The parents of a recently diagnosed child quickly realize they must learn a whole new language filled with unfamiliar abbreviations. In week 5 of the Parent to Parent training series, this language is explained as well as the laws in place to help you and your child navigate the public school system successfully. The goal is to give parents the tools they need to become positive advocates for their children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Below is an introduction to this language according to two laws that forbid disability discrimination by any program or activity that receives federal funds, such as a public school.
The first and perhaps most widely known abbreviation is IDEA. Standing for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA is a federal law that provides children with access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). This piece of IDEA applies to children aged three and older.
First among IDEA’s directives: Public schools must provide an individualized education program (IEP) to children with disabilities who are determined as eligible. With input from the student’s parents, the educational professionals tailor the student’s IEP to meet his or her needs. The IEP outlines a student’s strengths and growth areas as well as attainable goals and objectives, usually within a specified time frame.
The IEP must be carried out in the traditional classroom environment if appropriate for the student. If it’s not appropriate, then the school must provide the student’s education in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
“When you negotiate with the school on your child’s behalf, you increase the odds that your child will get an appropriate education,” notes Wrightslaw.com, a website featuring accurate, up-to-date information about special-education law and advocacy. “But many parents describe the process of negotiating with the school as a frustrating, exhausting ordeal. Others describe IEP meetings as intimidating and overwhelming. If you feel this way, don’t hesitate to take support to the IEP meeting” (https://www.wrightslaw.com/nltr/15/nl.0505.htm).
For newborns to three-year-old children diagnosed with a disability, IDEA provides for early intervention services once a child is determined as eligible. The parents join the child’s specialists to define the child’s specific needs and develop a written plan called an individualized family service plan (IFSP). The aim is to determine appropriate goals for the child and the best services suited to the family’s needs. The IFSP also helps the family navigate the child’s transition into preschool by assigning a family service coordinator. As a component of IDEA, the same rules apply for positive parental advocacy for an IFSP as for an IEP.
Another law that forbids disability discrimination is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Like IDEA, Section 504 requires a school district to provide a FAPE to each student living in the school district who has an eligible disability. This federal law provides “regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met” (https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html).
Like an IEP, the written set of instructions details “specific strategies and practices that will be used to communicate to teachers what strategies and practices will be used to ensure that a student’s learning needs are met.” Called an individual accommodation plan (IAP), this plan details all the materials needed and explains all the modifications that are essential for the student’s appropriate education (https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-accommodation-plans-help-2161839).
Unlike an IEP, “the federal regulations for Section 504 do not require or even mention that parents are to be a part of the decision-making committee,” notes GreatSchools.org, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that empowers parents by helping them to access educational opportunities for their children. “The decision to include parents in the decision-making committee is a determination that is made by each school district and should be spelled out in the district’s procedures for implementing Section 504. Parents should at least be asked and encouraged to contribute any information that they may have… that would be helpful to the Section 504 committee in making [its] determination of what the child may need. Schools are expected to make sound educational decisions as to what the child needs in order to receive an appropriate education” (https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/section-504-2).
If the parents are frustrated by the school’s educational decisions and want to resolve the issue, Wrightslaw.com suggests that parents educate themselves about the Section 504 law. To this end, information and strategies can be found in the Wrightslaw.com article entitled My Child with a 504 Plan is Failing, School Won’t Help: Your Eligibility Game Plan at https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/sec5.idea.eligibility.htm.
Sun contributor Virginia Sticinski, MEd, is a social sciences instructor at Delaware Technical Community College in Stanton, a valued member of Autism Delaware’s newsletter committee, and the parent of two sons on the autism spectrum.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the autumn 2019 issue of the Autism Delaware™ quarterly newsletter, The Sun.