When you have a child with autism, there are so many things to “stress about” but parents should not have to do it all alone. School districts are obligated under federal law to offer, as a related service on the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), parent counseling and training. It is the best kept secret.
It is perhaps the most overlooked legal right parents with an ASD child have. Many school districts around the country ignore this provision, and some, like the New York City Department of Education, claim it is embedded in its District 75 (Special Education) program and therefore routinely fails to put parent counseling and training on the children’s IEPs.
Imagine that you are at your child Josh’s IEP meeting either for the first time or the “umpteenth” time. Your child’s teacher paints a picture that, no matter what she tries, she can’t get Josh’s behaviors under control – she’s “at a loss.” You think to yourself, “Me too!” The Committee on Special Education (CSE) chairperson sighs and says, “That’s very typical with autism,” and moves on to discuss the class size your child should be in next year. Wait. Stop. Typical of autism? Hmm … you were told by Josh’s pediatrician that autism is a spectrum disorder and that Josh will present with unique needs and, while there are commonalities among ASD children, there is nothing typical about autism; behaviors vary from child to child and there can be a multitude of reasons for the behaviors. But you are not sure and you are in a room filled with educators – don’t they know best? You think so, but that is not how you feel. You are not even sure what questions you should ask, but you try and blurt out, “Are Josh’s behaviors normal?” The teacher is about to answer, but the CSE chairperson cuts her off and answers you with a curt, “Yes, it’s normal for children with autism,” and continues with the conversation about class size. You are just not sure. During the meeting, the team decides on the related services Josh will get: speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. It occurs to you more strongly than ever that you really need help with managing these “normal behaviors” and you ask, “Is there any help I can get to help Josh with his behaviors?” The CSE chair gives you a sympathetic smile and tells you that she is sure there are parent groups you can join, but offers you nothing beyond that. You think to yourself, “I need help supporting Josh’s needs at home – I don’t know how they teach him skills at school.”
Know Your Federal Rights
Your instinct is right, and Congress has recognized that parents do need help in the form of parent counseling and training. The federal regulations define parent counseling and training as:
- … assisting parents in understanding the special needs of their child;
- providing parents with information about child development; and
- helping parents to acquire the necessary skills that will allow them to support the implementation of their child’s IEP or Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) (34 C.F.R. 300.34(c)(8)).
Parent counseling and training is mandated as a related service to be offered as part of your child’s IEP.
The Official Comments to the Federal Regulations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) help us to understand what is meant by parent counseling and training (Under the Related Services heading in the Official Comments published March 12, 1999 in the Federal Register (Vol. 64, No. 48, at page 12423, et seq.), Parent Counseling and Training is included and defined).
The federal law makes it clear that parents are entitled to counseling and training in how they can help implement their child’s IEP goals and objectives. Parents can and should ask that parent counseling and training be listed as a related service on their child’s IEP. The frequency and duration of the parent counseling and training depends on what your child’s needs are. A student with autism with many severe behaviors should have intensive parent counseling – a half hour once a month is not enough. Parents should present an expert report at the IEP meeting or have an expert participate at the meeting who can recommend the level of parent counseling and training that is appropriate for the disability you are supporting at home.
Parent counseling and training, as obligated under federal law, should not be the best kept secret and, hopefully now, the cat is out of the bag.
Tracey Spencer Walsh, JD (Fordham University School of Law, ’94) is the Senior Counsel at Mayerson & Associates, a New York law firm dedicated to representing children and adolescents on the autism spectrum, and assisting families in accessing the education and related services necessary and appropriate for students. For six years, Ms. Walsh worked as an educator and served as an Upper School Dean of Students at an independent school in Rye, New York.