We had a meeting with the Child Study Team at Ryan’s school Wednesday morning (which was the reason I didn’t have a post that day). It’s something we have done near the beginning of each new school year for as long as we can remember.
We gather around a small conference table with all the people who hold our son’s educational future in their hands. We come not to address problems, but to get to know the teachers, therapists and aides that will be working with him all year. We want them to know and understand our child, his strengths and weaknesses, our expectations for the year, and emphasize a few key points — little things that we know are Not Little Things when it comes to determining the success or failure of the coming year.
We come to share the kind of nuggets that can’t be found in the dozens of pages of the IEP, and to learn a few nuggets of our own. These caring adults and educators are our eyes and ears in the school, and can tell us what’s really going on in a way that Ryan can’t.
And so Veronica and I smile at each other with just a bit of amazement when we hear Ryan’s language arts teacher describe him as a leader in the class and say she uses him to model for the other students. She talks about how she is trying to get all her students to follow a set of repeatable steps when it comes to pulling information out of the text they read and we exchange a knowing glance — repeatable steps! Exactly the kind of thing Ryan can model for the class. We emphasize to her the importance of telling Ryan that the five nights of reading he is required to do each week do not HAVE to be Monday through Friday, something he will never believe unless it comes from the teacher.
We have found these meetings establish an early rapports with the team, and set the stage for positive communication and a quick response to any issues that may arise during the year.
We also use them as a time to thank everyone for the time they are going to invest in our child. We
want need them to know that their efforts will be reinforced at home, that both Ryan’s parents are as invested creating the best possible conditions for his success as they are.
One of the most valuable bits of advice I’ve ever received in the near 11 years we’ve been on this autism spectrum journey came from an overwhelmed Early Intervention administrator. I’m sure he was carrying a case load way beyond what he could manage. He advised of us our legal rights to receive certain responses within a certain time frame. He was suggesting that if he got close to any deadlines, we needed to basically be a pain in his rear.
“When it comes to this,” he said, “good things do not come to those who wait.”
At the time we weren’t particularly pleased with this gentlemen. He showed little emotion as he processed our paperwork and explained the process of beginning in-home therapy to two terrified parents. But his advice was terrific, and it has stuck with me to this day. It colors every interaction we’ve had with the educational system since.
He was telling us, subtly, that we needed to be the squeaky wheel, that not everyone gets treated equally when it comes to special education, and that the single best thing we could do was be our child’s best advocates.
Since that time, Veronica and I have attended almost every single meeting, no matter how minor, together. We request these annual team meetings. We quickly follow up on any issues that arise.
It hasn’t always been easy. Ryan suffered through one miserable school year with a teacher that just didn’t get him and unintentionally amplified his anxiety to levels we had not seen. It required from us a request for greater levels of accommodation than Ryan had in the past, and we were slow to realize it. A very wise resource teacher stepped in at the end of the year and set us straight. She came up with seemingly minor modifications — chunking assignments, allowing any and all work to be typed, and the kicker: an extra set of text books for home. That last one was enormous. Ryan was routinely arriving home without the books he needed to study. As soon as he realized it he worked himself into a state of panic.
That teacher, the incredible Ms. R. has become a trusted advisor and friend, even though we are now two schools removed from direct contact with her. Her lesson was lasting: If something’s not working — demand that it be changed!
We have learned an awful lot on this journey. We have learned that small steps can have a huge impact. We’ve learned that it is our duty to be Ryan’s best advocate. We’ve learned that the people who work with him care immensely about his success. We’ve learned that establishing a good working relationship with everyone on the team early in the year creates a positive environment that makes the situation anything but adversarial. We’ve learned that having the team get to know Ryan’s intricacies can pay immediate, and significant, dividends.
The day after our meeting this year, one of Ryan’s teachers, newly mindful that managing his anxiety is the single biggest key to his success, pulled Ryan aside to advise him of a date change of an upcoming quiz — information he was not sharing with the entire class.
We realize that we are incredibly fortunate to live in a district that has a true commitment to special education and we are all too aware that it is not the case everywhere. We know that sometimes confrontation and adversarial relationships are a necessary by-product of a system that is overwhelmed and unable to provide what the law mandates it must.
None of what we’ve learned is earth-shattering, nor is it any sort of magic key to unlock a system that may not be functioning properly. I hope I do not come off as preaching, for that is not my intention. We KNOW how lucky we are, and we wish everyone else could say the same. But we also know that these steps have helped us get the most out of our educational system. It is my sincere hope that many of you have found the same to be true.