Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): What is IDEA?

Autistic children have specific legal protections that are meant to help them get an education.  For this topic, we will discuss the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is a law that has been put in place to make sure autistic children (and children with other disabilities) have access to a quality education.  This article is the first in a series on IDEA that will summarize what the IDEA is, how IDEA is applied in schools (IEPs) and to young children (IFSPs), and how caregivers can work with schools to create an IEP that addresses their child’s needs. 

What is IDEA?

The IDEA stands for “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”  IDEA is a federal law that governs special education.  Importantly, if you are a caregiver to a child who has been diagnosed with autism, IDEA applies to your child.

IDEA has four parts.  The first part (Part A) and the last part (Part D) are important aspects of IDEA, but mostly deal with discussing why IDEA was created (Part A) and the resources that will be made available for improving special education in schools (Part D).  If you are the parent or caregiver to an autistic child, you will be most directly impacted by Parts B and C.  Part B deals with creating an individual education plan (IEP) for your child and Part C deals with early intervention services for your child.  In the sections below, we discuss all the parts of IDEA, but focus most heavily on parts B and C.


The Four Parts of IDEA

Part A: General Provisions.

Part A describes why IDEA is necessary.  It affirms that free appropriate public education must be available to children, including those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, between the ages of 3 and 22 years old.  It also:

  1.  Acknowledges that previous special needs educational efforts have fallen short (hence the need for IDEA).
  2. Draws on data describing things that can make special education more effective (for example, parental involvement in the child’s education).
  3. States that is it in the country’s best interest for children with disabilities to have a quality education (which is why IDEA is a federal law rather than a state law).

Part B: Special Education Services for School Aged Children

Part B is concerned with creating an appropriate learning environment in schools for children with disabilities.  To do that, IDEA uses two important principles for designing educational plans.  The first principle is ‘Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).’  FAPE requires that children with disabilities have an education that addresses their unique needs at no cost to the child’s caregiver(s).  As an important note, FAPE does not necessarily mean that autistic children will have same educational goals as other children, but that the educational plans for autistic children should include goals that are appropriate to the child’s ability level.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is the second guiding principle guiding principle in designing educational plans for children covered by IDEA.  LRE means that 1) children with disabilities (kids with autism in our case) should be allowed to learn in the same classrooms as other children to the maximum extent that is appropriate for the child, and that 2) the unique educational needs of each child covered by IDEA need to be considered when creating a plan for the child’s education (schools can’t take a “one size fits all” approach to learning environments).  The way schools adhere to LRE can (and should) vary depending on the needs of the child.  Under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), LRE could range from a child using assistive technology while attending school in a general education classroom, to attending school in a special education classroom, to any variety of other possibilities.

To make sure that FAPE and LRE are upheld, section B of IDEA requires that schools work with caregivers to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each eligible child.  IEPs are written documents that describe an agreed upon educational plan for the child.  Briefly, caregivers and school officials will meet for an “IEP Meeting” to discuss what learning goals would be reasonable for the child and the services that the school will provide.  The goal of an IEP meeting is to involve caregivers in creating a plan for the child’s education based on the specific needs of the child.  Since each child is unique, caregiver involvement is vital to creating a successful IEP – in fact, IDEA requires that caregivers be part of a child’s IEP team.  (For more information on IEPs, please see our “What is an IEP” and “How to create an IEP” sections).

The measures outlined in part B of IDEA were enacted because historically children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities were placed in separate classrooms or schools.  The quality of the education that those children received varied widely by state and by school district – some schools sought out ways to enrich special needs education, but other made little effort to actually teach students with disabilities and generally ignored individual needs.  Section B seeks to make sure that ALL schools make an effort to include students with disabilities and make sure that ALL students have the support they need in order to do well at school.


Part C: Early Intervention Services for Infants and Toddlers

Part C focuses on identifying infants and toddlers who may have disabilities that make them eligible for IDEA protection.

In order to make sure that all disabled children within a school district have the support they need in order to succeed at school, IDEA includes a very important regulation called Child Find.  For Child Find, IDEA mandates that states must work with school districts to have a plan to actively look for children who might need special education services.  Child Find requires schools to identify, locate, and evaluate all children within its district suspected of having a disability (regardless of the severity of the disability).  Child Find doesn’t just apply to children in public school, it applies to ALL children (aged birth through 21 years) within a school district – including those who attend private school, are wards of the state, are home schooled, are homeless, or are younger than preschool aged.

Since young children (who might not be school-aged yet) are included within the scope of IDEA, states are encouraged to provide early intervention services to help find young children (birth to 3 years of age) with disabilities while they are young enough to benefit from interventional therapies.  Babies Can’t Wait (BCW) is the early intervention service provided by the state of Georgia.  BCW coordinates evaluations and screenings for infants and toddlers suspected of having disabilities (including autism).  BCW also works with families to create Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSP) for children based on their needs.  If you have concerns about your child (birth through 3 years of age), please see our “How to Apply for Babies Can’t Wait Services,” and “What is an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP)” articles.

Through Child Find, IDEA also says that children who are preschool aged or older (over 3 years of age), can be sent for educational evaluation if a teacher, caregiver, or other adult suspects a disability is negatively impacting the child’s education.  At that point, the local school district will work with the child’s caregivers to arrange Appropriate Evaluation at no cost to the child’s family.  Appropriate evaluation is a principle of IDEA and it requires that: 1) any evaluation done for a child must be done by trained evaluators, 2) evaluators must use appropriate materials, and 3) evaluators must follow appropriate procedures.  It also means that children should not be subjected to any unnecessary testing.  If a disability is found, the child will likely be put on an IEP or a 504 plan (please see our “What is an IEP” and “What is a 504 Plan articles).

Part D: National Programs and Services Aimed at Improving Education for Children with Disabilities

Part D of IDEA is concerned with creating funding opportunities for states to improve or upgrade the education they provide for children with disabilities.  Part D creates state and federal grants that will: 1) help train state personnel to detect disabilities in children, 2) disseminate information about disabilities, 3) test new ways to improve education for kids with disabilities, and 4) buy technology that would assist children with disabilities.


References Used: