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8 steps to a successful IEP meeting

A parents' guide to strategic planning for children on the autism spectrum.

By Wayne Steedman

For a child on the autism spectrum, the IEP (Individualized Education Program) is the most important document in their school file. Having an IEP that comprehensively addresses all of the child’s academic and functional needs is critical to the child’s success in school and future development. Developing an effective IEP for children with autism presents additional challenges because schools are often reluctant to provide the intensity of services the child needs due to financial and staffing limitations.

Since the IEP is developed in an IEP meeting, you must have a strategy going into that meeting if you hope to develop the plan your child needs. The steps below will help you develop that strategy. These steps represent the gold standard in strategic planning for an IEP meeting -- it may be difficult to follow them all exactly, but the closer you come, the greater your chances of having a successful IEP meeting.

Step 1: learn, learn, and learn some more

The adage “knowledge is power” is more true than ever when it comes to your IEP meeting. You are already an expert on your child; now make yourself an expert on your child’s disability. Keep in mind that the definition of an expert is someone who knows more about a subject than the other people in the room. Make a list of the books and articles you have read as well as any presentations you have attended, and bring it to the meeting with you. Nothing increases you standing in the IEP meeting more than starting a comment with “According to Stanley Greenspan…,” or “The research conducted by the National Research Council concluded…”

The same is true when discussing the law. School personnel frequently cite the law but often get it wrong. Therefore, it is important that you know and understand special education law better than the rest of the team. The best way to learn about the law is to attend a special education law conference. Wrightslaw presents conferences around the country that are specifically directed to parents. The Council of Parents, Advocates, and Attorneys (COPAA) holds an annual conference that provides extensive information about the law and advocacy.

If you want to dive in on your own, read some court cases that have interpreted the law. The best cases to read are Board of Education v. Rowley, Burlington School Committee v. Department of Education, Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F., and Shaffer v. Weast. All of these are Supreme Court decisions and are controlling, which means that all courts and Hearing Officers must follow the Court’s interpretation of the law. The IDEA requires every state to pass its own laws and regulations to implement the IDEA. State laws generally mirror the IDEA but you should try to be aware of any significant difference. For example, with the exception of children who take alternate assessments, the IDEA does not require short-term objectives or benchmarks in the IEP, but many states do require them.

Step 2: organize and prepare

Be sure you have your child’s complete school file, including old IEPs and assessments. If you are unsure whether your file is complete, request to see the school’s file on your child. Upon written request, a school must provide you access to your child’s file. If you find documents that you are missing, ask for copies.

Organize your file so that you can quickly find any document you need. I use a three-ring binder with numeric tabs for each document and a Table of Contents. For larger files I also create an index in which I separately list all of the IEPs, assessments, report cards, etc., with their tab numbers. It provides another quick reference tool. The school team will be very impressed if you can quickly produce documents referenced during the meeting, especially if they are unable to find the document in their file.

Wayne Steedman is a co-founder and President of Callegary & Steedman, P.A., a law firm located in Baltimore, which primarily focuses on disability law. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland Law School and the School of Social Work, and has practiced law for 19 years with his primary focus on special education. Wayne has represented his clients in due process hearing, state and federal court, and the Third and Fourth Circuit Courts of Appeals. He is admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. He has presented nationwide on special education law and written numerous articles which have been published on-line and in print journals.

Comments from readers

"My wife and I were victims of an IEP system and a school system that cared more about covering their collective backsides than helping my child. Am I mad? YES! This system was run as a for profit prison that used my child to collect money but only cared about what was best for the school. Once my child reached middle school the "teaching" never materialized and the caretaking began. I eventually had to remove my Autistic child from the system due to lack of concern over my Childs welfare. These people (I won’t honor them with the title of teacher), should quit this line of work and go into something more commensurate with their skill level. Mopping floors and scrubbing toilets would probably be just about Wright. EFMP, what a joke. IEP and special Ed what a joke. "
"Shiela, our doctor's diagnosis trumped the school psychologist in our case. Our Primary Care doctor sent us to a Child Neurologist for a full neurological workup. She sent us to the Children's National Medical Center, Children's Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders for extensive evaluations. Fantastic Team. John's Hopkins also has a great team, I'm told. It's not all about what happens at school, as you know. The right team of doctors can help parents learn about their child. The advice we received at Children's has helped us as a family for over 8 years because we understand our son better with their help. School? Well, we're still working on that. Early intervention is key. "
"My nephew has not been diagnosed with autism but it is apparent that he has the symptoms. We would like to find out more to get him diagnosed. The school has tested him but we feel we need other testing entities. We have friend that have an autistic child 10 years old and the school tested him and their test was negative and eventually he was diagnosed with severe autism. If he doesn't have autism he has something. He is 5 and acts like he is 3. He talks ok but communication is not there. He has a 3 year old sister who treats him like he is a baby. His parents are going crazy and we need to get something started now. His favorite thing are spinning tops. Thanks for listening, Sheila "