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When Autism Doesn't Equal Autism

As a special education advocate, one of the questions I get asked the most is why a child’s school will not accept his physician's diagnosis of autism and provide the child with an IEP.

I get it! This question makes absolute sense to this mama! As parents, especially parents of kiddos with challenges, we look to, rely on, even lean on our medical professionals to help us navigate this new and uncharted world.

Receiving a diagnosis from your child's physician can feel like a lot of things. It can feel like the weight of the world on your shoulders; it can feel like a huge relief to finally have some answers. For those parents who experience that sense of relief, that rug can be pulled right out from under you when you arrive at your child's school, diagnosis paperwork in hand, only to be denied services.

So, let's chat for a moment about why this happens.

The school system, pupil appraisal specifically,

is governed by Bulletin 1508, the official Pupil Appraisal Handbook. Inside of that handbook, each of the IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, exceptionalities are listed with the criteria for diagnosis. The criteria is very specific, including phrases such as ‘two standard deviations below the mean,’ and ‘across multiple settings.’

Conversely, the medical world uses the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual to diagnose autism spectrum disorders, for now at least. The manual is currently on its 5th edition, DSM-5. Within that door stopper thick book, you will find specific criteria for diagnosing of an astounding array of conditions, autism included.

If you were to hold up the 1508 criteria for autism next to the DSM-5 criteria for autism, you would find that there is some overlap, but also many differences.

Additionally, to be eligible for special education, you must meet the criteria of a two-pronged test. Number one, there must be a diagnosis. Number two, there must be an academic need. This second prong is what typically what might prevent our students with a medical diagnosis of autism from receiving a school-based diagnosis of autism.

But, that's not the end of the story, and it's not the only support available to your child either. In addition to individualized education programs, or IEPs, school systems also must provide individual accommodation plans, or IAPs, through section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. IAPs are most commonly referred to as 504 plans. A 504 plan has much less stringent rules and guidelines for use. While it cannot provide specialized instruction to students, it can provide the accommodations needed for a student to access the curriculum. So, if your child with autism does not qualify for an IEP, let's go the IAP route!

As always, if you need help navigating the system, I am your friendly neighborhood special education advocate.


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