Dad at an IEP

My husband doesn’t typically call in the middle of the day. But then again, Jon has never had an hour-and-a-half lunch break. Lunch for him is five minutes here and there between seeing patients. But last week was different. He got called and picked for jury duty.

“Want to meet for lunch?” He asked. “I’m done. The case is over.”

“Want to meet me at school for Evan’s IEP?” I answered. “The meeting starts in 20 minutes.”

I don’t even think he knew exactly what an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is. And he definitely did not expect it to last for more than two hours. Still, Jon eagerly accepted the invitation, and we met in the school parking lot.

Evan’s first IEP meeting was 10 years ago. He wasn’t even 2 years old, but it was right before he started in the autism preschool program in public school.

If you’ve never been to an IEP meeting, you should know they are long, often contentious, and difficult to sit through as you listen to all your child’s deficiencies and how he compares to his peers.

It used to bother me that Jon didn’t attend our son’s IEP meetings. But, I was once the wife who thought it was imperative that her husband come to as many newborn well visits as possible – even though our kids were perfectly healthy.

When autism was new and downright overwhelming for us, the only thing I knew about these school meetings were the horror stories I heard from friends. I was incredibly apprehensive about going alone. How should I know what to ask? What to advocate for? How would I respond to comments like, “Your son is developmentally akin to a 9-month-old, not a 2-year-old”?

But Jon worked a lot, and his office was about an hour away from Evan’s school. If I were going to ask him to come to a meeting in the middle of the day, I know he’d do it but it – but it would be a struggle for him to be there.

So I tried it alone. It went okay. No tears. No arguments. Just a plan for our almost 2-year-old son that involved a full day of school, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and a bus ride to and from school.

As I got used to my role as parent and advocate, I began to learn from friends, from reading as much as possible (but trying not to make myself crazy with information overload), from Evan’s therapists and from good old fashioned mom instinct. I learned just what Evan needed to be the best Evan he could be, and IEPs became less and less intimidating.

I am also fortunate to live in a district that has been able to accommodate Evan pretty well. Things are not perfect, and we don’t get everything we ask for. There have been a few angry meetings, but overall it’s been okay. Which means there hasn’t been a great need for both Jon and me to show up at Evan’s IEPs.

When Jon was by my side as I walked into our son’s most recent IEP, the tension was palpable. Although the teacher and I have a very good working relationship, I sensed some initial trepidation over dad’s unprecedented presence. We explained that jury duty took just over two days and not the full week they expected, and the tension evaporated.

Jon sat in awe. Like any proud dad, he liked hearing about his son’s outgoing nature and that Evan is making some academic progress. It was harder to listen to stories about his meltdowns and occasional visits to the seclusion room. But after the meeting, my husband had a sense of what really goes into navigating the education of a child in special education.

“I don’t know how you do it,” he said. “You have all that information in your head, you know what to ask for, and you’re an unbelievable advocate for Evan.”

There are other moms who know their stuff more than I do and blow me out of the water with their skills and understanding of the process. Seriously, they are a walking encyclopedia of all things special education.

Still, I am an autism mom and we, by the nature of our jobs, learn to fight and kick ass for our kids. And when we can’t, we bring in help. We hire advocates, bring spouses, and enlist whatever army we need to fight the fight.

Fortunately, I haven’t needed an army, and I hope this will be Jon’s last IEP because I won’t feel the need for him be there as backup. Unless he wants to come. Of course, he is always welcome. But for now, I got this.

There are other parenting roles that I struggle with but Jon does not. For example, when there are issues with our other kids, he knows how to talk to them on their level. He knows how to make them see things from our point of view without talking down to them or lecturing them.

Earlier this year we scheduled an early morning meeting at school to discuss ways to help our other son have greater academic success. Seated around the table with us were some teachers and our son. Jon quietly took control of the meeting and by the end, not only were we all on the same page – 12-year-old included – but one of the teachers joking asked if Jon could come motive and inspire her class.

Thankfully we operate under a two-parent system. Outnumbered by kids and exhausted by life, we work best when we divide and conquer and that means dad doesn’t come to an IEP, unless of course he wants to be there. But I suspect that he’d rather meet for lunch.