Fighting the good fight. In my mind, it shouldn’t have to be a fight to get the accommodations and modifications that I person needs in order for that person to be successful at school or at work, but the reality is, more often than not, a fight does ensue. As a teacher and a parent of two autistic children who have very specific learning needs, I know what it feels to be on both sides of the table. It can be a frustrating place to be, especially when you know all the tricks that the school you work for uses on parents to get out of providing services to students. I understand the limitations that the school faces, such as money and staff.
When we moved to the eastern side of the state three years ago, the new school district immediately tried to remove my son off his IEP without any evaluation. The school psychologist actually told me that having my son on an IEP was taking money away from other students. My son is not a behavior problem. He is considered gifted in Math and Reading and is highly verbal, but has dysgraphia and an expressive writing disability. He considers writing his nemesis and he often did whatever he could to not write, often escaping into his book during scheduled writing time. My son skipped third grade at his old school due to his high academic ability and emotional needs. Bullying was rampant and he was often the target, with peers telling him he was going to hell, his class socially isolating him, and peers stealing his belongings.
Luckily, when I presented my case during the IEP meeting with information that my advocate had helped me put together, both my son’s new fifth grade teachers supported my request of keeping my son on his IEP. They agreed that he had problems with writing and spelling, scoring much lower than his classmates even with the consideration that he skipped third grade, and he needed help with self-regulation, self-advocacy, and social skills.
This wasn’t the first time that I had to fight the good fight for my son. Prior to moving to where we are now, we lived in a very small rural community in the central part of the state . My son had just been diagnosed with Autism by an outside professional. The school that I taught for did not want to put him on an IEP even though he was missing up to two hours a day hiding in the back corner of the nurse’s office. Instead, they presented me with the option of placing him in an empty classroom without supervision and just have him do his work on his own. This was a seven year old boy, and instead of providing a safe place where he could be taught skills, they wanted to leave him alone to figure things out on his own. They used every trick that I had seen at IEP meetings as a teacher that they used on parents to talk them out of services. They finally agreed to an IEP after my ex-husband asked who was the most qualified in the school to work with students with Autism. They, the school psychologist, speech pathologist, and principal, then asked the special education teacher the same question, because they didn’t know. He stated that he was, in fact, the only one in the building who had training on how to work with autistic students.
They were left with no other choice, but to agree to put my son on an IEP with the label of Autism. Originally they had wanted to put the label of “Health Impaired” on his IEP and I insisted that his diagnosis was Autism and it should be labeled as such on his IEP. I made a point to inform the IEP team that my son was not “Health Impaired”. I explained that my son was an autistic boy and the school needed to recognize that he had specific sensory and academic needs that the regular classroom setting was not providing.
The school could not fault my teaching ability, but they did fault me as a teacher who wasn’t afraid to speak up for my students and a parent who knew too much. As the only science teacher in the building, I had all 210 students, including both my own children, meaning I would end up attending all the IEP and 504 meetings. It got to the point that the special education department and the principal stopped informing me of IEP and 504 meetings. I stopped receiving support from my principal as a teacher in the building. I stopped receiving support from the school psychologist as a parent. Fighting the good fight in a dual role as a parent advocating for my children and as a teacher advocating for my students threatened my job.
I no longer hold a contracted position with the school district that my children currently attend, but I am an employee in the form of a substitute teacher. During these past three years I have continued my dual role as an advocate by becoming a community advocate as well as continuing my role as a parent advocate. As a community advocate, I strive to educate people on the many issues that autistic people face as well as misconceptions that surround Autism. As an autistic person myself, these issues are very personal to me. Being a community advocate has helped me feel that I can “come out of the closet” in regards to my diagnosis. I don’t want my children to struggle like I did growing up. I also don’t want them to feel that they need to hide who they are out of fear. Fortunately, they received their diagnoses at a young age and have been able to learn coping skills early on. This allows their coping skills to grow and change as they, themselves, grow and develop as people.
Teachers have a responsibility to provide the necessary accommodations and modifications to all students who are on IEPs and 504s as well as any other student who does not have an official diagnosis, but might need adjustments to the environment or academic work in order to be successful without struggling and without “falling through the cracks” like I did. As a teacher, I know firsthand how hard this responsibility is to achieve, especially when teachers have large class sizes, are lacking resources, lacking knowledge about a given disability, and lack support from their administrations. It can be a very scary and frustrating place to be when you know what needs to happen, but are unable to make it a reality for a student who is very obviously struggling out of fear of losing your job and out of lack of understanding on the administration’s part.
For more information about fighting the good fight see Fighting the Good Fight: How to Advocate for Your Students Without Losing Your Job – By Rick Lavoie