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Individualized Education Program (IEP): Summary, Process and Practical Tips

After months of research, a team of lawyers at Goodwin Procter LLP generously put together a helpful guide to help families understand the IEP process as their loved ones head back to school. This 26 page guide contains an IEP timeline and clearly lays out the steps to take throughout the IEP process. The guide also includes lots of tips, resources, and answers to FAQs.

Click here to see the Goodwin Procter IEP Guide!
*Note: if you have trouble downloading the IEP Guide, click here to download the new version of Adobe Reader free of charge.
In addition, earlier this year, another team of lawyers at Goodwin Procter LLP generously put together lots of legal information and contacts for families affected by autism. The 20 page guide defines terms, explains concepts, and answers frequently asked questions regarding the rights and entitlements of individuals with autism and their families.

Topic Headings Include:

Adults with Autism Spectrum
Education (IDEA and IEP)
Financial Resources
Legal Protection and Rights
Divorce

Click here to read Goodwin Procter's guide to legal information for families affected by autism.

Click here for a list of the contact information for each state's Protection and Advocacy Agencies.

Legal Rights Information

A Child's Rights for Public Education
Early Intervention Services (EI)
Special Education Services
Extended School Year (ESY) Services
How to Get Services Started for a Child

A Child's Rights for Public Education

Your special needs child has the right to a free and appropriate education. The individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was first enacted in 1975 and most recently revised in 2004, mandates that each state provide all eligible children with a public education that meets their individual needs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was most recently revised in 2004 (and, in fact, renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, but most people still refer to it as IDEA). The law mandates that the state provide all eligible children with a free and appropriate public education that meets their unique individual needs.

IDEA specifies that children with various disabilities, including autism, are entitled to early intervention services and special education. If your child has been diagnosed with a form of autism, the diagnosis is generally sufficient to gain access to the rights afforded by IDEA. The IDEA legislation has established an important role for parents in their children's education. You, as a parent, are entitled to be treated as an equal partner with the school district in deciding on an education plan for your child and his or her individual needs. This enables you to be a powerful advocate for your child. It also means that you must be an informed, active participant in planning and monitoring your child's unique program and legal rights.

What is a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE)?

As described previously, IDEA provides for a “free and appropriate education” for all children with disabilities. Each word in this phrase is important, but “appropriate” is the one that relates specifically to your special needs child. Your child is entitled to an
education that is tailored to his or her special needs and a placement that will allow them to make educational progress.

Although you and your child's teachers or therapists may want to provide your child with the best or optimal program and services, the school district is not required to provide the best or optimal but rather an appropriate education. One of the challenges here is working with the school district to determine what is appropriate and, therefore, what will be provided for your child. This is a collaborative process that may involve considerable negotiation to secure the services from the school.

What is “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE)?

As specified in the IDEA, your child is also entitled to experience the “least restrictive environment.” This means that your child should be placed in the environment in which he or she has the greatest possible opportunity to interact with children who do not have a disability and to participate in the general education curriculum. This is commonly referred to as mainstreaming or inclusion. In the general education setting, providing the least restrictive environment can sometimes be accomplished with accommodations, such as using a one-on-one aide who is trained to work with children with autism. While it may be true that seeking the least restrictive environment is beneficial for children with autism, it's important to consider whether or not an option such as inclusion is right for
your child. It may or may not be more appropriate for your child to be placed in a special education program, in a school for children with special needs, or in a home instruction program.

Early Intervention Services (EI)

The IDEA provides states with federal grants to institute early intervention programs. Any child younger than age three who has a developmental delay or a physical or mental condition likely to result in a developmental delay is eligible to receive early intervention services through these programs. If a child is determined to be eligible, these early intervention services must be provided to the child at no cost.

EI services can vary widely from state to state and region to region. However, the services should address a child's unique needs rather than being limited to what is currently available or customary in your area. The document that spells out a child's needs and the services that will be provided is the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP). The IFSP should be based on a comprehensive evaluation of a child. It should describe the child's current levels of functioning and the anticipated goals. It should also list the specific services that will be provided to a child and your family.

EI services are aimed at minimizing the impact of disabilities on the development of a child. Services for a child may include, but are not limited to, speech and language instruction, occupational therapy, physical therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and psychological evaluation. Services for families may include training to help reinforce the affected child's new skills and counseling to help the family adapt.

Special Education Services

Special education services pick up where early intervention services leave off, at age 3. Your local school district provides these services through their special education department. The focus of special education is different from that of early intervention.
While early intervention addresses your child's overall development, special education focuses on providing your child with an education, regardless of disabilities or special needs. The document that spells out your child's needs and how these needs will be met is the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Like the IFSP, the IEP describes your child's strengths and weaknesses, sets goals and objectives, and details how these can be met. Unlike the IFSP, the IEP is almost entirely related to how the needs of your child will be met within the context of the school district and within school walls.

Visit the Resource Guide for more information.

Extended School Year (ESY) Services

If there is evidence that a child experiences a substantial regression in skills during school vacations, he or she may be entitled to ESY services. These services would be provided over long breaks from school (summer vacation) to prevent substantial regression, but not to acquire new skills. It is important for the family to remain involved in determining appropriate goals, communicating with the educational team about progress, and working to provide consistency between home and school.

How to get Services Started for a Child?

For Early Intervention Services, if a child is under the age of three, call the local Early Intervention Agency. Contact information is included in the Resource Guide.

For Special Education Services, if a child is three or older, contact the local school district.

Before Service can be provided, it may be necessary to complete further assessments and evaluations. These may include:

• An Unstructured Diagnostic Play Session
• A Developmental Evaluation
• A Speech - Language Assessment
• A Parent Interview
• An Evaluation of Current Behavior
• An Evaluation of Adaptive or Real Life Skills

Having to wait for the completion of these additional evaluations, which may be required by the school district or Early Intervention, may be frustration for parents. Often, the evaluations provide much more in-depth information about a child's symptoms, strengths and needs and will be helpful for accessing and planning therapy services in the long run.

There are things parents can do in the meantime. Talk to other parents about what services have been helpful for their children. Investigate the therapies outlined in the Treatment section. Start reading about autism--find books, magazines and other publications in our Resource Library.