Let’s get the definitions out of the way now: IEP is short for Individualized Education Program. It defines the objectives of a child who has been found with a disability, as defined by federal regulations, and is intended to help children reach educational goals more easily than they otherwise would.
Basically it’s a game-plan; a road-map that says “Ok. Your child is currently at Point A. He needs to get to Point B. Here’s how we can get him there…”
Over the past few years – including just this week – I’ve sat in on several meetings with school officials to discuss the educational needs and goals for my son. An IEP is a great thing, but for a father of a child with autism it can also be scarey.
For one, by definition actually, it’s a reminder that your child has a disability: that somehow he can’t be categorized as ‘normal’ when compared to other kids his age. Personally, I’ve grown to accept this but it’s still tough to hear it from others and to discuss it detail.
Secondly, I think there’s sort of a built-in “we vs. they” mentality. While the best interest of the child is certainly a priority, the school has to deal with limitations that include dwindling budgets, a lack of qualified personnel and a growing number of kids in the system who need special assistance. Many times they’re forced to do a lot with very little.
As a parent, however, my concern is my son. That’s it. Period. New paragraph.
Finally, we’re dealing with autism here. Technically, Autism Spectrum Disorder. The range of symptoms for kids with ASD is incredibly difficult to define and it’s often said that when you’ve seen one with autism, you’ve seen ONE child with autism.
So to put together a plan of action to teach basic lesson plans or to promise an increase in social skills is not only tough, it’s also tough to measure. Success often seems arbitrary.
Fortunately, my wife and I are very involved in young Matt’s education and in the forming of his IEP. We prepare for each meeting, we’ve got questions in-hand and our expectations of both the school – and our son – are high.
Setting the bar
I tend to repeat the following mantra at every IEP meeting:
Set the bar high. If 10 is where average developing first graders should be, then that’s the level that Matt should be taught. If he doesn’t get as high as a 10, so be it. I’ll take a 7. Just don’t set the bar at a 7 because that’s where those with a defined disability are expected to be.
On an intellectual level, Matt is at or, in some cases, above where he needs to be for his age group. He knows his colors, numbers, basic math and reading, etc. In the last IEP meeting when he was in kindergarten, we were told point blank he could start first grade that day.
As a matter of fact, we were told just the other day that after finishing his math homework, Matt was walking around helping others in the class with their counting and addition.
Kids with autism continuously prove to researchers, doctors, teachers and anyone who might possibly doubt them that they should not be doubted. The path the Point B might hit a few bumps, but with patience and finding the right teaching methods – the journey is absolutely achievable.
Knock, knock, knock. Penny.
As with last IEP, the focus of my son’s new IEP is not academics. Both his teacher and therapists agree that he’s more than capable of learning most anything required of a typical first grader. What he needs to improve on is his social skills: conversation, turn-taking, patience and interaction with others.
I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record on that but he needs to have friends, form relationships, initiate conversation and be more engaging. I wish it were a matter of Matt simply being shy, but it’s not. It’s the autism.
Think of the character Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory”. He shows a lot of classic traits of someone with ASD. He doesn’t make friends easily, he’s not very outgoing, he doesn’t understand sarcasm, takes everything very literal, is blunt and honest, and has difficulty with change. He’s also very self-focused (not necessarily “selfish”.)
Young Matt may not be the genius that Sheldon is (though he’s certainly intelligent) but there seems to be some overlap with those personality traits. Matt doesn’t make friends easily, is not very outgoing, is pretty literal and has trouble with change. THOSE are the things that need to be worked on.
I don’t know. Do the goals and techniques laid out in an IEP trump autism? It’s not that simple (it never is.) I do know, however, that Matt has fought his diagnosis tooth-and-nail and with the help of a few well-executed IEPs has made huge strides in his development.
I’m proud of the little guy and am thankful for all the hard work by so many people that have helped Matt get to where he is today. The journey continues and I’ve no doubt he’ll never stop moving forward.