The moment your child receives a neurological diagnosis of any form, your life as a parent pivots in an instant. Whether it’s autism, SPD, OCD, selective mutism, epilepsy, CF or another condition, the term IEP is one you’ll be expected to immediately absorb. It’s a word nestled alongside your child’s diagnosis and is the legal document which, by law, states all the services your child is eligible to receive. This Individualized Education Plan (IEP) serves as your child’s protection of their right to the least restrictive environment to learn within the maximum extent it is appropriate to receive public education.
ADVOCATE FOR YOUR CHILD
Did you just feel the collective new special needs parent group go, “wait, what was that?” Reread that a few more times and I believe it will resonate positively with most parents of children with special needs. Your job as your child’s biggest advocate is to make sure this document harnesses all the services needed for your kid to learn and to thrive in their own specific, neurodiverse way.
In New Jersey, your child is eligible to receive an IEP when they turn 3. This will include an intake of information, diagnosis documentation and most likely an initial consultation to gather the IEP team through your public school district. If you’ve used NJ’s Early Intervention program before your child’s third birthday, your point person through Early Intervention can steer you to the appropriate contact. This IEP team generally includes a case manager (your direct contact to the school district), a school psychologist, a general education teacher and any/all related service providers, which generally includes occupational and speech therapists. From there, each provider will schedule and evaluate your child’s needs to then be put into the IEP and used as a compass for their school year. From the first IEP meeting through the evaluations and observations, I highly recommend recording the sessions.
KEEP NOTES FOR REFERENCE
“It is always a good idea to record the meeting,” says Lori Arons, a special education lawyer based in Hackensack. “An accurate account of exactly what transpired can be helpful in a variety of ways. Simply saying, ‘I am recording the meeting’ before the meeting starts is sufficient notice under the law.” Let the simplicity of this guidance carry you through and allow you to feel empowered under the law for your child. Those recordings can act on your behalf for legal purposes as well as for personal reference notes. As a parent, you are the advocacy navigation captain and knowing what was offered and discussed at any and all IEP meetings is going to pay dividends for your child as the school year marches on.
TAKE IN LESSONS LEARNED FROM LOCKDOWN
And to prove its legal strength, an IEP will in fact survive a global pandemic. Zoom conference calls have become second nature to those of us who have already gone through the process, but if you have not, do not fear. All of the same practitioners will attend your IEP Zoom call and stay tracked and charged with completing the IEP in the same official manner.
Whatever your child’s school setting looks like, whether in a self-contained ABA classroom or if your child’s speech therapist is out of district, COVID has certainly changed the way we’ve educated all children across the board. I’ve found that within the structured parameters of Zoom therapies comes an immense adjustment for all, yet there is strength and lessons to be learned – that even our most regimented, routine-based kids can thrive. My daughter Milly, age 6, is on the autism spectrum and I’ve been able to witness a variety of virtual therapy sessions during this unprecedented time. It’s given me a birds-eye view in some capacities that, had we not all been in lockdown, I would have completely missed out on the opportunity to witness firsthand. It also gave me a clear look as to which therapists were having the greatest impact and bond with my daughter. That alone was an eye-opening experience.
SPEAK UP AND TRUST YOUR GUT
In some ways, our lockdown, all-virtual IEP follow-up meetings and therapies gave me valuable time to pause and trust my gut when it came to my advocacy for her services. I was able to see how certain therapists positively pushed her to learn as well as take note of ones that were not working and causing unnecessary sensory meltdowns. Using that mindset given all the changes during COVID, I’m so happy to say my Milly has continued to thrive. Her IEP meeting in March went off without a hitch and I felt even more empowered in being able to have a closer view of her daily therapies and report back to the case manager where her strengths and weaknesses surfaced with much more motherly confidence. Let your voice be your greatest advocacy for your child. Speak up to the fullest extent you can in those IEP meetings as they will serve your child so very well.
Sarah Markle is a mom of three kids, two of which have non-verbal autism, and is fueled by coffee, red wine and her children’s laughter.