All autistic children might benefit from IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and 504 accommodations in the school setting. Often, autistic people don’t admit they’re struggling until they’re drowning in daily demands. Even if you think your autistic child had low-support needs, read on to find out the options available for your child in school.
- What is an IEP or 504 for Autism?
- 10 Ways to Accommodate Autistic Students in an IEP or 504 Plan
- 1. Quiet zones & napping capabilities
- 2. Fidget tools
- 3. Noise-cancelling headphones
- 4. Preferential seating
- 5. Ability to go to restroom without asking
- 6. Clear expectations, instructions, and clarification
- 7. Alternate communication training
- 8. Modified assignments and other individualized education plans (IEPs)
- 9. Sensory-friendly classrooms and spaces
- 10. Predictability & routine
What is an IEP or 504 for Autism?
An IEP (Individual Education Plan) is a US program where the school and parents work together to form a plan for disabled students in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) categories.
An IEP has specific goals and accommodations, and it is a legally binding document that contains information about a student’s performance and progress throughout the year.
In order to qualify for an IEP, testing must show that they child has fallen behind in academic progress compared to their peers.
A 504 is an accommodation plan for any disabled student that focuses on how a student learns. A 504 is for any student with an impairment that limits their ability to participate in one or more important life activities like learning, hearing, seeing, walking, concentrating, or communicating. The disability can be temporary or permanent.
10 Ways to Accommodate Autistic Students in an IEP or 504 Plan
Here are ten accommodations that can be written into these plans.
1. Quiet zones & napping capabilities
Being able to step away from noise and into a quiet space benefits even autistic adults in the workplace. Schools are no exception. If there is no designated quiet room for students who need it, the nurse’s office is the substitute.
Dealing with a lot of noise has a way of wearing autistic people out, so you might want to work 30-45-minute naps into their accommodations. Autistic students who need more naps are not necessarily ill. They just have higher support needs than you perceived.
I’m self-employed and take one to two naps a day when I’m at my 100%. While substitute teaching, I consume twice as much energy and nap after showering and eating a snack at home. As a student, I fell asleep in most of my classes due to masking exhaustion.
Western society prioritizes productivity over sleep, encouraging people to need as little of it as possible and jumping to medicate people who need “too much”. Laziness is a myth, and our bodies tell us so much about our needs if only we’d listen.
Autistic people need more sleep.
2. Fidget tools
Fidget tools are not toys, they’re tools. This distinction matters, because words matter.
- Toys are things you play with when you want to. Do you call your phone a toy or an essential communication tool?
- Tools help you go about your day, function, and complete tasks. To neurotypical children, fidget tools are toys because they don’t necessarily need them but might want them to play with when bored. Neurodivergent people need fidget “toys”, therefore making them tools.
Not understanding the importance of the distinction is an example of the double empathy problem, which is extremely common in discussions about accommodations and adjustments.
Able-bodied people accuse disabled people of wanting more rights because of their disability. Disabled people aren’t taking away the rights of able-bodied people — they’re receiving adjustments and accommodations they need to function at their own full capacities.
Sensory and fidget tools include:
- chewable jewelry
- fidget spinners
- essential oil necklaces
- marble mazes
- textured fabrics
If your autistic child often gets into trouble for excessively clicking their pen, this is a stim that should be accommodated. Otherwise, they’re getting in trouble for meeting their autistic needs, which is disrupting their ability to learn well.
If the pen clicking disrupts the class, could they perform alternative work in the music or computer room when they need the satisfaction of clicking? Is there a teacher who isn’t as bothered about clicking noises?
IEP and 504 accommodations aren’t about assimilating autistic children into normal behaviors. They’re about embracing the autistic child’s needs by accommodating those needs. Accommodations should be about acceptance, not a question of how you can correct that need.
Autistic adults don’t try to correct your need for eye contact.
3. Noise-cancelling headphones
One way to deal with noise sensitivity is allowing students to use noise-cancelling headphones.
Deaf students are often accommodated with teacher notes before and after the lessons, even if they have interpreters. If your autistic child struggles with language processing or needs noise-cancelling headphones at inconvenient times, they’re entitled to similar accommodations.
So much emphasis is put on what non-autistic people perceive autistic people capable of doing sometimes, that they fail to understand the nuance of our needs.
4. Preferential seating
Accommodating autistic children by letting them choose where they sit can help relieve a lot of stress!
I always learned better when I could choose my seat, and I’d choose a seat where I could see everyone else’s seat in the class, even if it wasn’t closest to the door. This helped me feel less anxious about my environment since I’d be able to see any dangers approaching.
5. Ability to go to restroom without asking
In healthy work environments, no one asks to use the restroom. Requiring high school and college students to ask to use the restroom is an infantilizing concept.
Some kids abuse their bathroom breaks to the point that teachers charge classroom bucks, but you should be able to opt your child out regardless of accommodation privileges.
Autistic children might benefit from being able to go to the restroom whenever they need to, without asking. Not only does this provide autonomy, but it’s also similar to their home life and allows them to meet their needs without requiring executive functioning.
Anything a student has to ask to do has the chance of being declined. Autistic people often struggle with rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD) or might feel too embarrassed to ask because all attention will be on them.
Every time I had to ask to go to the restroom, I had accidents — including menstrual ones. I’m a speaking non-speaking autistic person with RSD, which means asking to use the toilet isn’t easy for me. In middle school, I was allowed to use the restroom this way due to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) after my male gym teacher told me I went too much already.
The accommodation changed my middle school years and would have changed my high school years if my stepfather hadn’t forced me to learn how to hold it in. I developed additional gastrointestinal health issues as a result of this masking, because it also helped hide atypical anorexia.
6. Clear expectations, instructions, and clarification
To clarify, all three of these things are different. Your autistic child’s IEP or 504 accommodations should specifically lay these out so allistic teachers don’t misunderstand:
- Tell them exactly what you want them to do. Explain it like they’re 5 years old, without speaking to them or treating them like they’re 5.
- Show them how to do it and what it should look like. You don’t have to give them the answers, you just need to demonstrate for each different situation.
- Don’t retaliate or take offense when they ask for clarification. They might ask what you mean or for further instructions. “Common sense” is the perception of YOUR life experience, not theirs. See #1.
- Accept that they might not comprehend what you’re saying. Accommodate by finding an alternative activity they can do. I want my child to have every opportunity to participate, so let’s work as a team when this happens. I might be able to help you explain it to them in a way they’ll understand.
Teachers are trying the best they can with what they know how to do. Parents are doing the same. Imagine the possibilities if they worked together.
7. Alternate communication training
Autistic students who use alternate forms of communication, especially with devices, will benefit so much more if their teachers learn how to communicate with them, too!
Your autistic child might not subscribe neurotypical society’s social hierarchy where people are respected simply because of position or title. Autistic culture’s social hierarchy is less focused on titles and heavily relies on personal characteristics.
We respect people who accommodate us, put in the effort to understanding our neurotype, and communicate how we do.
Alternative communication includes:
- Written language preference.
- Patience with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices and teaching classmates to be empathetic instead of criticizing, mocking, or laughing.
- Fundamental sign language necessary for the classroom.
- Allowing frequent pauses between words and thoughts.
8. Modified assignments and other individualized education plans (IEPs)
IEPs provide customized educational plans for autistic and similarly neurodivergent students. Neurotypical students typically receive education through their teacher’s favorite learning style in grades beyond kindergarten. Some teachers use a variety of learning styles.
Autistic children might learn best through one or two specific styles and fail at the others. They may perform best working on projects alone and need an alternative to class presentations. Despite the purpose of group projects and presentations, IEP and 504 accommodation for autistic students could mean they work on projects alone and pre-record their presentations.
Be creative in thinking up ways to accommodate your autistic child. Think outside the box of what’s acceptable in neurotypical society. This breeds autism acceptance.
9. Sensory-friendly classrooms and spaces
Some hospitals are creating rooms where patients can go to boost their mood and improve their health, like scenery rooms for immunocompromised patients who can’t enjoy the outdoors and video game rooms for cardiac patients to reduce stress.
I’ve heard of a few schools that created designated quiet rooms and sensory rooms for students to go when they needed it. Most schools prefer not to lose a room to non-classroom use, which is where sensory-friendly classrooms comes in.
Creating a sensory-friendly environment from the get-go not only embraces neurodivergent needs, but spreads acceptance across neurotypical students as well. Everyone has sensory needs. Neurodivergent people are just more open about these needs and struggle to function when they’re not met.
10. Predictability & routine
An autistic high schooler once had a meltdown because the teacher decided to hold the class after the bell rang for a minute. She’d never done this before, and he was not great at masking his anxiety. While I could mask, my stomach hurt. and I was so anxious about having enough time to reach my next class on the other side of the school that I tripped over my own feet and fell in the crowd of people.
Autistic people need their routines. They need predictability in order to function and make sense of the world. They need it for the plays they run in their heads, so they mask properly.
Autistic people need routine to feel loved. It is not because they want to control the world, their life, or the people around them. Routine is crucial to an autistic person’s ability to function.
Needing routine and predictability is an accommodation you can add to your autistic child’s file.
Pop quizzes aren’t accessible to all students, especially those with test anxiety. They’re a spontaneous change in routine, even if the teacher had been planning it all along. They are also difficult to accommodate, as the point of pop quizzes is secrecy. If your child’s teacher loves them, ask if they could tell you before dishing out a pop quiz so you could help your child study.
If you and your child find yourselves spending more time fighting for accommodations, with your child spending less time learning, that might be a sign to consider homeschooling, changing to another school within the district, or hiring an education advocate.
Some families with autistic children choose to move to another district where the autism supports are more readily available.