Whats an IEP?
Yesterday I met with Bean’s team of educators and specialists at the school district offices for his semi-annual Individual Education Plan (IEP). I you have a kid on the autism spectrum, special needs, or any other learning disability, be it neurological or physical, you will someday have the first of many of these meetings. In just over a week, I am back at the University full time to get my advanced degree in Special Ed, so I imagine I will have a completely different perspective to add as I someday sit on the other side of the table, but for now, this is about being the mom, and facing a team of 6 (almost always) women who specialize in educating kids like mine.
Bean’s diagnosis is PDD-NOS, which stands for Pervasive Developemental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified. This means he falls on the autism spectrum, and is a fancy way of saying so. Autism Spectrum Disorder is also referred to as ASD. When he was first diagnosed, he was given the marker of Aspergers, but that has since been removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Yeah, I know. Lots of big words. PDD-NOS simply indicates less severe forms of ASD on the diagnostic scheme. It’s even been proposed in the DSM-V to replace PDD-NOS completely with ASD. Confused yet?
Let me preface this by saying the first IEP can be scary, as I was unfamiliar with a lot of the terms, wording and legalese that the educators must use. I read all I could, asked a ton of questions, and have generally experienced this team to have my son’s best interests in mind when making decisions. All that said, ultimately I am the parent, and I have the right and obligation to say yes or no to anything I find questionable or concerning. It can be intimidating, but remember that you know your child best.
So there I am, sitting at a table across from six women who are in charge of directing my son’s education. The women (or sometimes men) are: The district psychologist overseeing my son’s case (each child is assigned), a speech pathologist, a Special Ed teacher who will be handling my son on a daily basis, an Occupational Therapist (OT), a Physical Therapist (PT) and the regular Ed teacher. Occasionally I’ve head the school psych sit in, as well as others from the district office. Like I said, it can be intimidating. But don’t be- you will come to love love love the OT and PT, because they- along with the SpEd teacher- are the one who are going to work miracles with your child.
There are legal requirements for public school districts to meet the needs of children with disabilities. This is part of why things are so official and representatives from the district are present. It’s to protect them, but also to protect your child, and make sure he gets all the help he needs and qualifies for. Remember that when it feels like too much.
If you’ve gotten to the point where you are sitting at an IEP, your child has a medically diagnosed need. You don’t get an IEP if you are having a hard time, or if your kid is just struggling. IEP are for kids with verified, medically diagnosed disorders or learning disabilities.
Before my first IEP with Bean, when he was just 4, he came in with such a clear diagnosis the OT and PT scheduled an observation time beforehand so they could assess him. When we then sat down to write his education plan, they already had notes on what he needed, independent of what I shared. This is where an amalgamation of many minds really helps. The OT and PT notes from their professional perspective, added those to what I shared, and the SpEd teacher then adds her piece, and suddenly we have a working plan for helping this child. It really is a team sport.
The teachers will discuss areas your child may need:
- Physical Therapy: this is actual large motor therapy. For Bean, this meant deep-muscle work, tactile experiences, brushing, weighted vests and sensory processing experiences.
- Occupational Therapy: This is generally more small-motor and fine muscle coordination. Things like holding a pencil and learning to press down at the same time ( a not uncommon difficulty in ASD kids), using scissors, making marks on paper, pincer grasp, pouring, serving, small manipulatives.
- Speech Pathology: Verbal skills, oral communications, forming words and giving verbal cues to function within a community. Again, very very common problems in ASD kids.
- Special Education: This is a teacher who has received extensive training in dealing with children who have developmental disabilities. (this is where I am pursuing my MA)
- Regular Education: Even a child who qualifies for SpEd will eventually have a regular Ed teacher, with whom the SpEd teacher works closely. The goal in almost all school districts is now to mainstream SpEd kids into neurotypical classrooms, with support staff from the OT, PT and SpEd teachers. It’s a big day when your child transitions to a regular Ed classroom.
There is a lot of dialogue at an IEP. The teachers and therapists have a great deal of skill and information, but they cannot create a plan for your child that will be successful without your input. The district psychologist then facilitates the legal side of making sure the plan is written properly and all people present are on-board and sign on the dotted line. Literally. Once everyone signs, this is a binding document, and the educators will follow the plan as laid-out, until the next IEP meeting.
Bean’s first plan, two years ago, (and actually his most recent as well) I requested time to look it over and read some more before I signed it. I don’t think they were thrilled about it, but it was necessary for me to feel educated and informed before I signed off. Recently, his team wanted to make some changes to his plan, and I declined signing the papers, instead asking for a meeting with the team so we could talk about it as a group. It took some finagling, but I had to follow my gut, and that was what yesterday’s meeting was actually concerning.
Overall, my experience with IEPs has been positive. I have found the people who specialize in this field do so because they really care about making a difference with my child, and they care about facilitating his growth and learning. They have also been Bean’s biggest cheerleaders as he reaches his benchmarks and moves on to the next set of goals. I truly love his team, and am so grateful for what they have done for him.