Fighting the Mis-Education in Special Education

My child was mislabeled by the school psychiatrist

I remember the day when a school psychiatrist suspected that my daughter had autism. I sat there, perplexed why she thought that. She said that my daughter played alone and she had awkward social behaviors that were similar to those on the spectrum.

My daughter was in the third grade and it was her fourth year at that particular school. She knew who the mean girls were and she chose to play alone to avoid messy conflict. I objected to the psychiatrist’s suspicion and told her that I had her assessed for autism by the Regional Center of the East Bay (RCEB) at two years old. RCEB determined that she did not have autism, but speech/language processing disorder, which resulted in her having difficulty communicating. RCEB provided speech therapy services to her as a toddler until she was enrolled in preschool for language development. 

It did not matter that I was an experienced special education instructional assistant and ran an inclusion program for students with special needs for ten years. It did not matter that RCEB assessed her and did not find her to be on the spectrum. The school psychiatrist was determined to label my daughter as autistic.

I argued that my daughter was a different person at school and she had bullies so it was easier for her to play alone. She was an only child so she knew how to entertain herself. I asked the psychiatrist to observe my daughter at home or at the after school program. The psychiatrist said that she was not allowed to observe her outside of school. I told her that the assessment would be biased. She needed to review RCEB’s report before she went fishing for the information she would not find. 

I left the meeting upset and not sure what the woman’s intention was. She was new to the school and she was labeling my child after meeting her a few times. This is a problem in many schools where teachers and education specialists want to label students that they do not relate to.

Many Black students are labeled with some form of disability because they learn differently. I majored in Education and if I knew to have my daughter assessed in time to correct it, it should not have been disregarded. I had to speak up for my daughter as she was not able to communicate her thoughts and feelings very well.

The results would be presented at the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. This particular meeting was a big one because it was the triennial meeting, where they assess the child for everything in their development; speech, math, reading, writing, and social cues. My daughter struggled with a lot of it at the time, and the special education team presented that my daughter had autism.

I was the only Black person in the room full of White educators. I knew my rights as a parent since I was a product of special education because of my hearing loss. The IEP is a legal document for parents and the school district where they are liable for providing services for the students

 If it is recorded and everyone signed it, that is a binding contract. Most parents of color do not know that they can hold the school liable if they do not provide the services. The IEP is their legal proof and they can sue the school district for failure to provide accommodations needed for the student to get a quality education. It can be extra test time, individual support from an assistant, speech therapy, etc. I signed the document so it could be recognized that I read their assessment, and I ended the meeting by saying that they must provide everything to accommodate her “disability.” Whatever a student with autism receive, they must provide it.

For fourth grade, my daughter had a Black female teacher. My daughter made progress under her instruction

Andre Perry stated in Black Teachers Matter, For Students and Communities, “…Minority teachers are more motivated to work with minority students in extremely segregated schools… These teachers have higher academic expectations for minority students, which translate into higher achievement and social growth for this population; they also serve as positive role models.”

I did not bring up the autism label on her IEP until fifth grade when she had the same teacher in fifth grade. I waited to give her a chance to get to know my daughter and I asked her for her opinion about my daughter being on the spectrum. She was not aware of it and did not see that in my daughter. However, she was not a special education teacher so she had to leave it up to the special education specialist at the school.

I knew that my daughter was leaving the charter school to attend a regular public school in sixth grade. The school was kindergarten through eighth, but she needed a fresh start at a traditional middle school.

At the fifth-grade IEP meeting, I asked the special education specialist about the autism label as a secondary disability on her IEP report. The school psychiatrist that labeled her no longer worked there and her assumption left a “permanent” mark on my daughter’s IEP report. The special education specialist was not aware of my objection since she was not at the triennial IEP meeting a few years prior. She asked why that word was an issue. I asked her if she worked at a public school before, and she was not sure where I was going with that question.

I told her that my daughter would be attending a regular public school and they tended to isolate students with severe disabilities in special day classes. The new school district would not know her and what she was capable of; they would see “autism” and she would not be in a regular classroom as she had been at that school.

The special education specialist tried to reassure me that it meant that she learned differently and I could challenge it at the triennial IEP for sixth grade. I felt defeated again. I was nervous because that meant that I would have to challenge an old decision. 

I focused on my daughter’s academic progress to prepare her for sixth grade. For fifth grade, she had two Black female teachers who were supportive and they were great for all of the students. They knew how to tap into each student’s abilities and make them shine.

The fifth graders had a community service project and if they did more than the minimum hours, they could graduate with honors. My daughter completed more than the minimum community service hours, and she gained confidence in herself. She graduated with honors from her school and began summer school at her new middle school to get acclimated for the new school year.

Since it was a new experience for her, I told her that she did not have to be perfect in everything. As long as she showed up, participated, did her work and turned it in, passed the exams, she would get at least a B. I did not want her to be pressured to get straight A’s. If she did, then great, but realistically, there may be subjects she may struggle with. I told her to ask questions if she was not sure and to ask for help. Middle school was a different level than elementary.

The week before the new school year started, when we picked up her class schedule, I noticed that they did not list that she was in special education. On the first day of school, I took off work to meet with a school administrator. Apparently, they did not receive my daughter’s IEP folder from her old school.

Prepared, I brought my copies of the documents to the meeting so they could have something on file. I contacted her old school to coordinate a time to pick up her folder to deliver to her new school. It was not easy, but fortunately, her old school trusted me to release the IEP folder in my care. I personally delivered her folder to the new school so they could keep her on track for services. An emergency IEP was scheduled a couple of weeks later to acknowledge that the school was aware of her needs and how they could support her.

At the meeting, I was nervous. The new special education specialist started the meeting by saying, “She has autism because she doesn’t want to play with girls? Your daughter is smart because girls are messy.”

I felt relieved that they did their research and came prepared. I said, “Yes!” The new IEP team gave me a brief update on how my daughter was doing in her classes without special education support and my daughter was so far getting A’s. They did not find any concern and I told them that she needed to be reassessed for autism as secondary. They said they would be getting ready for her triennial IEP and we would meet in a few months. I told them that they could reach me anytime and let me know when they were sending any documents for me to review and sign.

I did not read their emergency IEP report until I got home. They wrote about my background; they listed where I went to college, my occupation as a writer and how I had my daughter assessed at RCEB. They knew I was not playing if I contacted an organization to assess my child and get proper services for her. I was confident in this special education team.

When it was time for my daughter to be assessed at school, I told her how important it was to do her best. She knew the students with disabilities that I used to work with at the school and recreation program. I told her that they had a disability called autism and that disability was on her report. She said, “But I’m not like that.” I said that I knew and that was why she had to show them. They were basing it on her test scores and it was important for her to take her time. She was already getting A’s and some high B’s in her classes. She made the honor roll and she needed to prove herself on this specialized exam.

At the triennial IEP meeting, it was a cold December. It was the moment that I had been waiting for since the year before. The IEP team of the speech therapist, special education specialist, vice-principal, and school psychiatrist were all there making it very crowded. I sat at the head of the table and they each went around to give an update on their assessment.

They used a bell curve to show below average, average, and above average. As we went through each test on reading, math, and writing, my daughter tested average and above average. I covered my mouth like I could not believe the results. I was happy, but we were not done. Then we talked about the part of her socialization skills and their observation with her in classes (autism evaluation report.)

She socialized fine and was attentive. Although she was a couple of points away from the mark from the assessment, they said it was inconclusive that she had autism and said they would remove autism from her IEP. I was becoming excited. The speech therapist said that she did not need to meet with my daughter for speech since my daughter was communicating fine. She talked to her classmates and interacted with them appropriately. I learned something new about my kid since she did not share with me about her school days. 

With all of the information in front of me, the special education specialist said that my daughter was doing well and she was not using special education services anymore. They asked if it was okay to remove her from special education services and closeout her case.

I never heard of that before. I was in special education until I graduated from high school, but my accommodations were having seating at the front of the classrooms and an American Sign Language interpreter. My daughter was doing so well at her new school and she got a fresh start. I signed off to release her from special education services and that concluded our meeting.

I walked out of the meeting like Will Smith at the end of the movie The Pursuit of Happiness. I was so relieved, but that was not the right word. It was more than that. It took three years but I fought for my kid. I was not going to let a school determine my daughter’s fate. I knew my power and I am sharing this story because many parents do not know how to advocate for their children in special education.

If my daughter had autism, then I would not have been bothered by it. But a specialized organization that tests babies and children every day determined that she did not. A school psychiatrist should not have overruled that decision. It was a battle, and it did not feel good to be worried about how people would perceive my daughter.

No parent wants their child to be mislabeled. I refused to accept that and they learned the hard way that I was not that parent they could play with.

As parents, we have to be advocates for our children and challenge educators. We know our children better than they do, and if our intuition is telling us something different than their recommendations then we should listen to it.

I am sharing my story because I want to help parents learn how to advocate for themselves and their children. We are allowed to challenge educators if we do not agree with their assumptions. We know our children better than they do, and if our intuition is telling us something different than their recommendations then we should listen to it.   

While I was fortunate to know about RCEB through my work, not everyone lives in the Bay Area and their resources may be limited. There are resources out there, and we need awareness of what they are and how to access them. Lastly, we need more advocates for families and children with disabilities, especially for Black families and people of color.

To find more writing and books by Joy Elan: www.authorjoyelan.com

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