Autism Spectrum Disorder: Information and Resources for Families

A Brief Overview

  • A short YouTube video by Osmosis.org provides an overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
  • A medical diagnosis of autism is not required for school-based evaluations or interventions. Read on for more information.
  • Families concerned about a child’s development can call the state’s Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588. This toll-free number offers help in English, Spanish and other languages.
  • To encourage early screening for ASD, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a 2-page tracking chart of developmental markers for children Birth-4.
  • The University of Washington Autism Center provides a collection of resources in categories that include online tools, early recognition, service organizations, and neurodiversity.
  • Information about early screening recommendations and state-specific guidance is available from the Washington Department of Health (DOH).
  • Help navigating medical systems is available from PAVE’s Family to Family Health Information Center. Fill out a Helpline Request for direct support or visit the Family Voices of Washington website for further information and resources.

Full Article

Parents of children with autism have many different experiences when watching for their baby’s first smile, their toddler’s first steps, emerging language, or their child’s learning in playtime or academic areas. When developmental milestones aren’t met in typical timeframes, families may seek a diagnosis, medical interventions, and/or supports from school.

April is Autism Acceptance Month, providing an opportunity to consider challenges and celebrations for individuals who experience neurodiversity, which is a word used to capture a range of differences in the ways that humans function and experience the world.

Self-advocates in the Autistic community celebrate diversity

Much of the Autistic community rallies to honor neurodiversity, uplift the voices of self-advocates, and forward the movement of civil and social rights. “Nothing About Us Without Us” is part of the disability rights movement supported by The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), which shares resources by autistic individuals with lived experience for people who have autism spectrum disorders. ASAN created an e-book, And Straight on Till Morning: Essays on Autism Acceptance, as part of Autism Acceptance Month 2013. The agency also provides a welcome kit for newly diagnosed individuals: Welcome to the Autistic Community!

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder, which means that signs and symptoms vary among individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

“There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less.”

A diagnosis of ASD includes several conditions that were formerly diagnosed separately. Examples include autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. A short YouTube video by Osmosis.org provides an overview of ASD.

Signs and Symptoms

People with ASD may have problems with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors or have rigid ideas about routines. Signs of ASD begin during early childhood and typically last throughout life. The CDC recommends that families seek early intervention if there are concerns about how a child plays, learns, speaks, acts, and moves.

Here are a few examples of some ASD symptoms:

  • Not pointing at objects, such as an airplane flying overhead, or looking when someone else points
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Trouble understanding or expressing feelings
  • Not wanting to be held or cuddled
  • Repeating or echoing words, phrases, or actions
  • Not playing “pretend”
  • Unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound

Diagnosing ASD can be difficult since there is no specific medical test. Doctors look at the person’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis. The CDC says a diagnosis from a credible professional by age 2 is considered very reliable.

How to seek a diagnosis

Medical diagnoses in Washington are provided by Autism Centers of Excellence (COEs). Many of these centers provide access to Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy, an intervention that is helpful for some individuals with ASD.

An Autism COE may be a health care provider, medical practice, psychology practice, or multidisciplinary assessment team that has completed a certification training authorized by the state’s Health Care Authority (HCA). Physicians, nurse practitioners, and pediatric primary care naturopaths are eligible to apply for COE training and endorsement. The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) accepts diagnoses from COEs as a component of DDA services eligibility, with the exception of naturopathic providers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children have a developmental screening at every well-child check-up, with an autism screening at 18 months of age and again between ages 2 and 3. To encourage early screening and intervention, the CDC provides a two-page tracking chart of developmental markers for children Birth-4.  Further information about these recommendations is available from the Washington Department of Health (DOH).

CDC numbers show that 1 in 88 children have ASD. According to Washington’s DOH, about 10,000 of the state’s children have ASD. An Autism Task Force has been at work since 2005 to promote early screening and intervention. In collaboration with DOH and other agencies, the task force in July 2016 published the downloadable Autism Guidebook for Washington State.

The guidebook includes information for families, care providers, educators, medical professionals, and others. It includes an extensive Autism Lifespan Resource Directory. Diagnostic criteria and special education eligibility criteria are described, as are specifically recommended interventions.

Getting help at school

Autism is an eligibility category for a student to receive school-based services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The categories are defined by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). State law further defines the categories and criteria for intervention.

The Washington Administrative Code that describes IEP eligibility (WAC 392-172A-01035) describes autism as “a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.”

Regardless of whether a student is medically diagnosed with ASD, a school district has the affirmative duty to seek out, evaluate and serve—if eligible—any child within its boundaries who has a known or suspected disability condition that may significantly impact access to learning (Child Find Mandate). Child Find applies to IDEA’s Part B IEP services for children ages 3-21 and to IDEA’s Part C early intervention services for children Birth-3.

Families concerned about a child’s development can call the state’s Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588. This toll-free number offers help in English, Spanish and other languages.

Schools have specific evaluation tools to determine how the features of an autistic disorder might impact school. Evaluations can also determine eligibility based on health impairments (for example, ADHD), speech delays, learning disabilities, or emotional behavioral conditions that might co-occur with autism. See PAVE’s article about evaluation process for more information, including a list of all IDEA eligibility categories.

In short, a student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if the evaluation determines:

  1. The student has a disability
  2. The disability significantly impacts access to education
  3. The student requires Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or Related Services

Not every student with ASD is eligible for school-based services through an IEP. Some may have “major life activity” impacts to qualify for a Section 504 Plan, which can accommodate a student within general education.

Section 504 provides anti-discrimination protections as part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Keep in mind that students with IEPs have disability-related protections from IDEA and Section 504. Additional protections are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). See PAVE’s article about disability history for additional information.

Resources related to ASD

Resources for families, teachers, and medical providers supporting individuals with autism are vast. The University of Washington Autism Center provides a manageable place to begin with a small collection of resource categories that include online tools, early recognition, organization, and neurodiversity. Within its online tools, UW maintains lists of organizations that provide advocacy, assessments, intervention services, and research/training.

Families whose children experience autism may need services beyond school. Speech, Occupational Therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapies, and other services may be available through insurance if they are determined to be medically necessary.

PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (Family Voices of WA) provides support to families navigating various healthcare systems related to disability. Fill out a Helpline Request for direct support or visit the Family Voices of Washington website for further information and resources.

The state Health Care Authority provides information about ABA resources and how to seek approval from public insurance (Apple Health) for specific therapies. HCA also hosts a list of Contracted ABA providers in Washington State

Another place to seek help with questions related to medical and/or insurance services is the Washington Autism Alliance (WAA). WAA provides free support for families navigating insurance and medical systems and can help with DDA applications. WAA’s website requests families to join the agency by providing basic information before they navigate to request an intake. Note that while basic services are free from WAA, the agency may charge a fee based on a sliding scale if families request legal services from an attorney.

WAA is sponsoring a virtual Day Out for Autism April 24, 2021, with family-friendly Facebook Live events starting at 10 am.

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’

A Brief Overview

  • If the school denies a request for a special education evaluation or does an evaluation and determines a student is ineligible for services, families have options. Read on for information about some possible next steps.
  • When there is a dispute about a district’s evaluation, one option is to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) from a provider outside of the school district. This article includes a sample letter to help with that process.
  • Families are protected by Procedural Safeguards, which guarantee a specific process for special education and offer families the right to file formal complaints when they disagree with school decisions.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff supports families navigating educational services. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 support.

Full Article

Parents have a variety of choices if the school denies a request to evaluate a student for special education or if the school does an evaluation and finds the student ineligible for services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Here are some options to consider.

Is disability a factor?

A student qualifies for IEP services when three prongs of eligibility are met through evaluation:

  1. A disability is present.
  2. The disability condition causes significant adverse educational impact.
  3. The student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services, such as speech, occupational, physical or another therapy to meet an educational need. 

Keep in mind that a student does not need to meet all three prongs in order to be evaluated. In accordance with the Child Find Mandate, the school district must evaluate a child if there is a known or suspected disability that may have significant impact on learning. The findings of evaluation consider the three prongs listed above.

When considering whether disability is impacting educational access and outcomes, it’s helpful to review the eligibility categories outlined by federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

  • Autism
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

In Washington State, children through age 9 may be eligible for services under the category of Developmental Delay. The Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-01035) provide detail about eligibility in each category.

Keep in mind that the educational impact of a disability can be assessed with or without a formal diagnosis from a medical provider.

Was your request in writing?

Referrals for special education evaluation are best made in writing. If an initial request was made and denied verbally, start again with a formal letter sent through email, certified mail or in person. PAVE provides a letter template and more information for evaluation requests in an article: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Address the letter to a district special education director or program coordinator, and cc an administrator at the student’s school. Make sure to include the student’s full name and birthdate, a clear statement of request for evaluation in all areas of suspected disability, and details about the concerns. If relevant, attach letters from doctors, therapists or other providers who support the request. The letter should include complete contact information and a statement that parent is prepared to sign consent for the evaluation to begin.

Ask for the decision in writing

The school is required to respond through a formal letter, called Prior Written Notice (PWN), to explain its rationale for moving forward with an evaluation or denying the request. If the school’s rationale for denial is confusing or incomplete, ask for detail in writing.

School evaluators cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. Impacts of COVID-19 delayed some evaluations in spring 2020, but the pandemic is not an explanation for evaluation denial.

Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because they want to try different instructional methods. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although it might be useful for the school to research its teaching methods, this cannot be the basis for refusing to evaluate a student with a known or suspected disability.

Request a meeting

Discussing a student’s difficulties in a meeting, in-person or virtually, can help school staff understand a parent’s level of concern. A district representative, such as a director of special education, can provide insight about the process and additional options. Parents can invite a support person to take notes and help track the conversation.

Is a Section 504 Plan appropriate?

If a student has a known disability, with some educational impacts, but there is no documented need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services, the student might qualify for accommodations provided through a Section 504 Plan.

Section 504, which is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. A formal evaluation is helpful but not required, and parent involvement is best practice. The team asks:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment limit one or more major life activities?

If the answer to these two questions is yes, the school can develop a plan to support the student within the general education setting. Assistive technology and modifications to the curriculum can be part of the plan, which includes individualized accommodations to ensure the student is able to access school in ways that are equitable. PAVE provides an article with more information about Section 504.

File a complaint and/or get outside help

Families are protected by Procedural Safeguards, which guarantee a specific process for special education and offer families the right to file formal complaints when they disagree with school decisions. Mediation, Citizen Complaint, and Due Process are options for dispute resolution in special education. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides assistance to navigate these processes through a Special Education Parent Liaison.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff supports families in their communication with schools. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 support.

Another option for support with family/school collaborations is the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds.

Request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)  

If family caregivers disagree with a district’s evaluation result, the family can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). An IEE can offer additional information that may support the need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services.

If the school district denies a request for an IEE at public expense, the district must initiate a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its evaluation was appropriate.

When an IEE request is accepted, the school district provides a list of independent evaluators. Parents have discretion to call each one or to seek an alternative evaluator before choosing who will evaluate the student. The school must consider the results of the IEE when deciding whether the student qualifies for special education programming.

Sample letter to request an IEE

Note: You can email the IEE request letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.

Dear [recipient can be special education district staff and/or school administrators]:

I am requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for my (son/daughter), NAME (BD: 00-00-0000). Please provide me with information about outside agencies in our area that can provide this evaluation.

The school conducted an evaluation [date range of evaluation] to determine whether [child’s name] is eligible for special education programming. I disagree with the results of that evaluation for the following reasons: (be as specific as you can; one reason may be that you don’t believe that all areas of suspected disability were appropriately evaluated.)

  • Use bullet points if the list becomes long.
  • Use bullet points if the list becomes long.
  • Use bullet points if the list becomes long.

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters supporting your request]. Please note that [highlight any particularly important recommendations from those attached documents].

I understand that the school can provide this IEE at no cost to me. I also understand that the school may initiate a due process hearing if denying my request. Upon request, I can provide more detail about my objections to the school’s evaluation.

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development and review of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings regarding the identification, evaluation, provision of services, placement, or decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

I understand that evaluations require my written permission, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of (child’s name). If you have any questions please call me at (telephone number) or email me at (email address, optional).

Sincerely, [your name and full contact information]Please Note: It is the policy of PAVE to provide support, information, and training for families, professionals, and interested others on a number of topics. In no way do these activities constitute providing legal advice. PAVE is not a legal firm or a legal services agency.

High School Halt: Ways to Support Youth Working on Adult Life Plans During COVID-19

A Brief Overview

  • The pandemic and its impact on education may feel especially confusing for youth working toward graduation and life-after-high-school plans. Read on for information about how to support young people working on their diplomas and goals for college, vocational education, independent living, and more.
  • The state continues to navigate questions related to graduation pathways and credit requirements for students impacted by COVID-19. This article includes links to resources where information is regularly updated.
  • Students learning from home may need support to organize their days and incorporate the activities of daily living into their educational programs. This article includes some ideas for organizing at-home learning.
  • Another article from PAVE provides more information about vocational rehabilitation options for young people, during COVID and beyond: Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools.

Full Article

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on education may feel especially confusing for those who are working toward graduation and life-after-high-school plans. Parents may need additional communication with schools to ensure students are on track to complete work toward their diplomas, college admission requirements, or vocational/independent living goals.

On March 2, 2021, Governor Jay Inslee signed into law HB 1121, which allows for individual students to waive credit or testing requirements if their ability to complete them was disrupted by the pandemic. Temporary waivers were granted in 2020, and the new law gives the State Board of Education (SBE) permanent authority to grant school districts emergency waivers for cohorts of graduating seniors into the future. Schools are expected to help students meet requirements before falling back on the emergency waiver as a last resort.

A Washington State student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) has added flexibility in meeting graduation requirements, which vary according to a set of options called Graduation Pathways. A student’s IEP includes a Transition Plan, and a target date for graduation is chosen by the IEP team. School and district staff, the student, and family participate in team discussions and decision-making.

A student receiving special education transition services may stay in school beyond the traditional senior year. A special education student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) includes the right to free school-based services through the school year when the student turns 21, as needed to meet graduation requirements and IEP goals.

Recovery Services relate to COVID-19

If special education services were disrupted by the pandemic, transition programming may be extended beyond age 21 so the student can access Recovery Services. Individual IEP teams are responsible for determination of Recovery Services and graduation planning. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is seeking additional funding from the state to support transition services recovery.

OSPI provides a 60-page booklet: Reopening Washington Schools 2020: Special Education Guidance. The guidance defines recovery services, as “additional, supplemental services needed to address gaps in special education service delivery due to COVID-19 health and safety limitations, of which districts had no control.”

Creativity may be needed to ensure educational access in all areas of learning, including those related to the transition into adulthood. OSPI’s Reopening Schools guidance includes a section (See Page 49) on Graduation & Secondary Transition. Included is this statement:

“Secondary transition is more than providing pathways for the individual’s movement from high school to employment. It is a comprehensive approach to educational programs, focused on aligning student goals with educational experiences and services. When we move these activities to the continuum of reopening models, we have to stretch our thinking about how this can be done.”

Tips for high school at home

Since March 2020, the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) has provided webinars and other materials to promote home-based learning for transition-age youth with disabilities. This article includes some of NTACT’s ideas. The agency’s website provides webinar recordings and additional materials: Transition Resources in the 2020-2021 School Year.

In collaboration with the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR/ParentCenterHub.org), NTACT provides an interactive tool for young people: Secondary Transition Considerations and Guiding Questions for Youth Exiting from High School. Throughout the document, a young person is guided to a variety of links and resources based on the way questions are chosen and answered. For example, “Things you can do now to help meet your postsecondary employment goal” provides a set of suggestions:

“Make a list of your career interests, the best work location for you, and types of jobs that best fit your skills. If you are not sure what jobs or careers interest you, explore your options at ‘Get My Future’ on the Career One Stop website.”

What about college admission requirements?

Students who are college-bound may have questions about admissions requirements and whether they can still be met. The National Association for College Admission Counseling has encouraged colleges to be flexible and has created a central resource for information related to Coronavirus and College Admission.

How can I help my student organize the day to include learning?

NTACT offers a range of downloadable Transition Focused Instructional Resources, including tools to help with scheduling and others for helping young people stay socially connected. In a March 2020 webinar, the agency encouraged creative ways to support regular work in each of the key areas of learning for a student with an IEP:

  • Life skills
  • Self-determination
  • Self-advocacy
  • Desire to work
  • Enriching experiences
  • Appropriate goals

Teachable moments might include real-life situations related to the pandemic and a new routine. Students still can have the opportunity to make choices and to live with the consequences of choices and actions. For example, a student-made meal might not be gourmet but can be enjoyed on its merits of life-skill-building and risk-taking.

How can the IEP support work at home?

NTACT recommends development of a consistent routine and documentation of daily work and any progress or regression. To help with planning, anyone supporting the student can take a close look at the current IEP.

The Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance, which are built from evaluation results, can provide inside about the student’s strengths, interests, and capacities. Annual goals will highlight the areas of specially designed instruction being provided through the IEP. Consider how instruction might be adapted for at-home instruction—or whether a more suitable goal might be considered. School staff and family members can collaborate to set up a shared approach.

For a student older than 16, a post-secondary transition plan is included in the IEP and includes projections about adult goals and the skills being worked on to get there. NTACT provides Choice Boards to support ongoing work in three key areas that are aspects of a transition plan:

  • Career exploration
  • Education and training
  • Independent living

The Choice Boards are pre-loaded with resource linkages and suggestions.

Think into the future

PAVE collaborated with the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment (WISE) to provide a video about life-after-high-school planning, with considerations related to COVID-19. For information about additional training opportunities visit the online calendar at GoWISE.org.

Here is a set of questions families might consider together to begin a planning process:

  1. Where am I now? (strengths, interests, capacities—the Present Levels of Performance in the IEP)
  2. Where do I want to go? (aspirations, dreams, expectations—Transition Plan Goals in the IEP)
  3. How do I get there? (transition services, courses, activities, supports, service linkages, community connections, help to overcome barriers—Annual Goals, Accommodations and other provisions included in the IEP)

What can we do at home today?

Consider how transition programming can be adapted to current circumstances so a young person continues to be connected to important relationships and inspired toward the future. Daily successes are to be celebrated, and high expectations elevate everyone. Below are some typical home-based subject areas that might support learning and skill-building, with a few linkages to resources that might help.

  • Leisure and Recreation
    • Cooking
    • Games
    • Podcasts and music
  • Home Maintenance
    • Organizing
    • Cooking
    • Cleaning
    • Yard Work
  • Personal Care
    • Personal Care—gottransition.org offers ideas to assist young adults in taking charge of their healthcare
  • Finances
    • Budgeting—Cents and Sensibility from the Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation provides an approach for individuals with autism.
    • Practice with money by paying for things throughout the day
  • Communication
    • Letter and email writing
    • Webinars
    • Phone calls/interview a friend or relative about their career path and write about it?

Other places that provide vocational questionnaires and forecasting tools

  • AgExplorer.com helps students imagine themselves in fields related to farming and beyond
  • ExploreWork.com helps students with disabilities consider their strengths and interests and how to relate them to work options
  • RAISECenter.org offers a variety of tools related to vocational rehabilitation. (RAISE stands for Resources for Advocacy, Independence, Self-determination and Employment.)
  • CareerOneStop.org, sponsored by the US Department of Labor, provides career assessments through its website and a mobile app.
  • Options for further information related to higher education
  • ThinkCollege.net
  • OffToCollege.com
  • ParentCenterHub.org provides a library of college preparation resources related to specific disability categories

For additional ideas about supporting a student with in-home learning please refer to PAVE’s Links for Learning at Home During School Closure.

Please note that any resource list provided by PAVE is not exhaustive, and PAVE does not endorse or support these agencies. Links are provided for information only.

School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work

Looking to the future can feel exciting, hopeful, confusing, overwhelming—or all emotions at once. For families supporting a young person with a disability, it’s never too soon to begin planning to ensure a smooth process from the teen years toward whatever happens next. This toolkit supports families as they organize this multiyear project.

Learn the Words

A good place to begin is a Glossary of Key Terms for Life After High School Planning, which provides vocabulary building and an overview of topics relevant to this important phase of life. 

Pandemic Impacts

COVID-19 has interrupted some planning, and PAVE provides guidance and resources to support families through these unusual circumstances: High School Halt: Ways to Support Youth Working on Adult Life Plans During COVID-19. The article includes information about Washington’s 2021 law that supports waivers for some credit requirements if the pandemic caused a student to fall off track.

A student receiving special education services has a right to education through age 21, if needed, to meet requirements and achieve readiness. Some IEP teams may determine that because of COVID-19 a student needs to stay in school beyond 21 to access Recovery Services, a term developed by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to help students recover learning losses related to the pandemic. Decisions about Recovery Services are up to the work of IEP teams, which include parents and students.

Commencement Access

Regardless of when a diploma is earned, a student can participate in Commencement at the end of a traditional senior year, with peers, under a Washington provision called Kevin’s Law. Families may want to plan well in advance with school staff to consider how senior year events are accessible to youth with disabilities.

The Big Picture

The right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) includes the right to school-based services that prepare a young person with a disability for adult life. PAVE provides a general overview of transition planning in a written article and in a video. Included is basic guidance about the state’s requirement for a High School and Beyond Plan (HSBP) to start in middle school and how to align HSBP with the IEP Transition Plan, required by age 16.

Various state agencies collaborated to provide a downloadable guidebook: Guidelines for Aligning High School & Beyond Plans (HSBP) and IEP Transition Plans. Included are career-planning tools and linkages to current information about Graduation Pathways, which changed in 2019 when the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill (HB) 1599.

Student Self-Advocacy

As they move toward adulthood, many students benefit from opportunities to practice skills of self-advocacy and self-determination. One way to foster those skills is to encourage youth to get more involved in their own Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). To support that, PAVE provides this article: Attention Students: Lead your own IEP meetings and take charge of your future. Included is a handout that students might use to contribute to meeting agendas.

The RAISE Center (National Resources for Advocacy, Independence, Self-determination and Employment) provides a blog with transition related news, information, ideas and opinions. Topics in 2020-21 include how to “Be the Best You,” how issues of race and disability intersect with equity, and how “The Disability Agenda Could Bring Unity to A Fragmented Society,” by RAISE Center co-director Josie Badger, who is a person living with disability.

Student Rights after High School

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) ends when a student leaves secondary education. The protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are ongoing throughout the lifespan.

These laws provide for appropriate accommodations in public programs and facilities. To support these disability protections, The IEP accommodations page or a Section 504 Plan can travel with a student into higher education, a vocational program, or work. Often a special services office at an institution for higher learning includes a staff member responsible for ensuring that disability rights are upheld. PAVE provides an article with general information about Section 504 rights that apply to all ages: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Universal Design supports everyone

Asking for rights to be upheld is not asking for special favors. A person living with disability, Kyann Flint, wrote an article for PAVE to describe how Universal Design supports inclusion. Her article can provide inspiration for young people looking for examples of what is possible, now as ever: COVID-19 and Disability: Access to Work has Changed.

Agencies that can help

Washington State’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides services for high-school students engaged in transition planning as well as adults seeking employment. PAVE provides an article that describes Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) and more: Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools.

Services for individuals who are blind or living with low vision are provided by Washington’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB). Youth services, Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), Vocational Rehabilitation, Business Enterprise Program, and mobility and other independent-living skills are served by DSB.

The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) also has a variety of school-to-work and waiver programs that support youth. PAVE provides a video to support families through the DDA eligibility process. An article provides further detail: How to Prepare for a DDA Assessment.

Not all youth with disabilities are able to access employment-related services through DVR, DSB, or DDA. A limited additional option is Goodwill, which provides access to a virtual learning library. Students can take classes at their own pace for skills development. Employment skills, workplace readiness, interviewing skills and more are part of the training materials. A pilot project has made the library available to individuals in select counties, and more widespread access is forthcoming. To request further information, call 253-573-6507, or send an email to: library@goodwillwa.org.

Graduation’s over: Why is school calling?

Schools are responsible to track the outcomes of their special education services. Here’s an article to help families get ready to talk about how things are going: The School Might Call to Ask About a Young Adult’s Experience After High School: Here’s Help to Prepare

Benefits Planning

A consideration for many families of youth with disabilities is whether lifelong benefits will be needed. Applying for social security just past the young person’s 18th birthday not only creates a pathway toward a cash benefit but enables the young person to access Medicaid (public health insurance) and various programs that depend on Medicaid eligibility.

Benefits Information for Individuals and Families is available from the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment (gowise.org). Clark County WISE staff partner with PAVE and other regional agencies to produce a Family Training Series, with topics that include school services planning, life planning, social security, and more. The Start Now 2020-21 series was launched in partnership with PAVE, and a recording is accessible in English, Spanish, sign language, and with subtitles: Transition Training Series: Preparing for High School and Beyond (In English and Spanish).

A photo depicting a zoom call with youth and a mentor is displayed Inviting people to the Tools 4 Success Conference
Register Now! The Tools 4 Success Conference is designed for youth, young adults, and community members who experience a disability to dream, imagine, and shape their future! The 2021 Virtual Conference will be LIVE on two dates: March 23rd and March 30th LIVE sessions at 10 am and 1 pm on both days, Pre-recorded sessions will be available to view on-demand, Community Resource pages, and Bonus materials.

Tips for Communicating as a Member of the IEP Team

A Brief Overview

  • When families and schools meet to discuss a student’s special education program, they can find Common Ground by remembering that everyone wants the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
  • Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.
  • Read on for tips about getting ready for a collaborative meeting.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Full Article

Whether on Zoom or around a conference table, sitting down with a team of professionals can feel intimidating to families. When a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is on the agenda, emotions can overtake a meeting. Getting defensive or angry does not usually help, however. This article provides tools for staying organized, open minded, and on topic to improve the work of meetings—and student outcomes.

A basic special education vocabulary boosts empowerment, and empowered families generally feel more confident at their meetings. Here is a key word to know:

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE. That right is protected by federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To meet the standard of FAPE, special education services are accessible to the student. Accessible means the services work as designed to enable progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

A student receiving FAPE with appropriate, accessible services demonstrates steady progression toward mastery of skills. Those skills are being taught with specially designed instruction (SDI). As skills are learned, progress is measured through goal tracking. Meaningful progress indicates that the student is accessing FAPE.

Mastery can enable a sense of belonging. When the student feels capable, connected, and responsible within the school community, things generally run more smoothly for everyone.

In other words, FAPE is the result when everyone works together for the benefit of the student and meaningful learning happens. When a student is successful, the IEP team has done its job well and everyone can celebrate!

Here is a more formal way to talk about FAPE: Under the IDEA, FAPE requires an IEP reasonably calculated to provide progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

FAPE provides a place to begin

When families and schools meet to talk about a child’s services, everyone can begin with FAPE as the overarching goal. FAPE provides Common Ground for the discussion. Everyone on the team wants FAPE:

  • The school district is required by law to provide FAPE to IEP-eligible students.
  • Teachers are happy when their students are successful.
  • The family wants a child to learn in a meaningful way.
  • The student wants to feel confident and proud.

Common Ground is not always where meetings begin

Problems arise in meetings when school staff and/or family members start the conversation far from Common Ground. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) has designed a curriculum to support families and schools in their discussions. Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.

To avoid a meeting that feels like a fight, the parent may want to start the meeting with some general comments to help school staff better understand the student and to gently remind the team that years of parenting have led to some expertise about a specific child.

For example, an IEP or a behavior plan might say that a student is “defiant” or “refusing” to do work. Those types of statements can make a parent feel defensive. Showing up angry probably will not lead to a productive meeting. Instead, a parent may come to the meeting prepared to explain that the student lacks confidence and would rather appear defiant than “stupid.” Maybe the parent has been able to talk to the student about their frustrations and can bring statements or requests directly from the student.

Another way to find common ground is to prepare open-ended questions and bring those to the table first, before offering suggestions or requests. For example, if a parent shows up and demands a 1:1 right at the start of the meeting, the conversation might quickly devolve into an argument about resource problems. If a parent comes ready to talk about what is not working for the student and concerns for their child’s learning and well-being, there is an opportunity to build empathy and problem-solving.

Climb mountains as a team

Firm predetermined “solutions” from any side can position school staff and family members far from collaboration, like the peeks of two mountains unable to ever meet in the middle.

Consider collaborative problem-solving as a project that starts at the intersecting bases of two mountains, on Common Ground. Shared expectations and assumptions are a good place to begin for an open-minded discussion. Here are a few conversation starters to consider:

  • According to these progress reports, the student is getting good at … How might we use that emerging skill to scaffold skill-building in this other area?
  • My student is not making as much progress as I expected in this area… Can we talk about strategies for improving progress?
  • This assignment, grade, or record shows that the student struggles to … Is there another approach to services or placement that we have not considered yet as a team?
  • I notice that this IEP goal is written to help the student “stop” doing an unwanted behavior. Can you help me understand the skill that is being taught, and can we rewrite the goal to focus on measuring progress toward the expected skill or behavior?
  • From what I see here (data/evidence/observations), this service is not working or is not accessible to the student. My theory about this is… Does anyone here have a different theory about what might be going on?

Here are some big-picture concepts for productive collaboration:

  • Trust is at the heart of positive working relationships.
  • Family members and educators can develop trust by showing personal regard, respect, transparency, and integrity. These may be particularly important for trust to grow among people of different cultures.
  • Blaming, bringing up the past repeatedly, minimizing another’s opinion, or rushing a conversation can create barriers to collaboration.
  • A neutral third party may be needed to resolve issues and rebuild relationships.

Prepare for the meeting

Request any documents that are going to be discussed at the meeting ahead of time. Review the documents in preparation for the meeting and mark down any notes for discussion. Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

Leave with an action plan

At the end of the meeting, review what has been decided and be sure to make notes about any action steps, deadlines, or assignments. Be sure to note:

  1. What is the action?
  2. When will it happen?
  3. Who is responsible?

Schedule a follow-up conversation or a plan to communicate about anything that is not firmly decided. After a formal meeting, the school sends parents a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to describe any changes being made to a student’s services and when those changes will take effect. Parents with their own notes about the action plan will better understand how to read the PWN and whether there are unresolved topics.

Procedural Safeguards provide additional options

If a meeting leaves too many issues unresolved, parents can review their procedural safeguards to make a choice about what to do next. A copy is offered by the school at all formal meetings, and parents can also request a copy any time. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Parents have the right to disagree with the school and to pursue resolution by:

The collaboration strategy being explained. Meet on common ground. A depiction of two mountains are shown, one represents family and the other mountain represents the school. Both family and school push against each other to form a smaller overlap triangle called FAPE - that represents the common ground.

Toolkit Basics: Where to Begin When a Student Needs More Help

When a student has unmet needs and may need new or different school-based services, what to do next can feel confusing or overwhelming. PAVE provides this toolkit to support families in taking initial, critical steps. These guidelines apply regardless of where school happens.

Is Disability a Factor?

Before acting, the family can consider disability and its impact. PAVE’s overview article about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education) describes 14 disability categories. If criteria are met in one of those categories, a student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP team that includes family caregivers determines how special education services are provided.

IDEA and/or Section 504?

If a student does not meet IDEA eligibility, the student may still have disability protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A family can consider whether disability impacts a “major life activity” that overlaps with school impact. If so, a Section 504 Plan supports the student with accommodations that enable equitable access to school. A student with an IEP has protections under IDEA and Section 504; accommodations are built into the IEP. PAVE provides an article: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Request Evaluation

If a student has not been identified for school-based services, the first step is to request an educational evaluation. State deadlines apply to formal requests. PAVE provides an article with basic information about that process and a sample letter format for requesting a free evaluation from the school district: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Request IEP Meeting

Families can request an IEP meeting to discuss the program any time there are concerns. PAVE provides an article, which suggests a format for making the request and includes information about meeting requirements: Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting.

Prepare for the Meeting

Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

IEP Process Demystified in 10 Steps

To describe the process of IEP from initial evaluation through high-school transition, PAVE provides a simple list, Special Education Process Demystified in 10 Steps. For a bit more detail, visit the 10-Step Guide to the Special Education Process provided by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Procedural safeguards protect family and student rights throughout the process. A copy of the procedural safeguards is offered at all formal meetings.

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

When a student is struggling in school and there is reason to suspect the challenges are disability related, anyone can refer the student for an educational evaluation. The final section of this article includes a sample letter for requesting a no-cost evaluation from the school district. PAVE provides an article with more detail: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

Rights are upheld during COVID pandemic

No rights are waived during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and families can collaborate to determine what data is needed and how to be creative about collecting data if person-to-person contact needs to be limited or avoided for health and safety reasons. An agency called Presence Learning is among those offering teletherapy training and support for special education teams during COVID-19.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides guidance to schools in Washington, where local districts establish and regulate policy. OSPI on July 10, 2020, issued an updated Question and Answer document about special education services delivery during the pandemic, including this statement (page 19):

“OSPI does not support unilateral district decisions to delay all meetings during COVID-19. IEPs and evaluations that were delayed due to COVID-19 should be prioritized for timely completion during summer and/or fall 2020 and follow those decisions with a prior written notice to the parent.”

Request evaluation formally, in writing

State-specific deadlines apply when a school district receives a formal request to evaluate a student. In Washington, evaluation deadlines are described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-03005). In short, a school district has 25 school days to respond to a request, 35 school days to complete an evaluation, and 30 calendar days to write and implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student.

Family caregivers/guardians must sign consent for an evaluation to begin. How signatures are provided during the health emergency can be discussed to avoid slowing the process.

Make a special education referral in writing. This is important because:

  1. There will be no confusion about how/when/why request was made.
  2. The letter provides critical initial information about what is going on with the student.
  3. The letter supports a written record of family/school interactions.

The school district is required to collect and consider school, medical and other records provided by the district and/or the family. Families may choose to disclose all, a portion, or none of a student’s medical information. Schools may not require disclosure of medical records.

If the family wishes, letters about diagnoses, concerns, and recommendations from outside providers may be attached to the evaluation request. The district is responsible to review all documents and respond with written rationale about how the information is incorporated into recommendations.

Prior Written Notice (PWN), IDEA, FAPE, and Child Find

After receiving an evaluation request letter and supporting documents, the district is required to respond formally, through a Prior Written Notice (PWN), within 25 school days. A PWN is a legal requirement any time there is a proposal to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a student through a special education process. These provisions are from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In Washington State, PWN requirements are described in WAC 392-172A-05010.

A PWN is required if the school district agrees or refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the student. A PWN is also required any time there is a change or a refusal to change any aspect of how the district provides Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student with a disability.

The right to FAPE is federally protected by the IDEA. A non-discriminatory evaluation process is part of the protections for a student with a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to education (Child Find Mandate). Child Find protections apply whether there are academic and/or non-academic school impacts. Note that another foundational principle of the IDEA is parent/student participation in special education process. The IDEA protections cover the decision process about whether to evaluate.

Special Education is a service, not a location within the school

Please note that a request for special education evaluation is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students eligible for special education services receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

General education classrooms and spaces are the least restrictive. A child may be placed in a more restrictive setting if an IEP team, which includes family participants, determines that because of the child’s circumstances and capacities, FAPE is not accessible even with specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications, ancillary aids, and other documented attempts to support a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within the general education environment.

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

If a student is evaluated and determined ineligible for IEP services, the family has a right to appeal the decisions and/or to seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The rights are similar if the district refuses to conduct an initial evaluation. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request.

Family caregivers also can work with the school to develop a Section 504 plan, which accommodates a person with a disability that impacts a major life activity (learning, walking, speaking, writing, socializing, etc.). Section 504 is an aspect of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination throughout the lifespan. See PAVE’s article for more detail about Section 504 rights, which also protect students who qualify for an IEP: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Sample letter for a special education referral

Below is a sample letter that family caregivers can use when writing a request for an educational evaluation:

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

Name (if known, otherwise use title)
Title/Director of Special Education/Special Services Program Coordinator
School District
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use title):

I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for my (son/daughter), NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000), for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of [his/her] struggles with [brief sentence that summarizes the bullet points listed below].

I understand that the evaluation is to be in all areas of suspected disability, and that the school district is to provide this evaluation at no charge to me. My reasons for requesting this evaluation are: (be as specific as you can).

  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.
  • Use bullet points if the list is long.

My [son/daughter] has been medically diagnosed with [DIAGNOSIS, if available…Or, you might write: My son is awaiting a medical evaluation for … note that a medical diagnosis is not required for schools to conduct an educational evaluation].

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters or reports]. Please take note that [Dr. NAME] recommends [highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents] because [reason].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings related to evaluation, identification of disability, provision of services, placement, or other decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing an evaluation before [name of child] is tested so that I might share information and history. I will also expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I might review it before the team meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for these tests to be administered, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of [child’s name]. If you have any questions please call me at [telephone number] or email me at [email address, optional].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of anyone else you give copies to)

You can email this letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.

Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that entitles children to special education services if disability significantly impacts access to education and a specially designed program is needed.
  • Key concepts are from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. The United States celebrated 45 years of special education law Nov. 29, 2020. In recognition, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offers an historical infographic: OSEP Fast Facts: IDEA 45th Anniversary.
  • The IDEA is unchanged during the pandemic. Although education is delivered in a variety of new ways, student rights and protections are intact. For more information, PAVE provides a training video: Student Rights: Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Full Article

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to a free public education that is specifically designed to meet their unique, individual needs.

Key concepts came from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide special education services to all children with eligible disabilities. PAVE has an article about special education history.

This article provides an overview of the IDEA, which is unique as a law that provides an individual entitlement. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program already built and available. The strengths and challenges of a specific student are assessed, and a team including family members and professionals works together to design a program.

No rights are waived due to COVID-19

The IDEA drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

No federal or state laws are altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although education is being delivered in a variety of new ways, all student protections and special education rights are intact.

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

The first principle of the IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team that includes school and family.

The local school district is responsible to provide FAPE through an IEP, which includes specially designed instruction, services, accommodations, and anything else that the team identifies as necessary to provide the student with education that is accessible, equitable and appropriate.

Part of FAPE is ensuring that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE within the general education classroom, then the school district is responsible to create a program within a placement that does meet the student’s needs. Keep in mind that Special Education is a Service, Not a Place: see PAVE’s article with that statement as its title.

The IDEA considers the whole life of a person with a disability

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated in Part A: ​

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B. The six principles listed at the end of this article describe IDEA’s Part B protections.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 9. PAVE has an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the IDEA’s 14 disability categories:

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features from the autism spectrum may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions

The disability must have an adverse impact on learning. Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. Following procedures described by the IDEA, school districts evaluate students to consider 3 key questions:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of eligibility, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability to access FAPE. PAVE provides various articles about the evaluation process, including a sample letter to refer a student for services.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also appropriate, designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities (Child Find Mandate). There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper or a location (Special Education is a Service, Not a Place). The program is reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and family. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Areas of need may be academic, social and emotional skills, and/or general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into life after high school becomes a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Regular classrooms and school spaces are the least restrictive. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to access FAPE, then the IEP team considers other options. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA and state regulations about IEP team membership make it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is available online from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a complaint with the state. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

PAVE provides information, resources and, in some circumstances 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

Child Find: Schools Have a Legal Duty to Evaluate Children Impacted by Disability

A Brief Overview

  • School districts have an affirmative duty to locate, evaluate and potentially serve any infant, toddler or school-aged student impacted by disability under the Child Find Mandate — part of special education law.
  • The duty to evaluate is based on a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to learning. Data from evaluation then determines eligibility. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has state specific information about Child Find.
  • PAVE recommends making referrals in writing and provides a sample letter.
  • Public school districts provide evaluations and special education services at no cost to the family.
  • Child Find is intact during the pandemic, as are all student rights and protections. For more information, PAVE provides a training video: Student Rights: Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Full Article

Family caregivers, teachers, or anyone else can refer a child for an educational evaluation if there is reason to suspect that a disability is impacting that child’s ability to learn. The local school district provides a comprehensive evaluation, free to the family, if there is a known or suspected disability and reason to believe that appropriate early learning or school success requires intervention.

The school district’s duty to seek out, evaluate and potentially serve infants, toddlers or school-aged students is guaranteed through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), as part of the Child Find Mandate. The law says that this obligation to evaluate exists for all children ages 0-21, regardless of whether they:

  • Attend private or public school
  • Are housed in a stable way or are homeless
  • Live with a birth or adopted family or are a ward of the state

Receiving adequate marks and “passing from grade to grade” does not erase the school’s responsibility to evaluate. Impacts to all areas of school and learning are considered. Academic challenges might trigger an evaluation. So can school refusal, communication deficits, missing social skills, trouble with emotional regulation and behavior challenges.

Children in private and home-based schools are protected by Child Find

Parents have the right to request an evaluation from the public-school district regardless of whether a child attends public school. If the child is found eligible, the local district is responsible to provide services unless the family does not want them. In some cases, families arrange to have a child attend private or home-based school but receive special-education services through the public school. Private schools do not have to evaluate children or provide special education, but they are responsible to provide equitable services and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. See PAVE’s article about navigating private school.

The IDEA includes categories of disability that might qualify a student for special education services at a public school. PAVE has an article about IDEA and additional articles with information about evaluation process.

Request an evaluation in writing

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff recommend that families request evaluation formally—in writing. Specific deadlines apply in the evaluation process. Washington districts have 25 school days to decide whether to evaluate. After parents sign consent, staff have 35 school days to complete the evaluation.

sample letter to request evaluation is available on PAVE’s website. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides more detail about state requirements. A national agency called Wrightslaw has additional information about Child Find.

The Child Find Mandate requires states to implement programs to locate children who might need more support, particularly those who might need services as infants or toddlers. Child Find is written into the IDEA in “Part C,” which protects children 0-3 with known or suspected disabilities in need of early intervention. However, Child Find applies to all children who might need services—through age 21 or until high-school graduation.

Testing determines whether the child has a disability that is causing learning delays. For very young children, this includes a known or suspected disability that might delay learning. For a child younger than 3 in Washington State, early intervention is provided with an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). PAVE’s website includes an article with more information about early intervention services and the transition to school-aged services at age 3.

For a child ages 3-21, an evaluation determines whether a disability is significantly impacting access to school and whether specially designed instruction is necessary for the student to access learning at school.

Schools use data to determine whether a child is eligible for services

The duty to evaluate is based on a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact access to learning. Data from evaluation then determines eligibility. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has state specific information about Child Find.

The referral process includes a review of existing data about a student. Existing data might include information from families, medical providers and anyone who can discuss a child’s performance at public school, preschool, private school, at home or in another setting. Based on this data, the district decides whether to evaluate. Often the decision is discussed at a “referral meeting” with school staff and parents. If a school district refuses to evaluate, family caregivers can request an explanation in writing and have the right to dispute that decision by exercising Procedural Safeguards.

Child Find requires schools to do outreach

School districts operate Child Find programs in a variety of ways. For example, a school might:

  • Train teachers to recognize signs that a student might need to be screened
  • Publish, post and distribute information for parents so they can understand how to request evaluation and why a child might benefit from services
  • Offer workshops or other trainings to parents about evaluation, early intervention and special education

When should the caregiver for a young child be concerned?

If parents do not think their child is growing or developing like other children the same age, they can request an educational evaluation, even if a pediatrician says there is no cause for concern. The national Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR website: ParentCenterHub.org) provides a list of developmental milestones to help parents recognize potential delays.

Early intervention can be critical. Parents can contact their local school district or seek more information and assistance from Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT), managed by Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF).

To determine whether early intervention is needed, an evaluator considers:

  • Physical skills (reaching, crawling, walking, drawing, building)
  • Cognitive skills (thinking, learning, solving problems)
  • Communication skills (talking, listening, understanding others)
  • Self-help or adaptive skills (eating, dressing)
  • Social or emotional skills (playing, interacting with others)
  • Sensory processing skills (handling textures, tastes, sounds, smells)

The evaluator uses natural situations to look at these skills while a child stacks blocks, draws, counts, cuts with scissors, jumps, or performs other activities. Testing time varies, and parents can ask how much time was spent, which settings were reviewed, and who conducted the review.

Parents can decide whether they agree with the results and whether they believe the evaluation was appropriate. “Appropriate evaluation” is protected by special education law, the IDEA, as a primary principle. Parents who disagree with the results of an evaluation—or a school’s decision to not evaluate—have the right to dispute decisions through a variety of informal and formal processes, described in Procedural Safeguards.

Birth-3 services are provided through an IFSP

If an evaluation determines that a child requires early intervention, then those services are provided through an IFSP. Early intervention services might include speech and language therapy; physical therapy; psychological services; home visits; medical, nursing, or nutrition services; hearing or vision services.

In most cases, services are provided in the home or in a child-care setting. The goal is for services to take place in the child’s “natural environment.” Occasionally a child may visit a provider’s office for specialized services.

What does an older child’s evaluation look like?

Educational evaluations for children 3-21 are conducted in consultation with a team that includes parents, teachers, special education professionals and school district administrators and evaluation specialists who can interpret and explain the results.

The assessments can look like academic tests, questionnaires, or informal observations. There are no right or wrong answers, and the evaluators are looking for clues that might show an area of need for different or specialized instruction. A comprehensive evaluation can measure a child’s ability to:

  • Think, reason and problem-solve
  • Understand spoken language
  • Explain ideas and speak clearly
  • Understand facial expressions and body language
  • Use facial expressions and body language to express emotion
  • Remember what they hear and understand different sounds
  • See differences in pictures and designs, remember what they see, and understand those visual images
  • Use body parts with physical skill
  • Get along with other people
  • Read, write, spell, and do math
  • Hear and see

Parents can provide a health history and notes and diagnoses from medical providers that contribute outside information to be considered as part of the assessment.

The Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City provides a comprehensive list of commonly used assessments for a variety of disability conditions.

Help for children 3-5 years old

Children ages 3-5 with identified disabilities can receive free special education and related services at preschools run by the local public-school district or through federal Head Start or the state-run Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Often these preschools are specifically designed for children with disabilities, so inclusion with general education students may be limited.

Once a student enters the local public school for kindergarten, specialized instruction may be provided in general education by special educators who “push in” with support in the classroom. The IDEA requires education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the greatest extent possible with typically developing peers. Special education is a service, not a place: See PAVE’s article with that slogan as its title.

Some children do not thrive in typical classrooms. The IEP team, including the parent, may determine that a smaller classroom or “pull out” instruction is needed for the student to make meaningful progress. These decisions are documented in the IEP.

Related services can support parent training

“Related services” might include speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, mental health counseling or special transportation to school or extracurricular activities. Training about positive behavior interventions for family caregivers, school staff and children also could be provided as a related service. Students who are enrolled in a private or home school may be dually enrolled in public school to access related services provided through an IEP.

During the pandemic, some extra attention has been paid to parent training as a related service in order for parents to understand how to support children learning from home.

What happens if a doctor or teacher refers a child for evaluation?

Any adult knowledgeable about a child’s condition can refer that child for evaluation. If a person outside the family makes the referral, parents get a formal written notification about the referral. Parents must sign consent for an evaluation process to begin.

Parents/guardians do not have to give permission. Parents who refuse to give permission have the right to request an evaluation later.

If school staff refer a student for an evaluation and parents do not want their child evaluated, the school district may ask parents to participate in mediation to further discuss the decision. If parents still refuse to sign consent, a school district can begin a legal procedure called Due Process to have the case considered by an administrative law judge. Through this process, a district may be allowed to screen a child for special education without parent consent.

If a student does not qualify for IEP services, a Section 504 Plan might help

A student who is evaluated and determined ineligible for special education might still qualify for some support with a Section 504 Plan. Section 504 defines disability much more broadly than the IDEA, and a student can qualify for support if an identified disability significantly impacts a major life activity, such as learning or socializing with peers.

Educational evaluations identify barriers to education, so schools can figure out how to help children make meaningful progress. Sometimes special education is provided to help with access to academic learning, and sometimes it is needed for a child to build functional skills or to develop more skill in Social Emotional Learning. When requesting a full and complete evaluation, parents can ask questions and provide feedback to make sure the school evaluates in all areas of suspected disability and that the tools for evaluation are comprehensive and varied.

Sometimes a child comes to the attention of the school because of unexpected behaviors that might lead to disciplinary actions. PAVE’s article, What Parents Need to Know when Behavior Impacts Discipline at School, has additional information for families who might be requesting an educational evaluation because of behavior incidents.