Learn about the many resources available to parents to help understand children’s special needs. Recently, parents of a 3.6-year-old child diagnosed with autism with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in a US public school district approached me for some general tips on parenting a child with autism.

I am a physical therapist with a special interest in the educational impact of a diagnosis such as the autism spectrum, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, and sensory dysfunction—in simple words, kids who struggle in school in areas which appear to come naturally to their neurotypical peers.

This mother was a recent immigrant and a fist-time mother. She was not aware of the laws that were in place for children with special needs in US public schools.

She was happy that her son qualified for special services and that the IEP team identified his communication and behavior to be his primary areas to be addressed.

However, even after a year of attending preschool, she had no concept of how she could communicate with him or any idea about how she could help with his sensory-seeking behaviors.

As children spend most of their days in school, I encourage parents to work collaboratively with IEP teams in school in addition to the recommendations that I provide them regarding home activities.

I was disturbed to find out that though this child qualified to receive special services, other than being placed in a preschool classroom for autism, he did not receive occupational therapy (OT), physical therapy (PT), or speech services, despite the IEP team writing in their reports that he was significantly delayed in all developmental domains.

The mother had requested OT and speech services at the beginning of the school year; however, she was verbally informed that her child did not require these services.

The mother pursued the matter and reached out to the district OT via email and was eventually informed that he did not require these services as the therapists consult with the class teacher.

When the parents met for the IEP meeting at the end of the school year, they did not even think of bringing up the subject of speech, OT, and PT services. They signed their consent.

I was involved in helping this child after the IEP was signed. As I always do a very comprehensive assessment of strengths and challenges faced at home, in school, and in the community along with any therapies in any of these environments, I identified that their child was not getting the services that he needed, based on the IEP data.

Even though the speech therapist clearly identified that he was significantly delayed in receptive and expressive languages, the child did not qualify for services.

Additionally, the parents had not invited the school OT and PT to screen their child and provide their professional opinions on providing services.

As I am very familiar with the law that regulates special services and the challenges faced by school administrators in ensuring that the services are being provided, I am in a unique position of helping parents navigate the special service journey.

The biggest challenge is differentiating between educationally relevant services and medically related services. There is a lot of confusion about educationally relevant services amongst school administrators, teachers, and therapists themselves.

I was confident that I could help this child receive all the services that would help him make the most of his school experience.

I am writing this piece to increase awareness among parents with special needs about resources available to them to better understand their children’s needs.

I helped the parents in the language that needs to be used (non confrontational and objective instead of emotional and blaming) to revisit their child’s related service eligibility criteria.

We were successful in requesting an addendum IEP meeting. I joined the IEP meeting via phone and was able to be a part of the decision-making process. OT, PT, and speech evaluations were approved.

All school districts provide parents with a list of resources; however, very few parents actually look at the resources that are available to them. Most of these resources are FREE to parents.

These resources are usually mentioned in your child’s IEP. If you feel you cannot locate these resources in the IEP, don’t panic; you can always call the special services director or your child’s case manager to find out where the resources are listed.

Parenting a child with special needs is challenging, and when your child has autism with sensory processing dysfunction, it becomes even more confusing, challenging, and overwhelming.

Looking at school documentation seems to be much like listening to “noise” and most of the time does not make sense to parents. It is understandable when parents feel overwhelmed just looking at the number of pages in their children’s IEPs.

I would like to emphasize that these parents were not successful in getting the district to evaluate their child in spite of being part of the IEP team.

However, when the district found out that the parents had an advocate who is knowledgeable about eligibility criteria and the federal law IDEA, the team approved all three evaluations.

As I am writing this article, the child’s speech, OT, and PT evaluations have been submitted. An addendum IEP date has also been finalized. I will keep the readers posted on the changes in this child’s educational programming.

If you are one of the parents who need help understanding your child’s educational needs, please consult with a specialist who can help:

1. Review IEP documentation to ascertain that your child receives the services that he/she needs based on the data collected (or not collected) by the IEP team.

2. Help you understand how to prioritize your child’s goals based on your concerns, teacher’s concerns, and data available.

3. Ensure that there is a goal that corresponds to every challenge or need that is identified by the school team.

4. Help you track your child’s progress based on the quarterly reports that the school sends on a regular basis, e.g., is the school giving an objective, measurable improvement of the goal, or just a letter or number to indicate progress or lack of progress?

5. Help you identify if evidence-based strategies are being used by the school therapists in achieving the annual goals listed in the IEP. If your child is NOT making progress in the goals that the IEP team projected as “achievable” by the end of the school year, there is a possibility that the placement, strategy, or training of the therapist needs to be revisited.

Below are links to a few fact sheets Bala co-authored with other school-based therapists. They are all available on the American Physical Therapy Association website.

Selected Assessment Tools for Evaluation of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder in School-Based Practice

Practice Recommendations for the School Based Physical Therapy Evaluation of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Strategies for Physical Therapist Collaboration with School-based Teams for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

FAQs on Response to Intervention (Rtl) for School-based Physical Therapists

Physical Therapist’s Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Bala Pillai PT, DPT, MA, PCS, is a board-certified specialist in pediatric physical therapy. She has 30 years of experience in physical therapy and more than 20 years in providing pediatric services in medical and educational environments. Website: www.playgroundtolearn.com