Definition of Autism Eligibility in IDEA

According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (

“The IDEA’s disability terms and definitions guide how States in their own turn define disability and who is eligible for a free appropriate public education under special education law. …Note, in order to fully meet the definition (and eligibility for special education and related services) as a “child with a disability,” a child’s educational performance must be adversely affected due to the disability…. “Autism” means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term autism does not apply if the child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance.  A child who shows the characteristics of autism after age 3 could be diagnosed as having autism if the criteria above are satisfied.”

To identify signs of ASD, one is often looking for the “absence of” or “diminished quality” of social and communicative interactions.  Thus, it is important to keep developmentally appropriate expectations of social behaviors in mind when considering if a student may have an ASD.  See the table below for examples of the kinds of behaviors we usually see from typically-developing students during different developmental periods.  It may be the absence or inconsistency of these appropriate and adaptive behaviors that indicate ASD in a student.

Examples of Appropriate Social-Communication Behaviors (i.e., things students with ASD are less likely to do consistently and with fluid, spontaneous quality)



Specific Examples

Social awareness or social orientation

Noticing that other people are present

Showing more interest in people than in objects

Looking up when others come near

Alerting when name is called

Walking through school halls without bumping into everyone

Facing teacher in circle time (instead of turning away to stare at a computer)

Playing with another child (instead of playing alone with an object)

Realizing that when the teacher gives directions to the entire class, she is also talking to him

Sharing emotions with others

Directing clear nonverbal cues towards others to let them know how you feel

Looking and smiling at someone else when something good happens

Frowning or making an “angry face” and directing this expression towards others to let them know you are frustrated

Sharing attention with others (also called “Joint Attention”)

Following someone else’s lead and looking at what they want you to look at


Giving clear cues to others that you want them to see what you see

Monitoring another person’s eyes and following where their gaze shifts

Following another person’s pointing gesture

Using own eyes to shift back and forth between the person you are talking to and the thing you want them to see

Pointing to something to make sure someone else sees it


Showing empathy for others

Showing concern when someone else is sick, hurt or sad; making attempts to comfort someone

Patting a child who has fallen and saying “it’s okay”

Giving a stuffed animal to a child who is crying

Changing facial expression to show some concern or worry when someone else is upset or sad

Using gestures (with or without words)

Delivering a message to another person by moving your hands, head or body in a motion that is well-understood in your particular culture (using gestures shows you have naturally picked up some of the practices of your culture – this is an important indicator of social learning.


Waving to indicate “goodbye”

Shrugging to indicate “I don’t know”

Nodding head to indicate “yes”

Placing finger to lips to indicate “be quiet”

Spontaneous communication

Trying to send a message to another person (–with or without words; with or without adaptive supports ) the emphasis is on attempting to communicate without others reminding or requiring it

Commenting to another student that the homework was hard

Raising hand to ask a question or ask for help

Asking another person a question about their weekend

Asking an adult for a drink

Gesturing to another child to “come here” and join a game


Flexible communication

Trying different ways to send a message – especially if your listener doesn’t seem to understand what you are trying to communicate AND

Not sending the same message over and over again

Rephrasing a question so that others can better understand what you are getting at

Using pantomime or acting out motions to clarify your meaning

Applying a change in intonation – or the expressiveness of your voice – to show what you mean or emphasize the most important part of your message

Asking a question once – perhaps seeking a little clarification, but not re-asking the same exact question

Reciprocal communication

Taking turns with another person in a back-and-forth exchange of verbal and/or nonverbal behaviors that involves fluidly shifting back and forth between listening and expressing

Two preschoolers discuss how many blocks belong on a tower:

Sam:  “we need more”

Ben:  “No, 5 is good.”

Sam:  “more will be taller and louder when it falls.”

Ben:  (pauses) Okay. Maybe 8.”

Two middle schoolers discuss a recent history test:

Harriet:  “That was really hard.”

Sara:  “Yeah. I didn’t get the whole last part.”

Harriet:  “Do you mean the stuff about Henry VIII?”

(Sara nods).

Harriet:  “Me either – I don’t think she covered that in class.”

“Going with the flow”

Adjusting to changes in expectations or routines without a lot of distress

Not becoming upset by having a substitute teacher

Transitioning:  Accepting an adult’s request to leave a favorite activity (such as the computer) and do something else (join a small group)

Accepting that different words can be used to mean a similar thing – i.e., there is no “one way” to express oneself

Accepting that rules can be different in different places

Willingness to try a new way to solve a problem or play with something

Openness to a variety of interests

Curiosity and willingness to explore a broad range of ideas, subjects and activities; also involves openness to listening to others talk about their interests

Listening to another student’s book report on a topic never before explored

Willingness to talk about a variety of topics without spending too much time on one particular topic

Willingness to watch another child use a toy in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended to be used.  This could be observed by copying another child’s pretend actions or by not getting upset when other children play “off script”. For example, watching a child move a block in the air, proclaiming “it’s a plane” and not saying “No –it’s a block!”


One of the challenges of observing students for behaviors associated with ASD is that the most important characteristics to look for actually require observing an absence of a behavior or skill that other students of the same developmental level naturally display.

For example, beginning in preschool and throughout their school career, we expect children to readily and consistently demonstrate the behaviors in the table above.  Inconsistency, poor quality or the complete absence of these important behaviors could be indicators of ASD.

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