Ryan’s IEP was Monday. Veronica baked. We picked up a Box of Joe from Dunkin’ Donuts. And we arrived armed with Veronica’s notes, and prepared for the first time to resist the removal of services, and to look deeper into the future than we’d ever been comfortable doing.
These meetings have gotten easier over the years, as we have learned what to expect and to trust that the people in the room have our son’s best interests in mind. This one was less nerve-wracking because for the first time in three years, Ryan is not transitioning to a new school.
Ryan is in a general-ed setting, in a mixture of inclusion and regular-ed classes. He has an aide, whose primary job is to keep him organized, thereby reducing his anxiety, which we have learned is the primary obstacle to his academic success.
We heard from his teachers, which was the most enjoyable part of the meeting. They described the same child we know: One who tries his hardest, does the necessary work and is invested in his outcome. They also described the part we don’t see from home, and which Ryan does not describe for us. How he is an eager participant in class. How he works well in small groups with his fellow students.
His teachers recounted some funny stories, most of which we’d heard from Ryan. They revealed that they’ve learned something about hockey from him. We apologized for taking Ryan out of school to meet the San Jose Sharks, but the people in the room all agreed that the benefits of that day far outweighed the costs of a missed day of school.
We talked about his social challenges. How the lunch room is a struggle. Ryan has a genuine sensitivity to certain smells, and on those days he often takes refuge in the child study team room to eat. But it sounds as if he is stretching that reason to avoid potentially difficult social situations — namely, finding a group of kids to sit with at lunch.
If you’re like me, reading that last sentence probably takes you back to your own middle-school days, and those nervous, awkward moments, holding your lunch tray, wondering if the group of students you were about to approach would accept you. I know it does for me. So I’m not surprised to hear Ryan is trying to avoid these situations. I find it perfectly natural, and a sign of his growing self-awareness.
We discussed strategies for helping him integrate in social situations. For putting the various skills he practices at the group he attends to use. For finding common ground with his peers on which the seeds of a conversation can be planted.
After the teachers, aide, and counselor left, it was just us with the case manager, and time to go over the plan for the following year. Both Veronica and I were prepared for what was coming. We have worked with the case manager to help foster Ryan’s independence. Ryan has said, bluntly, that he does not want an aide any longer and we want to respect that wish. But we have to balance it against the potential for increased anxiety to become a paralyzing issue. Ryan is on a schedule where he alone is responsible for recording his assignments on certain days of the week. On other days, the aide assists.
So far, this transition has gone well. We’ve yet to have a day where he arrived home and discovered he didn’t know his homework, setting off a panic. The end goal, of course, is to make him independent.
The draft of next year’s IEP did not include an aide. Veronica and I came to the meeting knowing this was likely. We were OK with it, provided there was added support in each classroom to keep an eye on things. Since most of his classes are inclusion, with an extra teacher in the room, the issue was the few remaining subjects.
We compromised. We did not fight for an aide in the IEP, but we did ask, and receive, that there would be an extra support person (an aide, substitute, or second teacher) in each of his classrooms. We agreed to revisit the topic early next school year.
For us, and even for Ryan, the aide is comfort. It makes things easier. But we believe this is the right course. Our son has told us so. His teachers agree. His aides have pulled back their interventions with him for a couple of years now. If he is to take the next step towards independence, it’s time.
There was one more subject we came to discuss in the meeting. For the first time, Veronica and I were ready to raise the topic of what comes next, as in “after high school.” That is still five years off, but for us to be ready to talk about it was a big step — for us. We try to focus on the more immediate future, but in a recent conversation we both agreed there was no reason college shouldn’t be the goal for someone like Ryan. With the proper support, and the ability to focus his studies on his areas of interest, we know Ryan can succeed.
Veronica brought it up at the end of the meeting. The case manager was ready. He included some of the language and steps for next year’s transition in the draft of the IEP and explained to us how the process is going to work. He also agreed with our assessment.
We were in the meeting for close to 2 1/2 hours. For the first time I can recall, there were no tears shed. These people have invested in Ryan’s future and helped him take the next steps in his education and future independence. They care about his outcome. They want him to succeed. We are incredibly grateful to live in a district that takes such a positive approach to special education, and we know that many people are not so lucky.
IEP day is never something we’re going to look forward to, but as I said at the beginning, they’re getting easier. As I’ve written about many times, this is a journey, and our outlook and mindset is vastly different from when we began this process with a very nervous three-year old on the first day of special needs preschool.
So many people have played a role in Ryan’s successes since then. We still have trying moments, bad days, and lots of fears, but the support system that has been put in place has made the educational experience a positive one for Ryan. He likes going to school. Of all the things I’m grateful for, there is perhaps none more than that.