Right after his Autism diagnosis, we had our first IEP meeting.

An IEP is an “Individualized Education Program” which “defines the individualized objectives of a child who has been found with a disability … [and] is intended to help children reach educational goals more easily than they otherwise would … [T]he IEP must be tailored to the individual student’s needs … and must especially help teachers and related service providers … understand the student’s disability and how the disability affects the learning process.”

At the meeting, my son, his dad, and I sat around a low table, with his teacher, his special education teacher, his IEP case manager, and the school principal.

My son entertained himself with rocks and minerals set on the table for the day’s lesson while the adults started to discuss needed accommodations.

The IEP case manager handed us a piece of paper summarizing our son’s “issues” and started to read this list of “problems” out loud.

I was stunned. He was sitting at the table with us in full hearing of the reading of this list of “problems” – no one would be comfortable listening to authority figures recite what was “wrong” with them.

More importantly, however, there was no list of my son’s strengths along with the list of challenges.

This was the real problem.

For every characteristic that can be classified as a “problem,” there is a flip side, something that actually works as a benefit for my son, part of his strengths.

For example, his sensory sensitivity gave him the benefit of access to a lot of information. When he was able to process the sensory input, he analyzed what he was hearing, seeing, smelling, and feeling, and drew some amazing and astute conclusions.

As a visual thinker he may have had difficulty processing verbal information, but he also remembered what he saw, saw an extraordinary amount of detail and drew beautifully.

While my son’s perseveration could be most challenging, it was also a characteristic that made him dogged when trying to learn something new that he was interested in.

No child comes into the world with only challenges. Children with disabilities must learn strategies and methods to use as tools to help them be able to do the things they want to do.

These tools must be developed focused on the child’s strengths, base in love, creativity, and patience.

Failing to use those strengths as the foundation for developing the tools, and even taking strengths into consideration, is a failure by the adults responsible for supporting the child.

At home, at school, in the IEP the child’s strengths should be the first thing discussed, challenges second, including an analysis of how each challenge has a “flip side” that works to benefit the child.

At that first IEP meeting, we insisted that from that point forward our son’s strengths were to always be prominently listed along with the “problems” the IEP was intended to address, and that his strengths were considered first and used to frame IEP accommodations.

He later told me that he wasn’t listening to our discussion – he was more focused on the interesting rocks and minerals on the table and so did not hear the list of “problems.” Thank goodness.

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