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ASD and the Local School District: How Parents Can Best Advocate for an Appropriate School Setting

Parents who have children with ASD can find themselves in a difficult situation when it comes to determining the right school setting for their child. As a special education attorney representing families in New York City, I have found that determining an appropriate school program and placement can be a daunting task for parents. Parents must make sure that they are equipped with accurate information, so that they can make an informed decision.

How can parents ensure that they obtain all the relevant information in order to make a well-informed decision?

In a perfect world, the local school district would provide parents with all of the information they need to make an informed decision. In fact, parents and the school personnel would work together to make sure that all the child’s needs are met. Not only is this my personal version of utopia, but it is also the law. Unfortunately, parents can find themselves at the mercy of school officials who may not be equipped to provide them with all the information that they need to make an informed choice for their child.

Parents should go into the process of working with school personnel with an open-mind and a belief that their child’s needs are a top priority. However, parents should not be naïve either. Students diagnosed with autism present a particular challenge to school districts. The spectrum of the disorder is very broad, as are the needs of each individual child. The type of program available is often not commensurate with the variety of needs that accompany a child with autism.

Simply put, your local school district may or may not have an appropriate program or placement to meet your child’s unique needs, even when they have the best of intentions. It is up to parents to advocate for appropriate supports and services. In order to do so in a meaningful way, parents must understand the difference between a program recommendation and a placement. They are not synonymous. They represent two different and equally important aspects of the whole that makes up your child’s education.

The program is the type of class and supports that your child will receive, which are spelled out in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP should have included specific details such as student to teacher ratio, management needs, service details regarding the frequency of services such as OT, PT, Speech, whether the student will need special education transportation, and many other details that should express all of a child’s specific needs (academic, social, emotional and physical) and how they can be met so that the student is able to make meaningful progress at school. The placement, on the other hand, is the physical school building where your child will attend school and where the IEP/program will be implemented. The specific school where the program will be implemented is usually not indicated on the IEP.

Both of these components are crucial to determining whether or not your child’s unique special education needs can truly be met.

There are many considerations that must go into determining the right program and placement for a child with ASD. The class size, the school size, the school’s and teacher’s ability to tailor curriculum and instruction to meet the child’s needs, the availability of services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy or counseling, and many other factors that are specific to each individual case. Despite what parents are sometimes lead to believe, the child does not have to conform to what the school district has available. The school district must meet the child’s needs.

In NYC, for example, there are major issues that arise because the process is fragmented in terms of program recommendation and the placement assigned. The team that discusses and ultimately decides what a child’s program will be does not have any say regarding what school the child will be assigned to. This is particularly troubling when it comes to students with ASD, whose needs can be very complex. Sometimes the program and the placement can appear OK on paper but may not work for a child in practice.

The school district must find a way to meet the unique special education needs of your child. If they cannot, then parents have the right to find an appropriate private school and sue the school district for tuition funding or reimbursement by filing a due process complaint.

The landmark federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that all children with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The purpose of this law is to guarantee that children with disabilities are not removed from a regular classroom or isolated from non-disabled peers when there is the ability to educate them in a mainstream setting with support. LRE decisions should be thoughtfully made based upon your child’s unique learning needs.

At due process hearings for tuition funding of a special education private school, there is no argument I hear more often than that the student is not being exposed to “typical” or “non-disabled” peers. For some students, that may be what they need at that point in time in order to be successful in school. Parents are not bound to find a private school that offers the LRE, just one where their child’s needs are being met.

While parents should advocate for their child to be in the LRE to the extent possible, the appropriateness of a program and placement should be the leading factor. It is important for parents to remember that special education schools in NYC and many other places in the US are a far cry from the segregated institutional settings that the IDEA meant to extinguish.

While some children with ASD can be successfully educated in a mainstream setting if given the appropriate services and support, there are many children who would not benefit from a mainstream setting, and are best served in a special education setting that specialized in meeting the unique needs of a certain population of students. Realistically, the success of any child will depend on the school, teachers and school environment.

What makes private special education schools successful at meeting the needs of a particular population of students is the fact that they can specialize. And what’s wrong with specializing? We go to specialists for every other need we have. Children with ASD deserve to feel safe, understood, nurtured, and see that they similar to their peers. Sometimes that can only be accomplished in a special education school for a particular student.

While there are arguments to be made for both settings, the real question that parents should ask is: What is appropriate for my child at this time? Parents must remember that children and their needs change, and choosing one type of school setting does not bind them to it forever. The law requires school districts to review a child’s IEP at least once per year for this very reason.

I encourage parents and school districts to keep an open mind about all the possibilities and to make program and placement decisions in a coordinated way, based on the individual needs of each child, as Congress intended.


The Law Offices of Irina Roller, PLLC is based in New York City and is dedicated exclusively to the representation of children with special needs. We represent families who seek tuition reimbursement and funding, assistance with CSE meetings to develop IEPs, and disciplinary actions. To contact our firm, please email Also visit our website at or follow us on Twitter @IrinaRollerLaw.

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