A miracle program or nightmare?
Although well-intentioned to ensure that disabled children are not discriminated against by the public school system, participation in complex Individual Education Programs can be stressful for parents, students and educators alike. Ultimately, the success or failure of the program is up to the parent.
Thinking about enrolling your disabled child in an IEP? Here are some answers to a few basic questions regarding the IEP and what you can do to make sure your disabled child gets the most from a personalized education.
What is an IEP?
An Individual Education Program (IEP) is a personalized education program for children who meet the federal regulations for a disability. The program is designed so that a disabled child will have every chance to reach their full potential by being allowed fair access to the same opportunities that public schools provide non-disabled children, while at the same time receiving free specialized and individually tailored care when necessary.
Who pays for the IEP?
The government. IEPs are mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) (1990), which is the law that governs how states provide students with disabilities early care and special education. The law stipulates that IEPs are required for those students enrolled in special education programs funded under the IDEA and that they be maintained regularly until the person's 22nd birthday or they reach high school graduation. The IDEA was preceded by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), which arose from a need to ensure that disabled children are not denied a public education, which was easy to do prior to the act.
Is my child disabled?
The US Department of Education's (ED) definition of “disabled” is quite broad. In section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (otherwise known as Free Appropriate Public Education or FAPE), the ED defines a person with a disability as “any person who: (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment.”  Therefore a wide array of physical and mental disadvantages may qualify as a disability, including autism.
How does the IEP work?
If you suspect that your child is disabled, you must refer your child to the program. The child then undergoes an evaluation in which their individual needs are identified. The evaluators are composed of a team of teachers, health professionals and the child's parents. Both the student's ability and inability to access the general curriculum are considered. The IEP is tailored to meet the child's specific needs and written out in detail. The goal is that children with special needs receive appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment possible, which is usually in general education, or “mainstream”, classrooms, thus ensuring the disabled student has the best chance of receiving as “normal” an education possible. To provide the maximum amount of help, teachers must be made aware of how the child best learns and expresses learning. Regular re-evaluation of the IEP and team meetings are held.
Will an IEP actually benefit my child?
It depends on all the players on the IEP team and how well the IEP is carried out. Ideally, disabled students should do well in mainstream classrooms if their individual needs are being met. However, this is not always the case because integrating a child into a mainstream classroom has its challenges.
The child is seated in certain sections of the classroom designed for IEP students, sometimes next to an assistant, thus placing the child into a “different” category. Disabled children may already feel stigmatized and by placing them into a “token” or “solo” status in which they are only one or a few of their category, they may experience self-esteem lowering comparisons to the majority, non-stigmatized children in the room.  In addition, they may become inadvertently dependent on the assistant if the IEP has not been well understood by the major education provider.  Past studies have shown that only 0% to 25% of the ideas put forth in the IEP are actually carried out  and while there have been improvements since then, more recent studies have shown that it is still very difficult to correlate the IEP to the general education curriculum, which goes to the heart of the IEP. It is a complex task to make the general educator aware of both the curriculum and the special needs of the disabled child. 
What can I do to make sure my child receives the best IEP possible?
Participate. It is very important that all parties involved in the child's education remain devoted to the process. The IEP states that the parents or legal guardians must be treated as equal participants at IEP meetings and, where possible, the child may also participate. Sera Rivers of Psychology Today recommends that parents do their homework in preparation for IEP meetings and remember that they have a right to free state-provided mediation.  Therefore the parent may litigate if not pleased with the implementation on the IEP. The fastest area of dispute is the litigation regarding the IEPs of autistic children.  However, it is in the best interest of the school to ensure that the IEP is carried out well because it is up to the school to defend the value of the IEP if challenged by the parent in court. Your child's education is in your hands.
 [Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (revised August 2010) http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/edlite-FAPE504.html]
 Social stigma and self-esteem: The self-protective properties of stigma.” By Crocker, Jennifer; Major, Brenda , Vol 96(4), Oct 1989, 608-630.
 [“Helping or Hovering? Effects of Instructional Assistant Proximity on Students with Disabilities” Giangreco et al http://maureenmcquiggan.com/files/Helping_or_Hovering.pdf ]
 [“Congruence between assessed needs and IEP goals of identified behaviorally disabled students”
Fiedler, Jacque F.; Knight, Richard R. Behavioral Disorders, Vol 12(1), Nov 1986, 22-27]
 [“Access to the General Curriculum for Students with Disabilities: The Role of the IEP. A Policy Paper for Educators and Families”. Joanne Karger for National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum.]
 [Strategies For a Successful Individual Education Plan (IEP) Meeting IEP meeting 101: Seven strategies to transform stress into success.” Published on September 22, 2011 by Sera Rivers in A
Lonely Education http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/lonely-education/201109/strategies-successful-individual-education-plan-iep-meeting]
 [“Examining the Quality of IEPs for Young Children with Autism”
Lisa A. Ruble, John McGrew, [...], and Lee Ann Jung http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3116234/#!po=52.2727 page 14. Journal of autism and developmental disorders]