IFSP vs IEP
In the United States, an IEP is an individualized education plan or program. It is a requirement of IDEA for free, appropriate public education. And it’s actually a legal document. I did another podcast interview with attorney Gary Mayerson on the legal rights of children with autism that can also be helpful when preparing for your first IEP meeting.
Kids with a diagnosis of autism, ADHD, intellectual disability, or speech delay, among other diagnoses are eligible for an IEP starting at the age of 3 up to age 21 potentially if the delays or disabilities remain severe. Before they turn age 3, infants and toddlers with delays are eligible for an IFSP, or individualized family service plan. The goals of the IFSP include goals for the family and services are provided in the home (or at daycare) with lots of parental or caregiver involvement, according to Amanda and Kirby.
Many children are diagnosed with autism right around the age of 2 or 3. My son, Lucas was receiving speech therapy once a week under an IFSP and was diagnosed with autism one day before he turned three. This was especially problematic since the IEP was based on the fact that he had a speech delay and not the intensive services he needed as a child with moderate-to-severe autism.
So our process of getting Lucas’ first IEP was really a hard and confusing process.
I asked Amanda and Kirby what their tips were for making the transition from IFSP to IEP smoother.
Amanda DeLuca said that she tells every parent that a parent-school communication system needs to be written into every IEP. That way you can know who is working on what with your child and how their schedule is laid out. Most children with autism also can’t tell us what they’re struggling with or how their days are, so the communication to and from the school is super important. “A lot of our kids have sleep struggles and dietary trouble. So it’s important for us to be able to tell the school as well…we were up all night long. He didn’t really eat breakfast. If he’s extra cranky, this may be why.”
Communication also holds everyone accountable, Amanda says. You can make sure your child is getting the right services each day (which are documented in the IEP) by asking for the session to be documented in the communication book.
Kirby Morgan said to learn as much as you can. “I went to my first IEP thinking, no problem. I got this. My husband was at work. I was like…you don’t need to take the day off. Because I was really expecting it to be more like the first plan that we had…. Well, when I got there, I was at a table with a full team that I’ve never met. And they had a document prepared 20 pages long about my son, what his goals are going to be.” Morgan said she was speechless at the first IEP meeting and felt that if she’d spent 30 or 40 minutes learning about the IEP process she might have done things differently. There’s a lot to figure out with an IEP in terms of services and your IEP parent rights.
For instance, Amanda didn’t know she could ask for a draft before her first meeting. So she walked into her first IEP meeting not knowing what the document said.
In a lot of ways, you are entering a contract negotiation with an IEP, and it’s just so easy to just sign things or really put all of your trust in the professionals that are there. But parents need to be their child’s best IEP advocate and learn as much as they can so they can ask the right questions and get the best services for the child. I talk about 5 steps you can take to advocate for children with autism on my podcast.
ABA Therapy in Schools
Both Amanda and Kirby’s kids were diagnosed at two and started ABA therapy. I asked them how that process worked with an IEP. Can you request ABA therapy in public schools? Can you request certain things be put in the IEP?
“Kirby and I always say that ABA is like the hidden secret,” Amanda said. She said she went to her tri-annual review where they had speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, but no behavioral therapy on her son’s IEP. When she asked why the behavior analyst hired for the district wasn’t there, the school district asked her how she knew about it.
The reason why she knew to ask about ABA was because she’d talked to other moms who had gone through the process before. She knew going in that the district was going to be resistant to behavioral therapy, but her son was going to need it “so that he understood how to appropriately work in a classroom setting. That it wasn’t okay to throw chairs, that it wasn’t okay to clear desks, that it wasn’t okay to just walk out of the room because he was done. We needed to put the work in early to prevent bigger behaviors later.”
She ended up meeting with the school district three times as well as with the superintendent before signing the IEP which included ABA support in the classroom.
Kirby had a very similar experience to Amanda. “One of my questions was, do you have individual support or ABA? Because my son needed to learn how to learn. He first had to understand that you have to sit at the desk before they could put something on the desk for him to do. (Before turning three), he was thriving in ABA.”
Kirby said “I had to really advocate to get him on behavior support in the classroom at age three” Kirby said. “They kind of leave out that behavior component unless you know the words, FBA, [or] Functional Behavior Assessment.”
Functional Behavior AssessmentFor both Kirby and Amanda, behavioral support has been something they’ve had to push and advocate both as parents and with clients, in their roles as Master IEP Coaches. More schools are coming around to offering it, but it’s still not standard practice. I have a blog on how to tell if a school is a good fit and how to choose between a home based ABA program or center based program that can give you some support here. An IEP can be very lengthy. It could be 30, 40, even 70 pages long. This includes a lot of standardized pages like a list of questions such as, does your son have communication needs? Are they blind or visually impaired? And one of the questions pretty low on one of the first pages of the IEP is this: does your child have behaviors that impede the learning of him or others? That box needs to be checked for any child with autism that has any kind of problem behaviors……not just throwing chair behavior, but inattention, even vocal stimming while the teacher’s talking. While there is some debate over verbal stimming, clearly making loud noises in a classroom is most likely impeding a child’s learning and the learning of others. “At three years old, I don’t know a child with autism at the level that my son had it or – any level really – that doesn’t need behavior support and behavior does not impede their learning,” Kirby agreed. When I’ve been at IEP meetings or talking to parents, they’re like, “they said that box was only for throwing-the-chair kind of behaviors.” It’s like, no, no, no. A child wouldn’t need ABA or services in general if he didn’t have any problem behaviors that were impeding their learning. So like Kirby said, sometimes you have to be very aware when they go over those boxes that the behavior impeding learning box is checked because it says right under that box, that if you check this box, you need an FBA, which is a Functional Behavior Assessment. You need a behavior plan to address these behaviors. And that’s where then that checking the box really does support the need for a behavior assessment, plan, goals and services to be put into place. To listen to the full podcast episode where Amanda, Kirby, and I discuss more about advocacy, how to make changes to an IEP before you sign, and what you can bring with you to your IEP meeting, go to marybarbera.com/152. My mission is to turn autism or signs of autism around, which means to help each individual child be as safe, as independent and as happy as possible. So if you are looking to be a part of this movement I’m starting, I would love to invite you to attend a free online workshop at marybarbera.com/workshops.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an IEP?
An IEP is an individualized education plan or program for children with special education needs aged 3 to 21 to help support the individual goals of a child in order to prepare them for higher education, employment, and independent living. An IEP is a legal document between your family and the school district and details present educational levels, strengths and needs, parent concerns, goals, specially designed instruction, placement, services and supports that need to be put in place to help your child succeed.
Can I Get ABA Support Through An IEP?
Yes, if your child needs ABA to access his right to a Free, Appropriate, Public education, your child’s IEP should include ABA services. School districts are often contracted with BCBAs and other ABA providers that can support your child in the classroom, but you may need to advocate for behavioral assessment, goals, services and support before, during and after your IEP meeting. On the IEP document in the first few pages there is a list of questions such as “Is your child blind?” When answering the question “does your child have behaviors that impede the learning of himself or others” on the first few pages of the IEP document, make sure the box is checked yes (if your child has any behavior problems that are affecting learning), as this question will support the need for behavioral services in the classroom.