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Plenty of good things to think about after this IEP

Taking a break from schoolwork and having fun with Photo Booth on his iPad.

I’ve always thought about Nolan at least a few times a day while he’s been at school and wondered how, and what, he was doing. That was the case when Cindy and I reluctantly handed him off to his early childhood teacher two days after he turned 3 in December 2008. That’s still the case now that he’s a 15-year-old high school freshman who almost never fights us when it’s time to board the school bus in the morning.

I’ve seen little snippets over the last four months of what his life is like as a high school student, but he’s mostly received face-to-face instruction since the second week of the school year. It’s a good thing, too. Nolan has Autism and is nonverbal, so everything reading, writing and arithmetic-related is best left to his special education teachers and paraprofessionals, and preferably not dad.

Two of the teachers who work with Nolan gave Cindy and I a very positive, but relatively brief, report on our son’s progress in mid-October at parent-teacher conferences. Last Friday, we received what I would describe as the annual colonoscopy of Nolan’s progress: his Individualized Education Program meeting, or IEP. An IEP brings together a special education student’s parents, teachers, and sometimes other outside parties at least once a year for an in-depth discussion of that student’s strengths and weaknesses, and his or her goals for the upcoming year.

I won’t go into specifics about our 50-minute meeting, other than to say that overall Nolan’s first semester as a high school student has been a success. He’s doing well in some areas, and there is plenty of room for improvement in others. He’s interacting with his classmates in a positive, COVID-friendly manner. The teacher who also serves as his case manager assured us that he will be given a job, likely in the school kitchen, as soon as conditions allow.

And as you read the following paraphrased quotes from his teachers, you’ll see that they like him. They really like him.

He always puts a smile on our faces.

He’s gone along with our expectations.

He’s grown quite a bit, but I’m not surprised. Between eighth and ninth grade there’s usually a lot of maturity. It’s like there’s a switch that goes off.

He’s a complex communicator, but there’s been a nice maturity leap. He’s not as impatient as he was in the past.

He’s following verbal directions well.

He seems to thrive in this environment.

Nolan also attended elementary and middle school in the city where we live. By my count, this was the 14th IEP in which Cindy and I have participated. We’ve left most of them feeling pretty good about ourselves and the progress Nolan was making. We’ve left a few feeling frustrated and dejected. We’ve left a couple angry enough to either yell or punch something (those of you who know us likely have figured out which one of us wanted to go Mike Tyson on an inanimate object). And there was one where, after listening to an occupational therapist go on a five-minute rant about how she absolutely did NOT want Nolan to use a pair of scissors, we walked out of the conference room and asked ourselves, “What the hell was that???”

There were no cringeworthy moments with this IEP. There were no moments where I shook my head and let out an exasperated sigh, nor did I stick out my tongue and go “Pfffft!” at the laptop screen after logging off Zoom because I was ticked off about something someone had said. I expressed my very sincere, and somewhat choked-up, gratitude to Nolan’s teachers for everything they and the paraprofessionals have done to help him with his schoolwork and be successful.

He seems to thrive in that environment because the staff has gone above and beyond in taking the time to get to know him, and also meeting him where he’s at so that he can thrive. Need some input, Nolan? Here, let’s fill this wagon with a few items so you can pull it between classrooms, or let’s go for a walk around the school, or the track if the weather is decent so you get a little fresh air too.

Not in a good place emotionally? Give your teacher high-fives until you calm down. Let’s try wrapping you in a weighted blanket. Play the keyboard we brought into the classroom, or let’s listen to Billy Joel on your iPad because we know you like his music, and we know your dad would approve.

Not always a big fan of art class, which is your last class of the day? We’re fine if you eat a snack because we know that’s what will make tackling a project easier for you. Getting too noisy in the classroom? The paraprofessional who works with you the last hour of the day will take you for another walk so you can get your wits back.

Nolan might not be able to speak, but he is a very effective communicator if someone takes the time to get to know him and really pays attention to him – a fact I think was lost on some of the folks who have worked with him in the past. Cindy and I still wince when we think about a teacher at one of Nolan’s previous schools who was adamant about not taking him to the health room for a dose of ibuprofen when he was in obvious distress because she considered it to only be a placebo even though we told her more than once he deals with headaches. It wasn’t the only communication breakdown there was with that teacher, and his time in that classroom wasn’t nearly as productive as it could have or should have been.

It’s nice knowing that Nolan is being listened to now. I think he appreciates it, even if he doesn’t have the ability to say so.

He always puts a smile on our faces.

I’ll always think about Nolan when he’s away from me, but I also can’t help but feel happy because I know he’s in a great situation.

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Glad to hear he's having a good freshman year.

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