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Meeting Results

  • Posted on October 16, 2013 at 8:00 PM

The meeting was a success! There, I saved you some suspense. Now, let’s take a look at what made the meeting a success.

Unlike a typical IEP meeting, we didn’t spend a lot of time going over what we knew. We met, conversed cordially until everyone got there, and then dug right into the new data. The school psychologist was the one to collect the new data. I worked with a different psychologist with Willy, but this was someone new, someone not familiar with Alex and his interactions.

The pinching that she observed was consistent with the normal behaviors we’d seen before. In other words, Alex didn’t attack anyone, which is what he’d done to start this process. So, for the first part of the meeting we concentrated on strategies to address these typical behaviors with the hope of extinguishing them.

In other words, we followed the data we had and came up with solutions using that data to:

  1. Determine the additional data we needed.
  2. Use what we currently knew to re-address our strategies.

After listening to the input from a variety of the specialists present at the meeting, a new approach became clear in my mind:

  • We know that Alex engages in pinching at times of apparent disorder.
  • We know that Alex tends to target certain individuals and we speculate that this targeting is due to the specific, predictable responses he receives.
  • We also know that Alex needs copious amounts of positive sensory stimulation to stay regulated and that Alex responds negatively to normal classroom sensory stimulation (different sensory stimuli in each case).
  • We know that Alex now receives positive sensory stimulation in response to pinching and we speculate that this has reinforced the pinching behavior.

From this, we concluded that Alex craves more predictability than he is currently being provided with and that we could provide this predictability by increasing the structure in his school day. We also recognized that Alex’s attention span doesn’t last a full hour, so the structure we add needs to be a shorter cycle than the typical way the school segments time. We also wanted to provide Alex with more consistency, sufficient positive sensory stimulation, modeling of appropriate behaviors, and opportunities to improve his communication skills.

A two-fold approach resulted from these conclusions:

  1. We would create a repeating cycle of predictable events that Alex can rely on. The cycle will be flexible, both progressively and functionally. This means that the same cycle will be used throughout the day, regardless of what the academic or therapeutic expectations are. It also means that the cycle will expand and contract according to Alex’s needs. For example, he’ll have shorter periods of sensory stimulation and longer periods of academic work as needed.
  2. Staff schedules will be managed to provide Alex with consistent adult support, so that the same people will be made available to Alex from day to day.

These two approaches answered the question, “How are we going to provide what Alex needs while we shape the behaviors we want to see.”

These conclusions updated the behavioral intervention plan that we had been using to better meet Alex’s current needs. There was a celebratory atmosphere for a moment. We were confident and enthusiastic about our new solutions. But it seemed premature to me. We still needed a third component to break the current pattern, and we needed it to be something that could address the more extreme situations, should they reoccur, like the one that made this meeting so urgent.

The vice principal had been silent throughout the meeting. He was there as an authority of the school’s and he hadn’t contributed yet. It was at this moment, when we had determined two of the three components I felt were necessary, that he spoke up to remind everyone why we were here. His voice was like a dash of cold water on the team.

I wish I could quote him, because he spoke very well. He approved of our strategies, but reminded us that Alex lived in a larger environment that included people who would not be as understanding or appreciative of Alex’s unique needs. After the severity of the last incident and previous relatively minor incidents where Alex sought out strangers to pinch, his concern was that there could be potential blow-back and that the school had to demonstrate a level of responsiveness to this aggressive behavior that had not yet been addressed.

In short, he was the authority person reminding us of the big picture. At the same time, he asserted himself as a member of the team, as well, by reinforcing that he, personally, was sympathetic and appreciative of Alex. He also said something that suggested he is also the parent of a child with autism. The cumulative result was that, while he was supportive of the work we’d just done, he has a responsibility to ensure the safety and welfare of those Alex might hurt.

I respected his approach. He handled the situation well and successfully got us on a track that made it possible to address the serious concern that brought us to this meeting, even though we didn’t have any new data to use. Everyone seemed somewhat at a loss on how to go from here. Alex doesn’t really respond to traditional disciplinary action. Nobody really wanted the consequence to be Alex being sent home, both because it’s ineffective as a consequence (more of a reward than a punishment) and because it deprives Alex of school time for something he really doesn’t (to our knowledge) understand.

It was a difficult situation. It took me a while to express what I was thinking. As parents, we’d tried so many different discipline techniques and nothing had worked. Well, almost nothing. The one thing that had worked wasn’t something we really used on a regular basis. I tried it awhile back. It wasn’t planned. It was simply necessary. Occasionally, I would use it again when the situation warranted. Attacking someone for no apparent reason we could recognize seemed to warrant it.

Alex likes cars, especially when they are moving. When he was younger, he would walk out into the street to take a closer look if we didn’t catch him first. One time, I got to him just short of the street, took him back to the porch, and sat him down on our steps. With “hard hands,” I put his arms down and made him sit, watching the cars from the safety of the porch. It wasn’t so much a form of restraint as it was firm, authoritative physical contact. When he tried to get up, I said, “No. Stop. Danger.” Short, simple words that I knew he could understand. My face was stern. My voice was firm. It was the closest thing to discipline that ever worked with Alex. And I described it to them in as much detail as I could.

Together, we discussed ways to implement this technique in the classroom. What it would look like (like a time-out within the environment), what Alex’s response would be (yes, he would get angry), and what the result would be (Alex would calm down and would recognize that he had been stopped). We spent time discussing how it would work and recognized that it could be implemented right away.

We had the third and final component. That, along with increased data collection, will prepare us to meet again at the end of this month for his IEP. We’ll see how these strategies are working and we will fine-tune them with the new data we’re collecting. We’re optimistic.

Bringing Neurodiversity into the Classroom

  • Posted on November 17, 2009 at 10:42 PM

A little boy steps off the bus, confused by his unexpected surroundings.  This year—the year he starts kindergarten—the bus stops at the backdoor of a new school, instead of the front entrance of his neighborhood school, after a much longer bus ride.  Maybe he knows he’s being ushered into this new school through the backdoor, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he even knows the classroom he enters is segregated from his peers.  We assume he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t talk about it, because he can’t talk about it.  You see, this little boy is my own son, and he is autistic.  We assume he’s unaware that he’s being treated differently (not equally), but we can’t be sure.  Of one thing I am sure:  If he’s not aware of it now, he will be aware of it when he’s older, just like the many autistic adults speaking in favor of neurodiversity.

Unlike past forms of segregation, my son doesn’t spend his entire day in the special education room.  He visits the regular classroom and his peers are told that, even though he doesn’t stay in their room, he is part of their class.  He comes in with an aide who helps him participate.  Then, when it’s all too much, she takes him away.  The school system recognizes his educational needs differ from those of his peers and claims those needs cannot be met in a regular classroom.  I know my son’s needs are not met in a regular classroom, but does that really mean they cannot be?  I grew up learning that “different but equal” is not equal at all.  Sadly, that doesn’t apply to my children or others like them, because our society fails to recognize people with atypical neurological development as equals at all.

Some refer to this forced inequality as disabilism and see it manifested in pervasive ways throughout our society.  Disablism refers to the societal tendency to single out, exclude or mistreat people with impairments, because of those impairments.  Segregated classrooms for the cognitively disabled are only one example of disablism.  Disabilism is institutionalized into the public education system, in part, by the behavior of teachers, service providers, and administrators that Dr. Thomas Armstrong, an educator and author out of California, calls the disability discourse, which he described as “an institutionalized discourse consisting of specific words such as ‘disability’ ‘disorder’ ‘deficit’ and ‘dysfunction’ to describe the lives of these children.”  These societal behaviors shape the environment in which all of our children learn and grow.  Telling children a segregated child is part of their class, while well-intentioned, still fails to integrate that child into their class.

Unfortunately, the regular classroom is not only designed to exclude specific students from the learning environment it fails to include any child in the learning environment.  The public school system is designed to teach standardized curricula.  It is not designed to teach the individual students expected to learn that curricula.  Individual teachers can transform that environment into something special, but this ability is not a requirement for employment and often the resources to do so must be found outside the public school system.  This fundamental flaw is not the fault of individual teachers, principals, or school boards, but is built into the educational system itself.

Our children are unique with individual needs that can only be met when they are treated as people, instead of a homogenized group.  Our children do not come standardized.  Yet, our educational goals and the learning environment we create to meet those goals are standardized.  Our children get pushed through the system regardless of what they learn.  Unless, of course, their needs stand out so much that the system rejects them.  The child who does not and cannot fit the standardized mold is diverted into the special education system.  There, they face the unfortunate reality that they are not deemed equal in our society.  They are different, but not equal; and disabilism and the disability discourse shape their futures.

Neurodiversity is a two-fold concept that can change the public educational system for all children.  Neurodiversity refers to a civil rights movement crafted by autistics that seeks true equality for people with cognitive disorders and mental illnesses—founded on the belief that neurological differences are natural human variations and deserve the rights, accommodations, and acceptance any other human difference deserves.  Neurodiversity also recognizes that neurological development is not standardized.  Everyone develop unique neurological processes that should be recognized, respected, and facilitated.

Everyone is neurologically diverse.  Everyone has unique educational needs our education system fails to meet.  Instead of designing an education system that meets the individual needs of our children, we have designed an education system that meets societal needs for measurements, cost-control, and resource allocation.  Changes to IEP legislation that require recording strengths as well as needs, separating a grade into groups that study different levels of mathematics or reading, using inclusive language, and telling students that those segregated in the special education system are part of their class address surface issues.  But the problem goes much, much deeper.  Our education system is fundamentally flawed.  It does not meet, nor is it designed to meet, the needs of the students we wish to educate.

Our children deserve an education system designed to meet their individual learning needs.  Our children deserve a learning environment that teaches children, not curricula.  Our children deserve teachers that are trained and qualified to teach them as individuals, recognizing and meeting their individual education needs.  An Individual Education Plan shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for students with special needs, but should be provided to all students.  Our school systems need holistic change.  We need to re-think how we teach, what we teach, and who we are teaching.  We need to rethink the qualifications our educators need and we need to rethink the needs our schools should be required to meet. 

Change comes slowly and painfully.  Holistic change may be easy to envision, but it is very difficult to achieve.  It won’t happen this year or next year.  But it can happen.  Change requires a lot of work, a lot of planning, and often a new allocation of resources.  An individualized education provided by well-trained, highly-qualified, and fully-resourced staff doesn’t come cheap.  But our children are our future and they are worth the work and they are worth the money.  The real question is:  Will we afford our children the respect and consideration they deserve?