The setting: A cramped room in a local school building.
The cast: You, teachers, school therapists, the principal, other vaguely familiar faces, and many unknowns.
The mood: Dependent upon whom you ask. For you, the parent: Tense.
The plot: A yearly Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting for your son or daughter.
For most of you with a child on the autism spectrum, this scene is all too familiar. The yearly IEP meeting reviews the past and projects the future. The meeting is filled with terminology and numbers that are often a code to be cracked. Your parents’ rights handbook wallpapers your basement (or a landfill) but does not help you understand. You want to advocate for your son or daughter, but how? It’s like speaking Greek in France. As a parent, you are part of the team that develops the IEP that sets the course for your child’s academic year. I have many parents who should star in this play but take a supporting role. Taciturn, they sign the document and wait for the next year.
The question looms: Should you, the parents, utilize a secret weapon – a familiar face to you and an unknown to them? This question is posed to me more frequently without the dramatics: Should you/will you attend our child’s IEP meeting? The reality is that such a decision is not a simple one and here are some considerations:
· Carefully consider who you ask to attend. This person should have knowledge of the code of IEP-speak and your child and family. He or she should be able to review an IEP and provide you feedback before the IEP meeting ever occurs. This feedback will help you understand the issues that will be addressed.
· Make sure you have communicated your concerns and desires to your third party participant and that you have a sense that he/she is willing to help you communicate these concerns in a professional and respectful manner.
· Think about the purpose for involving this person. Lawyers and advocates are often utilized to “scare” the school, to provide knowledge on legal jargon, and to know “what’s possible.” Therapists provide an “authoritative” view on your child. In the end, it often seems that third-party participants successfully communicate what parents have unsuccessfully said.
· Don’t view your third-party participant as a secret weapon. Ideally, he or she should be known to the team from previous contact about the child with a positive, trusting relationship developed. I work heavily with many of my clients’ teams to communicate what I am working on and to help them problem solve. Such an approach allows me to be a valued part of the team.
You have the right to be accompanied by a third-party participant to the IEP meeting. Hopefully, in doing so, you will augment the quality of the IEP, improve communication amongst the team, and, most importantly, positively impact your child’s education. After all, the goal is for everyone to be on your son or daughter’s team. Three’s a crowd only when competition exists.