Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Children with autism can face an array of challenges at school, from keeping pace in a busy class, to forming relationships with their peers, to struggling with sensory overload in the classroom, hallway, or cafeteria.

Special education services can curb some of these problems. Covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, students with autism can access support and services tailored to their individual needs. Parents can play an important role in advocating for their child throughout this process.

How do I get services for my autistic child?

The first step is to reach out to your child’s school district to schedule an evaluation. This will determine if your child is eligible to receive special education and related services. To be eligible for an individualized education program (IEP), children must have a disability, such as autism, that prevents them from learning successfully in the existing classroom environment.

An IEP team can include the child’s parents, teacher, special education teacher, a representative from the school district, and a therapist to evaluate the results. The group will develop a plan with concrete goals and benchmarks to be reviewed on an annual basis.

What is an individualized education program?

Children with autism are guaranteed a free and fair education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which was passed in 1975, and which incorporated autism in 1990. The law enables students to receive an individualized education program, which establishes a child’s academic goals and includes the support they need to achieve those goals.

Those services could involve additional assistance in a typical classroom, learning from a special education teacher, working with a therapist, leveraging helpful technologies, or receiving accommodations such as extra time for assignments. IEPs aim to keep kids in general education classrooms as much as possible, but some parents feel that children with autism are better served in special education classrooms.

How can I prepare for my annual review meeting?

A child’s IEP is reviewed every year, and it’s best to enter this meeting as prepared as possible. You can begin by organizing all IEP documents in a binder ahead of time. Read the IEP thoroughly and consider creating a brief summary if that would be helpful. Review the list of accommodations and reflect on which you think were effective and which were not. Ask for data on your child’s performance, and document any concerns you have for the Parental Concerns section.

What’s the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan?

An IEP and 504 Accommodation Plan both help children receive educational support, but they do so in different ways. IEPs are covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and pertain to students who qualify for special needs, while 504 Plans fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act and cover students who do not.

IEPs encompass more expansive services and therapies. They revolve around delineating specific goals and monitoring a child’s progress toward achieving those goals. They also require the parent’s participation. 504 plans do not share those traits: They focus on providing accommodations rather than fundamentally changing the educational environment and often apply to students with less severe disabilities.

How can I advocate for my autistic child at school?

Although every school is different, there are ways to advocate for your child in any environment. Let the teacher know that your child has autism by sharing a summary of their IEP and a little information about their strengths, weaknesses, and personality. Case managers coordinate the IEP, so make sure your case manager has a strong understanding of autism.

When students are separated into different levels, advocate for your child’s skill level in specific courses rather than deferring to teachers that your child should automatically be in a lower level. Consider which technologies may help your child consume material and function independently, such as note-taking devices.

If your child is bullied, work with the school to eliminate that behavior. Explore an after-school activity that the child is genuinely interested in, such as band or chess club, where he can practice his social skills and learn to function in a group setting.

What information would help my child’s teacher?

Teachers may not be familiar with how autistic students experience the classroom. If your child has an IEP, email a brief summary to the teacher beforehand. If your child is higher functioning, explaining a few tips to your child’s general education teacher about autism can be helpful.

Providing a printout or website with the homework can be valuable, because multitasking is difficult for children with autism. They may not be able to write the assignment down at the same time as the teacher is explaining it or conducting the lesson.

Children with autism take things literally. Therefore, delivering specific instructions (“Turn to page 12 and begin to read the chapter” rather than “Turn to page 12”) can help the child keep up. Transitions are stressful and overwhelming for those on the spectrum due to sensory overload. Letting the child leave for their next class a few minutes early can help them to feel settled and focused for the next period. Integrating the child’s passion into the lesson, if the teacher is able, would help excite and engage the child.

How can teachers help students with autism?

Teachers can maintain predictable classroom routines. They can use concrete, specific language, since children with autism perceive language literally. They can incorporate visuals into the lessons to help kids process the material. They can also connect with a student’s parents to learn tips for working with an individual child. Implementing widespread autism competencies for teachers would ensure that every educator is equipped to serve autistic students.

Essential Reads

Recent Posts