For children who are diagnosed with ASD at an early age in the U.S., the earliest point of contact for services – sometimes as early as before their diagnosis, is Early Intervention. When parents connect with Early Intervention specialists, either by reaching out on their own or through a pediatrician, the EI specialists will conduct an assessment to figure out which, if any, services are needed. These services can cover a range of different areas from therapy with a speech-language pathologists to occupational therapists focusing on feeding difficulties.
Early Intervention only offers services to children three years old and under, though. At age three, children’s educational accommodations and services become the responsibility of the public school district in their area. Other services besides what is offered through the school district may be covered by health insurance, or may need to be paid for out-of-pocket as needed.
Transitioning from Early Intervention to preschool
When young children age out of Early Intervention at age three, they’re able to begin receiving services through their local school districts right away, since children ages three to five who have disabilities or developmental delays are eligible for public preschool services. However, disability doesn’t ensure eligibility, and parents or caregivers will need to ask for special accommodations from the school. The public school system will then conduct its own assessment.
You can prepare to help your child access these services by touching base with your Early Intervention providers before your child’s third birthday. School referrals often happen when children are two and a half, if it looks like they’ll continue to need special education services. You can check in with your early intervention provider as early as age 2 to see if they’ve communicated with the school district about the fact that your child may need or be eligible for services.
Within the public school system
When your child begins receiving services through the public school system, you’ll work with a team of educators and service providers to figure out your child’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which will define the services they will need, and the goals they will be working towards, in a given year, and how their progress will be measured.
An IEP is a legal document, and it can be daunting for parents to learn how to navigate, but it can also be a great tool for helping your little one get the most out of their education as possible from the very beginning of their school career.
An IEP is a legally binding document – anything that’s set out in an IEP at the beginning of a school year must be provided by the school system, so making sure your IEP is as complete as possible is an important part of getting your child whatever accommodations or services they may need. Elements of an IEP include:
- A statement laying out your child’s present level of performance, or PLOP, which details how they're doing with the skills required for their education level at the beginning of the year. Your child’s Early Intervention providers can work with you to make sure you have a clear picture of this going into the process of making an IEP, since they’re the ones who have been working with your child so far.
- Goals for the coming year in your child’s education. Going into preschool, this may include kindergarten-readiness skills, or more general building-block skills like communication and motor skills.
- Special education accommodations that would help your child reach the goals set out in the previous section, and any modifications to the general curriculum the school will offer to help your child make progress towards their goals.
- The way the school will measure your child’s progress towards these goals, and when this measurement will take place.
- When your child is older, the IEP will also include sections for accommodations for standardized testing, and eventually, plans for after high school, if necessary.
You’ll be working with a team to produce an IEP. Aside from you, this team will include your child’s teachers (including special and general education teachers), a school district representative, and a school psychologist or other specialist.
Putting together an IEP can sound daunting, but it’s a key part of your child’s road to educational success, and as their first and strongest advocate, you’ll be the MVP of the IEP development team. You can also contact local advocacy groups to help talk you through your and your child’s rights as you navigate the process.