The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that all children are entitled to a free public education that meets their specific needs in the least restrictive environment possible. This means that children with special needs are to be provided with specialized services within the mainstream setting without cost to the family.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a tool used to outline a child’s strengths and weaknesses and how to meet their specific needs through public education. An IEP for autism can help to ensure that autistic children receive the support and resources they need for academic success.

An IEP Explained

Autism is a spectrum disorder that can be diagnosed when a child is as young as 18 months old. Most often, reliable diagnoses are made around 2 years old.

When autism is diagnosed young, the child can get early intervention services, which are highly beneficial. At the age of 3, early intervention services are transitioned into special education services. An IEP will then be created through your local school district’s special education program.

The purpose of an IEP is to outline where your child excels and where they need help. The IEP can set up objectives and goals as well as clear methods for attaining them. Each child’s IEP will be different based on their specific needs.

An IEP is education-based. Therefore, it will focus on things that can be accomplished within the parameters of the school system.

The actual document may be many pages in length. It can have up to 13 sections, outlining the details for the specific child and how equal opportunity education will be attained.

An IEP will include:

  • Current level of functioning and academics.
  • Goals that can be measured annually.
  • Specific modifications to school programing or equipment to support learning.
  • Necessary special education and related services.
  • Procedures for evaluating quantifiable progress.
  • Plans for attendance and scheduling of specialized services.
  • Information on transitions as the child progresses and approaches graduation.

IEPs are evaluated annually and rewritten as needs change throughout the school years. Academic goals, social skills goals, and functional life skills goals can all be included in an IEP. Related services like occupational therapy and speech therapy may also be included.

An IEP is a legal document that the school district has to follow when educating an autistic child. It helps to ensure that your child obtains the necessary resources, support, and services to grow academically, socially, and functionally within the school system. Ultimately, it means that autistic children have access to the same level of education as neurotypical children.

Benefits of an IEP

As a parent, you want the best education for your child. You may have weighed the pros and cons of public versus private education. An IEP makes public education a feasible option for many parents of children with autism.

An IEP can provide the legal framework to ensure that your child has the best opportunity for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Since an autistic child is legally required to have access to services through the public school system, an IEP makes this possible. Your child’s IEP ensures that distinct parameters are put in place and that there is a plan to meet these specific needs through special education services.

An IEP is a contract between you, your child, and the school district. The district can provide a roadmap and framework for how to help your child succeed.

An IEP is designed to be tailored to your child directly. There isn’t a one-size-fits-most solution when it comes to these plans. The plan will be evaluated each year based on how much progress is made.

Potential Pitfalls of IEPs

It is important for an IEP to outline exactly what needs to be accomplished and a detailed plan for how to get there. IEPs that are vague can be limiting, leading to frustration and inadequacies.

An IEP needs to set quantifiable objectives as well as ways for measuring them for a meaningful and appropriate annual curriculum. IEPs can fall short of these goals by setting the bar too low, not focusing on a child’s individual strengths, or reaching too high.

An IEP is designed to work within the school system. Often, an autistic child will need services and resources that the school may not be able to provide. Parents cannot rely solely on the IEP or expect that the IEP is always being followed. You will need to stay involved in your child’s education and progress.

As with everything else in parenting, you’ll need to remain an advocate for your child. While this is true of all parents when it comes to education, the burden can be heavier for parents of autistic children. By remaining involved in the process at every level, you can help to ensure that your child is being supported in the way they need and deserve at school.

The IEP Team

There are laws in place dictating who is to be a part of an IEP team. These people will be invited to attend the IEP meeting and help draft the document. The team may include:

  • At least one of the child’s parents.
  • The child’s teacher or prospective teacher.
  • If appropriate, the child.
  • Someone from the local education agency other than the teacher who has knowledge of the system and is qualified to either supervise or provide special education services directly.
  • Others with specific information about the child as requested by the parent or local agency. This may be additional family members, counselors, doctors, or therapists.

As a parent, you are considered an equal participant in an IEP meeting by law. You can bring your own suggestions and recommendations to the meeting. It can also be beneficial to work with your child’s teacher to come up with a plan for drafting the IEP.

Things for Parents to Address at an IEP Meeting

Parents are the best advocates for their children. You know your child best, and you will be the one providing additional support beyond school hours. It is important to ensure that the IEP addresses your child’s needs in a way that will be optimal for them to grow and learn. Your input will be vital to this process.

Here are some tips to optimize an IEP:

  • Understand and ensure everyone is aware of your child’s current level of social, functional, and academic skills. Don’t just discuss disabilities and shortcomings. Talk about their strengths, progress, and interests.
  • Be aware of your child’s eligibility category. There are 13 different categories, and children often fit into more than one category at a time. Whichever category has the most significant impact on learning should be the top priority.
  • Find out how progress is measured. Different schools have different metrics. Learn how often progress is assessed, how it is measured, and when you will be notified about this.
  • Ensure that goals are appropriate for your child and the timeline for the objectives.
  • Discuss specifics of your child’s special education and additional services. Find out where and how these services will be provided. Will they have a classroom aide, will they be integrated into general education classrooms, or will they be pulled into a special education classroom? Will your child also need occupational and/or speech therapy? Will they need additional services, and if so, what are they? Are assistive technology supports needed?
  • When appropriate, discuss extended school year (ESY) services if your child is apt to lose skills during school breaks and vacations.
  • Discuss a behavior intervention plan to help your child develop coping strategies. Talk about strategies for modeling behaviors.
  • As your child approaches high school and graduation, a transition plan will need to be put in place. When the time is right, discuss this in the meeting.

Sticking to & Optimizing the IEP

For best results, parents should be prepared and do their research. It is helpful to know what your school district has at their disposal and what your child’s rights are.

Go into an IEP meeting with notes and written information. Keep your emotions in check, and prioritize your child’s needs. Remember that you, your child’s teacher, and other school professionals are on the same team. You all want what is best for your child.

The goal of an individualized education plan is measurable social, functional, and academic progress. Autistic children often learn at their own pace and in their own distinct ways. Don’t try to fit your child into a neurotypical child’s learning schedule. Students have different needs, and they will excel when those needs are accounted for.

Services and resources should be included in the IEP that support this unique learning process. They will allow your child to work and grow in an environment that benefits their learning style.

Keep up with your child’s progress throughout the school year. Check in with teachers and support staff regularly to ensure that your child is receiving the services the IEP details, that progress is being measured, and that goals are being achieved in a timely fashion. It is within your rights as a parent to request a follow-up meeting and review your child’s IEP to ensure that it is working as intended.

Tips for Teachers in Crafting an IEP

Teachers have a tough job in creating an IEP that makes sense for an autistic student, helping them to achieve their maximum potential.

An IEP should be SMART.

  • S: specific
  • M: measurable
  • A: attainable
  • R: results-oriented
  • T: time-oriented

Keep all of these points in mind when drafting and writing an IEP for an autistic student. Goals need to be realistic and within the bounds of the system you are working within. While you may have big long-term goals for a particular student, keep the goals realistic in terms of what you can achieve in a semester.

Be very direct, and avoid vague objectives. Use plain, concise language in writing the plan. You want the goals to be clear for anyone who reads the document.

It can help to draft an IEP before the meeting. The drafting process takes time, and it’s likely that you won’t get it right on the first or second try.

Consider including both the child and the parents in your drafting process before the actual IEP meeting. This way you can all be on the same page and ensure that the IEP will be as specific and beneficial as possible. Take their feedback into account, and be ready to explain your thought process if you disagree on an area of the plan.

Worth the Effort

An IEP is a helpful tool for autistic children. It can ensure they receive customized care that is essential to their growth and development.

Take the time to ensure your child’s IEP is written well and then followed closely. The results are well worth the effort.


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10 Things to Cover at Your Child’s IEP Meeting. (2020). Autism Support Network.

ASD & the IEP Process. (2018). National Autism Society.

12 Tips for a Successful IEP Meeting. (May 2020). ADDitude.

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Teacher Self-Efficacy for Teaching Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Associations with Stress, Teacher Engagement, and Student IEP Outcomes Following COMPASS Consultation. (March 2019). Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.

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