This post, fourth and last in a series, is courtesy of Dr. David Jenkins, Sr., a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology and Lead for Psychological Services at Lubbock, TX. Dr. Jenkins has provided psychological services to school districts in Lubbock, Texas and surrounding school districts for over 25 years and has served on the Texas Education Agency statewide networks for autism and behavior.

Working With Your School System

A confusing issue for many parents is that there is a difference between getting a diagnosis of autism outside of the school setting, and how it is diagnosed within the school setting.  Medical doctors, Psychologists and other professionals who evaluate children outside of the public school setting use criteria in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) to ‘diagnose’ the presence of Autism. Public schools, on the other hand, use Special Education Law with specifically defined disabilities.  Unfortunately, the two sets of guidelines may not match exactly, and this disconnect can cause confusion for parents. Both sets of guidelines, however, do have two major commonalities:

Children with autism have significant communication deficits, both verbal (the words we use and how we use them) and nonverbal (facial expressions and gestures we use when we communicate).

Children with autism show significant deficits in social interaction skills.

Parents should have their child evaluated by their local school district because it is in this setting that educational strategies must be put into place. The school system will generally have qualified professionals who are most familiar with in-school Special Education programs, plus they know how the educational system works. That familiarity is important, and is why many school districts may want to do their own evaluation, even when parents have already had a private evaluation from a professional, or have a medical diagnosis from their family physician.

When having your child evaluated for autism by school professionals, you need to be aware of the need for a comprehensive strategy. Make sure you are dealing with qualified professionals who have specialized training in autism.

Professional titles you should look for include School Psychologists, Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, and the Special Education teachers themselves. Others might include Educational Diagnosticians and Physical Therapists. All should be willing to partner with you, the parent. The professionals should be knowledgeable about Special Education laws and the specific programs provided by the public schools in your district.

The evaluation process should include gathering as much information as possible, from as many different sources as possible (those who know the child the best), and in as many different ways as possible.  In addition to structured interviews and standardized rating scales, parents, teachers, child care workers and others who know the student should be included in the process. The child should also be observed in a variety of environments that might include the home, a child care center, a community site, and a public school classroom.

A professional evaluation within the school system may recommend Special Education programs for your child. To access Special Education programs you must first have the child complete the evaluation process to determine if a disability is present and, if so, what that disability is. There are 13 disabilities defined in federal Special Education law, and autism is one of them.

Before formal evaluation can begin, as parent or guardian you must provide your informed consent. This material should include a description of what will be done, who will be involved, and how it will be done. It is important that you review this information carefully and know precisely what will be taking place during the evaluation process.

Once the evaluation is completed, you should expect to meet with the evaluation team to discuss if any disabilities were found. The team should consist of you, the Administrator of the process, a Special Education teacher, a General Education teacher, and any additional professionals who were involved. You must play an active role in this meeting and ask questions freely. Always remember, you are dealing with your child’s future and your peace of mind.

If the professional evaluators tell you that a disability is present, they next should provide you with any recommendations they have with respect to the need for specialized instruction, support, and services for your child. Remember, being identified as having a disability does not automatically mean that your child will need Special Education services. If such services are recommended, however, once again you will have to give your consent to have your child placed in Special Education services.

Finally, the team will design a plan specifically to meet the needs of your child. The plan will be thoroughly explained to you and you must make sure you completely understand all the features.

As the plan is implemented, you should expect future team meetings to assess your child’s progress and discuss if any modifications in the plan are needed. Such a meeting must be held at least annually, although depending on circumstances more frequent meetings may be appropriate.

A Final Note: What Happened to Asperger’s?

In the profession of psychology, there is no longer something call Asperger’s Disorder. Even though research about Asperger’s is almost as old as that of autism, it was not a separate diagnosis until 1994 when the DSM was revised. Asperger’s was felt to be either something different than autism or the mildest, least severe form of autism.

The newest revision of the DSM (DSM-V) does not include Asperger’s. What is new in DSM-V is Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder. The primary features of SCD are difficulty with the use of social language and communication skills, adapting speech to the situation (such as home vs. school), and being able to make non-literal interpretations of written and spoken words.


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