Given a child with autism’s rights to educational services, it’s important to keep in mind that IDEIA establishes the minimum requirements schools must provide. In order for states to receive federal funds, their schools must meet the eligibility funding criteria of IDEIA. States may exceed the requirements and provide more services. They cannot, however, provide fewer services or promulgate state regulations or practices that contradict the guidelines of IDEIA.

Federal regulations do not require states to provide an “ideal” educational program or a program the parents feel is “best.” The state must provide an appropriate educational program, one that meets the needs of the individual student. This distinction can play an important role in a child’s educational placement.

Placement Options

There is not a “one-size-fits-all” model for the education of children with disabilities. Even programs that are called “autism classrooms” or “ASD programs” may not provide services and curricula that are right for every student on the spectrum. Therefore, it is possible that a child with autism may not receive an appropriate education in an “autism class.”

Placement options range from entirely inclusive settings, where children with autism receive their education alongside neurotypical peers, to private placement in residential programs for children with disabilities. Within that range, a wide variety of plans can be created to meet the unique needs of each student. Families may wish to look at placement options that other students already use. By visiting and assessing special education programs and inclusive classrooms in the region, families can get an idea of how Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) can be put into practice.

Determining Placement

Determining the most appropriate placement for a child is a two-step process:

1. A child’s level of functioning and associated needs are determined by requesting an evaluation or re-evaluation through the school or independent professional(s). This evaluation should include specific recommendations for supports, educational services and levels of treatments.
2. Prospective teacher(s), service provider(s) and school administrator(s) work in collaboration to develop a well-defined and thorough IEP, including a discussion of options for placement.

Least Restrictive Environment

When faced with the challenge of selecting an appropriate placement for a child, parents and professionals need to understand the concept of “least restrictive environment” (LRE). IDEIA sets up procedural guidelines to ensure a free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment tailored to the child’s individual needs.

The law begins with the assumption that, to the maximum extent possible, children with disabilities should be educated with their non-disabled peers, with supplementary aids and services provided as necessary to enable them to succeed in that setting. Once the child’s needs are assessed and necessary services and supports are determined, the placement options should begin within general education or the inclusive classroom. Students with disabilities do not have to start in a more restrictive or separate class and “earn” the right to move to a less restrictive placement. If it is found that a general education classroom would not meet the child’s needs, even with support services, then other options may be pursued. These options may include, but are not limited to, special education classes, special schools or home instruction. Keep in mind that the student with a disability must benefit from the placement and should not be “dumped” in a classroom where cannot receive an appropriate education.

Additionally, school safety concerns are addressed in IDEIA, and educational services cannot be withheld as a disciplinary remedy. While students with disabilities may be suspended for disciplinary concerns that would also apply to general education students, educational services must continue at all times, even when a student is expelled for behavior not associated with his/her disability.

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