Educational Law

In working with children and adolescents with ASD, it is important to understand the educational system and be familiar with educational law.

Education Law is the area of law that relates to schools, teachers, and the rights of Americans to a public education, as well as standards for those students who attend private schools.

 What the law says:

 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) explains the educational rights of students with disabilities and describes eligibility requirements for children to receive special education supports and services. IDEA is the reauthorization of Public Law 94-142, which was first adopted in 1975.  Amendments in 2004 were designed to align special education law more closely to No Child Left Behind, federal educational legislation that seeks to improve academic outcomes for all students.

Students who are eligible for special education supports and Services

 Parents are often surprised to learn that a medical diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) does not automatically entitle a student to special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Eligibility for special education services is based on an educational determination of a disability which includes meeting not just the criteria for a specific disability (such as autism), but also finding that the student is in need of special services.  Understanding the differences between a medical diagnosis and an educational determination of eligibility for special education services can help parents become better advocates for their children.

Medical Diagnosis vs. Educational Determination
Medical Diagnosis:  Autism Spectrum Disorder
Educational Determination:  Autism
  • Completed by a physician or psychologist
  •  Completed by a multidisciplinary team
  • Based on DSV-V criteria
  • Based on IDEA 2004 regulations
  • Screening (M-CHAT)
  • Required to received special education services

o   Interviews

  • Evaluation components

o   Observations

o   Interviews

o   Systematic assessment

o   Review of medical records
  • Qualifying services
o   Observations

o   State funded programs

o   Systemic assessment of academic skills and functioning

o   Health insurance benefits

  • Results in different services than a medical diagnosis

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (previously Public Law 94-112) –

The child must have one or more disabilities identified in IDEA and demonstrate a need for special education:

Federal Disability Categories for Special Education
There are 13 categories of special education as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).  In order to qualify for special education, the IEP team must determine that a child has one of the following:
·         Autism ·         Orthopedic impairment
·         Blindness ·         Other health impairment
·         Deafness ·         Specific learning disability
·         Emotional disturbance ·         Speech or language impairment
·         Hearing impairment ·         Traumatic brain injury
·         Intellectual disability ·         Visual impairment
·         Multiple disabilities

The protections that are available for students under IDEA

The following components of IDEA represent significant protections for students with disabilities:

  • Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) – It is every child’s right, including those with disabilities, to receive a free and appropriate public education. In some cases, the term “appropriate” can lead to different interpretations.
  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Children are to be educated in a setting with children without disabilities, to the maximum extent possible. The provision requires that the IEP team address individual educational placement decisions.
  • Individual Education Plan (IEP) – This legal document is designed to represent individualized instructional programming for the student. It should be reviewed annually and modified as needed to promote progress towards goals.

Students with ASD can be included in regular education

 Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

 The intent of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is to make sure that students who receive special education are included in the general education curriculum as often as possible, with non-disabled students in a typical classroom setting.

The Least Restrictive Environment is determined individually by the IEP team and parents.  Placement in a regular education classroom is considered first.  The IEP team needs to determine the types of supports (e.g., a classroom aide) that would be required for a child to remain in the regular classroom setting before alternatives are considered.

IDEA says two things about LRE that are important to understand when working with the IEP team:

  1. Your child should be with students in general education to the “maximum extent that is appropriate.”
  1. Special classes, separate schools, or removal from the general education class should only happen when your child’s learning or thinking difference—a “disability” under IDEA—is so severe that supplementary aids and services can’t provide your child with an appropriate education.

A key word here is appropriate. It refers to what’s suitable or right for your child. Sometimes, putting a child in a general education classroom isn’t suitable because a specific service or program can’t be provided there.

Support services are available in schools for students with ASD

“Supplementary Aids and Services means aids, services, and other supports that are provided in regular education classes, other education-related settings, and in extracurricular and non-academic settings, to enable children with disabilities to be educated with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate … ” (IDEA 300.114–300.116).

Examples of Supports and Services for Children with Disabilities
Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Regular Education Classroom

·         Speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy
·         Social skills groups/support
·         Accommodations/modifications to curriculum
·         Adjustments in the manner in which material is presented (i.e., enlarged text, text to speech, with visual cues)
·         Adjustments in the manner in which progress is measured
·         Accommodations to the environment (i.e., seating, room setup, wheelchair accessibility, sensory room)
·         Support and/or training for teaching staff
·         Specialized equipment (i.e., augmentative communication device, sensory materials)
·         Pacing of instruction (i.e., frequent breaks, extra time for homework, home set of materials/books)
·         Testing adaptations
·         Instructional content should be meaningful and should consider interests and long-term goals, especially for students who are transition age

The student with ASD may require behavioral support

If an IEP team determines that general classroom management techniques are insufficient to improve challenging behavior and a student’ s behavior is interfering with his/her learning or the learning of others, then the IEP team should consider implementing a functional behavioral assessment to guide the development of a positive behavior support plan.

A positive behavior support plan outlines the supports and strategies to be implemented by team members to reduce the occurrence of problem behavior through positive and proactive means. A positive behavior support plan is developed once the team has an understanding of the function of the interfering behavior. The positive behavior support plan should be included in the IEP, and everyone involved should be familiar with the implementation strategies in order to promote successful outcomes (300.324[2][I]).

If the student does not meet the two-pronged criteria for special education

Students must have a disability that is recognized by IDEA, and also demonstrate a need for specially designed instruction.  The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the rights of qualified individuals by prohibiting discrimination based on their disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that organizations that receive federal funds are required to make their programs accessible by providing reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities. Students with disabilities who do not qualify for the protections of IDEA may benefit from the development of a 504 plan with the school’s 504 coordinator, committee, or team.

Definition of a 504 plan

The 504 plan is a document that delineates specific accommodations that will be implemented by the school. All staff should be made aware of the accommodations, and the plan should be reviewed annually. After implementing an initial 504 plan, a meeting should be scheduled within six weeks to review progress. Issuing a 504 plan does not provide the same level of protections as found in an IEP, but it can inform teachers of specific areas of need and direct them to implement accommodations that promote equal access to the curriculum.

A parent or school personnel can request a 504 plan, which is based upon the legal protection of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Accommodations may be necessary for students with ASD, psychiatric symptoms, medical illness, or other disabling conditions, and a written recommendation may be provided by the child and adolescent psychiatrist, other physicians, psychologists, or other service providers including school personnel.

The Individual Education Plan (IEP) Process

 An Individual Education Plan is a written document that outlines a child’s individual educational needs. If specified, related services can be provided such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, and behavioral supports.  Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP.  It is also a legal document that outlines:

  • The child’s special education plan (goals for the school year)
  • Services needed to help the child meet those goals
  • A method for evaluating the student’s progress

To develop an IEP, the local education agency officials and others involved in the child’s educational program meet to discuss education-related goals. By law, the following people must be invited to attend the IEP meeting:

  • One or both of the child’s parents
  • The child’s teacher or prospective teacher
  • A representative of the public agency (local education agency), other than the child’s teacher, who is qualified to provide or supervise the provision of special education
  • The child, if appropriate
  • Other individuals at the discretion of the parent or agency (e.g. a physician, advocate, or neighbor)

The IEP includes information about the child and the results and recommendation of the evaluation.  It includes detailed goals for the child’s education and creates an individualized plan for educational services.  The IEP must specifically state the services that will be provided.

The IEP must include:

  • Baseline data about the child’s academic achievement and functional performance
  • Annual goals (what the child can reasonably accomplish in one year)
  • The services to be provided to the child (including supplemental aides, supports, accommodations) •
  • How much of the day, if any, the child will be educated separately from non-disabled students
  • When services or modifications will begin, how they will be provided, where they will be provided, and how long they will last
  • How the school will measure progress toward annual goals
  • Discussion of the child’s transition plan if they are age 14 or older

The IEP is reviewed annually, or more often, if the parents or school personnel ask for a review. The family should be kept informed of the child’s progress through periodic progress reports throughout the year.

 When a child turns 14, a statement of transition must be included in the IEP to describe how the school will prepare the child to move from school into adult life. The IEP team will consider post-secondary education, vocational training, employment or supported employment, adult services, independent living and community participation. Adolescents with ASD who want to graduate at age 18 end their federally funded education. Special education services can continue until age 21.


Lubetsky, M. J., Handen, B. L., & Mcgonigle, J. J. (2011). Educational Issues: School-Age. Autism Spectrum Disorder, 215-228. doi:10.1093/med/9780199753857.003.0082

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