How Do I View IEP's as a Former Special Education Student?
For many families affected by a disability, an education can often be a scary view for the student being educated. The fact that he or she is going to be around other students, teachers and people that they don’t even know is enough for unending anxiety.
Believe me, I have been down that path already and yet, with the support I got, I managed to survive 12 years of a required education and it was all thanks to a group effort combination of my family and the school district of Seekonk Public Schools that was part of an Individual Educational Plan otherwise known as an IEP. It was also thanks to this IEP that I ended up becoming the first neurodiverse student in the town of Seekonk to have completed Pre-K through Grade 12 without coming from other towns or school districts.
In the 1990’s and 2000’s when I was on an IEP, neurodiverse conditions like autism were very rare. At the time I was diagnosed in December 1990, autism was a 1 in 10,000 diagnosis compared to the 1 in 44 diagnosis in 2022. Yes, there were other students around me that were also placed on an IEP, but they either had learning disabilities or other conditions that required an IEP.
But the fact of the matter is that in today’s day and age, a lot of families would much rather hide under a rock than face the reality of the student’s education. Some families would much rather have the child hide his or her disability from the outside world because it affects their own social standing as a whole. You could be in a well respected family who has a future mapped out for you and then this comes along and all you want to do is run and hide from the situation.
If there is one thing that I have learned greatly is that you have to be flexible in order to survive in today’s world. If you are going to be rigid, you are not only damaging yourself as a whole, but also you are damaging those around you and that includes the child.
Of course, all this rests on one area, the IEP meeting itself. IEP meetings are that gathering place consisting of the family, the child’s school teachers, the building principal, psychologist, etc. Every single individual in the IEP group must play a part in the success of the child’s education.
Eventually, there will come a time where the student will be included in the IEP meeting and have a say in how his or her education will go. I didn’t start attending IEP meetings until I was in 8th grade, but there are some families that want their children to attend IEP meetings as early as kindergarten. Some of the reasoning is that the child may not fully understand what is happening and maybe that’s why I didn’t attend my meetings until I was in 8th grade to begin with. Once I got to the point where I could attend my IEP meetings, I had a full understanding of what was to be expected.
Top Tip for IEP Meetings
A tip that I can offer to parents and guardians who are seeking an IEP either by their own decision or the recommendation of medical professionals such as a psychiatrist or psychologist is that when it comes to IEP meetings, it’s always important to not dread the meeting and to just accept things as they come. What’s more is that both sides are not going to get what they want and it’s always a good idea to come to a compromise.
For example, you can have a student who finds assemblies and large school gatherings such as lunches bothersome. Of course, you aren’t going to get everything you want because some of these gatherings and assemblies are important for the student, such as information for graduation from high school. Maybe pick an area of the gathering site, such as auditorium or gymnasium that the student can escape from if they get overwhelmed.
That could be a way of saying that you are willing to compromise to what the school wants if they are going to give you what you want.
Questions for an IEP meeting
It may also help to ask a series of questions before, during and after the meeting. Not too long ago, a colleague of mine and I created a presentation about IEPs since we were both on them during our respective educations. The questions we put in included:
What is the goal of the meeting?
How about an agenda?
Can I have a copy of my child’s recent document to follow along as we talk in the meeting?
How does everyone know my child?
Who works with my child?
How much progress is my child making?
Can you see how my child is acting from other students in the classroom?
How can I contact you outside of IEP meetings (email, phone number, etc)?
What can I do at home to support my child’s goals?
When will be the next IEP meeting? (It’s important to schedule the next meeting at the conclusion of the current meeting.
Will my child stick to any implements that are put in place at the IEP meeting?
Sadly though, a lot of special education students don’t have the support that they desperately need either because the schools want nothing to do with their special needs or that the family is in denial that their child needs special education services. Unfortunately, this is sadly the case in some private schools or public colleges that may not have the services needed for the student.
Case in point?
In the spring of 2007, just before I graduated high school, my folks and I went to Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island and I would have gone to pursue a career in tourism and hospitality services had it not been for the fact that Johnson and Wales does not have a special education department. Of course, I didn’t end up going nor did I pursue a degree in tourism and hospitality services. But for those that want to pursue a college education, it’s always a good idea to check with the college or university and see if they have a special education department as well as if they accept IEPs.
Fortunately, there are some schools and colleges that do have a special education support system such as Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts and Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Some of these support systems offer services such as academic coaching and tutoring to help the student succeed after they get out of high school.
It may also be a good idea for the IEP team to sit down during the student’s junior or senior year of high school to map out what schools that both the team and the student feel is best suited for both sides. In addition to what schools are best suited, the team must also consider tuition costs and student loans, whether or not the student is best prepared for the riggers of college life.
Would I have jumped at the chance for a college education with a support system? Well, if I felt like pursuing a college education, I would have. But, if I had pursued a college education, I would never have had the time to focus on being a self-advocate and public speaker.
In conclusion, being on an IEP should be viewed more as an asset than a liability, but it’s up to the family and the student as well as the school to ensure that an IEP is successful in the long run. IEPs are a team effort and can only be done if both sides work together.
IEPs worked for me and it can certainly work for you.
By Jeff Snyder, Autism/Neurodiversity Self-Advocate and Public Speaker