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IEPs and Educational Advocacy

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Your Child’s IEP

Once you’re in a school system, whether it is kindergarten, 1st grade or 10th grade, with a special needs child, you’ll have to go through an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. You’ll hear that over and over again!! IEP’s are EXTREMELY IMPORTANT because the school MUST adhere to everything agreed upon in IEP. They are legally bound by that document. If you want something for your child, make sure it is spelled out explicitly in the IEP.

The Basics

Your child, with the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, likely qualifies for services through your school district. Although laws vary from state to state, Federal laws protect children with disabilities and entitle them to what is commonly known as FAPE — a free and appropriate public education in what is commonly known as LRE — least restrictive environment. What does that mean? Your child is probably eligible for services that will help him or her have a successful school life whether you choose to have your child included in a regular education class, or if you choose something more restrictive.

A Common Sense Approach to Inclusion

There is much debate over the subject of inclusion. Some advocates feel that all children should be included, regardless of their disability. At AutismLink, we believe that one size does not fit all — inclusion is a great and powerful thing, but it’s not the only way. Parents likely know what is best for their child — whether its an educational placement in an autism support class, life skills classroom, or inclusion within a regular education classroom. If you feel that your child is better served in a smaller classroom with peers on the spectrum, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. Inclusion is a good thing, and of course, we always encourage inclusion, but it’s not right for everyone. Only you and your IEP team can decide. The bottom line is — use your common sense and your knowledge of your own child. If you decide on a more restrictive placement, that’s your choice. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong. If you want your child to be included in a regular education classroom — fight for your rights to inclusion.

Many times, school districts will tell you that your child is better off in an autism support class, when in reality, school districts seem to like those placements because they cost a great deal less to run than having to hire a 1:1 aide for a child with a disability. If you feel that your child should be in a regular education classroom with an aide, then you should fight for it. Many districts will fight parents on this very issue because in an autism support classroom, a district has to pay one teacher and one or two aides, whereas 1:1 aides cost significantly more money. DO WHAT YOU FEEL IS BEST FOR YOUR CHILD. You have the right to ask for whatever you want from your district. The IEP team, which is comprised of parents, teachers and administrators, will meet to decide as a team what is best for your child. Always remember that YOU ARE PART OF THE IEP TEAM. If you don’t agree, your opinion carries as much weight as anyone else on the team.

I’m new to this — what’s an IEP?

An IEP, or individualized education plan, is the legal document that you will create with your IEP team. An IEP team consists of parents, teachers, school administrators and likely a school psychologist, occupational therapist and perhaps a speech therapist as well. Remember that YOU are an integral part of this team. Once the IEP is created, the school district must follow the IEP to the letter — it is a legal document. You can, however, at any time during the school year, reopen your IEP by sending a WRITTEN REQUEST to your district to reopen your child’s IEP. If you do not agree with the IEP at the end of the process, DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING.

The U.S. Department of Education has a wonderful guide on the IEP process which can be downloaded in either MS Word or in a PDF Format

The First Step

The first step in the process is that you need to request an evaluation of your child. If your child is just going into the public school system by transitioning to Kindergarten, you will likely receive notice from your district because your child is already in the system. However, if your child was not diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder until they were already in the public school system, you will need to WRITE A DATED LETTER requesting that your school provide your child with a psychological evaluation. Although every state has different laws, each state is governed by timelines. This means that the clock starts ticking the moment that the school district receives your request for an evaluation. Most states have laws that say the psychological evaluation must be completed within 60 calendar days from the date of request. You should check with your state’s Department of Education to be sure, however.

Legal timelines apply to the entire IEP process. Once your child receives a psychological evaluation from the school district, you should receive the “ER” or “evaluation report” within a short period of time after the evaluation occurs. Again, check with your state’s particular laws for the legal timelines involved in the IEP process.

The Next Step

The evaluation report will give a recommendation as to whether the school psychologist believes your child is eligible for special education services from your district. Hopefully, that answer will be yes. If not, you have the right to an outside evaluation from an independent licensed school psychologist, and you can ask that the school district pay the fee for this evaluation. If the district and the parents still disagree on the child’s eligibility status, a hearing can be requested and a state appointed mediator will render a decision.

If your child is found to be a child with a disability, the school district must schedule an IEP within 30 days of the eligibility ruling. You will receive a formal invitation to your child’s Individualized Education Plan, where you will, together, as a team, decide what is best for your child and the services that he needs throughout the school year to make him or her a successful student.

The IEP Meeting

View your IEP like a business meeting. You want one thing, the district may want another. You have to work together to come to an amicable solution. Most of the time, the district is not your enemy, but remember… they have budgets. Our advice is to go into your IEP with CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM. Although your child’s teachers and administrators probably do want the best for your child, don’t forget that they are also…… well….. administrators. You must work together to come up with what’s best for your child. How you handle yourself at the IEP is very important. Be firm, but not demanding. Be nice, but don’t stamp “door mat” on your forehead either!

In the IEP, your team will discuss what types of services and supports your child will need. This includes speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, paraprofessional services, etc. You have to remember A LOT of things, but remember, nobody is chiseling the words into stone — you can always reopen your IEP at a later date. We’ll get more into the specifics of the actual IEP later.

Part of the IEP meeting process is talking about Recommended Educational Placement. You will discuss the location (where) the team feels your child should attend school. You should know your options — you can have your child placed in his or her home school in a regular education class with typical peers, you can ask that your child be placed in an autism support class or life skills classroom for part of the day or the full day, or you can ask that your child be placed OUTSIDE the district in a private school that specifically caters to children with disabilities. If the school agrees to an outside placement, your district must pay the tuition of the private school. It must, however, be an APPROVED private school — one that has been approved by the state. (Again, state laws differ, be sure to check with your State’s Department of Education for more specific information.)

You also have the right to ask for your child to have a 1:1 aide or paraprofessional to stay with your child throughout the school day. The school may or may not approve this request. You can also request to have a “shared” aide, where your child and another child with a disability can share one paraprofessional throughout the day.

Once your agreement is ironed out with the school district, you will sign the IEP. The school district MUST PROVIDE all of the services that were agreed to in the IEP. You will be given a copy of the IEP as well as your child’s teacher and other caregivers. Progress should be measured and reported back to the parents at regular intervals, as agreed upon in the IEP. (Our suggestion is at the very least, a quarterly progress report should be issued to the parents. Make sure that this is written into the IEP.)

And Finally…

Your child’s IEP will be reviewed on an annual basis, and, according to Federal Law, your child must be re-evaluated by the school psychologist once every three years to re-determine eligibility for special education services.

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