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Special Education Programs & Services

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how an individual processes information and interprets the world. Core features of autism are persistent deficits in social interaction and communication, as well as restricted, repetitive or stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests or activities. Each individual with ASD displays a unique combination of characteristics, ranging from mild to severe, requiring individually determined educational and treatment programming.

The first signs of autism appear in early childhood and can be detected by an experienced professional as early as 18 to 24 months of age. Early and accurate identification and intervention can change the trajectory for many children on the autism spectrum.

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Iowa Education Definition

“Autism” means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before the age of three, which adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.

Autism does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has a behavior disorder, as defined in Iowa Administrative Code 281-41.50(2).

A child who manifests the characteristics of autism after the age of three could be identified as having autism if the criteria in the first sentence of this subrule are satisfied. This term includes all conditions described by the term “autism spectrum disorder,” which adversely affects the child’s educational performance. Iowa Administrative Code 281-41.50(1)

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Services and Placement

A medical diagnosis is not required for educational services to begin. The diagnosis of Autism does not dictate a specific placement.

Autism may occur by itself or in association with other disabilities. Educational placement decisions must be based on the assessments of strengths and weaknesses of the student and the educational needs rather than on reactions to the label of Autism. Students with autism may be served in a variety of settings.

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Area Education Agency (AEA) - Autism Resource Teams

The Iowa Legislature established Iowa’s Area Education Agencies in 1974 to be an effective, efficient and economical means of identifying and serving children from birth to age 21 who require special education services. Today, Iowa’s AEAs provide special education support services, media and technology services, instructional services, professional development and leadership development for the students, teachers, administrators and families in every Iowa public school district and accredited, nonpublic school to improve the learning outcomes and well-being of all children and youth. 

Each AEA has an autism resource team who provides a variety of services to building level teams, AEA staff, parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, and community providers. Contact your local AEA for referral and services. 

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Iowa Resources

Early ACCESS - The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) created the Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities Program (Part C) in 1986 to improve the development of infants and toddlers with disabilities. The Act also hopes to lower the likelihood of delays in development and improve outcomes of children before entering school. Part C funding provides early intervention (EI) services to infants and toddlers (birth to age 3) who have delays in development.

Early intervention is a system of services that helps infants and toddlers with or at risk for developmental delays or disabilities. Early intervention focuses on helping the caregivers of eligible infants and toddlers learn how to support their child learn the basic and brand-new skills that typically develop during the first three years of life, such as: physical (reaching, rolling, crawling, and walking); cognitive (thinking, learning, solving problems); communication (talking, listening, understanding); social/emotional (playing, feeling secure and happy); and self-help (eating, dressing).

Iowa's Part C early intervention system is known as Early ACCESS. Early ACCESS is for families with infants and toddlers who have a:

  • Health or physical condition affecting their growth & development, or
  • Delay in their ability to play, think, hear, see, eat, talk or move.

Why is early intervention important? Early diagnosis and intervention has lifetime consequences for children with ASD and their families. We know from the latest research that some of the most important learning occurs during the first three years of a child’s life. The brain and nervous system of a newborn child are not fully mature. Pathways in the brain develop as infants and young children learn from exploration with people and objects in their environment. The wiring of nerve cells is most rapid during this critical three-year period. By age 3, most of the major brain structures are mature, and later it becomes more difficult to make significant changes in a child’s brain and nervous system. A stimulating learning environment during the first three years is critically important to support positive outcomes.

Regional Autism Assistance Program - The mission of the Regional Autism Assistance Program (RAP) is to coordinate educational, medical and other services and supports for children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), their families, and providers. RAP teams provide regional screenings for toddlers and youth, and coordinate referrals for assessment and diagnostic services. In addition, RAP maintains an ASD research base, coordinates in-service training, provides technical assistance, provides consultation and provides information and referral. The RAP is coordinated with the Iowa Department of Education, the Iowa Department of Public Health, and the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Autism Society Iowa - The mission of the Autism Society of Iowa is to provide advocacy, support and information to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, their families, professionals, and communities throughout the state of Iowa.

The Autism Society of Iowa is an integral part and affiliate of a nationwide association, the Autism Society, that has provided accurate information about autism since its inception in the early 1970s.

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National Resources

Autism Navigator - A unique collection of web-based courses and tools developed to bridge the gap between science and community practice. They have integrated the most current research into a highly interactive web platform with extensive video footage to illustrate effective evidence-based practice. The video clips come from the unparalleled library of video footage collected from research projects at the Autism Institute at Florida State University. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what a video is worth.

The overarching aim of Autism Navigator® is to offer the infrastructure that helps to build capacity to transform community-based systems of healthcare delivery and education for toddlers with ASD and their families. By interfacing professional courses for primary care physicians and early intervention providers with information and support for families and communities using technology-supported learning, Autism Navigator® can create an integrated, effective, cost-efficient, community-viable system of service delivery for children with ASD and their families.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) - The CDC is committed to continuing to provide essential data on ASD, search for factors that put children at risk for ASD and possible causes, and develop resources that help identify children with ASD as early as possible. Their website includes information for parents, educators and medical professionals to address early recognition, screening, diagnosis and treatment options.

The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders - A multi-university center to promoting the use of evidence-based practice for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Evidence-based intervention practices (EBPs) for children with ASD are the basis on which effective programs are built. In 2010, the NPDC conducted a review of the literature (from 1997-2007) and identified 24 EBPs. The center has just completed an expanded and updated review, which yielded a total of 27 practices. The report of the 2014 review is now available in PDF format that can be accessed from their website

Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules (AFIRM) - AFIRM is a free online resource designed to teach the step-by-step process of planning for, using and monitoring evidence-based practices for individuals with ASD. Supplemental materials and handouts are available for download.

Autism Internet Modules (AIM) - AIM is designed to provide high-quality information and professional development for anyone who supports, instructs, works with, or lives with someone with autism. Each module guides you through case studies, instructional videos, pre- and post-assessments, a glossary, and much more. AIM modules are available at no cost.

Autism Society - The Autism Society exists to improve the lives of all affected by autism by increasing public awareness about the day-to-day issues faced by people on the spectrum, advocating for appropriate services for individuals across the lifespan, and providing the latest information regarding treatment, education, research and advocacy.

Founded in 1965 by Dr. Bernard Rimland, Dr. Ruth Sullivan and many other parents of children with autism, the Autism Society is the leading source of trusted and reliable information about autism.

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Iowa Autism Council

The Iowa Autism Council acts in an advisory capacity to the state in developing and implementing a comprehensive, coordinated system to provide appropriate diagnostic, intervention, and support services for children with autism and to meet the unique needs of adults with autism.

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