Michael A. Ellis DO

Caring for Autism

Individualized Education Programs (IEP): 11 Facts To Know

This is what you must know before your child's next IEP meeting.

Posted Jan 13, 2019

An Individualized education program, generally referred to as an IEP, is often necessary for a child with autism spectrum disorder or a developmental disability to succeed.  The law supporting your child’s right for a fair and appropriate education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990.  It has been amended multiple times since 1990. 

To be eligible for an IEP, your child must meet certain criteria per the IDEA law.  According to IDEA, a child with a disability “is a child (1) with mental retardation (intellectual disability), hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities and (2) who, by reason thereof, needs special education related services."  Both (1) and (2) criteria must be met.  A child must have both a disability and need special education services in order to benefit from education.(1)

There are 11 important points to understand about Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

1. Remember that the IEP is a legally binding contract.  This means that the school administrators and teachers must follow the plan.  Failing to follow the IEP puts them “out of compliance”.  You can file a formal compliant with the state if this happens. At the beginning of each IEP meeting, they will ask if you want a copy of your rights.  Your answer should be, “yes."  Do not forfeit this.

2.  There are five members of the IEP team: the parents, the regular education teacher, the special education teacher, a representative from the school district, and an individual “who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results”, such as a speech therapist or occupational therapist.  Members of this team can only be excused if the child’s guardian agrees.

3. Remember to put into writing every concern or any requested change to the IEP so that you can hold the school administrators and IEP team accountable. 

4. Changes to the IEP can take place without an actual meeting as long as the guardian and school district agree. But still be sure to put this in writing.

5. The IEP should detail the child’s current level of performance. This should contain such information about the child as his or her strengths and weaknesses, what has worked for the child before, triggers of behavioral problems, and how the child learns best. This information should be based on data from teachers, parents, assessments, and other applicable observations.

6. The IEP should contain goals and objectives, with clearly defined criteria. This should include measurable goals and data collection. Those educational needs of highest priority should be noted.  The time for the mastery of goals should be one year. The goal should explain what the child will do and under what condition the child will perform them. This condition may be with or without prompting or in a small group setting, etc.  The individual responsible for implementing the strategy for goal mastery should be specified in the IEP.  Routinely ask for the data collection on your child.  This will help you be confident that the IEP is being followed.

7. Understand the difference between accommodations and modifications. They are both supports, but they have different implications. Accommodations are allowances for how a child is taught or evaluated but do not change what the child is expected to know. Examples of accommodations are extra time, small group setting, large print, and so forth.  In contrast, modifications change how the child is taught or what is expected of him or her. This can have an impact on diploma options as a child who does not meet state curriculum requirements might not receive a regular diploma.

8. IEPs have a section called “supports for school personnel." This should include a statement that all staff working with your child will have special training. It should state “staff to be trained in autism teaching strategies” or “staff to be trained in the implementation of the positive behavior intervention plan (BIP)” for those with BIPs.

9.  As a parent, you should prepare for the IEP meeting. Write down all of your concerns so that you will not forget to address any concerns.  Bring as much data as you can to support your points or concerns, including your child’s papers, handwriting samples, test grades, and so forth. I recommend hiring a special needs advocate to help you at the meeting. You can invite them as a guest to the meeting. Contact a lawyer if you feel that you and the advocate can no longer handle the meetings alone or if you need more information about your rights.

10. Parents must always receive prior written notice whenever the school district proposes a change or refuses a request for change of an IEP.  It must describe why the action or proposal is being made and data behind the decision. 

11. Do not allow the school district to tell you that they cannot provide a service for your child because they cannot afford this or that they “do not have the resources” for the service or for your child. This is not the law.

In summary, know your rights and seek help from an advocate or attorney if needed. It is vital that you advocate for your own child and that you do not assume that the school will automatically provide what your child needs. 


1.       Dalton MA.  Education rights and the special needs child. Child Adolesc Clin North Am.  2002; 11:  859-868.