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Q&A: How can a student be diagnosed with autism but the school not use the diagnosis?

Answer: A student can receive a medical diagnosis of autism but not be placed in the educational category of "AU" (Autism) for several reasons.

Here are some of the primary explanations:

Different Criteria

  • Medical Diagnosis:

    • A medical diagnosis of autism is based on the criteria set in the DSM-5 or other medical diagnostic tools.

    • These criteria focus on specific patterns of behavior, social interaction deficits, and communication challenges.

  • Educational Classification:

    • There are 13 Categories of Disability Under IDEA Law: Autism is one of those categories and is commonly listed as category "AU"

    • To classify a student under the "AU" category in a school, there needs to be evidence that the characteristics of autism adversely affect the student's educational performance.

    • If a student with a medical diagnosis of autism performs academically and socially without specialized help, the school determines that they don't qualify for special education services under the autism category.

Need for Specialized Educational Services

  • Even if a child receives a medical diagnosis of autism, they might not need specialized educational services or modifications in the school setting.

  • The educational team assesses whether the student needs special education services to make meaningful educational progress.

  • If the team determines that the student succeeds in the general education environment without special education services, they might not classify the student under the "AU" category.

Overlapping Categories

  • Sometimes, a student's needs are better served under a different special education category.

  • For instance, if a student with autism has more pronounced communication challenges, they might receive services under the "Speech Impairment (SI)" category rather than "AU."

Parental Input and Consent

  • Parents are an integral part of the IEP team.

  • In certain scenarios, parents might feel their child doesn't need special education services or prefer their child not to be classified under the "AU" category.

  • Such preferences and concerns are considered during the decision-making process.

Evaluation Tools and Expertise

  • Schools utilize a diverse range of assessment tools and lean on the expertise of their educational staff when determining eligibility for special education categories.

  • If the tools or experts available don't perceive the educational impact of the autism characteristics as warranting special education support, the student might not be classified under the "AU" category.

Periodic Re-evaluation

  • As time progresses, students' needs and abilities evolve.

  • A student diagnosed with autism might not be classified under the "AU" category if they demonstrate substantial progress or if their challenges don't hinder their educational performance.

  • Regular re-evaluations can further influence changes in eligibility or services.

A Note for Parents and Guardians:

  • It's imperative for parents and guardians to immerse themselves actively in the special education evaluation process, understand their entitlements, and stand up for their child's needs.

  • Should there be any disagreement with the school's decision, options like mediation or due process hearings stand at their disposal to address and reconcile any differences.


Blog by Dr. Shelby Dorsey, Ph.D., BCBA, LBA, with formatting assistanace from ChatGPT4

Dr. Dorsey was a special education teacher before/during graduate school and has a Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Oklahoma with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis.

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