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IEP or 504 Plan?

My son has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Is he automatically eligible for services at his school?

© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Here’s a common question we receive: My son has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS). Is he automatically eligible for services at his school?

The short answer is “no” – but keep reading! There is a lot more to know about this topic!

A medical diagnosis is typically done by a psychologist or psychiatrist and within those fields, there is a TON of subjectively from one professional to the next as to who is diagnosed with what disorder, especially in relation to individuals with social learning challenges. A higher functioning person with IQ and language on par with his/her peers, yet displaying social challenges, might wind up with a diagnosis of AS by one professional, ASD by another, and ADHD by a third! 

As if this wasn’t confusing enough for parents, a medical diagnosis is NOT an automatic “pass” in terms of eligibility for Individualized Education Planning (IEP) services in USA public schools. Federal special education law (IDEA)  mandates that each school district must do its own educational assessment to determine if a student qualifies for an IEP. The assessment team must consider assessment reports completed by professionals in the community but the school district does not need to follow those recommendations or the reported diagnosis. School-based personnel go through their own eligibility review and assessment battery with each student to determine if s/he qualifies for an IEP or what is commonly referred to as special education services. Here again, there can be a huge difference from one school to the next as to what services will be provided, and how often/intense those will be. A school team may also suggest that a student with a medical diagnosis who is succeeding academically and does not qualify for an IEP be considered for a “504 plan” under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, another piece of federal legislation aimed at helping students with disabilities. The 504 plan can document a student’s needs and help school personnel provide reasonable accommodations based on the student’s disability. Specialized services, such as building social communication skills through group participation, can also be included in a 504 plan. Some families find the 504 plan provides the services or solutions their child needs and they elect to bypass the special education evaluation by the school. In summary, it is important to note that in the USA, the special education services a student receives are not driven by the recommendations of private practitioners or medical doctors. Instead, the decisions for public school-based treatments are made in IEP or 504 plan meetings and parents are part of that decision-making team. 

There are murky waters to wade through with public school eligibility itself. For example, many kids with solid to strong language and reasonable to high cognition may do well on the standardized tests used for eligibility determinations. As a result, the school team may determine the student does not qualify for special education services. Yet, their teacher, parent or other service provider feels the student lacks competencies to succeed in a group learning setting. This occurs with some regularity for students with strong language and academic success in science oriented learning environments. 

If we believe a student has poor social competencies that result in weak social pragmatics, even if the student’s tests scores are solid, it is our professional job to encourage the team to think more deeply about what we mean by “education” and “competence.” Students with weak social learning abilities relative to some of their other academic strengths, may struggle to develop social skills commensurate with their peers. It is also likely they have related weaknesses in their ability to work as part of group, interpret intentions and motives in literature, understand the perspectives of others, problem solve or self-advocate, etc. Social learning is critical for developing competencies that prepare students for college and career readiness.

If you, as a family member, caregiver or professional, are experiencing a challenge qualifying a student for IEP-based special education services because of the student’s high test score, here’s a tip to help with these discussions. Most administrators and fellow professionals do not have a clear definition for what it means to have an “educational need.” There is a prevailing notion that students prove they are being adequately educated based on their test scores and report card grades. However, if you read the school’s mission statement it usually addresses the idea that the school has a mission to teach students to function in society, problem solve, collaborate, etc. By discussing the school’s mission statement in your IEP meeting, you can possibly broaden the definition people are using to determine if the student has an “educational need.”

It is also important to keep in mind that many states, provinces, and countries have academic standards that include social learning within the standards of education. For example, virtually all sets of educational standards adopted by an educational system have a standard that states a student will be able to understand others’ points of view. This is typically embedded into standards for reading comprehension. Many educational standards also include a standard to encourage conversational competencies appropriate for the student’s age. For example, in the Common Core Standards (used by over 40 states in the USA), there is a Listening and Speaking standard. This means that peer-to-peer conversational skills fits solidly within the realm of academic learning! It’s also interesting to note that we have no standardized tests to measure real-time conversational language and broader communicative competencies (e.g., competencies demonstrated through physical presence, eye contact, etc.). 

If you are a professional on a school’s treatment/assessment team, keep a keen eye on how students socially relate to you or others as you go through initial assessments. Assessing social abilities in the confines of a quiet room, with no distractions and with only the adult present, is not the same as that student being able to demonstrate social competencies within the changing environment of a classroom with 25 other peers or on the playground. 

Also, be cognizant of that fact that you, as an adult, having a “conversation” with your student does NOT count as the ability to have a peer to peer conversation. I have written about this extensively in my book, Thinking About You Thinking About Me, which contains two full chapters devoted to our thinking around social assessments. The book also includes assessment tasks such as The Double Interview, which is part of the larger Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment Protocol presented in the book. I have also written more about these topics in my book, Why Teach Social Thinking? as well as in free articles on our website,

If your student has, in fact, qualified for an IEP, now what? According to special education law, once a student is eligible for services the next step is for the treatment team (which includes the child’s parents/caregivers) to create an individualized treatment plan for that student. It should NOT BE BASED on a student’s eligibility category, meaning schools should NOT have a pre-determined treatment approach for students with ASD, or SLD, or LD, etc. If so, the “I” (individualized) in the IEP (Individualized Education Program) is missing and the school is in conflict with the IDEA law.

Speech language pathologists are often part of a treatment team for students with weak social competencies, as this falls within the domain of social pragmatics. Social workers may also be primary treatment providers. Those of us who work with students with social learning challenges understand that we need to teach more than “social skills.” For our students to be academically and socially competent, we need to teach them to interpret multiple modes of social information, problem solving, critical thinking and provide them with the tools and strategies to function in these social arenas. We bridge our teachings into reading comprehension, written expression, organizational skills, self-advocacy, etc. Many students with social pragmatic disorders, nonverbal learning disabilities, and social communication disorders need social competency interventions, which extend well beyond simply teaching social skills. As we witness day in and day out when working with our students, scoring well on a test and superficially relating to an adult does NOT mean one is socially competent.

Diagnostic labels and/or eligibility categories are just our starting point. To help students receive appropriate and individualized supports, let’s not focus on that diagnostic label or eligibility category to determine their treatment pathway. Instead, we should focus on a student’s social attention, social cognitive reasoning and social pragmatic skills. 

As a parent or an educator, therapist or service provider, our goal should be to always provide treatment for the student, not the student’s label. This means we should also advocate for services aligned with each student’s strengths, challenges and needs. Ultimately, the goal of education and special education is to provide a free and appropriate education that assists all students in learning relevant information that guides them into college and career readiness. 

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