

Although I believe the vast majority of students will benefit from undergoing the assessment, I also understand some parents may prefer going a different route than the special education assessment.

Sometimes, a family may choose to hire a tutor to try to help the child. Other families may believe that an adjustment to the ASD treatment medications for the child may lead to a better result in the classroom. These steps potentially may benefit the child more than taking special education classes.

However, do not turn down the assessment because you believe that the assessment alone will lead to your child moving into the special education classroom. The assessment simply identifies whether your child will be eligible for special education services. You would have the final say on whether your child will participate in the special education classroom. 

Should you agree to accept special education services, you still will have a say in how these services occur. Remember that you have the right to participate on your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team at the school, which we’ll discuss next. The IEP team ultimately will decide how much time the child will spend in the special education and general education classrooms. You can make your voice heard as a member of this team.

Creating the Child’s IEP

If the team recommends using special education services with the child, and if you agree to this recommendation, the school will put together an IEP team for the child. As mentioned earlier, you will be part of this team. 

The IEP team will rely on the recommendations in the assessment report to come up with a plan for how much the child will participate in special education services. The team will determine the type of work the child should perform in the special education classroom. It will provide instructions to help the special education teacher work through the plan.

Additionally, the IEP will set goals for the child to try to achieve through the special education services. 

An important aspect of the IEP is that it must be completely individualized to meet the needs of your child. Just because one aspect of special education services worked for another student with ASD in your school, it does not mean your child will automatically use those same services. The plan must have your child’s specific needs in mind.

The IEP team has a deadline for creating this plan, which usually is 30 days. However, your home state’s deadline may be more or less than 30 days.

Re-Evaluating the Child’s Needs

As the child goes through the school year and participates in special education services, the expectation is that the child will make progress. The child’s needs may change based on this progress.

To account for this progress, your child’s IEP team will reassess the child’s needs regarding special education services. Based on the child’s accomplishments, the team may remove some services. It may add in some new services. It may even recommend that the child no longer needs special education services.

In the majority of states, this re-evaluation of the IEP will happen at the end of each school year. A few states may only require a re-evaluation every two or three years. However, most districts will perform the re-evaluation annually regardless. Minor adjustments to the IEP can occur regularly throughout the school year as well.

What Should I Do If the School Denies My Request for Special Education Services?

If you believe that your child diagnosed with autism would benefit from special education services, but the school’s assessment denies these services for your child, you have a few options to consider.

Look for Other Services

Perhaps the assessment team believes your child could benefit from some specific types of help that occur in the general education classroom. Although these benefits are not as intensive as what the child may receive when directly participating in special education, they may give the child significant help.

  • Section 504: The assessment team may recommend that the student makes use of Section 504 plan services in the general education classroom. Autism is a specific disability that Section 504 can cover, according to Seattle Children’s Hospital. Section 504 calls for the school district to make special accommodations that help with the student’s disability inside the general education classroom.
  • EIS: Another option involves making use of Early Intervening Services (EIS). The EIS allows the student to receive additional academic and behavioral support in the general education classroom. Typically, EIS only occurs when the district wants to provide help for the student while an assessment is occurring or while the IEP team is creating its plan. However, the district may suggest it in other situations.

Request an IEE

If you believe the testing and assessment results for your child missed some key information or did not occur accurately, you may want to make a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The IEE is a second assessment of your child’s needs. It will involve different professionals than those who performed the first assessment.

When you make a request for an IEE, the school may agree with your request and agree to pay for it. The school may limit the scope of the IEE to only re-evaluating certain aspects of the original assessment, however.

The school also may deny your request for an IEE. You can request a hearing about this decision, hoping a mediator would make a ruling in your favor. 

You also have the option of seeking your own private IEE from professionals outside the school district. You would have to pay for this IEE on your own. The majority of school districts maintain a list of qualified professionals who can do an IEE for you at your cost. 

Some parents and guardians may choose to pay for a private IEE while a mediator is holding a hearing about the school’s decision to deny your IEE request. If the mediator rules in your favor, it is possible the mediator also may require the school district to reimburse you for the cost of the private IEE.

If you submit your own IEE, the school must accept it and consider it when evaluating your child’s needs for special education services. However, the school is under no obligation to completely follow your private IEE’s recommendations.

Due Process Hearing

If, after following all of the procedures listed here, you can’t convince the school district to give your child with autism special education services, you can file a due process complaint. This works in a manner similar to a trial, where you will present facts as to why your child needs special education services, while the school district will present its reasons for denying your request.

This is the last option that you may try to employ. You may want to hire an attorney for this hearing to help to present your case (although some parents and guardians will hire an attorney prior to undertaking this step). 

Rather than immediately starting the due process hearing, it is possible that you and the school district may go through mediation. If the two sides can reach a resolution in mediation, no hearing will need to occur.

Conclusion

Parents or guardians of a child diagnosed with autism fully understand the importance of having a team of people at the school ready to work with the child. It takes multiple people on the same page to give the child the best chance at success in school and at home. I know first-hand the challenges educators face when seeking just the right way to reach a child with autism. The IEP goes a long way toward finding the best path forward, which makes the evaluation process that leads to the IEP incredibly important. 

Having input from you as the parent or guardian is key in developing a successful plan for the child diagnosed with autism. If you ever have any questions about your role in helping to shape your child’s path forward in school, please reach out! I love having the chance to hear stories from parents about what works and what doesn’t when a school assesses children with autism. Reach out in the comments section or directly email me!

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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