Tag Archives: IEP

The Dreaded IEP Meeting

Those annual IEP (Individualized Education Plans) meetings all parents of children with “special needs” attend are something I used to dread.  Meant to ensure our children are given the supports and accommodations they need, I went to our first meeting with eager anticipation.  This was where, I thought, we would be able to work with a team of people all of whom had the same goal for our child – getting and giving her the best supports and accommodations available so that she could flourish.

What quickly became apparent however was that this was when her team would write a series of bullet points describing all that was wrong with her.  All the ways in which she fell short, all the ways she demonstrated how incapable she was, were described in detail, documented and added to her growing file.  This was the time, once a year, when I would sit and listen to that itemization, fighting back my tears.  The few things said during that first IEP meeting that were supposedly positive regarding spoken language, were written as a criticism, “…uses gestures to whine or protest.  She is described as shouting or vocalizing to gain attention.”   I would leave these meetings feeling hopeless and filled with the sort of despair I described in yesterday’s post, Dare to Hope.

Today, almost ten years after that first IEP was written, Emma writes by pointing to letters on a letter board and more recently with both her RPM teacher and me, she is typing on a bluetooth keyboard attached to an iPad.  No one touches her as she writes.  Emma has written before about the words that come out of her mouth.  I will quote her, since the way she describes what happens to her when she speaks is far more descriptive and eloquent than anything I might write.  Emma wrote yesterday in her IEP meeting, “I try to talk, but the words just come out wrong.”  A few months ago she wrote how she wished people would, “listen to my writing voice, but they listen to my talking voice instead.”

As always, I asked Emma if I could write this post about her first IEP, as an example of the assumptions made and how far off we were in our thinking as well as a document for those of you who are at the beginning of all of this.  Emma generously agreed that this was a good idea and wrote, “know that just because a kid doesn’t talk or talks like me, doesn’t mean the words that come out are the same words that are in their mind.”  Regarding her so-called “behaviors” which Emma describes as a body/mind disconnection, she wrote,”I hope to better control my misbehaving body, but sometimes it won’t obey.”

A few weeks ago I asked Emma if she could remember when she was very young.  She wrote, “Yes, my body could not behave because I was not able to cope… too many competing sensations.  I couldn’t make sense of everything that did not connect me with my irritable body.”  Now keeping her words in mind, read these words taken from her IEP, dated 2005 (Emma was three years old):

Emma avoids “looking others in the eye, does not answer when people talk to her, does not get along with other children, seems unresponsive to affection and shows little affection towards people, withdrawn…”

“The skills that she does not show evidence of include:  does not yet engage in make believe play, does not yet match objects, complete interlocking puzzles, repeat digit sequences, identify body parts or show understanding of number concepts.  She does not yet point to body parts, clothing items, prepositional commands, or know size.  She does not participate in story telling or give her full name or use pronouns… and shows limited interest in other children.”

The report goes on to say:

  “She does not vocalize when another person calls her name.  She produces a variety of consonant sounds.”

When I read Emma’s words and the way she describes some of what was going on for her and compare her words to the words written on her IEP, it is impossible not to see the massive disconnect between what was actually going on and what all of us assumed was going on.  It is from those assumptions that her goals were then created.  Goals such as:  “Emma will increase communicative intent via word and/or gesture to consistently request object article/toy/food (8/10) trials.”  “Emma will maintain eye contact and prompt (8/10) trials.” “Emma will use at least 10 objects functionally, 4/5x”  “Emma will imitate 1-2 word utterances during play, 4/5x” the list goes on, but the goals are all either regarding compliance and/or acting according to non autistic standards of behavior using spoken language.

In contrast, yesterday we went to Emma’s IEP meeting with Emma, who contributed her own thoughts and opinions about the goals that were set by writing on the keyboard I held for her.   At one point she wrote, “it’s very good having time to go over goals.”  And when asked about the efficacy of being asked to use a mood chart, she wrote, “Sometimes I feel many things at once.  Would the mood chart work for you?”

Can I just say how proud I am that my daughter asked this question?  And by the way – No, Emma, being asked to chart my moods or anticipate what my mood might be would not work for me.  I think it would actually really piss me off if I was asked, while feeling both upset, sad, frustrated, maybe a little frightened and annoyed  to use one word to describe what I was feeling and then was asked, “What’s wrong?” when I could not rely on spoken language to adequately express myself and no one could support me in the way I needed, so that I could write either.

What was wonderful about yesterday’s IEP meeting was that her staff is dedicated and completely committed to listening to Emma and learning from her what it is that she needs and wants.  Everyone was kind, thoughtful and patient and in the end we have an IEP that reflects our goals for Emma, but more importantly it is a reflection of her goals for herself.

Emma the year before that first IEP

Emma ~ 2004, the year before that first IEP


Dare to Hope

Trigger Warning:  Parental despair

Five years ago I was in a bad, bad place.  Life felt unbearable.  The future loomed ahead shrouded in fear.  I could not imagine a life that was not bleak and filled with pain.  There were times when I could not bear the thought of another day.  There were times when I felt it was all too much.  People would make kind suggestions, but none of their words made sense to me.  I was sinking and saw no light.  I thought it was because of my specific circumstances.  I thought it was because I was the parent of a child who, I was told, couldn’t and didn’t understand most of what was said to her.  I was told she couldn’t comprehend this world.  I was told concepts like less and more, time, currency were beyond her ability to grasp.  I was told she was in her own world.  Despite all the years of therapy, there was no hope of her being mainstreamed, she did not make the sorts of leaps forward that other people’s children  had.

I blamed myself, I blamed my husband, I blamed the environment, I blamed my father, I blamed…  There were so many things to blame, but all it did was leave me bereft, empty, and in the middle of the night I would lie awake and cry.  I cried for myself, but I also cried for my child.  I loved my child.  I ached for my child and what seemed to be her inevitable future.  Along with the ache for what might have been, but was not, was the sad, dark, bleak despair that seeped into every aspect of my being.  I had fantasies of “heading north”.  I would smile weakly at my husband and joke, as I gathered my wallet and keys for a quick trip to buy milk at the grocery store, “I may not be back.”  Richard would grin and maybe we would even chuckle, but there was a part of me that wasn’t laughing.  There was a part of me that meant it.  I wanted to leave all that pain behind me.

There are those reading this who will cringe at this description.  There are those who will judge me and what I once felt.  There are those who will point out how self involved all of this sounds.  They will say, but how could you not see that what you were feeling was affecting your child?  There are parents who have children just like mine who never felt what I’ve described, who will not be able to understand or relate, who will read my words and shake their heads in horror.  I understand those responses too, because now, I catch myself feeling those feelings too.

My daughter has defied everyone’s expectations, including ours.  She is writing now.

She is writing such incredible words.  Sometimes a sentence may take her five minutes to construct.  I would cheerfully sit for thirty minutes or however long it takes for her to express herself.  Parents hear about my daughter and they say, “Ah, but my child isn’t like that.”  And so I ask, “How do you know?”  Parents say, “I know my kid.  He/she isn’t able to understand.”  I once believed that too.  And so again I ask, “How do you know?”  Parents say, “I know my child better than anyone.”  I once said this as well.  I thought I knew.  I believed what others told me.  She would laugh and then run full force into a cement wall, using her head as a batting ram.  We would get the dreaded phone calls from her school.  All those doctors, therapists and teachers, all those IEPs where she was described as unable, incapable – “Emma is unable to decipher simple text.”  “She does not know the value of a penny.”   “We will continue to work on sight words.”

Today my daughter is enlightening me.  If you want to know more, read “How We Got Here“.  Just the other day Emma wrote, in response to an incident at school, “You must remember how stressful it is not being able to tell anyone my silent screams of disconnection.”  Her school is now trying to learn RPM so that she can write with them too.

I cried when she wrote that.  I cried because I didn’t know until recently.  I cried for all the years when she had no way of telling us.  I cried for all the times I didn’t believe.  I cried for all the children who are just like her, right now, who cannot tell anyone about their silent screams.  I cried for every single parent who has ever felt the way I once did.  I cried for every single child of those parents and for all the times I heard about a child who was writing to communicate, just as my daughter is now, and how I didn’t believe she would be one of them.  I cried for all the times I heard about an Autistic child or adult and consoled myself by saying, “they are an anomaly.”  I didn’t dare hope that one day my daughter might be writing the things she now writes.  I didn’t dare hope, it hurt too much.

To the parents who feel overwhelmed with fear and despair  – I was once just like you.  Had I found a secret online group of parents feeling and talking the way I once did, I would have joined in an instant.  I’m grateful now that I didn’t find such a group because there’s another way.  I found another way, but not before making many, many more mistakes.  This blog documents a number of the mistakes I’ve made over the years, but not all of them.

If there’s one thing I want to say, it’s please, dare to hope.  Without that we are all lost.

*As always, I asked Emma for her permission to publish this post.

Wretches and Jabberers
Mark Utter’s I am in here

Ido Kedar’s book:  Ido in Autismland
Non-speaking Autistic blogs, many of which can be found on The Resources Page on this blog.

Emma getting ready to write

Emma getting ready to write

A Witness to Her Own IEP Meeting

This morning we went to Em’s IEP meeting…  with Emma.  I wrote about this ‘here‘ last week.  It was the first time we’ve done this and while Em chose not to add any goals when asked at several points during the meeting, she did express interest in speaking with me during our typing session together, later.  So I intend to talk with her about what was covered and see what she might like to add or discuss.  Most importantly, she was there to witness and hear the thoughts others have regarding her academic goals for the coming year.

At one point she began parroting every word I said.  It was like being in an echo chamber.  I looked over at her and it reminded me of when I was a kid and my siblings and I would do this to make each other laugh.  I do not believe this was the reason Em was doing this however.   Both Richard and I felt she was trying hard to show that she was listening and an active participant.   A few times when one of us directly asked her  whether she agreed or had anything to add she scripted, “Bertie kitty!  You have to get off the table.”  Or some other equally, (seemingly) unrelated script about my old cat who died five years ago.  I kept reminding myself that Em’s language default is a set of scripts.  The scripts may or may not be related to the conversation, but are most definitely an indication of intent and interest in being part of the conversation.

For almost an hour Em sat in her favorite chair during the meeting.  Not once did she try to get up and go somewhere else.  Not once did she indicate she wanted to leave.  Not once did she say anything to show upset or stress.  I was proud of her.  And I was glad she was there, not because she added any specific goals to the IEP, she did not, but because she was present and witness to a conversation regarding the coming year’s goals for her.   And her presence matters and changes the conversation, even if just slightly, it makes a difference.  As Richard and I continue to move forward in our journey to give our daughter the tools she needs to help us help her, this is an important first step.  I had no expectations going into this meeting regarding her input.  I had no idea what would happen or if she would want to leave.  All I knew was that I gave her the choice to come or to stay with her class and she asked to be present.  So she was and for that I am very grateful.

More will be revealed…

What the BOE and Preppers Have in Common

Today is our IEP meeting with the BOE.  Perhaps the only organization using more acronyms than the BOE (Board Of Education) are Survivalists.  How and why do I even know about such a group, you might ask?  Because my husband, in his thorough research for his almost finished YA novel (it is so good, so wonderfully written, so exciting, it will turn YA literature on its head) has told me all about them.  Survivalists or Preppers as they are also known, are preparing for the worst.  Don’t ask me anything more because that is the extent of my knowledge regarding Survivalists.  However I am a bit chagrined that the name “Survivalist” has been taken by this group as it seems an appropriate name for our children on the spectrum, though if they rejected it, I suggest we parents adopt it.

But I digress… this afternoon we have to go to the BOE and meet with three or four members of their staff to go over Emma’s IEP (individualized education program) mandated by the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  The point of the IEP is to help teachers and related service providers understand the specific issues, challenges and strengths of each specific child, with specific written goals for each and every child with a disability.

This is how the NYC DOE (Department Of Education) describes the IEP: “An Individualized Educational Program (IEP) describes the special education and related services specifically designed to meet the unique educational needs of a student with a disability. An IEP is the guiding document for a student’s educational program. It includes all of the goals, objectives, present levels of performance and related services that are recommended for the student.”

The first time I went to such a meeting, I was very excited, assumed the BOE cared about my daughter and her educational needs, wanted what was best for her, would urge for the best possible services, would work with me to get those services, suggest the most appropriate placements, write up a detailed and suitable IEP for her, etc.  To say that I was disappointed does not in any way express what actually transpired.  I left that first meeting surprised by my naivety, realized that of course this was a huge bureaucracy, bound by law to write an IEP, underfunded, understaffed doing the best they could with limited resources in a very imperfect world.  In addition to all of that, one sits at an oval table with complete strangers most of whom have never met Emma.  One person at the meeting will have done an assessment of Emma for 30 minutes, several months earlier.  Emma will have been one of hundreds of children they saw.  From that 30 minute “assessment” a report will have been written and all parties from the BOE will have that report in front of them, which they will refer to during our meeting.  This is a sample from last year’s report:  “Emma is minimally verbal, spoke in single word utterances, or short, attenuated sentences for the most part, was able to repeat simple phrases heard, and was echolalic.”

When I read that report last year, not only did I not recognize Emma, but I wept for this child that I did not know.

During the IEP meeting the staff from the BOE will not use the words “sensory issues” in fact, the word “sensory” will not be uttered in any context.  Nothing will be mentioned about the necessity of having a sensory diet, that in order to focus and attend to academic work Emma will need certain sensory supports.  Richard and I will mention these things.  We will insist that they be included in her IEP.  We will go on at length regarding her need to be allowed a break so that she can move between tasks, we will insist that a compression vest, a slanted writing board and various other sensory aids be added to the report.  To be blunt – we will be a pain in the BOE’s ass.  They will be relieved to see us leave.  This is not our intention.  Our intention, our sole purpose during this meeting is to ensure an accurate and appropriate set of goals are written for our daughter.  Even if no one from the BOE ever reads them again until our next meeting next year, we will leave knowing that we did our best for our daughter.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book

I Believe…

Every year we have a meeting with the Board of Education aka BOE.  Yesterday morning was our scheduled meeting time, but because Richard has been ill, I went alone.  I do not look forward to these yearly meetings.  And as yesterday morning got off to a bumpy start I was doing my best to bolster myself for what I knew was going to be an emotionally  difficult time.  They always are.  It is at these yearly meetings when we go over Emma’s IEP (Individualized Education Program).  Each year the BOE sends someone from their department into Emma’s classroom to observe her for a half an hour.  From that observation, a report is written, almost always a report we read with dread.  It’s not that they are unreasonable or unfair, though sometimes Emma is unrecognizable, it’s that they are stripped down to the basics.

A sample from one of these reports:  “Emma came down from the cabinet and lay down on a rug.  At 9:07, she remained lying on the rug.  At 9:08, she went out of the classroom and came back barefooted with a plastic box.  A teacher assistant showed her two bottles of paint.  She said, “no” loudly…”  The report goes on to depict a low functioning autistic child (Emma) who is somewhat responsive to the teacher’s assistant, at times non-compliant and with almost no verbal language.

This year Emma was also assessed by a psychologist sent from the BOE.  This report was even more troubling: “Emma is minimally verbal, spoke in single word utterances, or short, attenuated sentences for the most part, was able to repeat simple phrases heard, and was echolalic.”  The report goes on:  “Emma was able to hold a pencil somewhat awkwardly and make a scribble, or simple circular motion.  She was unable to copy simple vertical and horizontal lines, or any simple recognizable geometrical designs.”

As her mother it is difficult to read these reports.  I look at my daughter, my beautiful, funny, athletic Emma and I see her potential.  I choose to believe she is capable of so much.  I choose to believe she understands so much more than she appears to.  I choose to believe she will one day read and write.  I choose to believe one day she will communicate with us.  She will tell us what it’s like for her.   I choose to believe these things because to do otherwise is not a life I want to live.  But when I am confronted with reports such as the ones I’ve quoted from, it makes me question, even if for only a moment these choices, these so called beliefs of mine.  What if I’m wrong?  A question I always follow with – what does it matter if I’m wrong?  Because if I’m wrong, I won’t find out until I’m very old or will never know because I’ll be dead. I will always choose to believe I’m right about Emma.  I have to.  All the work we do with her every single day is because I believe in her abilities.  I believe she can do more.  I believe she is capable of so much.  When I tell her we have to do yet another reading exercise or writing exercise I am doing so because I believe she can.  When I read to her about Harriet Tubman or Helen Keller or Balto or the discovery of King Tut’s tomb,  I believe she is taking it all in.  When I ask her if I should keep reading and her answer is always – yes – I take that as confirmation of my beliefs.  I know I am making a choice.  I know my decision to believe these things are based on very little, but never-the-less I believe.

I believe in Emma.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and my journey in parenting an autistic child, go to:  EmmasHopeBook.com

Emma waiting for her school bus this morning