Autism Series – School

by beagooddad on July 12, 2007

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autism school Pookie is only 4 1/2 years old, but already has 1 1/2 years of preschool under his belt. The preschool has been provided through the public schools because he fits the special needs requirements that mandate that the education must be available.

We have been through 2 IEPs and have already learned a thing or two about how important school is to an autistic child and how important it is for us to be active in that education process.

Teaching your kid to like school

Before sending Pookie off to the cold, unfamiliar classroom, we spent a few weeks playing pretend school. We bought some preschool workbooks and some flash cards. He would sit at this old fashioned school desk and we would pretend to be the teacher. We constantly mentioned that we were playing school and I was the teacher so that he would get familiar with the words and familiar with his role of listening to what the teacher said and sitting in one spot.

Most schools have an open house a couple weeks before classes start. Take advantage of it. Pookie was able to meet his teacher, walk through the halls, see the classroom and play with some of the toys. I’m sure that it helped alleviate some of the first day jitters when he recognized the room and strange lady telling him, “Hello.”

To this day, we ask him about school every day when he gets off the bus. Every night before bed, we remind him that he is going to school the next day. We have his backpack hanging by the door and have a morning routine that ends with him getting the backpack and going outside with mom or the babysitter (my mom) to wait for the bus.

Pookie has had a great teacher, but I think some of the prep work that we have in place has helped him learn to enjoy going to school.

Working with the teachers

Pookie is in an entirely special education classroom. There are normally between 4-10 kids and 1 main teacher, 1 assistant, and sometimes an aide depending on the time of year.

Every time there is an extra curricular event, we make sure that at least one of us goes. This is a great time to meet the teachers and talk about techniques they are trying in the classroom and we are trying at home.

His teacher has done a great job of trying things that we ask her about, but she is definitely not shy about teaching us things that she is using in class. We have learned many great things about how to get Pookie to communicate better and interact better in social situations. She has also been able to hear things that Pookie says in the classroom and make little comments about ways we can phrase questions differently to get better responses. She has spent many years studying how to teach special needs children so we pay attention to what she has to say.

Just as importantly, she gets to see firsthand how we talk to Pookie. Almost every time we see the attend one of these events, she says, “That’s where that comes from” about some phrase that Pookie is using that doesn’t really make sense unless you know the source. These little things give her a better opportunity to tailor her interactions more specifically for Pookie.

The biggest benefit of attending the special events is that the teachers learn very quickly which parents are willing to go out of their way for their kid. Parents that show up at the open houses are probably more aggressive about pushing for getting the services their child needs, especially if you ask questions like, “So, what kind of services do you think Pookie really needs this summer.”

We talked to Pookie’s teacher early in the school year about our desire to have Pookie in summer school this year to avoid regressions. She told us to make sure that we documented any regressions at all that happened over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break. When we had the IEP meeting, in addition to our documentation, she also provided her own showing regressions that Pookie experienced during the breaks. Getting extended school year was a slam dunk with that documentation.

Knowing your child’s rights

I am not an expert. Before his IEP this year, we spent a Saturday attending a seminar provided by the state agency that explained at a very quick glance the rights that autistic children and other special needs children are guaranteed.

The best place to start getting information is the U.S. Department of Education’s IDEA website. IDEA stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Everything that the federal government requires the school districts to provide can probably be found there.

The most important thing we learned during that one day seminar is that public schools in the United States must come up with an Individualized Education Program for each child covered under IDEA.

This means that the public schools are not allowed to say, we can only provide three weeks of summer school for your kid because that is what everybody in the district gets. The is not an plan that takes into account an individual child’s needs.

The school district offered Pookie something that was going to amount to 3 1/2 weeks of summer school. We asked “Why?” We got that exact answer above. That is what everybody in the district gets. We politely told them that they were not legally allowed to offer blanket educational services for people covered by IDEA. We sent the school district a letter explaining why we were not accepting what they were offering, what we wanted and why and included the regressions over the short breaks during the school year that were documented in his IEP.

This was the other important lesson we learned at the meeting. Nothing is real unless it is in writing. Always get anything that the school district promises in writing. Make sure that anything you send to the school district is sent certified mail so that you can get the acknowledgment that they received it.

We sent our letter to the school district and they immediately changed the offer to the 3 1/2 they originally offered plus an extra 3 weeks of in house 1 on 1. Plus, his teacher was able to get him into a one week session where they train the teachers. So in the end, we ended up with Pookie in some kind of school environment for most of the summer simply by knowing that we didn’t have to accept their generic offer for summer school.

Controlling the IEP

IEP meetings are rough. If everything goes well, you are probably going to hear some things about your child that you don’t want to hear. It is nice to think that everything is going to be fine and your autistic child is going to be one of the Temple Grandin’s or other independent, successful autistic adults. Things can get brought up during the IEP meeting that will challenge those dreams.

During our last IEP meeting, Pookie’s teacher recommended that he stay in the smaller classrooms instead of the larger classrooms. The smaller classrooms mean that Pookie needs more help. No parent wants to hear that. Especially when they talk about things like lack of communication, lack of social play and whatever lack of they can think of.

I have two thoughts from the couple IEPs that we have been through.

  1. When the teacher starts talking about the “lack of” type of things at the IEP meeting, she is providing the exact type of information that you are going to need to get the services that your child needs. The more things they mention during the meeting, the better chance your child is going to have to get the services that are going to give him the best chance of becoming as independent and successful as possible as an adult.
  2. Stay focused. Know what you want for the next year going into the meeting. Write it down. No matter what happens, fight for those things you want. Stay polite, but do not let your emotions cause you to forget what you want for your child.

One thing that we are still learning about the IEP meetings is how much of what happens over the next year is tied to that meeting. Things like how many hours per week with the speech therapist and occupational therapist will be inked in during this meeting. Do not walk out of that meeting without knowing what those recommendations are. If you think it is too much or too little, you need to bring it up during the meeting.

This includes any summer school plans that you want to make. During the seminar that we went to, a set of parents were asking about why their son could not get bussed to summer school. The instructor said that since bussing was not provided for that kid during the school year, that it would not need to be provided during summer school. If he had been bussed during the normal school year, they would have been required to bus him to summer school (which was held at a different school in their case). She pointed out that any special circumstances like that need to be documented in the IEP.

Final Thoughts

Working with state and federal organizations can be a pain but remember that most of the teachers only want to help your kid and will do anything in their power to do so. Do not become confrontational with them without very good cause. These are the same people that are willing to spend part of their already too small salary to buy more construction paper and glue so that your kid can do art projects. You want people like that on your side when you have to deal with the rest of the system.

I know several of you have kids in special education and/or blended classrooms and have gone through IEP meetings. What other advice would you give to parents new to all of this?

Tomorrow we are going to talk about making sure your child gets the most out of activities away from home. For a full list of everything planned for this series on autism, the topics and links for the post already written can be found on the intro post.

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