Early Intervention and Education for Autism Spectrum Disorder - A Closer Look

For children who have been receiving early intervention services, what happens when they reach 3 years of age?

School District Transition
A boy with glasses and his classmates

Upon turning 3 years old, Tim will transition from receiving early intervention services to receiving special education services through his local school district.

The school district must first evaluate Tim to determine his eligibility for special education services. Tim’s parents already requested this evaluation in writing. A child’s early intervention program may also initiate the referral for an evaluation and assist families in the process.

Evaluation Process
A caregiver working with children

The evaluation process may consist of psychological, educational, and other types of testing. Depending on the needs of the child, individuals involved in this process may include the following:

  • School psychologist
  • Special educator
  • Speech therapist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Physical therapist
  • Behavioral specialist
  • School-based autism consultant
Clinical Diagnosis

When children with ASD are seen by a clinical specialist, such as a child psychologist, child psychiatrist or developmental-behavioral pediatrician, they are given a clinical diagnosis. It is important to understand when they are assessed by school districts, it is to determine their eligibility for special education services. Under IDEA, there are categories of disability under which a child qualifies for special education services, one of which is “autism.” A diagnosis alone does not guarantee eligibility for services. A child is deemed eligible if the assessment determines that the child will not be able to make effective progress without special education services.

IDEA Disability Categories

Tim qualifies for special education services under the educational category “autism.” The IDEA federal legislation has defined the eligibility category of “autism” as a disability that affects communication and social interaction. IDEA acknowledges that ASD may have associated features such as repetitive activities, stereotyped movements, resistance to change, and unusual sensory responses. Children with characteristics of autism spectrum disorder may qualify for services under the category of “autism” or another eligibility category, depending on the child’s unique characteristics. A disability must have an adverse effect on a student’s education and require specialized instruction in order to consider the student eligible for special education services.

How is an IEP created for each child?

Tim was found eligible for special education services and school staff convened an IEP meeting. Members of the school district’s special education staff and Tim’s parents attended the IEP meeting.

The IEP is a document that outlines a child’s educational program, including classroom setting, services, and specific goals for the year.

It is important for Tim’s parents to know their rights under IDEA. They will be provided with a copy of their rights. They must have the opportunity to be a part of the IEP team and present at the meeting. They must be provided with the results of the school’s evaluation before the IEP meeting. In addition, they have the right to disagree with the content of the IEP and to discuss their concerns with other members of the IEP team. If an agreement cannot be reached, Tim’s parents may ask for mediation or the school may offer it.

What role do parents have in the IEP process? How can they advocate for their child during this process?

Tim’s parents understand their rights under IDEA, but they would like to know what other resources are available to them to help advocate for their child’s receiving appropriate educational programming.

  • You can be a great resource for Tim and his family in the IEP process. With parental permission, you may formally communicate with his school district regarding his educational needs. This may take the form of a letter, phone call, or attendance at an IEP meeting.
  • Tim’s parents may wish to seek the guidance of other parents of children with ASD, especially those who have already gone through the IEP process. Many communities have parent support groups for families of children with ASD.
  • Tim’s parents may consider hiring an educational advocate to help them navigate the IEP process. Effective educational advocates understand federal laws related to disabilities and special education. They also understand and have experience with the local school systems.
  • Sometimes, the process of mediation may involve seeking legal representation. It is the family’s right to have such representation at IEP meetings.