If your child has high functioning autism and is participating at school with minimal special education involvement, his or her education team may suggest a 504 plan in place of the usual individualized education plan (IEP). The differences between these two plans are subtle but important. In order to decide which type of plan is appropriate for your child, it's essential that you educate yourself about these two options.
Understanding the Basic Differences
Both an IEP and a 504 plan are designed to make sure your child isn't a victim of discrimination and that he or she can participate in school in the least restricted way possible. This chart outlines some of the most important differences between the two plans:
|Goals||Must include measurable annual goals||Does not include measurable annual goals|
|Legal Basis||Covered under Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), a federal law that requires schools to provide all students a "free and appropriate education"||Covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that prohibits discrimination because of disability|
|Federal Funding||Funded by the federal government||Not funded by the federal government|
|Parental Involvement||Must include parental involvement and written notice||Does not require involvement of parents|
|Longevity||Updated annually and follows child from school to school until age 22||Updated annually and protects child against discrimination indefinitely|
Measurable Annual Goals
According to the US Department of Education, one of the biggest difference between a 504 plan and an IEP has to do with whether or not your child has formalized annual goals.
- Under an IEP, your child gets special education services to work toward meeting measurable annual goals. In the case of autism, this frequently means a specific plan to improve social skills, organization, communication, and other important aspects of learning and growing. Professionals included in the plan may be speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, special education teachers, social workers, and others.
- Under a 504 plan, your child does not have annual goals. Instead, the plan includes formalized adaptations or accommodations to remove barriers that could keep your child from participating in school. These are things the school can do to help your child function as part of his or her class, such as providing sensory breaks, using a weighted vest, or seeing visual versions of everything the teacher says out loud. He or she may receive services from professionals, but these services are designed to help the child function with classmates, rather than make measurable improvements.
Both IEPs and 504 plans are covered by federal laws; however, the laws that govern them are slightly different:
- IDEA is a law stating that students with disabilities must receive a "free and appropriate education" that meets their functional and academic needs. It legislates exactly what needs to happen at an IEP meeting, what information and testing should be part of the IEP process, the type of goals the IEP should contain, and more.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that students with disabilities receive equal access to a public school education and the ability to fully participate in school. The 504 plan documents how a specific child with a disability will be included.
Another important difference between a 504 plan and an IEP is the funding, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities:
- An IEP includes special services like special education professionals, therapists, and paraprofessionals. The school provides these services, but it receives funding for them through the federal and state governments.
- A 504 plan may very rarely include special education services in addition to adaptations. If it does, those services are not covered by federal funding. Instead, they must come out of the school district's budget.
According to Wright's Law, the level of parental involvement is another important distinction between these plans:
- To write an IEP, the school must provide the parent with notice that there will be a meeting, invite the parent to the IEP meeting and hold it at a time that works for the parent, involve the parent in decision making, and provide progress reports at specified intervals. In many states, the parent also needs to sign a document called Prior Written Notice that allows the district to proceed with the plan.
- In the case of a 504 plan, the school has to tell the parent that they are developing a plan, but the parent does not need to be invited to the meeting or provide input or consent.
Both IEPs and 504 plans are updated annually, but according to Raising Special Kids, they differ in terms of their longevity:
- Under an IEP, students "age out," or are no longer covered by the plan, when they reach age 22.
- Under a 504 plan, there is no age limit for coverage and accommodations.
Choosing the Best Plan for Your Child
If your child is very high functioning, there may come a time when the school no longer feels that he or she needs and IEP. Whether or not you agree with that decision means understanding how your child's educational experience would change. Every situation is different, so ask school professionals plenty of questions about the specific differences you can expect to see. Gather as much information as you can in order to make the best choice for your child.