3 Ways to Prepare for the IEP Meeting Challenge
I have my boxing gloves on. Shuffling my feet left to right, right to left as I warm-up. In my head, I envision my every move to my opponents. My boxing ring is the stale conference room with the ubiquitous fluorescent lights. I tell myself I’m ready, I’m prepared- but what do you do when an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting takes an unexpected punch?
This was a pivotal meeting for my son’s triennial evaluation that shook me up to the core when it required quick and reactive thinking that I had not planned for. From this, I gained three life-learning lessons that one day may help you and your child.
My son, T, was originally diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) back in 2013 before the full shift of autism-related disorders were grouped into one diagnosis. At age three, he started in applied behavioral analysis, ABA therapy, in an intensive five days a week and seven hours a year-round day program. Over the coming months, he made noticeable strides in his daily living skills such as learning to put his clothes on correctly and grooming himself. However, the biggest hurdle for him was strengthening his area in social skills.
At the start of kindergarten, we placed him in a mainstream classroom at an academically recognized charter school 25 minutes away from our home. T was receiving speech support twice a week to support his primary deficit in social skills that continued to trouble him especially as he entered first-grade. By the spring of his first-grade year, he was overdue for his triennial evaluation. So we agreed to have a school psychologist brought in to begin the evaluation (along with school evaluations, medical evaluations are also recommended at least every three years).
The school contracted a psychologist they had worked with in the past. I spoke with him over the phone to answer additional questions he had for me regarding my son and I asked a few questions of my own. During this phone conversation, he did not disclose any specifics as to what he was going to present at the meeting.
It was the morning of his IEP meeting. There I was in the conference room of my son’s school.
My husband, my dearest ally and partner, was out of town for work but I had him on Facetime to be included in the IEP meeting. Then, a lengthy report was passed out to all of us reviewing the tedious findings he gathered and observed of my son. Like a savage, I whipped through the pages looking for the only words that would summarize the 14 pages.
And there it was, under ‘Summary,’ six words trailing the end of the paragraph, “…and did not find him autistic.”
Through the remainder of the mind-numbing hour and a half as the psychologist rambles on about words that I now find meaningless, he then verbalizes those gut-wrenching words. And in my head, like an HBO documentary I see flashbacks playing on an old movie reel.
The unrelenting screams caused by strangers saying “hi” to him at the store repeating “I’m scared, I’m scared!”
A change in schedule would draw big eyes to burst into tears and screeches.
How playing with peers his age was like trying to befriend a prehistoric animal—it was odd and foreign to him as he preferred playing on his own.
This is a so-called “professional” in his field, someone that a parent or caregiver relies on for expertise in the hopes of providing support for their loved one who cannot defend themselves. I had felt, at that moment, like I was sucker-punched in the gut; blindsided by an uppercut aimed at my son.
But I got back up. I immediately questioned him.
“Your job is to assess his academic needs to ensure the services he is receiving from the school are meeting those needs. You have not been asked nor is it your job to give my son a diagnosis.“
He immediately became defensive replying, “I would find it hard to believe that any other psychologist would disagree with me.”
I couldn’t fly out of that conference room fast enough. I was in shock, streaming with emotion with my face covered in tears. I needed to figure out my next move but what would be my counter attack?
Click here to find out more
Here are three ways to prepare for the IEP meeting challenge:
1 .Utilize your professional resources
Whether it’s an IEP meeting to review an evaluation, or simply your child’s annual IEP, make use of your resources. The journey through good and bad, as you venture with your child is long and arduous. We know that it’s never ending. And we hold onto small feats because to us they are celebratory triumphs. Turn your resources into valuable companions because you never know when one of them may turn out to be your saving grace.
My only daughter of three children (not on the spectrum) has also been receiving speech therapy for the last two going on three years. Her then speech pathologist has become a good friend of mine and an even greater treasure trove of support and knowledge. She has even offered and attended one of T’s IEP meetings with me to offer support and guidance. Soon after his triennial IEP meeting, I reached out to her to share what had transpired. Within minutes she brought in her army of autism specialists. Right on the spot, we had a team conferenced in by phone and in person to help with a plan of action.
2. Clear communication with support staff
It is imperative that your child is receiving the necessary support from their school. How do you ensure this is happening?
My T attends a small charter school that has always been supportive. Once my husband and I had a chance to discuss our thoughts, we cordially met with school administrator one on one whom we have had nothing but a positive relationship within our many interactions with her. Between the three of us, my husband and I discussed how disappointed we were with the presentation and outcome of the IEP meeting just days before. We were forthcoming with how the psychologist handled himself. In our case, she was receptive and agreed that in the future she would make sure an IEP report would be given to us days before a meeting so we would have sufficient time to read and prepare questions.
3. Find your local resources
In California, the state has 21 Regional Centers that provide services to support individuals and their families who have developmental disabilities. Find resources specific to your area.
The first major move was contacting our local regional center to have my son re-evaluated. What we needed was a current medical evaluation. Within a few weeks, we were on our way to Sacramento and came out with a confirmed autism diagnosis. Along with the ASD diagnosis, he had notable language delays (pragmatics) with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) placed on the radar.
By using our local Regional Center, we also gained another valuable source of assistance. When T was first diagnosed, he was deemed ineligible for services through the Regional Center. To our surprise, this time around he was eligible for services, and we were able to benefit from additional support such as occupational therapy. Reach out to services in your area and see how you may be able to benefit from them.
Receiving a current medical diagnosis clearly stating that my son has autism would essentially discredit the school evaluation—and that is exactly what happened.
As a team, we did agree that with only classroom modifications it would still allow my son to meet his current needs to succeed in the academic setting. And having a current medical diagnosis, should there be any setbacks or behavioral situations hindering his academic growth, we would be able to refer to his Autism diagnosis to make any IEP changes deemed necessary.
It was a room of nine this time around. And I had my husband at my side. Ten months had passed since we last met. The school provided (offered on their behalf) a new psychologist to evaluate T a second time around. With professionalism, he shared his findings and worked in conjunction with the rest of the team to determine the services and the support my son needs to continue growing to be the champion he is.
California Department of Developmental Services. (n.d.). Retrieved from, http://www.dds.ca.gov/
School Evaluations. (n.d.). Retrieved from, http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/diagnosis/school-evaluation/
Understanding the DSM-5 Autism Criteria. (n.d.) Retrieved from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/child-development-central/201201/understanding-the-dsm-5-autism-criteria
This article was featured in Issue 88 – Knowledge is Power