How autism is displayed in children on the spectrum varies widely; thus their needs can be very different. One child may be on the higher functioning Asperger’s syndrome side while another may be at the other end with low cognitive functioning coupled with a greater level of social difficulties. The individual with autism whether on the low end or high end of the spectrum struggles in different ways, but they both have trouble with connecting socially. On the surface, an individual with higher functioning autism may seem more neurotypical; however, it is hard for them engage socially—along with other issues—and this can create stress and anxiety. Although a child may be high-functioning and appear to not need a lot of support, the reality is that their internal and social struggles are real.
Common symptoms of autism include difficulty with communication and social interactions, obsessive interests and repetitive behaviors. Behaviorally, individuals with autism may display poor eye contact, compulsive behavior, persistent repetition of words or actions, impulsivity, repetitive movements or even self-harm. Associated issues can include problems with attention —such as inattention, limited attention capacity or hyperfocusing on restricted interests—poor speech, pragmatic language difficulties, learning and processing problems, sensory processing difficulties, coordination issues, fine and gross motor delays, depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, seizures, and immune and gut issues.
With this wide band of difficulties, meeting the educational needs of a child with autism can be extremely difficult. One child may do very well with a few accommodations to support their need for extra time and social skills support; another may struggle with basic daily living skills or with communication, self-care and social functioning, which would require direct support through an individualized education plan (IEP) for schooling. Typical IEP services include, but are not limited to, applied behavior analysis (ABA), occupational, physical, speech and social skills therapies. Others include executive functioning, study skills, organizational, vocational and transitional support.
IEP versus a 504 Accommodation Plan
The laws protecting the educational rights of those with autism—or any disability—are complex. The meetings to coordinate services in the schools for a child are complex as well. In order to ensure that the individual child’s needs are being met, it is critical to understand the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan.
The “504” is adopted from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. The law requires schools to eliminate any barriers that prevent students with such disabilities from participating fully in or accessing their education. It requires a written 504 plan setting forth reasonable accommodations that will be made to give the child equal educational access. The range of accommodations that “level the playing field” to make curriculum more accessible vary; they can include seating in the front of the classroom, reading assistance, organizational support, a social skills group and much more. Some higher functioning children with autism are able to compensate with high intellect; they can do very well academically with a good 504 plan that provides for accommodations in social interactions or other areas.
What is an IEP?
The Federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) provides for free and appropriate education, or FAPE, services for children with disabilities in specific categories, including adaptive, cognitive, communications, physical or social-emotional development. IDEA requires that eligible students aged 3-21 receive a written IEP.
An IEP is a plan for the delivery of special education and related services that provides for personalized instruction in order to make meaningful progress in school at no cost to the parents. It should describe the child’s learning problems, identify the services to be provided, set annual goals and define how progress will be measured. For students with a disability who require specialized instruction, they fall under IDEA and need an IEP to meet their unique educational needs.
Both laws have specific rules and regulations that protect the rights of the eligible disabled student. There is governmental oversight to ensure schools are doing what is necessary to give students access to their education. There are more specific rules and regulations to protect a child under IDEA.
Is a Child’s Educational Program is Meeting Their Needs?
Knowing when a 504 or an IEP is more appropriate for a child is challenging. Generally, if a student has a learning disability, developmental delay, autism, ADHD or another condition that directly impacts learning and behavior, then an IEP is needed.
However, as parents, we need to be aware that just because there is a 504 plan or IEP in place doesn’t mean the child’s educational needs are being meet. Schools try their best to meet the unique needs of diverse learners but a lack of understanding of the issues or a group-think mentality can get in the way of individualized programming. A school stating that this is what they offer in the district is not necessarily in alignment with the language of IDEA law. That doesn’t mean we can ask for ski lessons to be covered. It does mean that if the parent and the IEP team think that the child’s needs aren’t being met, then they have a right to ask for different programming and supports. The problem is parents may not fully understand their rights or even know what to ask for.
How Can an Advocate Help?
Think of an advocate as a language translator; they help translate the laws of 504 and special education into a plan that is individualized and optimal for the child. These meetings have many procedural formalities that make it confusing and stressful for parents. The IEP document itself is also a complicated legal document that must be recorded appropriately to protect their child’s rights. Having an advocate in the meeting can not only ease stress but help to ensure all that can be done is being brought up for the child.
Supporting the Child with Autism at Home
What can be done to support a child at home to help ensure a better educational experience at school? Many parents of children with autism are already running around after school to various therapy appointments—especially early in a child’s life—as those are key to developing greater adaptive skills and functioning. Optimizing the brain and body allows for school and private interventions to work better. For those with autism, an anti-inflammatory diet, naturopathic care, neurofeedback and biofeedback therapies can also help change the biological terrain and get to root causes so that healing can begin.