Author Archives: juliaandrew

About juliaandrew

Laurel Collins is a Boston-based educational advocate who works with children with autism, Down Syndrome,sensory processing disorder, emotional disabilities & developmental delays.

How do we know if we have failed a student?

Here’s normal- for us.

Today, the Boy stimmed so much and pinched himself so much and banged his head with his hands out of sheer frustration, he physically hurt and I cried. Then I gave him his PRN.

This is the stuff NO ONE wants to read, not because they think it’s a lie, but because they have no words or actions to make A or his family have any comfort. We read so many inclusion (that word can mean many things) success stories, we can’t acknowledge as a special needs community sometimes we, the system, fail.

This is what breaks my heart about A: He KNOWS he has no friends. His last one, way more impaired than him, dropped him. Defriending for no explanation at all 😢

His school (I’m hoping mistakenly) forgot to send me the emails of parents who said they would release their emails (love the non-rights and inequality of students with disabilities and those without- no student handbooks even with parental permission, this is a first in his ed career) but this is how he sees his friends in black and white.

He’s trying to have a *small* bday party with actual peers (and a few specially chosen adult friends) but this is how he feels in his heart. I don’t blame most of the kids- they don’t know they hurt him bc of their disabilities- but I do question their parents’ roles. Anyone who has met A, teachers etc, will tell you how kind he is.

***Why as a society do we allow kids with autism to feel this way because they are treated as second class citizens?***

No speech by an SLP. I can only advocate so much. Some kids and their parents and some schools simply are not good and we will make the best out of a non-ideal situation.

Does this not make you sad? Maybe it’s a mama thing. ***Maybe the best we can do is teach our kids with autism how to get along with adults.***

He will have a birthday party with a few, or no, friends. These are HIS words below, not mine.

He can’t go to church without be ostracized. He CAN go to the pool, Echo, or Yogibo. Thank goodness. He doesn’t have enough hours with his PCA and respite worker because of the worker’s schedule now, so I do the best I can. We have used a family friend to cover weeks of hours, as needed.

But this is a SAD reflection on how we as teams and professionals (DDS, schools, districts, churches, HUMANS) see kids feel. We don’t, or rarely can’t, do anything. The older the person with a disability gets, the less people are responsive.

Another birthday, after being physically mistreated or maybe sexually abused at his old school, we simply don’t know, *after sitting at home for two months* to go to a school it took 90 minutes the last two Fridays for him to get home from…. shouldn’t he have the ability to have a birthday celebration with his peers and shouldn’t we have the ability to *invite* people?

Instead, I will be sending him things in the mail and pretending they are from people who care about him and I will be forging cards. The school prior (EVERY school prior) at least had a parent directory- this one refuses/doesn’t.

Let’s be honest. Have you met my son? The labels (ASD, ID) don’t do him justice. He is kind and friendly. He loves weather and teddy bears. He is affectionate.

He is not a bad young man, he has never in his life had a discipline problem. He has been failed by so many people, but now I am beginning to wonder if I am one of them, as well. Did I not do the right things or enough things?

Special ed. Too many politics, too much drama, not enough caring about students and people.

Thanks for walking in our shoes for a few minutes.

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Placement process reality

Your team agreed your child needs an outplacement.  Perhaps your child’s needs can not be met in her current placement?  Private day schools and collaboratives can unfortunately terminate a student for no reason with 30 days notice.  They can also initiate an “emergency termination”.
Now what happens?  An outplacement is usually a blessing, but it is work to get in place, unless your school district has already worked with one school and they have agreed that school is appropriate (and you have, too).
Districts send referral packets to private day schools and collaboratives they think might be appropriate based on the student’s needs.   Parents and collaterals often participate in that process of determining potentially appropriate schools.
What is in that packet? Anything agreed can be sent.  Typically, the IEP, progress reports and the last school evaluations as well as independent evaluations submitted to the school are sent so receiving schools get a sense of a student’s needs.  Behavior plans and incident reports could be sent.  Parents sign off on that release. Whether the separating is amicable or not, the outgoing school will usually not involve itself in the school search process, except to with consent speak to the potential school to ensure a smooth transition and before that to ensure the potential receiving school have up to date information and proper historical background.
A private school/collaborative who receives a referral packet then decides if it might be a fit.  If so, it invites parents in for tour, sometimes with kids, and sometimes kids do visit after.  The purpose is to then give the school information to bring to their admissions board/team to see if there will be acceptance offered, or not.  That is usually done 1x per week.  Advocates work closely with private day schools and collaboratives, as well as with your district, to ensure the process moves as expeditiously as possible.
Private day schools and collaboratives then say “yes” or “no”.  They are under no obligation to accept any student, the obligation (arguably) is on the district to agree to fund any of the schools they send packets to who accept the student.  The schools do not have to give reasons.  They don’t even have to send letters saying “yes” or “no” to the parents.  It’s like the college admissions process, without the benefit of a denial being written and sent often (ie: “At this time, we do not feel Joey is appropriate for our program”.
Whatever school parents choose, they should feel free to always consult a special education attorney and address issues with their school and home teams.  Always have a “Plan B”.  Educational consultants do an extraordinary amount of work talking to collaterals to give them information or work with them to describe the barriers and problem solve, if needed.  You can not FORCE a school which has said “no” to say “yes”.  It makes families appear very negative/pushy to the private day school.  These schools have many candidates for limited slots and they are trying to choose who they feel is the most appropriate fit at this time.  It is not like a public school where the service delivery grid travels with the student automatically.  Often, private day schools who initially deny admission suggest a student re-apply the following year or two if they feel the fit is not right currently.

Spring is almost here… are birds chirping? Or IEP meetings happening?

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It’s IEP Season. This is the time of year (my 12th IEP Season) parents who are in a dispute with their IEP team may consider hiring an advocate.   It’s, in fact, one of the best times to do so, as an advocate will help you build your case and obtain the evidence you need to effect change.  You do need to not expect someone be immediately available.  I say this with great respect to my colleagues if someone has an open caseload in March, that is likely *not* a good thing.  I’m fortunate my work load is by referral only at this point in my career.  I get referrals from wonderful families (you can see some on Linked In), but also professionals and also special ed administrators.  Am I strong? Yes.  Am I kind and do I smile? Yes.  Do I advocate with passion for my client?  Absolutely.

If you have educational advocate, you may think about making a change… Keep in mind the following as you decide if you are going to continue your relationship with your child’s educational advocate. First and foremost, advocates aren’t lawyers. We also aren’t licensed (I think we should be).  Every advocate operates their practice differently.  We have strengths (one of mine is negotiation and simple BSEA work and mediation) and challenges (one of mine is tolerance for kids being hurt in educational programming).

Make sure any potential advocate’s billing practices are transparent. For example, it’s apparently common practice for advocates to maintain consultative relationships with other professionals with the advocate billing the client for the time the professional bills the advocate. At minimum, ensure a potential advocate’s contract indicates how that consulting professional’s time will be billed and at what point authorization for funds would be required.  Make sure a new contract is signed every year- things change.  For example, I added an online billing option (which people love), but it costs me 2.9% to process a payment, so I added to my contract there is a 2.9% charge for paying online.

In my practice (as I believe to be best practice) I suggest that parents enter into professional relationships/contracts with whom they choose and billing should be separate.  Don’t blur lines- do a “gut check” if an advocate wants to talk to an attorney and you don’t. If an advocate is in over their head, I’d argue it is their responsibility to tell you as much.  If you want to hire a new advocate, tell us, we understand not every advocate is best for every family.  If you choose to hire an attorney to work alongside your advocate, make sure they mesh well with your advocate and home team.  I trust special ed attorneys who value relationships I’m wary of ones who come in and disregard the input of for example a 4-6 member home professional team (ie: neuropsychologists, developmental pediatrician, long-term advocate YOU trust and have told as much).  I’m downright confused when they, and maybe this is part of their job, don’t have the vested interest in a child I do.  (See picture at top of post, it’s a “meme” I wrote).

Bottom line: Check references, make sure any advocate is experienced and knows the laws and regulations, can take notes, advocate strongly verbally, and keep professional during team meetings.  It’s a balancing act.  Trust her and keep communication lines open. We don’t read minds. Make sure you are comfortable with her strategy. (Make doubly sure they she has a strategy you agree with!) Without trust, there is no relationship which benefits your child.  I go to the doctor and have lots of questions that I ask, but I trust their opinions, too, and balance my decisions.  Micro-managing is not something which works.  When people say “we love you and your work but we don’t want collateral releases and you can’t talk to the school or our home provider, it can make for one heck of an awkward IEP meeting”. It’s understandable, but shows a lack of trust.  Every lawyer and advocate I have hired, I have trusted.  Teamwork is the key.  Don’t take advantage of advocates who are kind and offer to help pro bono but whose help is sometimes abused.  We know what agencies to refer people to if needed.

Another thing to remember: A good advocate does not typically work in their own school district if their children are still in the special education system.  While there are occasional exceptions to that rule (ie: the advocate’s kids are safely ensconced in private placements or your kids are 22+), it is in most cases not wise without taking a look at important facts. (This flies in the face of the advice given by a mentor special ed attorney who says we all should work where we are asked to if we choose to, but I’m, putting it out there)  It may cross boundaries, and I have witnessed it (with friends) negatively affect the advocate’s and the family’s credibility.  You can’t be fighting for your own kid (actively in conflict), fighting for your neighbor’s, and running your Special Education Parent Advisory Council.  Be a parent advocate where you live for your own kids, not an advocate for other people’s, unless your child is in a permanent placement and there is literally no ability to need to litigate or have an adversarial interaction on their behalf.

*Remember, advocates have few legal protections if your child’s district files for hearing or if you do.  They have none if they are contacted by the Department of Children and Families (formerly DSS) or if God forbid they hold certification in pretty much anything and witness suspected abuse or neglect, for example at school during an observation.  Those of us who are certified are mandated to report, those who are not, are encouraged by our professional organizations to do so regardless.  Our job is to support kids and families.  We don’t embellish ever,  or violate a child’s confidentiality except when questioned by DCF or law enforcement.  An example of this is I witnessed a little one get hurt but pulling a water table down on himself in preschool with the special ed director sitting next to me. He was not being supervised and had many disabilities.  I also witnessed, with a wonderful team chair next to me, a little girl severely affected by autism and not verbal nearly choke heself on a piece of suspended equipment when her aide was looking the other direction (no teacher assigned to the classroom).  The co-observer intervened.   Recently, I saw a para be rough with a child in an ASD room and fail to stop SIBs- I had to report if only to make sure the incident was on record.  Again, my co-observer, a BCBA,  needed to intervene to keep the child safe.

Partner with your educational advocate to work towards the educational programming your child requires.  It’s up to the advocate to keep emotion out of meetings and keep emotions calm and the meeting focused on the child (none of this “Joey is the leader of our class of 15”, like a sample of 15 kids is what we are there to talk about).  It’s not.  We help with formal correspondence (that angry, emotional email you want to send to the school, don’t, put it in your drafts folder, and share your concerns and it with your advocate).  We can’t advocate and talk (even if a parent is not helping their child by what they are saying) if parents talk over us in meetings, so a clear strategy is important to come up with and stick to before a team meeting. That’s why we’re here- to let you be mom and dad. We will guide you in the best direction based on our education, experience, and in many cases relationship with the team.  My job is about relationships more than anything- with families, with districts, with private schools, etc.  You have to play peacemaker with kind force as much as you have to advocate.   This is true for us no matter who the client- if they are pro-bono or paying full rate.

You have to realize your school district staff cares about your child (I hope) but they are not your friends.  If you want to simply be friends with the team, and will back down when a seasoned administrator plays parent vs advocate, you are not ready to hire an advocate so I say this honestly: save your money.

You have to be doing this work for the child.  You have to be a partner with their family.  You have to do this because you are passionate about support children, sometimes that’s by obtaining an outplacement, other times it’s be obtaining appropriate in-class and/or inclusion supports.

New School Year: Is it time to hire an advocate?

This is the time of year parents who are in a dispute with their IEP team may consider hiring an advocate.  It’s, in fact, the best time to do so, as an advocate will help you build your case and obtain the evidence you need to effect change.

If you have educational advocate, you may think about making a change… Keep in mind the following as you decide if you are going to continue your relationship with your child’s educational advocate. First and foremost, advocates aren’t lawyers. We also aren’t licensed (I think we should be).  Every advocate operates their practice differently.

Make sure any potential advocate’s billing practices are transparent. For example, it’s apparently common practice for advocates to maintain consultative relationships with other professionals with the advocate billing the client for the time the professional bills the advocate. At minimum, ensure a potential advocate’s contract indicates how that consulting professional’s time will be billed and at what point authorization for funds would be required.

However, in my practice (as I believe to be best practice) I suggest that parents enter into professional relationships/contracts with whom they choose and billing should be separate. Don’t blur lines- do a “gut check” if an advocate wants to talk to an attorney and you don’t. If an advocate is in over their head, I’d argue it is their responsibility to tell you as much.

Bottom line: check references, make sure any advocate is experienced and knows the laws and regulations, can take notes, advocate strongly verbally, and keep professional during team meetings.  It’s a balancing act.  Trust her and keep communication lines open with your advocate. Make sure you are comfortable with their strategy. (Make doubly sure they have a strategy you agree with!) Without trust, there is no relationship which benefits your child.  I go to the doctor and have lots of questions that I ask, but I trust their opinions.  Micro-managing is not something which works.  When people say “we love you and your work but we don’t want collateral releases”, it’s understandable, but shows a lack of trust.  Every lawyer and advocate I have hired, I have trusted.

Another thing to remember: A good advocate does not typically work in their own school district if their children are still in the special education system.  While there are occasional exceptions to that rule (ie: your kids are safely ensconced in private placements or your kids are 22+), it is in most cases not wise without taking a look at important facts.  It usually crosses boundaries, and I have witnessed it (with friends) negatively effect the advocate’s and the family’s credibility.  You can’t be fighting for your own kid (actively in conflict), fighting for your neighbor’s, and running your Special Education Parent Advisory Council.  Be a parent advocate where you live for your own kids, not an advocate for other people’s, unless your child is in a permanent placement and there is literally no ability to need to litigate or have an adverserial interaction on their behalf.

Remember, advocates have few legal protections if your child’s district files for hearing or if you do.  They have none if they are contacted by the Department of Children and Families (formerly DSS) or if God forbid they hold certification in pretty much anything and witness suspected abuse or neglect, for example at school during an observation.  Those of us who are certified are mandated to report, those who are not, re encouraged by our professional organizations to do so regardless.  Out job is to support kids and families.  We don’t embellish or violate a child’s confidentiality except when questioned by DCF or law enforcement.  A example of this is I witnessed a little one get hurt but pulling a water table down on himself in preschool with the special ed director sitting next to me. He was not being supervised and had many disabilities.  I also witnessed, with a wonderful team chair next to me, a little girl severely affected by autism and not verbal nearly choke themselves on a piece of suspended equipment when their aide was looking the other direction (no teacher assigned to the classroom).  The co-observer intervened.   Recently, I saw a para be rough with a child in an ASD room and fail to stop SIBs- I had to report if only to make sure the incident was on record.  Again, my co-observer needed to intervene to keep the child safe.

Partner with your educational advocate to work towards the educational programming your child requires. It’s up to the advocate to keep emotion out of meetings and help with formal correspondence (that angry, emotional email you want to send to the school, don’t, put it in your drafts folder, and share your concerns and it with your advocate).  We can’t advocate and talk (even if a parent is not helping their child by what they are saying) if parents talk over us in meetings, so a clear strategy is important to come up with and stick to before a team meeting. That’s why we’re here- to let you be mom and dad. We will guide you in the best direction based on our education, experience, and in many cases relationship with the team.  My job is about relationships more than anything- with families, with districts, with private schools, etc.  You have to play peacemaker with kind force as much as you have to advocate.

Happy new school year, all.

How we educate others 

There’s a typical view many of my high school teacher/educator/guidance counselor friends have: Kids join clubs because it looks good on college applications. Often times those clubs are meaningful, sometimes they are “just for the application”.

Everyone is different, every buddy and every buddy with a developmental or intellectual disability they are paired up with. When volunteering as a high schooler for an organization like Best Buddies, TOPS, Challenger, or  local Special Olympics, are the expectations a bit different than doing track & field or participating in student council?   Of course they are.

Similarly, when in college, volunteering for a non-profit your college, fraternity or sorority supports, the same questions arise.  I offer to all young people (as the mom of children both with and without ID/D and autism): Make the commitment if you choose and keep it.

No one expects high schools kids to desert their other activities and just be a buddy, no one expects a college fraternity brother to all of a sudden have a textbook knowledge of autism, or even know people with autism, if that what their chapter supports. What we need to understand is that the students with ID/D (autism, etc.) don’t understand transitions.   What they do understand can be VERY hard to process. We see so much GOOD, let’s not lose focus. However, when teens are off to college or college kids are forced, or “strongly encouraged”, to participate in a charity, let’s educate them about what it means.  Kids like my Son and my clients have such a difficult time making friends, having other students or adults make that process more onerous and unkind, even without intending to be “mean”, IS mean.  The person whose feelings you might be hurting doesn’t get being abandoned.  Trust doesn’t come easily and consistency and structure are critical to students with autism, for example.

Friendships through Best Buddies made should be real and meaningful and, emergencies not withstanding, we need to honor those friendships/commitments.  We NEED to train volunteers in college to not only show up,  but to meaningfully interact with those served by the charity they are volunteering for.  If we don’t, the only people who lose out on relationships are the students with disabilities (and their confused families).

We need to help high school kids handle transitions, not just an “end of the year” party and the parting words “we hope you will stay in touch”.  We need to have college volunteers trained in how to interact with people with disabilities if they are doing community service.

Equally important, we need to make sure no one feels pressured to volunteer for any roles. It’s not (always) easy to enter the world of a child or teen with autism. We need to promote these inclusionary and volunteer efforts and take the time to educate the volunteers.  There’s nothing worse than people who do these things solely because they look good on college applications. That’s pretty sad.

It’s also sad to see good people who are giving their time for the right reasons but not being adequately educated by their advisors.

Let’s work together to brainstorm solutions to make for successful lifelong friendships and meaningful events where volunteers are present.  That’s the missing piece- we can solve that disconnect by first acknowledging people aren’t encyclopedias and there are deficits in training to tackle.  Doing this, we honor our volunteers and we honor those with disabilities we are all seeking to support and help grow 💙❤️ That’s a true win-win.

A beautiful surprise 

Made by my son, almost 18, with autism. Much to my surprise, he apparently understands my job and advocacy pretty darn well ❤️ I will always advocate for you, my amazing Boy 💙 I love you the moon and back and will never stop “sticking up” for you.

 Love, Mom