We mentioned before that we got a meeting with the school system’s part of J-man’s IEP team to go over their part of the results from his various evaluations and assessments. This is not the default way they (or apparently most school systems) do things, but you are entitled to see all of these results before you craft all the parts of your child’s IEP. And, more importantly, you are entitled to those results before you show up to that meeting. It’s usually not until the meeting itself that you get the results, which I think is wrong.
This may be one of the most critical things we’ve learned in this process, so listen up.
Get a copy of all of the reports they have written as a result of their evaluations of your child and get them several days before the IEP meeting. If they aren’t receptive to this, tell them you are entitled to it and you expect to receive it. Do not back down from this.
Here’s the really important part – get it far enough in advance of the actual IEP meeting so you can review the report, understand everything in it, determine whether it’s an accurate description of your child’s current abilities (Present Levels of Performance – or PLOP – is the fancy term), and if the report contains inaccuracies, either request corrections or take the necessary steps to provide evidence that their report isn’t a fair assessment of your child’s abilities.
Blinding flash of the obvious moment – don’t be shocked if they think your child is farther ahead than they really are. This isn’t necessarily optimism; this is sometimes how school systems try to avoid providing services. In our case, I haven’t seen any evidence of that happening, but I know it happens to many people in general.
We decided to draw this line and made it very clear to the team – We will not show up to the IEP meeting to craft our child’s plan without having seen and reviewed all of the information and data that will be used to draft that plan. In short, you want no surprises and you want time to compile evidence to support an opposing view – if it comes to that. Given that many schools wait and do IEPs at the last minute, your best chance of getting a plan acceptable to everyone without rushing or regret is to have covered all of the evaluation results ahead of time.
You have a right to this information. Do not yield on this point.
All that preaching behind us now, we felt that their report about J-man was a fairly accurate representation of where he is these days. Autistic children are very hard to test at this age (and in general for that matter) as the regular tests for cognitive development and their understanding and use of language really don’t work very well. In our case, they tended to not get hung up on standardized tests, which was fine with us, instead going with their observations and writing up a narrative of where he is.
I can’t prove this theory, but my guess is that more often than not, an evaluation like this of an autistic toddler should generally show them to be somewhat more behind than they really are. My thinking behind my hypothesis is that they do a lot of the testing in a room completely foreign to your child with people he or she has never seen before. Anyone with an autistic toddler knows that this is not a recipe for your child’s best performance.
If your school system is like ours, someone (in our case the child psychologist) will come out and observe your child in their ‘natural environment’, which in our case was either our home or his little special needs preschool. We agreed on the latter just because it obviously provided more opportunities to see how he does within a structured school environment and with other children. My theory also is that an autistic toddler will ‘score better’ (and more accurately) in their natural environment just because it’s familiar, and familiarity begets better functioning.
Standardized tests do a terrible job if your child has certain abilities that are way ahead of age norms (like J-man’s letter recognition) but are way behind on the usual stuff, like speech development and understanding how to adapt to new situations. They can easily result in ‘scatter’, which means they can score all over the place such that the statistics the scores indicate are very difficult to interpret. This makes it even harder to determine where they are.
J-man’s speech scores, for example, are very low. The highest ones have him scoring at about an 18-month level, about half his actual age. The problem is that he’s minimally verbal, but can point to a handful of objects when he’s calm and not distracted, which is a hard place to get to. You still get ‘credit’ for pointing instead of saying the word, but that’s hard for him to do either way. So, we all suspect he knows more than he can communicate, we just don’t know how much.
Even though we’re around him all the time, there’s a lot we don’t know about where his abilities are right now. If we don’t know, the schools certainly won’t overall know more than us. I think this is true for most parents. Knowing that, don’t back down if you think their evaluations aren’t accurate.
One final suggestion – if there are disagreements, approach it with statements that all you want is an accurate description of where your child is because an accurate assessment is the only way to create a quality IEP that is appropriate for your child. By focusing the conversation on accuracy, you leave them really with nothing to argue with.
Bonus nugget – never use the word ‘best’, use ‘appropriate’, which is straight out of the law. Asking for the best possible services for your child is asking for big problems. Of course that’s what you want, but the law doesn’t state we get the best, just that we get what is appropriate. This is why accuracy and doing your homework is so important. If you can show based on quality information that something is vital to your child’s educational success, then you’re going to be hard to argue against. Stating that you only want what’s appropriate for your child’s educational success shows you know the legal requirements and that you’re trying to be a team player.
I encourage you to read all of our IEP posts as they’ll give you some background on things if you’re just now finding us. This has been a challenging process, and while we haven’t exactly chronicled all this in some easy-to-follow set of instructions to all parents, I think you can get a good sense of what a more or less average process feels like for parents seeking eligibility for preschool and services through their county school system.
By all means, ask us questions. We’ll do our best to answer them and we have some smart commenters ready to chime in too.
I feel good about where things are right now. The next hard part is drafting the educational goals that we’d like to see in his plan for the next school year. Since the goals have to be measurable – because there’s no way to know whether your child has achieved a goal when there’s no way to measure it – they can prove difficult to write. How do you quantify, “J-Man will engage in play with his peers?” I have some idea, but it’s tricky. Some are easier, but a number of them are hard.
Anyway, more on that later. At least we’re in a better place overall now than we have been.