In September, Department of Public Instruction of North Carolina (NCDPI) approved changes to the policy for evaluation and identification of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These changes took place in January 2020. The stated reason from DPI was that they wanted community and school providers to have a consistent identification of autism. Therefore, clarification was necessary.
Autism can be tricky to identify, and not all kids who have a medical diagnosis of autism will qualify for educational autism accommodations and services in the school. Also, we are learning that certain aspects of autism that are not obvious when a child is younger may become more obvious and troublesome to the child as they grow older. Plus, with community services and school services, there may be overlap, or places where certain things that the child needs are not covered at all. Providing consistent identification and practices is meant to help reduce complaints to the state and to DPI related to services for kids with autism.
What does that mean for you and your loved one with autism? First, the “worksheet” that the school uses changed quite a bit. Now, it includes aspects that were not there or were murky to follow. Since parental input is an absolutely essential part of any IEP meeting, but especially so for kids with autism, it is good to know what the school will be looking for before the process begins.
The first criteria we’ll look at is “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.” This sounds a little confusing if you’re new to this, and it’s easy to forget what you need to say in order to help ensure that the team has a good picture of your child. First, know that this is shown “currently or by history.” So, if your child does not have this right this second, but has historically shown these, that counts. It does need to be persistent, meaning not just a one or two time situation, but across the board. The workbook outlines that the child needs to demonstrate this in three different arenas.
Deficits in “social-emotional reciprocity”: A phrase that you’ll hear all over the place when it comes to autism, this one sounds more complex than it needs to sound. Basically, this is that whole back and forth we have with other people that people who don’t have autism take for granted. Someone says something, and you respond. Someone does something, and you respond. You’re able to use behaviors to help others respond to you. For kids with autism, this is really tricky. If your child is non-verbal or doesn’t know to follow rules or imitate what others are doing, this is an easy one to answer. But if your child is verbal and seems to do okay with most social interactions, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Is your kid able to stay on topic in conversation? Can they figure out how to use charts or graphs that someone else has made? Does your kid follow social cues to know when others are annoyed or frustrated? Not being able to do these things indicate a persistent deficit in social-emotional reciprocity.
Deficits in “nonverbal communication behaviors”: This one is a little easier, since “nonverbal communication” is a hype word lately. A lot of people with autism have difficulty maintaining appropriate eye contact, or their facial expressions may not match what they feel. They may not be able to recognize the meaning of other people’s facial expressions. This is important for social interactions because it is very difficult to figure out what other people are trying to say to you without being able to read the nonverbal communication of others, and it’s also difficult to convey your own meaning. Think about ways that your child’s mannerisms and expressions may be different from same age peers when trying to answer this question.
Deficits in “developing, maintaining and understanding relationships”: How does your child interact with peers? Teachers? Make sure that, when you are thinking about this, you are thinking about how this can impact them in the classroom, too. Your child may complain about having no friends–but why? And how is it relevant to their education? Think about ways in which you personally benefited from that which so many of us take for granted, this ability to create relationships with others. A child with autism may not know who they need to ask in the classroom because they simply don’t understand with whom they need to speak.
Now, your child will have to meet all THREE of these in order to qualify for eligibility. Before going into the eligibility meeting, know what you need to answer for each of these. Understand what they mean and why they are important in a school environment.
The second portion is for the child to have “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”. In this, the child only needs to show one of these domains, but I am going to describe each.
“Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects or speech”: This is “stimming”. People with autism may flap their hands, rock back and forth, dangle objects in front of their eyes, or repeatedly say the same thing over and over again without obvious communication need. They may also make strange sounds repetitively. This can disrupt the student from learning because while they are thus fixated, they may not be paying close attention to the world around them. It may distract others in the classroom. It may make it difficult for your child and their classmates to hear the teacher.
“Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior”: People with autism like things to be the same typically. They want things lined up in the same way, or for the schedule to remain constant. They may have serious difficulties if they are told that a pathway is closed down even if there is an obvious detour. They may, even with a written schedule, show a great deal of anxiety or even meltdown when there is a change to their class daily routine. All of these things can cause difficulty in a classroom environment, both for the child and for the class.
“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus”: Does your child talk about trains or Pokemon or dinosaurs or anything else until you literally think you cannot hear another word about it before your ears start to bleed? Do they hyperfocus on things that have nothing to do with what they’re meant to be learning in school? These can cause difficulties for your child, and even for others in the classroom if your child likes to share his robust knowledge on his fixated interests with others at inappropriate times.
“Atypical responses to sensory input or atypical interests in sensory aspects of the environment”: This one can really trip up a lot of kids with autism in the classroom, particularly since sensory difficulties can cause such mental distress that even highly verbal kids with autism may not be able to articulate the difficulty appropriately! Are lights too bright for them? Do pencils hurt? Does a lot of bright images attract their attention so they cannot pay attention to anything else? Make sure to be specific here so that the team can help your student find the appropriate classroom environment.
Finally, part B is that symptoms must show up in the early developmental period. This is simply to let the team know that this is not a suddenly new problem. Is this criteria met? Is it not?
It is worthwhile to note that many kids with autism are getting diagnosed a bit later than before. This is because we now realize that a kid may appear developmentally appropriate when kids are still engaging in parallel play, but a child with autism may not outgrow that stage, or outgrows it significantly slower or only in certain contexts. Therefore, even if your child was not diagnosed by age 3, they can still meet this criteria if they are having substantial difficulties in other arenas above listed.
I hope this helps you understand what makes a child eligible for an autism IEP according to NC DPI. If you need further help, or desire someone to discuss the IEP process and your specific child with, please do not hesitate to send me a message! I’m happy to help.