Some thoughts on Dads, IEPs, and PTOs

This is a repost of something I originally wrote in the summer of 2007. Three years old, but just as relevant now as it was then.

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Last summer (2006) in the post “Men must attend IEP meetings”, I quoted Charles Fox of the Special Education Law Blog on the important role men can (should) play in the IEP process. With the beginning of the school year and IEP season looming, I felt it appropriate to reprint Fox’s quote:

Fathers and men too often fail to realize that sometimes just showing up at a meeting in support of the child can make an enormous difference. In my list of essential advocacy points, I list that ‘men must attend meetings.’ [number 11] I was actually accused of being a male chauvinist for stating this position at a parent training.

What was lost in translation was not that women are incompetent advocates because nothing could be more untrue; rather, that the dynamic of the meeting can often go differently if the father, uncle, grandfather, brother or even male co-worker or friend comes to a meeting or mediation.

This post was brought back to mind for me by the blog post Gender Bias and Autism Dads at About.com:Autism

Have you ever been treated like a second-rate member of an IEP or school meeting? Of course, right? But how about a second-rate parent? Have you ever had to say, “Umm, I’m here too” or “Hey, I’m also the parent” when the faculty (in my case, all or predominately female) ignore you completely and speak to the other parent without acknowledging your existence. Or even worse, have you ever endured the cruel “Dad” jokes, when these so-called professionals assume the mother does all of the dirty work (cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking care of the child, therapies, researching, fighting school districts, etc.) while you escape to the normalcy of your 9-5?

Fortunately, I’ve never had to endure this. The IEP teams we’ve worked with over the years have all been true professionals, treating us as equals in the process. If anything, most were pleased to see a father taking such an interest. (Of course, it has helped that through the years I’ve had jobs that gave me the flexibility to attend.)

To be honest, I’ve had a more difficult time trying to be an involved father in the PTO’s of my non-autistic son. I seem to be the only father that the mothers had ever seen express an interest in being part of the PTO. This made for some interesting, sometimes uncomfortable initial meetings as they tried to figure me out. (It took me a while in one group to get them to stop calling me Mr. Miller!) Eventually, I became just one of the gals (in a manner of speaking ;-) ).

I know that, statistically speaking, mothers tend to be the primary care givers and the ones who must work through the IEP process and all that it entails. I also know that divorce rates among parents of autistic children are high, again with mothers typically (not always) the ones who must take care of the autistic child. *

But I’m here to tell you – and I know a few guys out there who will back me up – that autism dads are here, and we care, and we’ll let our IEP teams know that we’re here and we care if they try to ignore or marginalize us.

On the subject of autism divorce, check out First National Program Launched to Combat Divorce Rates in Autism Community in Medical News Today and the Family First page on the NAA site.

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If every child had an IEP

For many years I have wondered, “Why doesn’t every child in school have an IEP (individual education plan)?” I first wrote this question nearly 5 years ago. At the time I was content to let the question stand on its own, but over the years it has never been too far back in my mind.

Lately, the question has evolved in my mind to become, “What would school be like if every child had an IEP? Not because they are disabled, but because every child is different?” I think I’ve found an answer, thanks to an item shared by David Gurteen (@davidgurteen) that I found in my Google Reader feeds.

In Put the child in the centre, Robert Paterson gives some performance details from the Alice Byrne school – very impressive performance – and then goes on to describe what he sees as the key to this performance (emphasis mine):

At Alice Byrne each child has their own learning plan that is built with all the staff who are connected to that child, the parets and the child.  All have a part in this plan. Weekly the staff discuss each child and share what they observe. Alice Byrne has put the child in the centre. The family has been brought in as well.

As Robert says, any school can do it. It may not be easy for them to make the change, but it isn’t – shouldn’t be – about easy; it should be about better. (Sound familiar?)

“Men must attend IEP meetings” (reprint)

I originally posted this over two years ago, and like my last post thought it would be worthwhile to reprint it as many parents are preparing for IEPs.

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“Men must attend IEP meetings.”

This advice comes from Charles Fox at the Special Education Law Blog in a Father’s Day post discussing the role of fathers in the advocacy process. A short excerpt:

Fathers and men too often fail to realize that sometimes just showing up at a meeting in support of the child can make an enormous difference. In my list of essential advocacy points, I list that “men must attend meetings.” [number 11] I was actually accused of being a male chauvinist for stating this position at a parent training.What was lost in translation was not that women are incompetent advocates because nothing could be more untrue; rather, that the dynamic of the meeting can often go differently if the father, uncle, grandfather, brother or even male co-worker or friend comes to a meeting or mediation.

His list of 16 basic principles of advocacy is well worth reading, printing out, and keeping in IEP file to help you prepare each time you must go through the process.

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I’ve also written about my own experiences as an autism dad with IEPs, and as a dad in general.   I’ve been lucky, but I know this isn’t always the case.  What have your experiences been?

Sun Tzu and the Art of the IEP (reprint)

I’ve posted this a couple of times before, but it seems worthwhile to post again as many of us enter IEP season.  (originally posted last August)

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As a young Army officer, I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War many times (in different versions). When I transitioned into the civilian workforce, I realized that many of the ideas would translate to the world of business. (Not literally, of course. For example, Sun Tzu’s demonstration of leadership ability using the Emperor’s concubines as soldiers.)

The Art of War can also be applied to many other common activities, such as the IEP. You can pull from many quotes, but here is my favorite:

Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

Of course, this may need some translation* into more relevant wording. Such as:

Know the district administration and their stated (and unstated) goals and resources, and know your rights and what is best for your child; in a hundred IEP meetings you will never fail to get what you need.When you are ignorant of what the district’s goals or resources are, but know your rights and your child’s needs, your chances of getting what you need in the IEP are 50/50.

If you are ignorant of both the district’s goals/resources and your rights and needs of your child, you are certain in every IEP meeting to get what you get, and probably not what you really need.

Of course, this important piece of advice can just as easily be translated into the school district perspective, I’ll leave that exercise to you.

Based on my personal experience, conversations with other parents, and conversations in the blogosphere, my guess is that most people (from both sides) go into IEP meetings knowing themselves, but not their “enemy.” As a result, we often see winners and losers in the outcomes of IEPs, the result of hard fought battles that leave everyone bitter and exhausted.

What would happen if both sides heeded this advice and came in knowing themselves and the “enemy”? According to Sun Tzu, both should expect to win. But both sides can’t “win”, can they?

To that I answer a resounding, “Yes, of course both sides can win.” Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

* (If you are interested in some thoughts on translation within a language, check out my post Knowledge in Translation on my No Straight Lines blog.)

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Just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent

I started writing about autism, specifically about being an autism parent, just over three years ago. One of my goals was to provide information that would be useful for parents who have recently received a diagnosis of autism for their child. This post is my attempt to give you, as a parent of a newly diagnosed autistic child, an idea of what you will likely find as you try to understand what that diagnosis means to you and your child.

Parenting is a challenge, no matter who your kid is. No matter what you do, someone somewhere will tell you that you are doing it wrong. If you are already a parent, you know what I mean. How many times have you heard someone tell you that your kids should spend more time outside, less time on the computer or with their video games, more time reading, less time on the phone; that you should spend more / less time with them, give them more / less independence, etc etc.

It is no different being the parent of an autistic child, except maybe for the passion with which complete strangers will tell you how poor a job you are doing. A few things you can expect to hear from others, or read in blogs, etc:

“You’re going to screw your kid up if you get him vaccinated.”
“You didn’t vaccinate? Why the hell not?”

“If you don’t start with intensive early therapy and treatment, there is no hope for your child.”
“If you start with all that intensive early therapy and treatment and try to change him, he’ll be emotionally scarred for life.”

“Why are you trying to mainstream him at school, he would be better off in a special placement.”
“Why aren’t you pushing for a mainstream placement, that is where he should be and the school just needs to suck it up.”

“You can’t blame that person for getting upset, that outburst was quite disturbing and invasive to others.”
“Screw that person. They need to just get over it an realize that everyone is different and has the right to be who they are.”

“You need to cure your child of this terrible affliction, recover him from the damage that has been done and get on with your life the way it was supposed to be.”
“Your child doesn’t need a cure, you need to accept that he will be different, that your life will be different, and that you need to just get on with it.”

These are, of course, examples from the extremes. But you will quickly find that there is not, in general, a lot of middle ground in terms of how people will judge you.

In your readings and explorations of autism, you will find that there is no known cause, and that some people think that vaccines are the cause. Some will even say that there is no cause (or least no need to find a cause). Those who think it was caused by vaccines will try to convince you that you need to cure your child through diet or other types of medical procedures, some will say you need intensive behavior therapy. Some will tell you there is no need for a cure. These are all things you will have to decide for yourself.

As you learn more about autism, you will also find yourself learning more about autism advocacy and all the forms it takes. There are groups of parents, medical professionals, and others that will tell you your child has been poisoned by vaccines and that you need to cure – sometimes referred to as recovery – him through diet or other medical treatment. There are those that will tell you that you need to cure your child through intensive behavior therapy. Many, though not all, of these advocates will also help you understand the accommodations and supports that you will need and are entitled to. Then of course there are all of the organizations that have formed to promote these various forms of advocacy. Importantly, the vast majority of these advocates are not autistic themselves.

Once you realize this, you will discover a separate world of autistic advocates for autism. You will quickly find that, despite the stereotypes, all autistics are not the same. You will hear that your child wasn’t poisoned by vaccines, or anything else, and that there is no need for a cure. You may also hear or read that some autistics do want to be cured. You will get plenty of advice – some good, some not so good – about how to raise you child from the perspective of someone who used to be an autistic child. You will hear from autistics diagnosed as adults, and learn what their life was like as an autistic child without the benefit / burden of a diagnosis.

About two months ago, autism blogger Lisa Jo Rudy challenged parents to “quit autism for just one day.”

Your child with autism may always be autistic, but there are places and circumstances in which it either doesn’t matter – or in which your child’s special talents make autism irrelevant. Whether it’s at the beach, in the woods, at a concert, or creating a work of art – just for one day – go somewhere where autism doesn’t matter.

Just for one day, quit being the parent of a child with autism. And become just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.

Everything I’ve learned about parenting an autistic child can be boiled down to an incredibly simply stated idea (provided to me by a fellow autism dad): Parenting is parenting. My response to Lisa’ challenge reflects this attitude:

Just one day? Every day should be like that. At the very least, every day should start like that. You can’t always control how a day will end up, but only you can control how your day starts.

I am the parent of a trampolinist. I am the parent of a horse-back rider (equestrian?) I am the parent of two pianists. I am the parent of two high school students. I am the parent of two avid gamers. I am the parent of an autistic son and an NT son.

I am, to use your words, “just a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent.”

Every day.

Everyone will have something to say about how you raise your autistic child, most everyone will judge you in one way or another. In the end, of course, the only person’s judgment of you as a parent that matters is your child’s. All you can do is be a plain, ordinary, loving, proud parent. Everything else is just details.

What if they had been diagnosed autistic?

If Fischer were indeed autistic, how would his life – and the history of chess, among other things – have been different if he had been diagnosed when he was young? If he had been provided the treatment and services that are typically demanded today for Asperger’s diagnoses, would he have had the impact he did? Would he have been able to have that impact, or would that ability have been “treated” out of him?

In his book Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, author Roy Richard Grinker mentions chess legend Bobby Fischer (p. 63) as someone who may have been an undiagnosed autistic. I’ve just started reading David Edmonds’ book Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How A Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine (P.S.), and have to say that I was thinking the same thing. (For more discussion on the subject check out the Bobby Fischer talk page on Wikipedia.)

Which got me thinking: If Fischer were indeed autistic, how would his life – and the history of chess, among other things – have been different if he had been diagnosed when he was young? If he had been provided the treatment and services that are typically demanded today for Asperger’s diagnoses, would he have had the impact he did? Would he have been able to have that impact, or would that ability have been “treated” out of him?

You can extend this to any of the great minds that people sometimes say were probably autistic, like Newton, Einstein, Van Gogh. You could also look at those who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult and think back on how things may have been different, for them and their contributions, if they had been diagnosed younger.

There is no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that the increase in diagnoses of autism, especially Asperger’s, is due to a better understanding of what Asperger’s is and an increased desire of parents to understand why their kids are “different”. Many are being diagnosed now that might not have been diagnosed before, and demanding (and receiving) treatment they may not have received before.

I can’t help wondering what these individuals – and the world – may be missing out on because we want to catch and “fix” their differences early in life. We want to make life “easier” for these kids and their parents in the short term, but what is the impact to the long term? (This is kind of a different take on my earlier question, “What would a world without autism look like?“)

(Just to be clear, I’m not advocating not diagnosing children – or adults – if a diagnosis is warranted. I’m just asking the question because I think the answers, even if only hypothetical, can give us some insight into why we think the way we do about autism and why we do the things we do about autism.)

UPDATE: As I finished writing this, I saw Your Advice Requested: Next Steps for a Teen Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome? over at About.com. The questions I’ve asked in this post were a hypothetical to get you thinking about what impact a diagnosis and subsequent treatment would have had on an undiagnosed autistic. If you’ve had a chance to consider those questions, your thoughts on them should help you come up with an answer to Lisa’s question.

Sun Tzu and the Art of the IEP (reprint)

As a young Army officer, I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War many times (in different versions). When I transitioned into the civilian workforce, I realized that many of the ideas would translate to the world of business. (Not literally, of course. For example, Sun Tzu’s demonstration of leadership ability using the Emperor’s concubines as soldiers.)

The Art of War can also be applied to many other common activities, such as the IEP.

With IEP season upon us (at least for us), I thought it would be worthwhile to re-post this, which I originally posted last August. The text has been altered slightly based on Joe’s recommendations to the original.

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As a young Army officer, I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War many times (in different versions). When I transitioned into the civilian workforce, I realized that many of the ideas would translate to the world of business. (Not literally, of course. For example, Sun Tzu’s demonstration of leadership ability using the Emperor’s concubines as soldiers.)

The Art of War can also be applied to many other common activities, such as the IEP. You can pull from many quotes, but here is my favorite:

Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy, but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

Of course, this may need some translation* into more relevant wording. Such as:

Know the district administration and their stated (and unstated) goals and resources, and know your rights and what is best for your child; in a hundred IEP meetings you will never fail to get what you need.When you are ignorant of what the district’s goals or resources are, but know your rights and your child’s needs, your chances of getting what you need in the IEP are 50/50.

If you are ignorant of both the district’s goals/resources and your rights and needs of your child, you are certain in every IEP meeting to get what you get, and probably not what you really need.

Of course, this important piece of advice can just as easily be translated into the school district perspective, I’ll leave that exercise to you.

Based on my personal experience, conversations with other parents, and conversations in the blogosphere, my guess is that most people (from both sides) go into IEP meetings knowing themselves, but not their “enemy.” As a result, we often see winners and losers in the outcomes of IEPs, the result of hard fought battles that leave everyone bitter and exhausted.

What would happen if both sides heeded this advice and came in knowing themselves and the “enemy”? According to Sun Tzu, both should expect to win. But both sides can’t “win”, can they?

To that I answer a resounding, “Yes, of course both sides can win.” Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

* (If you are interested in some thoughts on translation within a language, check out my post Knowledge in Translation on my No Straight Lines blog.)

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