It happens every day. Parents of a child who is newly diagnosed with a developmental disability find themselves thrust into a new world, walking down a road they never expected to take.
Parents of children diagnosed with mild disabilities usually hope that specialized services or treatments will prepare their children to live independent lives. Parents of children who have more severe disabilities often feel an initial sense of despair, followed by a determination to help their child as much as they can.
Whether the diagnosis was expected or not, parents are often overwhelmed with the implications of raising a child with a disability. Questions include: What services are available for our family? How do I find the best experts in the field, and will I have access to them? What do other parents in my situation do? What will school look like?
There’s a huge learning curve.
But knowledge is power, and many parents find themselves hungrily seeking out all the information they can about their child’s disability. Besides reading books and searching the internet, many parents glean crucial information from other parents by attending disability-specific support groups. Experienced parents are usually willing to pass on their own knowledge. This is particularly important when it comes to navigating the special education maze.
By federal law, school districts are responsible for providing services and educating preschool children who have disabilities for ages 3 through 5. Eligible children may continue to receive services through public schools until they are 22 years old.
Parents do not have to utilize school district services. Some parents decide upon alternative education options ranging from private schools to homeschooling. In rare cases, residential services are sought.
Most students receive education and related services through their local school district. Understanding the school system is a daunting prospect for any parent. For example, a child who has moderate to severe autism will often be assigned a “team” of experts including a speech therapist, occupational therapist, special education representative, school psychologist and more.
Everyday classroom personnel may include a head teacher and several classroom aides, depending on the child’s placement. In addition, parents need to figure out special education jargon or remain forever mystified, especially when talking with special education administrators.
There’s no way around it. Most parents have to work hard to ensure their child receives the best available services. To make the process as smooth as possible parents can:
- Read all printed information about their child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
- Find out from a variety of parents which services children who have similar disabilities receive, and if parents had to lobby to receive them. If so, how?
- Pay a visit to all suggested school placements. How does the classroom environment feel? Do the children appear happy or at least relatively calm? Would you feel okay attending this class? What happens when a child has a tantrum or “meltdown?” How often do such events occur?
- Bring an advocate to school meetings if there are disagreements with the district about your child’s services.
- If your child’s class has teacher aides, be sure to talk with them about how your child is progressing. Sometimes a lot of important information is gleaned from candid aides who work one-on-one with your child.
Once your child is regularly attending class, try to spend some time in the classroom to really get a feel for what goes on, especially if your child has little or no language. Good teachers respond favorably to well-informed, involved parents.
Remember, determining your child’s needs and knowing your student’s rights go a long way toward helping you become an important team member and effective advocate for your child.
What are your thoughts or experiences with special services for children who have disabilities? Please leave a comment.