In April, I wrote about our first PPT (Planning and Placement Team) meeting with our public school system, which happened in January of this year. This first meeting let us all put faces to names, establish dates for additional testing, and schedule our next PPT meeting, which was on May 3, to author Nate’s individualized education plan, more commonly known as the IEP.
Let me take a moment to remind our friends and family why this whole process holds so much importance for our family. Since 18 months of age, Nate has been engaged in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for his autism through Birth to Three, a State agency. He is now receiving fifteen hours of therapy a week through this program, which is provided in our home and at Nate’s day care, which he attends part-time. These services end the last weekday before he turns three, namely May 18. Once Nate turns three, therapy services then become the responsibility of the public school system’s special education department. Nate’s IFSP (Individualized Family Service Plan) is replaced with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), a document that will be revised annually (or more often, should the need arise) until Nate graduates from high school.
The IEP specifies the number of therapy hours Nate will receive in a given week and the types of services he will receive in public school. To determine this, the school reviews Nate’s current programs, services (he receives regular ABA therapy and has a speech pathologist and occupational therapist on his team), and hours. They also do their own assessments, both observational and play-based, and, combined, the school makes a proposal for Nate’s placement in public school, which is presented, in our case, a few weeks prior to Nate graduating from Birth to Three. (Many families learn of their placement a few days prior to leaving Birth to Three.) During our first PPT meeting, we learned about the range of possible placements for Nate. Our public pre-school offers two programs: a mixed pre-school classroom with autistic, speech delay, and neurotypical children and a classroom with just kids on the spectrum. Nate could be placed in either classroom or a combination of both (attending one in the morning and the other in the afternoon) for 1 – 4.5 days a week. His placement could be all half days (8-11), full days (8-3), or a mix. Do the math and you realize there’s a boggling amount of “if’s” in the mix. The prospect of Nate going from his current fifteen hours of therapy a week to three hours a week in a mixed classroom made me want to hide.
Our public school conducted two two assessments of Nate. The assessments made me very nervous because they’re such small snapshots of life with my boy. Some days, Nate is on fire and does everything he needs to do and other days he’s just a mush. My biggest fear was that his observations would occur on days when he was at either extreme, which could severely alter his placement in the special education program. So we hoped and prayed and fretted with all of Nate’s therapists that Nate would just be Nate during his observations. That’s it. Just be Nate — and he was. For the first one.
It took place at Nate’s current day care. Two school representatives observed Nate’s interaction with neurotypical peers and his work with Ms. Lisa. Over the course of an hour, Lisa let Nate operate with no assistance (he wandered, went in the corner, and didn’t participate in circle time) and with gentle reminders (he sat down and paid attention). Lisa ran some of programs with Nate so the school could see his progress and let Nate have free time to play with friends (he found a toy and went off on his own). Despite waking up at 3 am that morning, Lisa called me as soon as the observation was done to proudly share that Nate was Nate. No better. No worse. He exhibited who he was in every way. For that, I was mighty proud.
I took Nate to his second observation, a play-based assessment similar to the ones he took when he was originally diagnosed with autism. It took place in the school’s library and seven (!!!) members of the school’s special education department attended. The minute we got into the library, I panicked. The last time we were at a library was with Ms. Alison. The community visit ended abruptly because Nate couldn’t stop pulling books off the shelves (over and over and over again). So when I discovered his test was in a library filled with books, Nate and I had a wee conversation about what not to do at this very moment. Thankfully, Nate listened. Then he looked around the room at all the ladies and something clicked. Nate said it was showtime.
I’ve never seen my son as “on” as he was during that hour. Nate was giddy, giggly, happy, and giving complete strangers eye contact and smiles. It was the first time in my life that I’ve telepathically told Nate to not look at everyone. Come on, Nate!!!! Look past them, not at them!!!! NO! PAST THEM!!!! Nate snuggled himself into the librarian’s fancy leather chair, ran around the room like a zooming plane, and giggled so much that he must have peed in his diaper three times. This was fancy Nate. Please, Lord. Don’t make them question his diagnosis!!!
While they administered the play-based assessment, a teacher named Susie peppered me with questions about Tater while I filled out a questionnaire, a clever way to prevent Mama Rose from telling Louise to sing out a bit more. Then, that was it. We were given no clues as to how they felt he did. No hints as to what program they thought they’d put him in. Just a “see you in a few weeks at our meeting!” The dreaded meeting.
In between all of this, we had a new addition to our therapy team: Ms. Carmelia. A former school psychologist, Carmelia works with Birth to Three parents to help them understand the ins-and-outs of the special education system in public schools. She helped us find the right publications to read, she explained the lengthy IEP form line by line, and answered every gosh darn question we had about this whole process. Ms. Carmelia was a godsend. Chad and I are well educated: I have my Master’s degree from Yale and Chad’s starting the MBA program there this fall. We found this process to be daunting, difficult, confusing, and exhausting. Without Carmelia, I’m pretty sure we’d be in a puddle in the corner of the room still trying to figure it all out. We are very, very grateful for her help.
With Ms. Lisa by our side, we had our PPT meeting where the school presented the findings from their assessments and their recommended placement for Nate. We are overjoyed to share that Nate got full placement (4.5 days) in the “developmentally delayed” classroom (our State does not require schools to assign a primary disability until age 6). Nate attended his new classroom for the first time today with me and Ms. Lisa and has a therapy session every day this week to help transition the change. He also has a social story created by his teacher, Ms. Susie, which we’ll repeatedly read in the coming days. On Monday, he begins school full time. On Friday, we will host a graduation lunch for Nate with all of his Birth to Three therapists. My Nate. He’s all grown up.