What’s the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP?
For many students with a “mild” autism disorder, a 504 plan is a first step before an IEP. Section 504 allows schools to put a plan and accommodations in place for a child who has a disability that limits his daily functioning but who doesn’t qualify for special education services.
Section 504 plans have fewer regulations in place, especially in terms of compliance, meaning that under a 504 Plan, your child may not have as much assistance as with an IEP. While it doesn’t replace an IEP, it’s a protection of sorts for a child who has a disability that affects his learning, but doesn’t meet the criteria for special education services. Unfortunately, just having a diagnosis isn’t an automatic qualifier for an IEP–there also has to be proven academic effect.
What’s the benefit of a 504 plan?
If nothing else, having a 504 plan in place protects your child. It’s a way to say “Hey, this child has a documented disability,” so if any issues do arise, the school is already aware they need to respond differently than they might in another situation.
For children with Autism, a 504 plan is often a gateway or placeholder plan until the necessary evaluative data is in place to qualify them for an IEP. If your child has a 504 plan, it’s a good idea to continue to revisit the question of an IEP. Note: It is rarely a good idea to allow a school district to discontinue an IEP and write a 504 plan instead.
What qualifies my child for an IEP?
You would think it’s simple: Your child has autism, so he qualifies for special education services. Autism is one of the qualifying conditions of the thirteen categories under which special education can be provided. That means your child doesn’t have to have an additional disability to be able to receive special education services.
Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. Having an evaluation–either by the school district or an outside evaluator-that clearly states your child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder is the first hurdle.
The second hurdle is proving that your child’s disability is interfering with his educational performance. This requires evaluating his current performance and abilities. He may undergo a variety of evaluations including psychological testing, a classroom observation, occupational therapy evaluation, etc.
Once the evaluations are completed, the team will sit down to review the information and recommendations and see if your child qualifies under the federal guidelines.
Note: An important thing to remember as a parent is that your child’s education can be affected without him having academic trouble. If there are behavioral concerns, for whatever reason, that is causing your child to lose learning time in the class (i.e. being sent home, to the principal’s office), his disability is affecting his learning.
My child doesn’t have Autism as a diagnosis (he has Asperger’s Syndrome or PDD, NOS), can his qualifying disability still be Autism?
Yes, any condition that is covered under the Autism Spectrum Disorder umbrella fits into the category of Autism.
What’s the difference between an IFSP and an IEP?
An IFSP (Individualized Family Service Plan) is the plan that provides for early intervention services between the ages of birth and 3. Typically, an IFSP is family-centered, providing not only direct services for a child with autism, but also services that benefit the whole family. This could be consultation with the early interventionist or other service provider, special transportation or even family training.
An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is an educationally-based plan that provides services for an individual with disabilities from the ages of 3 to 21 (or graduation, whichever comes first). The plan spells out the needs, goals, direct and related services that the student will receive, only as they pertain to his educational needs.
Why does my child have to transition to an IEP?
Because of the way the federal guidelines are written, children with disabilities from the ages of 3 to 5, while not legally required to be in school, become the “responsibility” of the each state’s educational agency. Though each state deals with services differently, the focus changes from family intervention to child-based interventions in areas that are affecting a child’s ability to learn. That means before or on a child’s 3rd birthday, he will need to be transitioned from an IFSP to an IEP.
What does “educational impact” or “adverse impact” mean?
These terms are both tricky and daunting. In order for a child to receive special education services, it needs to be proven that his disability is having an adverse effect on his learning. At its most basic, the question is: How is this disability impacting the child’s ability to make gains and learn in the regular education classroom or with the regular education curriculum?
Sometimes this is clear cut. Sometimes it’s more difficult. The important thing to keep in mind is that there’s some wiggle room in the concept of adverse impact.
Sure, your child might not be behind the other kids academically, but is he living up to his own achievement potential or is his disability impeding that? Does he need sensory breaks to help calm himself? What happens without them? Does he need a behavior plan to make it through the day? These elements are also necessary considerations when it comes to “educational impact.”
What is the Least Restrictive Environment and how is it determined?
The Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE, is a key principle in making sure every child gets a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The language of the law (IDEA) states that:
“to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities are educated with children who are non-disabled.”
That means that as much as possible, children with disabilities should be receiving their education with their age-appropriate peers. This is sometimes referred to as “mainstreaming” or “inclusionary education.”
It doesn’t mean that your child won’t need modifications to curriculum or assistance accessing the same education, just that he should have the opportunity to receive it in the environment that is as much like a typical classroom as possible.
Sometimes the LRE is not the regular education classroom and that’s okay. It’s all about making sure your child gets the education he’s entitled to and that less restrictive options have been tried first.
Who can I turn to for help if I don’t feel like my child is getting what he needs from the school district?
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your child may not be getting the services you feel he needs to be successful. There are places you can turn to get help.
- The National Disability Rights Network can help you find a Disability Rights Center in your state. The DRC has lawyers and advocates who can help you work with the school department to make sure they are living up to their responsibilities under the law.
- The National Autism Society has chapters all across the nation who can help you educate the school system about your child’s disorder and provide some ideas of appropriate goals, objectives, devices and services.
- PEATC, the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center, has a number of resources to connect you with other parents who are trained as educational advocates.
Amanda Morin is a parenting and education writer who draws on her 10 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher and early intervention specialist. She worked with and evaluated children with special-needs, taught parenting classes and was a service coordinator for children in therapeutic foster care. Amanda is also mother to three children, ages toddler to teen, one of whom has Asperger Syndrome.