Evaluations: Determining Disability

When your child is having difficulty at school, you may begin thinking about having him or her evaluated for a disability.  This  can be an emotional and confusing process.  While I promise to provide more information about the evaluation process for school-based services and plans (IEP, 504, and RTI) later, it’s critical that you first understand the difference between medical diagnoses and educational disabilities.  Knowing the difference allows you to determine the appropriate steps to take to support your child.

Medical Diagnoses: These diagnoses refer to a child’s functioning within several environments.  Diagnoses are based on criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).  Diagnoses may include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, etc.e qualified to make these diagnoses include pediatricians, psychiatrists (medical doctor who specializes in mental health and can prescribe medication), psychologists (graduate level professional who cannot prescribe medication), neuropsychologists (often conducts psychological and learning assessments), or social workers.    These are often diagnosed based on information from parents, including results from parent interviews and rating scales (questionnaires that ask how often a child displays specific behaviors).  Input from school is considered but does not dictate a diagnosis (see below for parallel idea!).  The evaluation may also include several cognitive or academic assessments conducted over many hours in the neuropsychologist’s office.  These evaluations are paid for through insurance or out-of-pocket by parents.

Educational Disabilities:  These disabilities refer to a child’s educational functioning and are necessary to receive special education services (IEP).  Disabilities are determined using eligibility criteria determined by the state departments of education and are based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act.  Disabilities may include one or more of the following: Specific Learning Disability, Other Health Impairment, Educational Autism, Emotional-Behavioral Disorder, Speech or Language Disorder, Intellectual Disability, Hearing Impairment, Deafness, Visual Impairment (including blindness), Deaf-Blindness, Traumatic Brain Injury, Orthopedic Impairment, or Multiple Disabilities.  They are determined by a school team, including parents and school professionals such as school psychologists, school social workers, teachers, administrators, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, etc.  Information comes from parents, teachers, academic records, rating scales, cognitive and academic assessments, interviews with the student, and observations of students’ functioning at school.  Medical diagnoses are always considered in the assessment information but do not dictate whether a student has an educational disability.   In other words, a student with a diagnosis of Dyslexia (medical diagnosis) does not automatically have an educational diagnosis of Specific Learning Disability and, therefore, does not automatically receive special education.  These evaluations are free and are used to determine appropriate service options for students.

Please remember, I am not a lawyer.  My posts are not designed to give legal advice.  Rather, I hope to provide basic information to parents who want to better understand this crazy institution called School.  The world of evaluations and school services is complex.  Stay tuned for more information.


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