Eleven and a half years ago, I attended my first special education meeting for my son, when he was three years old. It was called an IFSP – Individualized Family Service Plan – the precursor to his IEPs. Unfortunately, back then I didn’t think to bring snacks, but I did bring a tape recorder, thinking, for whatever reason, that I should.
I found the old tape and listened to it recently. It was cathartic, of course, knowing how far Nigel has come since then, but it was also very strange to hear my voice from that long ago – expressing my concerns, etc. – when I was so new to the realm of special needs parenting. I sounded so calm and sure of myself, even though I felt completely overwhelmed, had so many questions, and didn’t know the jargon. It was good to hear the confidence in my voice back then, not realizing that it had been there. I surprise myself sometimes.
And Nigel, of course, surprises me too. Last week, he attended his first special education meeting for himself. It was not an official IEP – just a placement meeting for next year – so we did not go over goals or anything like that. Nigel was reluctant to go at first, and for a while I thought that I’d have to go without him. I wanted him to go because this short meeting would prepare him for future meetings, the more intensive ones where we would discuss his goals and his progress toward them. I want him to be an active part of these meetings, to usher him into the realm of self-advocacy. To teach him how to diplomatically make his needs known to others. I tried to convey this to him in terms that he could understand, but in the end, what motivated him to go was the fact that we would need to use a map of his new high school to find the room where the meeting was being held. He has always liked maps, and immediately plotted our route.
Due to an inaccuracy in the drawing of the map, we ended up in a hallway right outside what was probably the band room, just as a loud burst of instruments blared. Nigel, eyes wide, covered his ears and yelled, “Back! We must go back!” As soon as we re-entered the previous hallway we’d been in, I said, “Well, now you know to avoid that hallway.” “Yeah,” he said, breathless but okay.
We tried a different route and found our way to the library, where the meeting was being held. Nigel saw the Regional Autism Consultant, who has worked with him since the IFSP days, and he seemed to relax. We sat at a table and waited for the rest of the attendees. I was emotional to have Nigel there with me for the first time, and tried not to dwell on the magnitude of it lest I lose my composure. Soon the others arrived – Nigel’s speech and social skills therapist, the high school’s special education coordinator, and one of his teachers for next year (the rest of his teachers will meet the week before school starts for the official IEP).
I no longer record the meetings; in fact, I think that first one was the only one I did. But I’m glad I did so that I could listen to it years later. It was in the forefront of my mind as I watched Nigel sit in his first meeting. And I am quite proud to say that it went very well. The sped coordinator talked with him as an equal, asking him what classroom accommodations he felt he would need, assured him that all sped students get first choice for electives, and told him that he would be checking in with her every day to make sure that things are going okay and that she would help him if he needs any help. His first week, he will have someone help him get to class, and he will never, she said, have to eat lunch alone. Trying not to cry, I thanked her. Nigel, although making no eye contact and constantly scratching his head because he had neglected to take a shower when he was supposed to, answered everyone’s questions, talked about his interests appropriately, and even made a joke. At the end of the meeting, when asked what he thought of attending that high school, he responded, “If this library is well-stocked with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne books, I’ll be fine.” Everyone laughed a genuine laugh, and I stole a glance at Nigel. I could have sworn I saw a little self-satisfied smirk on his face. Oh, yes, my son, you will be fine.