Navigating today’s educational system is not an easy or straightforward task for anyone, whether students, parents, teachers, or administrators. For parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, making sure your kids get a fair and useful education involves even more complicated considerations and decisions.

This guide discusses issues surrounding the education of students on the autism spectrum, including the rights and responsibilities of parties involved, plus governing laws, programs, and additional resources. The information also includes classroom concerns and accommodations, considerations for choosing an appropriate school setting, options for dispute resolution, and tips for further advocacy.

Whether you decide to homeschool or place your child in the public education system, it’s important to know the available options and stay informed to advocate most effectively for your child’s education and well-being.

Acronyms, Terms, and Definitions

Educational policy, childhood disability advocacy, and the legislation governing both have produced terms and acronyms that might require clarification if you’re new to the system. To better understand the points and tips that follow, here is a list of brief explanations and definitions. You can find elaboration on each term and topic further below in this guide.

  • Autism spectrum disorders. Neurodevelopmental conditions such as autismAsperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder can cause issues in a child’s verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and sensory processing. Students on the autism spectrum may have difficulty communicating their needs, understanding classroom directions, and engaging in typical social interactions.
  • ADA. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all places that are open to the general public. The purpose is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
  • FAPE. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973  guarantees a Free Appropriate Public Education to students from ages 3 to 21 with disabilities. The acronym can be broken down as such:
    • Free – All eligible students with disabilities are educated at public expense, with no cost to parents or guardians beyond standard incidental fees.
    • Appropriate – Education for any child with a disability will be tailored and planned to meet specific needs as determined and stated in their Individualized Education Plan.
    • Public – Any child with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disabilities, has the right to be educated under public supervision. (This can encompass either private or public school. Homeschooling is governed by different but comparable regulations; see below.)
    • Education – Every eligible school-age child with a disability must be provided an education that prepares them for future education, employment, and independent living.
  • IDEA. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a law that makes available a free, appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures them special education and related services. The law also helps government and service agencies provide for this education as well as early intervention services for infants and toddlers, and protects the rights of children with disabilities and their parents.
  • IEP.  Every child who qualifies for special education must by law be provided an Individualized Education Program, collaboratively devised by parents or guardians, teachers, administrators, and others invested in the child’s education. An IEP first assesses achievement levels and the ways the student’s disabilities affect academic performance, then specifies accommodations, modifications, and services necessary to address their individual needs. The IEP also sets measurable annual goals and recommends the services necessary to help the child meet them. Every faculty member, particularly classroom teachers, must follow this plan.
  • Least restrictive environment. A student with a disability is considered in their least restrictive environment when their learning is integrated with the general education population — granting access to curriculum or extracurricular activities open to non-disabled peers — as much as is appropriate to yield progress in their educational program. Generally, the less opportunity a student has to interact and learn with non-disabled peers, the more their placement is considered to be restricted.

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