Education plays a critical role in a child’s life and future. Your child’s autism diagnosis does not change that. Federal law ensures that children with autism and other special needs receive an education that works for them.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates a public education for all eligible children and makes the schools responsible for providing the supports and services to allow this to happen. Under IDEA, your child is entitled to a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment."

A “free appropriate public education” may include:

  • Placement in a mainstream and/or special education classroom at a public school with appropriate modifications or accommodations to meet a child’s specific needs;
  • Placement at a private school (at public expense, if your school district cannot provide an appropriate placement in a public school); and/or
  • The provision of related services (such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling services, mobility services and/or transportation).

The “least restrictive environment” requirement is to ensure that a child is not unnecessarily put in isolation or removed from his peers. Under IDEA, he must be integrated into mainstream classroom environments (with appropriate supports and accommodations) as much as possible.

The evaluation includes an assessment of academic achievement, observation of behaviors in school settings, family interviews, reports of problem behaviors by family members and school professionals and more. The results determine the student’s rights to the special education services that will provide them with an effective free and appropriate public education.

If it is determined that your child is eligible for special education services, a meeting will take place to develop an initial Individualized Education Program (IEP) that lays out what those services will be.

Special education eligibility

It is important to note that an autism diagnosis does not mean your child will automatically qualify for special education services. Eligibility for services in school is based on an educational evaluation and diagnosis, not simply a medical diagnosis under the DSM-5 from your child’s healthcare provider. To get an educational diagnosis and access to services, an educational determination of disability must be made by a multidisciplinary team of school professionals.

You will need to request a school evaluation for your child after your child’s medical diagnosis so they can access special education services as soon as possible. This evaluation is based on the impact the medical diagnosis of autism has on the student’s ability to learn in school. The information from a medical assessment is included in the review, but specific attention in the evaluation is paid to the student’s performance in school and how the diagnosis affects their educational performance.

Individualized Education Programs

An IEP is a plan that determines the special education services, supports and accommodations that a student with special needs will receive to ensure the best possible education at school. Once it is determined that your child is eligible for an IEP, you will work with your school to develop a plan that best addresses your child’s unique strengths and challenges.

IDEA establishes an important team approach in education. You, as a parent, are an equal partner with the school district in defining an education plan to meet your child’s individual needs. This enables you to be a powerful advocate for your child.

It also means that you must be an informed, active participant in planning and monitoring your child’s progress and legal rights. The IEP spells out your child’s education needs and how these needs will be met.

An IEP will describe these strengths and challenges based on evaluations, set goals and objectives, and detail how these can be met through services such as SLT and OT, as well as specific special education supports, counseling and social skills training. Meaningful and measurable goals make for an effective IEP and a successful IEP process. The goals will be both academic and functional.

Under IDEA, a re-evaluation must take place at least every three years and can take place more often if you or your child’s teacher makes a written request based on feelings that his or her needs have changed. These re-evaluations help when modifying your child’s IEP so that they have continued access to the special education services that will help achieve the best possible outcomes.

A 504 plan is another resource that will help your child access services and supports at school. This plan outlines the accommodations your child receive so they can learn to the best of their ability in a supportive environment. Even if your child does not require specialized instruction as outlined in an IEP, the 504 plan will lay out specific services that will be provided to help support them both in and out of the classroom.

Questions to consider when developing an effective IEP

Placement: Where is the best place for my child to learn?

  • Should my child be in a mainstream or special education class? Both?
  • Should he be partially or fully mainstreamed?
  • What transition plan should be in place for mainstreaming?
  • What type of special education class would be ideal?
  • If special education is appropriate, what are the educational classifications and cognitive and maturity levels of fellow classmates?
  • How many other students should be in the classroom?
  • How old should the other students be? What range of skill level should they have?
  • What extra-curricular activities should be available?
  • What type of classroom or behavioral or teaching support(s) and accommodations does my child need to be supported in the least restrictive environment?

Class content: What is and isn't appropriate for my child to learn?

  • What specific topics do I want in the curriculum? What don’t I want?
  • Are there specific known programs that would work for my child?
  • Will my child take any statewide assessment exams?
  • What accommodations will be necessary?

Related services: What specific supports does my child need?

  • Assistive (augmentative) technology and consultative support
  • Speech and language, physical or occupational therapy
  • Psychological or mental health support
  • Art, music or dance therapy
  • After school or weekend services
  • School social work services
  • Recreational support
  • Safety training
  • Transportation

Transition services: What services/supports does my child need now to be ready to (consider if appropriate):

  • Live on his own?
  • Go on to higher education?
  • Work?
  • Participate in the community?

Transition services

As your child enters his or her teenage years, you will begin to think about how you will approach the future. Some individuals with autism move on to college, some go right into the workforce and others have alternative plans. Regardless of the path chosen, making a plan to move forward after high school is the first step on the journey to adulthood.

Putting in place a transition plan for your child will allow you and your family to work with the school to plan for life beyond graduation. Investigating possibilities for the future will familiarize you and your child with different based on their unique skills and interests.

You will work together with your child’s educational team to identify long- and short-term goals. These goals will enable your child and your family to compartmentalize the steps to ensure future success.

Playing on the strengths of your child will help you plan for the future successfully. A successful transition will lead your child with autism on the path to a fulfilling life that enables them to learn and grow. This type of planning should take place around 12 years of age. The transition plan will begin with individuals assessing their own skills and interests with their families. This will allow them the time and space to reflect on the best way to hone their skills on things that interest and excite them.

Important things to consider when transition planning

  1. Develop self-advocacy skills at school. Self-advocacy is an important skill for people with autism. It means asking for what they need to help them learn and be successful. The classroom is a place to learn these skills. Ask to include self-advocacy goals in your child’s IEP so that teachers will help them learn how to advocate for themselves to the best of their abilities.
  2. Practice life skills at home and in the community. Learning to do chores at home, like cooking and laundry, can help your child prepare for adulthood. At the same time, developing skills like shopping and managing money, can help them be active in the community. If your child has an IEP, you can ask for a community skills assessment as part of their IEP transition plan.
  3. Encourage your child to participate in education and IEP meetings to the best of their ability. It is important that students have a voice in their education, including at IEP or 504 plan meetings. At these meetings, make sure the IEP team works with your child to make decisions about their education. Your child can share their goals, ideas, opinions or requests for support.
  4. Develop strategies for independent living. Keys to a successful transition to independent living include being able to plan, organize and manage time. Creating and following routines can make it easier to remember and complete tasks. Try different supports to find out what works best for your child, like visual prompts, color-coded schedule or organizer, or scheduling or calendar apps.
  5. Be active in the community. Being active in the community will help your child build skills they will need when they start to work. Participating in community programs can help your child meet people and make friends and other social connections. Exploring their likes, dislikes and interests through community activities can help them think about what kind of job they may want in the future.

Three great transition resources from Autism Speaks are:

Transition Tool Kit: a guide for families of children between the ages of 13 and 22 to help with the road to adulthood.

Community-based Skills Assessment: a tool designed to help parents and professionals assess your child’s strengths, skills and challenges in order to develop a personalized and comprehensive transition plan so your child can achieve the greatest possible outcomes.

Transition Roadmaps: personalized, interactive tools that provide a series of goals and resources up to age 22 to help get ready for employment, housing and postsecondary education.

All of these transition resources and more can be found at

Setting up services

Throughout your child’s educational process, it is important to remember that each child has a unique set of abilities and challenges. Educating both yourself and your child’s educational team at school will be fundamental to your child’s success in the classroom. Since children with autism can be diagnosed at all different stages of the education process, it is imperative to make sure that the proper accommodations are given to them no matter when they are diagnosed.

Individuals with autism may show evidence of distinct issues; they may struggle more with social interactions and communication than with their studies and schoolwork. Since each child is different, the parents and educators need to work collaboratively in order to play on the child’s strengths and enable them to have a positive and successful educational experience.

Once your child is diagnosed, it is crucial to make sure they have the proper supports in school. As you work with your school system, it is important to remember that your child’s program should be designed individually, as each child has unique needs, even if the diagnosis is the same as that of another child. Acquiring these services will help your child and will also ensure that their teacher can provide the best and most effective education possible.

When telling your child’s teachers and other school professionals about their diagnosis, be sure to provide them with helpful information about autism if they aren’t informed and to cover both your child’s strengths and weaknesses when discussing the best ways to support them in the school environment. You may need to communicate frequently with school professionals to make sure your child’s needs are being met in a successful and supportive way.

The Autism Speaks School Community Tool Kit is a very helpful resource for you to share with your school to assist all members of the school community in understanding and supporting students with autism like your child. The kit provides helpful information about students with autism, as well as tools and strategies to achieve positive interactions and increase learning for your child, his or her peers, teachers, school administrators and more. It contains information for everyone from peers to paraprofessionals to bus drivers, security officers, nurses and more.