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How Do I Begin the Special Education Process in my Public School?

As your child starts school you will have many questions. This section on Education was compiled to help you navigate the special education process along with different resources to help you understand what educational laws protect your child.

  • Starting School

    What is special education?

    It can be many different types of services. Some children need to be educated in a special classroom. Some need additional help in a regular classroom. Others need related services, like speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, ABA and social skills groups to meet their needs.

    As a parent, you are the best advocate for your child. The greater your involvement and voice, the better the outcome!

    What is a Team evaluation?

    To begin special education services, you should request a Team evaluation, sometimes called a “Core evaluation.” A Team evaluation is a group of assessments that will help the public school system determine whether your child is eligible for special education services (programs and services adapted for the education of children with disabilities or unique needs). The test results will define your child’s strengths and areas of need. Your child’s eligibility for special education, as well as subsequent program planning, is based upon the results of the Team evaluation. The rest of this section is designed to help you understand the Team process, your legal rights, and the important deadlines.

    Understanding the Process

    It is extremely important that you understand everything that occurs throughout the process. The following advice may help you.

    1. Ask questions. When you do not understand something at a meeting, ask someone to further explain.
    2. Prepare for meetings and phone calls concerning your child. Be familiar with the information that will be discussed and list all concerns that you expect to be addressed.
    3. Obtain as much information as you can about the process and your rights. Contact the Federation for Children with Special Needs at 800-331-0688 or visit its website at
    4. Take advantage of parent groups. Other parents are important resources because they are experiencing or have experienced similar situations to you. Two programs that may be helpful are:
    1. Consider using an advocate. Professional representatives can help you make your voice heard.  To find an advocate that meets your needs, ask your autism support center for guidance. You can also contact the Federation for Children with Special Needs or the Special Needs Advocacy Network. For additional advocate listings, go to the AC resource database and click the category Educational Advocates. The Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) provides a list of free and low-cost advocacy services.
    2. Notify your child’s primary care provider. Your child’s provider can better serve your child if he/she is aware that your child is receiving a Team evaluation. It is important that the doctor know about the proceedings and what services your child receives as a result.
    3. Remember to review the education laws before your IEP meeting and do not sign off on anything you don’t understand or disagree with.

    For more information visit the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

    What should I do if the school disagrees with the services I am seeking for my child?

    Sometimes parents and school officials disagree on the program or services a student needs. Parents might also have concerns that special education regulations and laws are not being followed.

    The first place you can go for help is the Federation for Children with Special Needs (or call 617-236-7201). FCSN is a federally funded nonprofit organization that is staffed by experts in special education law. Explain your situation and ask for their guidance. If they recommend that you get a special education advocate to assist with your situation, ask for a list of advocates or visit to find an advocate in your area that specializes in helping students with ASD.

    Another approach is to contact the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) directly. DESE has created the Problem Resolution System (PRS) to “address complaints from the public about students’ educational rights and the legal requirements for education.” To get help with your particular situation:

    1. Call (781) 338-3700 and ask to speak to the Problem Resolution Systems specialist who covers your school district.
    2. The PRS specialist will talk with you about your problem, answer your questions, and discuss steps that you might take on your own to resolve the problem. You have several options at this point:
    • Use the information the PRS specialist give you to go back to the school district and try again to resolve the disagreement;
    • Ask the PRS specialist to contact the district on your behalf to try to solve the problem (IMPORTANT: If you do not want the PRS specialist to contact your district, BE SURE TO TELL THEM YOU DO NOT GIVE CONSENT FOR THEM TO DO SO);
    • Hire an advocate; and/or
    • File a formal complaint.

    If you choose to file a formal complaint, federal law requires that it be done in writing and that you send the complaint to both the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and your school district. To file a complaint, you can either print it out and complete the Problem Resolution Intake form, or you can call (781) 338-3700 and ask for the Problem Resolution Intake form to be mailed to you.

    For more detailed information on the PRS process, visit

    504 versus an IEP

    504 Plans and IEPs both require students to be evaluated to be able to receive necessary accommodations. However, 504 Plans and IEPs have many differences. 504 plans are not as detailed and the requirements for evaluation are not as specific. Both can technically provide specialized instruction, but because no federal funding accompanies a 504, in practice, schools use a 504 only for accommodations and modifications, (not for specialized instruction, related services, etc.). Section 504 has fewer procedural safeguards to protect the parent and child. An IEP is a legal document that promotes more effective progress through a specialized instruction with modification of actual program or curriculum materials.

    Least Restrictive Environment

    Both federal and Massachusetts special education laws require that a Team consider appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. If services can be appropriately provided in a less restrictive setting, the Team must choose that type of program and setting. If the student's program requires a more restrictive setting to be successful, then the Team may consider other settings. The Team should look class by class, activity by activity, and only remove your child from the general education classrooms if, and only if, supplemental aids and services would not make it possible for the student to remain in that classroom and make effective progress.

    Types of classrooms

    • Substantially separate classrooms (self-contained) serve students who require a highly modified curriculum in separate classrooms rather than in general education programs.
    • Inclusion classrooms serve students with special needs that are able to access the standard curriculum with minor accommodations.
    • Specialist Assessment(s):  An assessment in all areas related to a suspected disability.
    • Educational Assessment: An assessment that includes information about the student's educational history and overall progress, including current educational standing in key curriculum areas. This assessment should also include information on the student's attention skills, participation behaviors, communication skills, memory, and social relations with groups, peers, and adults. This assessment should also include a narrative description of the student's educational and developmental potential.


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  • Transition to School Timeline for Parents

  • Parent Training and Info Centers

    Each state is home to at least one parent center supported by the federal government that serves families of children and young adults from birth to age 22 with any kind of disability. Parent Centers are experts on educational laws and help families obtain appropriate education and services for their children with disabilities; work to improve education results for all children; train and inform parents and professionals on a variety of topics; resolve problems between families and schools or other agencies; and connect children with disabilities to community resources that address their needs.

    There are two Massachusetts Parent Training and Information Centers: the Federation for Children with Special Needs (617-236-7210) which serves families statewide, and Urban Pride (617-206-4570, ext. 301) which helps families living in Boston. In addition, Massachusetts has an Autism Special Education Legal Support Center at Massachusetts Advocates for Children that specializes in helping families of children with autism. You can reach their parent helpline at (617) 357-8431 ext. 224.

    In New Hampshire, contact your Parent Information Center at 603-224-7005 or 800-947-7005, or visit the website.

    For families living in Rhode Island, you can reach the Rhode Island Parent Info Network (RIPIN) at 401-270-0101 or 800-464-3399.

    To locate the Parent Center in any other state, call 1-888-248-0822

  • MA Education Laws

    If you live in another state, contact your Parent Information Center to learn about the educational laws that affect your child.      

    Massachusetts State Laws

    (If you live in another state, contact your Parent Information Center to learn about the educational laws that affect your child.)

    An Act to Address the Special Education Needs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

    In July 2006, Chapter 57 of the Acts of 2006 entitled “An Act to Address the Special Education Needs of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder” took effect in Massachusetts. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a “Technical Assistance Advisory” to help school districts understand it. This Advisory is also very helpful for parents who want to learn how the law can help their children with ASD. You can read the full text of the Advisory and read the complete law here.  An excerpt from the Advisory follows.

    “This law requires that IEP teams consider and address in the IEP discussion the following seven specific needs of students with ASD:

    1. Verbal and nonverbal communication needs: Impairment in communication is one of the defining characteristics of ASD. Therefore instruction and development of communication skills should be addressed as an essential element of the student's IEP.
    2. The need to develop social interaction skills and proficiencies: Social skills vary in severity and pervasiveness as well as how they present at different ages and developmental stages. In the most severe expression of qualitative social impairment, students with ASD may consistently appear socially disconnected or avoidant, even with immediate family members. In less severe cases, they may find it difficult to initiate interactions, frequently misunderstand social situations or be unable to maintain a conversation on a subject other than one on a preferred topic. A younger child with ASD may lack variation in spontaneous or social imitative play, lack pretend or imaginary play skills, or play with toys in an atypical or repetitive way, e.g. lining up toy cars or spinning the wheels, rather than racing them or engaging in pretend scenarios.
    3. The needs resulting from the student's atypical responses to sensory experiences: The IEP Team should consider whether a student with ASD exhibits under- or over-sensitivity to particular stimuli, such as tactile, visual, auditory, smell, taste or texture. One and often several of these sensitivities are common in students with ASD and can cause major discomfort, inattention and negative behaviors.
    4. The needs resulting from resistance to environmental change or alterations in daily routines: Students with ASD often have unusual or intense responses to an unexpected change in the environment, such as turning the heat or air conditioning up, painting the walls a different color, even moving the location of a desk or chair. A change in daily routine, such as a fire drill or substitute teacher may also be difficult for a child to understand or adapt to. Preparing for changes and transitions with visual schedules and supports, multiple verbal reminders and timers often helps to minimize the discomfort and promote greater success, flexibility and independence.
    5. The needs resulting from engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements: Students with ASD may exhibit ritualistic behaviors, movements or language. The educational team should consider their function and the extent to which these activities interfere with engagement in more productive activities such as interacting with peers, playing or learning academic skills.
    6. The need for positive behavioral interventions, strategies and supports to address any behavioral difficulties resulting from ASD: Because of the complex developmental, learning and adaptive needs of students on the autism spectrum, they often exhibit behaviors that are challenging in their intensity and frequency, and they may interfere with social and academic activities. The IEP Team should consider and discuss the need for a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) in order to identify the causes and functions of inappropriate behaviors and design an intervention or management plan based on FBA results and analysis.
    7. Other needs resulting from the student's disability that impact progress in the general curriculum, including social and emotional development: A student with ASD often exhibits deficits in executive function, i.e. the ability to plan, organize, make appropriate choices and generalize learned skills to other environments/activities and engage in productive and functional routines. The student may have a tendency to perseverate – to over-focus on small or unimportant features – which may distract him or her from perceiving and understanding the whole activity, procedure or event. The IEP Team should consider the need for structure, academic and social support or different services in the classroom and other environments.”

    An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools

    In May 2010, Chapter 97 of the Acts of 2010 entitled “An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools” took effect in Massachusetts and has specific requirements for students with autism and for students with other disabilities that affect social skills development. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education prepared a Technical Assistance Advisory to guide districts on how to implement the law (which is also very useful for families) and can be read here.

    According to the Advisory, Section 8 of the law states: “For students identified with a disability on the autism spectrum, the IEP Team must consider and specifically address the skills and proficiencies needed to avoid and respond to bullying, harassment, or teasing.” (G.L. c. 71B, §3, as amended by Chapter 92 of the Acts of 2010.)

    In addition, the Advisory states: “The skills and proficiencies that a school district may incorporate into its general curriculum, or that an IEP Team may identify in the student's IEP, may include but are not limited to the following core categories:

    • Self-Awareness: accurately assessing one's feelings, interests, values, and strengths/abilities, and maintaining a well-grounded sense of self-confidence.
    • Self-Management: regulating one's emotions to handle stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles; setting personal and academic goals and then monitoring one's progress toward achieving them; and expressing emotions constructively.
    • Social Awareness: taking the perspective of and empathizing with others; recognizing and appreciating individual and group similarities and differences; identifying and following societal standards of conduct; and recognizing and using family, school, and community resources.
    • Relationship Skills: establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation; resisting inappropriate social pressure; preventing, managing, and resolving interpersonal conflict; and seeking help when needed.
    • Responsible Decision-making: making decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate standards of conduct, respect for others, and likely consequences of various actions; applying decision-making skills to academic and social situations; and contributing to the well-being of one's school and community.”

    For laws related to future educational planning for students with ASDs over the age of thirteen, visit our transitioning to adulthood page.

    Individualized Education Program Options 

    Has your child’s IEP Team considered all the options? IEPs for children with autism spectrum disorders might include:

    • ABA
    • Home programs
    • Summer programs
    • After-school programs
    • Floor time
    • Sensory integration
    • Assistive technology
    • Socialization supports
    • Behavioral supports
    • Augmentative communication: e.g., PECS, iPad, etc.
    • Speech & language therapy
    • Occupational therapy
    • Physical therapy
    • Vocational supports
    • Life skills training
    • Classroom aides
    • Transition services
  • Federal Education and Disability Laws

    Federal Laws

    There are four federal laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities:


    The above information is derived from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, and is used with permission.

    Contact the Federation for Children with Special Needs for more information about the educational rights of your child and your rights as a parent.

  • Department of Education Websites