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Evaluating educational programs for kids on the autism spectrum

Evaluating educational programs for kids on the autism spectrum

Evaluating educational programs for any student is complex, but deciphering what to look for in a program serving a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is even more confusing. There are many conflicting views about what is appropriate intervention. And every individual with ASD is so different that families frequently become confused and frustrated when trying to determine whether a program will work for their child.

This article is designed to not only help parents navigate the system, but to also know what questions to ask and information to seek to make well-informed decisions about appropriate educational programs for their child.


Do ask about assessments

Effective educational programming starts with a clear understanding of the child. The school should have specific assessments they complete, which they can explain to parents. Additionally, they should be able to discuss how this information is used in program planning. Some of these assessment may be ASD-specific, but others may be subject-specific. Ask the school how they use assessments to help with program planning. Also ask about assessment and programming used to address communication strategies, socialization and behavior, as well as how data is collected and shared with families on the child’s progress.

Do share information

Share information about your child, including outside evaluations and reports from other specialists, as long as you feel comfortable doing so. The more information parents share with the school, and the more open you are with your concerns, the better equipped they will be to develop an effective program for your child. Withholding information from the school as a test will only hurt your child’s program and extend the time it takes the school to develop appropriate strategies.

Do visit a variety of programs

In order to see the range of programs that can serve as a starting point for developing a program for your child, take advantage of opportunities to visit classrooms that might be appropriate. Look for well-organized classrooms with the types of supports that your child can benefit from, and be sure to ask questions of the staff about how they might support your child.

Do ask about training and support for the staff

The most important component in the success of an educational program is the quality of the teacher, as well as the training and support for the teacher and staff who interact with your child everyday. It is vital to request information about the teacher’s experience and the type of supports the district provides to the classroom. Do they provide ongoing training opportunities to the staff? Are there program specialists skilled in ASD and related disabilities who consult with the classroom? What kind of turnover does the program have? All of these questions are critical to ask as a way to determine whether the staff has the support and understanding to be effective.

Do have someone help you

When evaluating a program for the first time, there is so much information to take in that it can be difficult to remember everything you have seen and heard. As the process moves to the Individual Education Program (IEP) development stage, it can become even more complex. Consequently, having someone with you--whether that person is a trained advocate or just a friend or relative--can be beneficial in helping you sort out information, recalling what is said and what you wanted to ask about, and thinking about questions you might not have thought about.


Do not make assumptions

It is easy to listen to gossip and rumors about a program and let that influence your decision process. While talking to other parents in the program is a good idea, be careful about interpreting their experiences as standard. Often, the ones you frequently hear about are overly negative or overly positive. If you walk into a situation assuming that it will not be a good fit, nothing that you see or hear will change your mind. As a result, you may miss out on an opportunity to enroll in a great program for your child.

Do not believe a classroom is not capable of change

One of the biggest difficulties in evaluating a program before your child is part of it, is determining what it would look like if your child was enrolled. When you observe programs, you are looking at programs designed for other students with other needs--and that does not mean each classroom would look the same if your child were enrolled and had different needs. Parents often assume that a program looks the same every year, when in most districts, the classroom organization, schedule and curricula change to accommodate the learners. This is true individualization, so be sure to ask how your child would be supported.

Do not make a decision based on just one teacher or one classroom

Teachers and classrooms change according to district, school and personal needs. If you choose a program based on one teacher, what will happen if that teacher moves to another school or grade the following year? Programs should be about more than just one person or one classroom. While the teacher is definitely a critical component to the success of a program, the supports that train and support the teachers/staff are the most important elements.

Do not allow advocates to run you over

It is incredibly helpful to bring an advocate or another person with you to IEP meetings and to observe programs during the decision-making process. However, it is vital to understand that when this person speaks at meetings, he or she is representing you. A good advocate should be asking you what you want for your child, and not telling you what you should be doing or asking for.

A true advocate helps you advocate for what you want for your child by finding out about your families’ needs and desires, as well as learning who your child is before interacting with the school. Advocates come with many different styles. Some are quiet, some are pushy, some are able to individualize and some can only see their own experiences in others’ situations. Be sure you are comfortable with whoever you bring to advocate because that person is acting and speaking for you.

Do not limit yourself to autism-specific programs

Some children need programs specifically for children with ASD, while many benefit from a variety of classrooms and interacting with children with and without disabilities. Some of the best programs are those that serve children with a variety of needs and differentiate instruction among them. Just because a program does not have the title “autism,? does not mean it is inappropriate for your child. Base your decision on what type of program meets your child’s needs--rather than what you wish or want a program to be.

Jumping cartoon

Evaluating educational programs and determining which one is best for your child is an arduous task that takes much time and patience. Remember that you are the person who knows your child best. Be prepared to share this information with programs and use it to help determine a good match. It is very important to recognize that programs that are truly individualized, probably don’t exist until the individual is part of the program, making the evaluation that much more complex. Find someone to help you navigate the system, but make sure the advocate is helping you advocate for what you know your child needs.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: Education Minister John O'Dowd chats... by Northern Ireland Executive via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Christine E. Reeve, Ph.D., BCBA-DBoard Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral

Christine Reeve, Ph.D., BCBA-D has more than 20 years of professional experience in working with children, families, and schools focused on autism. She has worked in a variety of settings including community outreach, academic, education, and c...

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