Autism Spectrum Disorder: Information and Resources for Families

A Brief Overview

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum condition with varied signs and symptoms. It involves challenges in multiple areas, including social skills, emotional regulation, communication, and behavior.
  • ASD can appear differently from one person to the next, and as a child develops from infancy through adulthood. 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.
  • Parents of infants and toddlers aged 0-3 with developmental concerns may benefit from the services provided by the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program, which provides specialized services and support that are crucial during the early and highly formative years of a child’s life.
  • Students with ASD may qualify for school-based services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if their disability significantly impacts educational access. These services are determined through evaluations that can include various related conditions. A medical diagnosis is not required for school-based evaluations or interventions.
  • The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) accepts diagnoses from Autism Centers of Excellence (COEs) as a component of DDA services eligibility, with the exception of naturopathic providers.
  • Connecting with other families to share and learn from experiences is invaluable, and there is a wealth of resources available to assist those seeking support and information in Washington State. Parent to Parent (P2P) programs across various counties provide free training and support, with support groups tailored to cultural and linguistic communities such as Spanish-speaking and Black & African American families.
  • PAVE provides support to families navigating various healthcare systems related to disability. Fill out a Helpline Request for direct support and click on the “Health and Wellness” link to be directed with individual support.

Full Article

Parents of individuals with autism have many different experiences when watching their child’s development, navigating school years and relationships, and building community and belonging. When developmental milestones aren’t met in typical timeframes, families may seek a diagnosis, medical interventions, and/or support from school.

CDC numbers show that 1 in 36 children have ASD and 2.8% of 8-year-old children have a diagnosis of ASD. According to Washington’s Department of Health (DOH), between 23,000-48,000 of the state’s children have some form of diagnosed ASD.

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. Much of the Autistic community rallies to honor neurodiversity, uplift the voices of self-advocates, and forward the movement of civil and social rights.

To promote dignity, neurodiversity, and empowerment, many autistic self-advocates prefer identity-first language, such as “autistic person” instead of person-first language like “person with autism”. This approach recognizes autism as an integral and inseparable part of an individual’s identity.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is referred to as a “spectrum”, 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, including 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.

Autism Indicators and Markers Across the Lifespan

People with ASD may struggle with social, emotional, and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviors or have rigid ideas about routines.  Indicators of ASD often begin during early childhood and typically last throughout life. Professor and autism self-advocate, Dr. Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” ASD can appear differently from one person to the next, and as a child develops from infancy through adulthood.  There are services and supports available at each stage of development and life.

Early Childhood Indicators and Supports

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 developmental milestone trackers for children Birth-5, including a Milestone Tracker App. State-specific information about early screening recommendations and guidance is available from the Washington Department of Health (DOH).  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.

Some early childhood indicators of ASD include:

  • Not pointing at objects, such as an airplane flying overhead, or looking when someone else points
  • Not wanting to be held or cuddled
  • Repeating or echoing words, phrases, or actions

Several state agencies collaborated to publish Early Learning and Development Guidelines. The booklet includes information about what children can do and learn at different stages of development, focused on birth through third grade. A free downloadable version is available in English, Somali, and Spanish on the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) website. An English translation is also available on the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Early Learning Resources page.

Parents of infants and toddlers aged 0-3 with developmental concerns may benefit from the services provided by the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program, which provides specialized services and support that are crucial during the early and highly formative years of a child’s life. Early intervention services through ESIT not only supports the child’s immediate developmental needs but also lays a foundation for their future learning and adaptation. ESIT provides the following:

Early Evaluation and Identification: ESIT helps in the early identification of developmental delays or disabilities, including autism, through assessments conducted by a team of professionals. These evaluations focus on key developmental areas such as motor skills, cognition, communication, social interaction, and self-help skills. Early diagnosis is crucial for autism, as it can lead to early intervention, which is shown to improve outcomes.

Services and Supports: Once a child is evaluated and deemed eligible, they receive an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This plan is tailored to meet the unique developmental needs of the child and also considers the family’s resources, priorities, and concerns. The IFSP includes detailed information on the child’s current development levels, the specific interventions planned, and the expected outcomes. Through ESIT, children can access a wide range of early intervention services designed to address specific developmental needs associated with ASD.

Family-Centered Approach: The family plays a crucial role in the development and implementation of the IFSP. Family Resource Coordinators (FRCs) assist families in understanding their child’s needs, the available services, and the implementation of the intervention plan. This inclusive approach ensures that the family’s needs and goals are addressed, promoting a supportive environment for the child.

The ESIT website includes videos to guide family caregivers and a collection of Parent Rights and Leadership resources, with multiple language options.

Parents may also contact their local school district for evaluation.  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.  See PAVE’s article about early intervention services for more information.

Supporting a Student with ASD

Children and youth in adolescence may demonstrate the following characteristics of ASD:

  • Avoiding eye contact or making excessive eye contact
  • Uncertainty in understanding what facial expressions or tones of voice mean
  • Not understanding sarcasm, figures of speech, or metaphors

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.”

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:

  • The student has a disability
  • The disability significantly impacts access to education
  • 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.

A diagnosis is not required to provide special education or related services. If the school district requires a comprehensive medical evaluation, they may request permission from the parent to have the child evaluated at the district’s expense (WAC 392-172A-03020).

Where to Begin to Obtain Supports

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. 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.

Diagnosing ASD can be difficult since it can appear differently from one person to another, and indicators change depending on the chronological and developmental age of the individual. Doctors look at the person’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis.  The diagnostic process usually takes a while, lasting years in some cases. In addition to working through insurance and health systems, you may encounter barriers when identifying providers who can diagnose within the age range of the individual.

Medical diagnoses in Washington are provided by Autism Centers of Excellence (COEs). 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.

Locate screening and diagnostic services in your location at ParentHelp123. If insurance doesn’t cover the full cost of diagnosis, check with the diagnostician to identify sliding scale or other payment options.

PAVE provides support to families navigating various healthcare systems related to disability. Fill out a Helpline Request for direct support and click on the “Health and Wellness” link to be directed with individual support. 

 Building Community Connections

Connecting with other families to share and learn from experiences is invaluable, and there is a wealth of resources available to assist those seeking support and information in Washington State. These resources include various programs and organizations tailored to meet specific needs, with some services focusing on race, cultural identity, and language. By tapping into these resources, families and individuals can find not only support but also a sense of belonging within a community that understands their unique challenges and perspectives.

Parent to Parent (P2P) of Pierce County, a program of PAVE, partners with Pierce County Human Services and The Arc of Washington State to provide No Cost training and support. PAVE’s Pierce “Parent 2 Parent Support Groups” offers a nurturing space for caregivers to connect, share experiences, and find guidance. Support groups specific to a cultural and linguistic community (Spanish-speaking, and Black & African American families) will be supported by a PAVE facilitator that is a cultural/linguistic match for the families served.

Parent to Parent (P2P) programs across various counties provide free training and support, with support groups tailored to cultural and linguistic communities such as Spanish-speaking and Black & African American families. P2P of Yakima, Walla Walla, Chelan/Douglas, Benton/Franklin, Skagit, Snohomish, Whatcom, Grays Harbor/Pacific, Clark, Klickitat, Lewis, Skamania, and Grant counties provide Spanish-speaking support, events, and resources. P2P King County supports Spanish-speaking and African American families.

Informing Families provides navigational supports for all ages, including referral to culturally responsive programs and services, such as Vietnamese Family Autism Advisory Board (VFAAB), Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic (OBCC), and Families of Color Seattle (FOCS).

The South Sound Autism Partnership is a collaborative network dedicated to raising awareness, acceptance, and advocacy for autism. SSAP aims to support and enact positive change within the community through monthly online meetings. Recordings of guest speakers at previous meetings and meeting notes are available on the SSAP website.

Additional Resources

The downloadable Autism Guidebook for Washington State, published by a dedicated Autism Task Force in collaboration with the DOH and other agencies, offers a comprehensive resource for families, educators, medical professionals, and care providers. It features a detailed Autism Lifespan Resource Directory, diagnostic and special education eligibility criteria, and recommended intervention.

Another guidebook, the Pierce County Parent Coalition (PC2) Resource Guide, contains clickable and searchable links to services throughout the state.

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.

Washington Autism Alliance (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.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) shares resources by autistic individuals with lived experience for people who have autism spectrum disorders, including a welcome kit for newly diagnosed individuals: Welcome to the Autistic Community!

The DOH website links to family supports and services for individuals of all ages, including links to Regional Genetic Clinics.

Transition Triangle

The transition triangle talks about the relationship between the High School and Beyond Plan , the IEP transition plan and Agency supports from DDA, DVR and DSB. within that triangle of support is the student asking themselves: Who they are, what is their future and their goals.

The planning process to support a student with disabilities toward their adult life plans requires coordination and organization. This graphic provides a visual overview of the work and who is responsible to help.

The center upside down triangle describes key questions for a student as they move through school and toward adulthood:

  1. Who am I? Answers include what the student is interested in, what they are good at, what they struggle with, and how they see themselves.
  2. What’s my future? Students can begin to imagine where they might work, whether higher education will be part of their future, and how they might live.
  3. How do I reach my goals? The answers are a long-term project. A good planning process ensures that work done today is moving the student toward their vision for adult life.

The three colored triangles on the corners of the graphic represent three tools that help students ask and answer these questions.

The purple triangle on the bottom left represents the High School and Beyond Plan. Washington State requires schools to begin supporting all students with a High School and Beyond Plan before they leave middle school. The plan includes questions to help the student think about where they might work someday and how much education they will need to get that job. The plan is designed to make sure time spent in school is moving the student toward adult goals. The High School and Beyond Plan addresses the same questions that are listed in the center of our triangle and is often managed by staff in a school’s counseling center.

The blue triangle on the bottom right represents the transition plan, which is required in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) by the school year when they turn 16. Goals in the IEP Transition Plan include further education/training, employment, and independent living as parts of a student’s program. A student with disabilities has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) until they earn a diploma or turn 21. The IEP includes a target graduation date, determined by the IEP team. The state requires the IEP Transition Plan to align with the High School and Beyond Plan. School staff and the family collaborate to make sure these two tools match up to best support a student’s progress.

The teal triangle on top of the pyramid represents agencies that might provide Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services. The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) has a variety of school-to-work programs for eligible students: A DDA case manager can provide information about options. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) for students still in school as well as vocational rehabilitation services for adults with disabilities. As they transition out of school, members of some Native American tribes may access Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR) services. The Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is a separate agency providing Pre-ETS for youth and vocational rehabilitation services for individuals who are blind or low vision. Staff from these agencies may work with an IEP team and counselors at school to make sure everyone is working together to support the student in the center.

Ideally a student with disabilities has people supporting all of the features on this transition triangle. Best practice is for all agencies and supporters to collaborate as they help a student move toward a successful adult life.

PAVE has made a fillable worksheet to help you answer these questions.

Key Questions for Self-Determination and Future Planning Fillable worksheet.

In addition, PAVE has a college readiness workbook ready for you to use. For direct assistance from PAVE, click Get Help. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about graduation requirements for a student in Washington State

Healthcare Transition and Medical Self-Advocacy

When young people turn 18, a lot happens. Adult responsibilities and decisions can feel scary and confusing for the unprepared. Becoming responsible for medical care is part of growing up, and that process is so critical that there’s a specific name for it: healthcare transition.

For example, at age 18 a young adult is responsible to sign official paperwork to authorize procedures or therapies. They must sign documents to say who can look at their medical records, talk to their doctors, or come to an appointment with them. Those rules are part of HIPAA, which stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA is a federal law that protects confidentiality, regardless of disability.

In this video, young adults living with various disability and medical conditions talk about their journeys in the adult healthcare system. They talk about how they make decisions and how they ask for help. Their ability to explain their needs, make decisions, and speak up for themselves is called self-advocacy. Take a look and listen to what they have to say in their own words!

For more information and resources around healthcare transition and self-advocacy, follow these links to the Family to Family Health Information website.

PAVE also has a Healthcare In Transition article that will give you detailed information for individuals transitioning from Pediatric (Children’s) to adult health care including information on health insurance and providers.

Another place for information is the Informing Families website, which includes a section called got transition.

Including Health Considerations in the Transition Plan

Parents, Students, and everyone on the IEP team should think about how health and healthcare can affect a student’s goals for college, work and living on their own. PAVE has made a fillable form that you can download when starting to think about this area in transition.

Including Health Considerations in the Transition Plan

Stay Stubborn! One Girl’s Self-Determination while Navigating Healthcare

By Kyann Flint

Being stubborn is the right approach when it means self-determination. Having the drive to learn what you want and need and then speak up for yourself gives you control over your life. 

I learned that lesson young. By age 6, I was advocating in my own healthcare. My doctor wanted to stick a swab up my nose and down my throat at the same time. I told him, “No!” and asked, “What would that accomplish?” I was not sick. Why put me through that? I had been through enough tests. If this one was not going to improve my pain or give me a diagnosis, then it did not need to happen. Because I spoke up, it didn’t!

My parents supported my growing self-advocacy and also advocated for me. As my voice blossomed, so did my skills for self-determination. The self-determination skills I worked on throughout childhood have helped me gain independence and make some of the most important adult decisions of my life.

When I was 8, I was diagnosed with a type of genetic peripheral neuropathy called Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT). The coating around my nerves becomes scarred and cannot be repaired, making it hard for my brain to tell my legs, arms, feet, and hands what to do.

I continued to have symptoms that did not quite fit this diagnosis, so testing continued. By age 12, I started asking whether further diagnoses would improve my quality of life. The answer was no, so I chose to end the poking and prodding and deal with my symptoms as they came.

Right after I turned 21, I was in tremendous pain and needed more help. Three years later, I had a second diagnosis: Heredity Spastic Paraplegia. Four years after that, the cause of my pain was finally found. My bladder was failing, which made it difficult to go to the bathroom. I eventually lost the ability to go to the bathroom on my own. On September 30, 2020, I made one of the best decisions of my life and had the Mitrofanoff surgery that now allows me to go to the bathroom independently.

I needed a lot of self-determination to get to this point. Before the surgery, one doctor advised against it, explaining that I wasn’t a good candidate due to my progressive neuromuscular disorders. She predicted that I would be incapacitated one day, so “why bother?” I decided that even if she were right, I wanted the independence that the surgery could provide now. I found a new surgeon. I am so thankful that I did!

My surgeon related well with me and supported my belief that I was “worthy” of this procedure. He agreed that it was a good choice to enable me to live more independently right now. The choice to proceed wasn’t easy or pain-free. I needed many tests and procedures, including a colonoscopy without anesthesia. Delays in scheduling the surgery tested my self-determination, but I persevered.

My surgery included a week in the hospital and months of recovery, but my stubborn nature helped me get through it all, despite the frustration of having limited manual dexterity and being legally blind. But I figured out how to go to the bathroom independently!

It took a lot of self-determination to move forward with one of the best decisions of my life, but I am proud that I made this decision. If you have a decision to make in your life, I hope you will tap into your own stubborn self-determination. Figure out what you need and want and speak up for yourself. I’m so glad I did.

About the author: Kyann Flint, Director of Accessibility for Wandke Consulting, is a passionate advocate for the disability community. As a person with a disability, she strives to educate society on how social barriers, like ignorance and stereotypes, limit the disability community. Kyann loves coffee and traveling.