Sunday, November 11, 2018

Navigating the rough seas that come with advocating for your child

If you've ever sat through an IEP (individualized education plan) meeting, you've likely found yourself confused, determined, frustrated, curious, optimistic, pessimistic, and a hundred other competing emotions. And it's not just parents, I know educators who feel the same way in these meetings. None of our children, special needs or not, come with a road map. And when parents and educators sit down at the conference table for an IEP meeting, tensions about what's the best educational path are inevitable.

In 2015, when Emelyn was approaching three years old, we began the intake process for her IEP at our local school system. Despite my best research, I still felt unprepared, confused, and timid. Were we walking the correct path, with the correct people, with the correct goals? I had no idea, but January of 2016 came and we signed the IEP and sent Emelyn off to the local school system’s preschool special education program. 

Fast forward several months and it was clear our IEP was not a success. Emelyn was not making progress—if anything, we were seeing regression since her departure from early intervention. After several meetings we decided to pull her out of the school system and enroll her in an ABA-based clinic. (See my two other blog posts about our ABA experience: New diagnosis, new therapy, new opportunities and ABA, it may not be what you think it is.) 

ABA was an immediate success for Emelyn. Within weeks of starting she gained skills we thought were years in the making. And she began opening up to the world around her. I’m convinced, more than two years later, she would not be where she is at today without the wonderful people and solid plan at her ABA clinic. They love her and they push her to be the best Emmy she can be. But, her time at her phenomenal ABA clinic will come to an end in 2019. She will age out of their program and we will return to the school system to continue Emelyn’s educational journey. This time, though, I will be a different kind of advocate for Emelyn. I have experience and knowledge that I didn’t have last time.  

This time last year, as I approached my final essay for my master’s degree, I sat with my advisor, curious about how in the world I was going to find inspiration to fill approximately 50 pages with coherent and purposeful words. With a broad umbrella of leadership, my advisor asked me what I was curious about and what would be meaningful for me to research and write about. Without much hesitation I shared my frustrations with advocating for Emelyn in an educational setting—how I lacked confidence in the next best steps, how the relative newness of DDX3X meant there wasn’t much data, and how I wasn’t alone in these feelings. And an idea was born.

Before I could write a word, I needed data—there was a tremendous amount of informal data floating around our private DDX3X Facebook group, but I needed data suitable for a scholarly publication. Collecting data on human subjects requires involvement from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and when you’re talking about a vulnerable population, they (understandably) make sure you follow all the rules. Their approval process took two months, an 18-page application, and a lengthy survey. Once I had the IRB seal of approval I started collecting data and researching relevant peer-reviewed journals. I probably could have researched the thing to the end of the internet, but luckily my advisor, the wise Abrina Schnurman Crook, Ph.D, reeled me in. At last, after months of writing, my final essay was off to the second reader and this is where I held my breath. The second reader and director of the MALS program at Hollins University is a well-respected, retired superintendent of schools, Lorraine Lange, Ed.D. Would she tear it apart or bless it?

To my pleasant surprise, my final essay received her blessing (with a few small changes, mainly to grammar because let's be honest, that's not my thing) and I had the last requirement for graduation complete. My master’s journey came to an end. I’m embarrassed to admit, that was more than eight months ago. From time to time I talk to different DDX3X parents and share the completed essay to help them on their educational journey, I just haven’t devoted the time to sit down and prepare a blog post dedicated to sharing it broadly. Shame on me. But, finally, without further delay, here it is:

You’ll find I grouped the essay by barriers—barriers our children face as a result of their DDX3X mutation, barriers our children face in the school system, and barriers parents face as they advocate for their child during the educational journey.

Is the essay perfect? Most definitely not, but it’s a start. If you’re a parent wondering aimlessly on the educational journey, I hope its content will provide guidance and direction to you. That is its intent—to help you navigate the rough seas that come with advocating for your child.

Graduation day with Patrick and Aubrey.
It was a gorgeous day on the Hollins campus.

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