Educational and School-Based Therapies for Autism

Children with autism are guaranteed free, appropriate public education under the federal laws of Public Law 108-177: Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), sometimes called "IDEA."

IDEA ensures that children diagnosed with certain disabilities or conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), get free educational services and educational devices to help them to learn as much as they can.

NICHD-funded researchers have also incorporated communications interventions for children with ASD within the classroom setting, with successful outcomes. Although the specific interventions used in the study are not a guaranteed part of IDEA, components from the program could provide an important evidence-based foundation for future school-based therapies.1

In most states, each child is entitled to these services from age 3 years through high school, or until age 21, whichever comes first. Some states now offer these types of services beyond age 21. You can find the specific rules of IDEA for each state External Web Site Policy from the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.

IDEA states that children must be taught in the "least restrictive environment, appropriate for that individual child." This means the teaching environment should:

  • Be designed to meet a child's specific needs and skills
  • Minimize restrictions on the child's access to typical learning experiences and interactions

Educating people with autism often includes a combination of one-on-one, small group, and regular classroom instruction.

The special education team in your child's school will work with you to design an IEP (also called an individualized education plan) for your child.2 An IEP is a written document that:

  • Lists individualized goals for your child
  • Specifies the plan for services your child will receive
  • Lists the developmental specialists who will work with your child

To qualify for access to special education services, the child must be evaluated by the school system and meet specific criteria as outlined by federal and state guidelines. To learn how to have your child assessed for special services, you can:

Consult a parents' organization to get information on therapeutic and educational services and how to get these services for a child. Visit the Resources and Publications: For Patients and Consumers section for a list of these organizations.


  1. Chang, Y. C., Shire, S. Y., Shih, W., Gelfand, C., & Kasari, C. (2016). Preschool deployment of evidence-based social communication intervention: JASPER in the classroom. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(6), 2211–2223. Retrieved September 8, 2016, from
  2. Ten basic steps in special education. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2015, from External Web Site Policy
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