An individualized education program (IEP) is a legal document that outlines a customized learning plan for a student with a disability. It sets specific goals and includes any accommodations and services that will help the student reach those objectives.  

For autistic children an IEP may cover a range of support services. These might include speech and occupational therapy, adaptive physical education, social skills training, and specialized instructional strategies. The goal is to create an environment where the child can learn as effectively as possible. Given that autism manifests differently in every child, the specifics of the IEP will vary. 

A child is being assessed by a professional with his family.

Determining IEP Eligibility 

Eligibility for an IEP is determined by a multidisciplinary team. This usually includes the child's parents or caregivers, teachers, special education professionals, and sometimes medical professionals. The process starts with an evaluation to assess the child's needs, which is often requested by parents but can also be initiated by the school.  

In the U.S., federal laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provide guidelines on who is eligible for an IEP. Autism is one of the thirteen categories of special education services under IDEA, making children with autism generally eligible for an IEP. 

The IEP Creation Process 

Although the specifics may vary, the IEP process usually includes steps similar to the following: 

1. Referral for evaluation: Either a caregiver or a school professional can initiate the process by referring the child for evaluation

2. Caregiver consent: Before evaluation, caregivers must give their consent in writing. 

3. Evaluation: The child is assessed by a team of professionals to determine their specific educational needs. 

4. Eligibility meeting: The team meets to review the evaluation results and determine eligibility for an IEP. 

5. IEP meeting: If eligible, an initial IEP meeting is scheduled. The team collaborates to draft the IEP document, outlining goals, services, and accommodations. 

6. Implementation: Once the IEP is finalized, the services and accommodations are put into action. 

7. Review and Revision: IEPs are reviewed annually, or more frequently if needed, to update goals and services. 

Questions Caregivers Should Ask at an IEP Meeting 

In order to ensure that the IEP provides beneficial outcomes for their child, caregivers may wish to ask questions including the following: 

1. What are the specific goals for my child, and how were they chosen? 

2. What accommodations and services will be provided? 

3. How will my child's progress be measured and reported to me? 

4. Who will be responsible for implementing each part of the IEP? 

5. How will the IEP be integrated into the regular education setting? 

6. What happens if we feel the IEP isn't effective? What is the process for making adjustments? 

7. How will my child's social and emotional needs be addressed? 

8. Is there a plan for transitioning between grade levels or into post-secondary education and adulthood? 

A caregiver and a young child read together on the floor.

Advocating for Your Child During an IEP Evaluation 

Caregivers are an indispensable part of the IEP team, not merely passive observers. You know your child in ways that no test or evaluation can capture, and your insights are invaluable for crafting an IEP that truly meets your child's needs. Here's how you can effectively advocate for your child during an IEP evaluation. 

Be Prepared

Before the evaluation, familiarize yourself with the evaluation process, what tests or observations will be involved, and what they aim to measure. This helps you to understand what is happening and why. You may even want to conduct some independent research or speak with professionals to understand what the evaluation aims to accomplish. 

Attend the Evaluation 

Whenever possible, attend the evaluation process. Your presence can offer comfort to your child and also provide you with firsthand experience of how the evaluation is conducted.  

Share Information 

You have critical information about how your child behaves in different environments, how they handle transitions, what triggers specific behaviors, and other relevant details. Sharing these details during the evaluation phase will provide a more comprehensive picture of your child’s needs. 

Ask Questions 

Don't hesitate to ask the evaluators to explain anything that is not clear to you. Your understanding of all factors that go into making IEP decisions is crucial.  

Challenge When Necessary 

If something doesn’t seem right or you disagree with an observation, speak up. This is particularly important if you feel the evaluation does not accurately capture your child’s abilities or challenges.  

Consult Outside Experts 

Sometimes it's helpful to have additional assessments or opinions from third parties. Consult with doctors, therapists, or educational consultants who are familiar with your child’s case. 

Follow Up 

After the evaluation, there should be a meeting to discuss the findings and what they mean for your child's IEP. This is an excellent time to bring up any concerns or questions you may have following the evaluation process. 

Collaboration is Key 

Remember, you're part of a team whose collective goal is to support your child's educational journey. The insights from different team members, including you, create the most effective IEP.   

Keep Records 

Always keep records of communications, evaluations, and versions of the IEP. This can help you track changes, make future plans, and resolve any disagreements or misunderstandings that might occur. 

An IEP is a dynamic plan that evolves as your child grows. Advocating for your child throughout the IEP process can make a meaningful difference in how their educational needs are met. You know your child best. That’s why it’s important that you ask questions, seek clarifications, , and remain an active and engaged participant throughout the process