Steps in Finding the Right Program for Your Child

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1. As soon as you receive the diagnosis, contact the principal of your child's school.

• Explain the test results.

• Ask for a referral to the school personnel who conduct eligibility determinations for special education.

2. After determining if your child is eligible for special education, find out about different classroom options in your district.

• Visit the different classrooms and interview the teachers.

• Ask about the availability of certain accommodations or the willingness to provide them.

3. If your child is not eligible for special education, request an appointment with the district's "504 Coordinator."

• Request a 504 evaluation.

• Ask about the availability of certain accommodations or the willingness to provide them.

4. If finances permit it, simultaneously investigate private school options.

• Call your state autism society or the doctor who diagnosed your child for the names of private schools that have worked successfully with AS-HFA children.

• Visit the different classrooms and interview the teachers.

• Ask about the availability of certain accommodations or the willingness to provide them.

their educational needs. Specific special education services and goals for the child were to be listed formally in an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. Parents were strongly encouraged to participate in decision making about their child's education by being part of the team that set up the IEP. Although this legislation is almost 30 years old and has undergone a number of amendments (and new names), its spirit remains strong and continues to regulate special education eligibility and delivery of services today. The current law that governs special education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA), was reauthorized by the U.S. Senate in 1997.

While these statutes grant specific educational rights to your child, it is important to understand that obtaining these rights involves a very intense process. Many stages and layers of development must be passed through on the way to putting a program into place for an individual child. Through these stages and layers, you may find that your local school is cooperative and open to new ideas, or you may find that the school has a preset agenda and is not willing to compromise. If you reach the latter point, you should be prepared to advocate for your child. It is paramount that you know your rights and responsibilities. Contact your state education department to get information about the special education process in your state.

In the meantime, also be aware that an autism spectrum diagnosis (or indeed any psychological or psychiatric diagnosis) does not guarantee that your child will qualify for special education services. Eligibility is determined by examining the impact of the condition on your child's academic skills and other areas of functioning in the school setting. Different states implement the federal guidelines in different manners. Most states require a discrepancy between a child's IQ and his or her academic or other functional skills to qualify for special education, but the specific manner in which this discrepancy is calculated and the amount of discrepancy required vary from state to state. After obtaining a diagnosis, parents should bring the diagnostic report (or ask that it be sent) to their child's school and request an evaluation to assess his or her educational needs. It is possible that the results of this evaluation will indicate that your child does not qualify for special education services. If so, don't lose heart—there are other options for receiving support in the school, which are discussed in a later section on classroom accommodations and 504 Plans.

If your child does in fact prove eligible for special education, then an IEP will be prepared, with much input from you. The IEP is best thought of as a contract between parents and schools that outlines what the team agrees is an appropriate education for the child, how it will be delivered, and how it will be evaluated to see if it is working. The IDEA

law mandates that a "team" develop, review, and revise the IEP. The IEP team consists of:

1. A school representative (other than teachers) qualified to offer or supervise special education services (if your district has an autism specialist, he or she may serve in this role; alternate possibilities include the director of special education or another school administrator).

2. The child's regular and special education teachers.

3. Other school personnel providing services to the child (for example, occupational and/or speech therapists).

4. Parents.

5. The child, when possible and if age-appropriate.

As a member of the IEP team, you have some choices and some power in the decision-making process, at least more so than you may be accustomed to with your non-special-needs children. If there is something you think your child needs at school (such as language services, social skills training, help with goal setting and organization, reading comprehension tutoring, an aide), your best recourse is to get it put in the IEP. Keep in mind, too, that you can ask to include on the team anyone with special knowledge or expertise concerning the needs of your child.

Know your legal rights. For example, you do not need to sign the IEP until you agree that it provides what the law promises you is important. Equally important, however, is understanding that the law says your child is entitled to an appropriate education, not the best education. Just as with regular education, parents may choose to "purchase" what they perceive to be the best education for their child through a private school. That said, keep in mind that the educational plan must be individualized, that is, specifically tailored to meet the unique needs of your child. This means that the school must develop a unique plan for each student, regardless of what the school offers other children.

What happens if you disagree with your school over the appropriate/best distinction? For example, sometimes parents think that a particular service is appropriate for their child with AS-HFA, and therefore should be funded by the school system, but school personnel see this service as the best technique, and therefore not something the school is willing to provide. In our experience, a combination of persistence and willingness to negotiate will often get parents fairly close to what they desire in the IEP. If, however, after a series of negotiations with the school, you still feel the program being offered by the school is not appropriate, you can contact your state education department to find out what alternatives are available. The federal government has mandated that every state must have an agency designated to help parents get through the special education process.

IEPs contain specific goals and objectives for your child's education. A goal is a general desired change in your child's learning, skills, or behaviors, while an objective is the specific definition of that change and how it will be measured. Goals are usually broader and longer term (perhaps set annually), while objectives are shorter term benchmarks for determining if appropriate progress toward the goal is being made. For example, an IEP goal might be "to increase reading comprehension," while a corresponding objective would be "to answer questions about a paragraph accurately 75% of the time." It is important to choose IEP goals and objectives that are both meaningful and realistic. You want the skills specified to be ones that are important to your child's functionality, independence, and later success, while also being attainable. If IEP objectives are set too high, it will appear that your child is "failing" when in fact he or she is really straining to meet an inappropriate skill level. If the objective is set too low, your child may not be receiving the level of assistance and intervention that he or she truly needs. And remember that an IEP is not immutable: at any time, any member of the IEP team (including you as parents) can ask that the IEP be reviewed and revised. This is typically done at least annually and more often if necessary. If objectives are being met at an unanticipated pace or not met at all or if new diagnostic or evaluation results are obtained, then a meeting of the IEP team is warranted.

In addition to specific goals and objectives, IEPs contain a list of related services that will be provided to your child in the school setting, such as speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, adaptive physical education, or social skills training. Some children with AS-HFA need one-on-one instruction for certain academic tasks or during certain activities (for example, groups) when their behavior or understanding may limit their ability to benefit otherwise from the instruction. In such cases, a request for an aide can be made in the IEP. An aide can be full- or part-time and can be assigned to an individual student or shared among a few students who would all benefit from smaller group learning. Aides can be extremely valuable, but they are usually paraprofessionals without any advanced degrees (or perhaps even formal training). Therefore, it is important to request that your aide either have prior experience or receive specific training in both standard educational principles and best practices for students with AS-HFA. It is also important to ensure that your child's aide gives him or her chances to "practice" the skills without always jumping in to help. Too much one-to-one assistance can be as bad as too little. Specifically, it may make your child overly dependent on prompts from an adult and therefore may reduce the child's initiative and ability to function independently. Aides need to know how to provide subtle structure without eliminating chances for the child to interact, practice, and try, before offering more help.

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