Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for Autism

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on June 21, 2022
5 min read

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that all children in the U.S. have a right to a "free appropriate public education."

For children with autism and children with certain other disabilities, this act mandates the creation of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Each IEP is designed for one child. Its purpose is to meet that child's specific special education needs. It sets goals and objectives and describes what services a child will receive as part of their special education program.

Before an IEP can be created for a child with autism, there is a process to determine whether they are eligible for special education.

To start the process, your child needs to be evaluated for a disability. That includes autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Either you as a parent or an educational professional in your child's school district needs to request evaluation. If the district makes the request, your consent is needed before the evaluation can be done.

Professionals within your child's district are usually the ones who do the evaluation, but it can also be done by a developmental pediatrician or psychologist.The evaluation is what determines that your child is eligible for special education. It also helps identify the special services your child might need.

If you think your child's evaluation isn't accurate, you can ask for an independent evaluation. That will be done by a professional from outside the school district. Your child's district may pay for that evaluation.

If the evaluation shows your child needs special education or services, creating an Individualized Education Program is the next step. The IEP will be tailored to your child's needs and abilities.

The next step after evaluation is the IEP meeting, which is required by law. The Individualized Education Program is supposed to address all aspects of your child's education. So, a number of different people will need to attend the meeting. At the very least, the meeting should include you, your child's teacher, and a special education teacher. Others who are familiar with different aspects of your child's needs and abilities -- social workers, school psychologists, therapists, or doctors -- also should attend. When appropriate, your child may also participate and offer input at the meeting.

The people who attend make up a team. That team will discuss how to best meet your child's educational needs. To prepare for the meeting -- and if your child is able to articulate answers -- you may find it helpful to ask your child questions about school such as:

  • "What is your favorite subject?"
  • "What is the hardest thing for you at school?"
  • "What is the easiest thing for you at school?"

Understanding how your child and their team view your child's strengths and weaknesses can be a big help in the development of the IEP.

You should also come prepared with questions for the team, such as how their recommendations will benefit your child and which services will likely be the most effective.

After it's written, the IEP will include information about your child's current performance in school. It will also contain a series of annual goals, and each goal will have a set of measurable objectives. Those objectives will be used to determine whether your child has moved toward or reached a particular goal. That way, your child's progress can be assessed each year.

The IEP will also identify the special education and services your child will receive. For instance, it could list and describe the assistive-technology devices your child will be able to use. The IEP document will also describe in detail how your child will interact with children who don't have disabilities. In addition, it will specify whether your child needs any modifications to standardized tests.

According to the law, the IEP needs to be reviewed annually. The purpose of the review is to assess your child's progress and make any needed modifications in the educational program.

How autism hinders a child's educational progress depends on each child. By carefully designing an IEP for autism, it is possible to create a plan that will help your child develop in many ways -- academically, socially and behaviorally.

An IEP for a child with ASD might contain goals like the following:

  • Academic: The child will learn new skills, such as adding or subtracting.
  • Social: The child will develop appropriate play skills, such as interacting with classmates during group activities.
  • Behavioral: The child will acquire new coping mechanisms, such as asking for help and replacing inappropriate behaviors, such as yelling or hitting, with socially acceptable ones.
  • Motor: The child will work on ADL skills or handwriting to assist their academic progression.

In the IEP, each of these goals should be broken down into measurable objectives so that the IEP team will be able to assess your child's progress. For instance, a goal for a child to learn addition and subtraction might contain the following objective: "The child will correctly subtract two-digit numbers 90% of the time in a one-on-one situation with a special education teacher."

Many children with ASD find it difficult to develop the skills they need. Engaging a child or teen in the IEP process provides an opportunity to teach a child with autism to advocate for themselves. For some children, involvement may be limited to attending the IEP meeting. Over time, and depending upon the degree of the disability, some children may be able to take more ownership. When they do, they will more actively participate in designing their IEP for autism. They may be able to identify their own problem areas and help create reasonable goals for themselves. And they may be able to determine which special education services would help them meet their educational potential.

Since an Individualized Education Program details the special services to which a child is entitled, it can be used to guarantee that particular areas of deficit will be addressed. If your child needs special services, such as counseling, occupational therapy, or physical therapy, the IEP should include information about the frequency and length of meetings with appropriate professionals and how progress will be assessed.

Because the plan is reviewed annually, it can be modified over time to meet your child's changing needs and abilities. An IEP can also help your child make the transition to adulthood. When your child turns 14, the IEP must include information about which academic courses are needed to help your child meet their post-high-school goals. At age 16, the IEP must detail which transition services, if any, your child will need in preparation for completing school.