I have had the pleasure of working with hundreds of parents of special needs children for 25 years to assist in the development and provision of an appropriate special education program. I am also a parent of a 31-year-old daughter with a diagnosis of autism and seizure disorder. The issue of how to teach a child to understand their differences and accept accommodations of the curriculum has always been a problematic topic for parents.

Becoming self-aware of our own strengths and weaknesses is a part of life and plays a huge role in our development as we grow up and experience the maturation process at school, in the community, developing relationships and social life.

When opening a new case, I always meet with the parent and the child. I interview the student and present my same little speech, which essentially explained how every person has strengths and weaknesses. I’d give the example of how English class was always a class in which I excelled but Math was always a challenge and I struggled to keep up.

Some parents don’t want their child to know they have a disability and keep it hidden by avoiding the conversation and diverting questions from their child. They fear it will cause harm to their child’s self-esteem and mental health. I can tell you that this will eventually cause problems when your child is in high school and transitions to adult life. Kids are much more aware than we think. At some point in their lives, they realize they are different. It’s much easier for them to grapple with this issue when they have the support of their parents. They need to feel comfortable asking questions and know their parent is open to discussion.

Some parents don’t know their child’s areas of weakness and therefore, cannot even begin to guide their child in understanding why they struggle in school. Many parents just don’t know how to approach this subject and feel uncomfortable because of a lack of knowledge or their own unresolved emotions and denial about their child’s disability.

There are so many examples I could talk about to paint a picture for you on this subject. I’m going to use a very personal example which is my own daughter, Chanel.

Chanel was fully included in general education until she reached middle school when we placed her in RSP (Resource Support Program) for core curriculum classes like Language Arts and Math. The RSP class had students who were ADHD or a had a learning disability and looked exactly like a general education class with a smaller class size but held high expectations for the students to learn the same curriculum as all general education students. Other than core curriculum classes, all of Chanel’s other classes were general education.

Because she was raised around typical peers throughout grade school, she had typical friends and went to Brownies, Sunday School, and social events with typical developing peers. She was always included with her younger brother and sister’s parties and social events.

We discussed Chanel’s autism and seizures openly and my other two kids were her greatest cheerleaders. If anyone would say or do anything to make fun of or bully Chanel, my other two kids were right there to set them straight.

As Chanel got into high school, other than an RSP class, she didn’t want anything to do with a special education class that looked different. When the school tried to include her with the more severe population, Chanel would simply leave the area and make clear she did not belong there. She understands she has autism and seizures, but she doesn’t see herself as being any different than a typical young person.

She asks for help when she needs it, and she is aware of her limitations but also very aware of her strengths and she has many. She has innate computer skills and she’s an artist and has always displayed excellent fine motor skills. She has a gifted memory and a great sense of humor. She’s a very hard worker and won’t give up until she can master a skill. She is like an animal whisperer and has a strong connection with dogs, cats, horses, and really any animal. She has always been fascinated with wolves and has studied and drawn them since she was young. After high school, she earned a California credential dog groomer license and worked at our local Doggie Spa. Sadly, since moving from our hometown, we have struggled to find Chanel another job.

As an adult, we have faced many challenges for Chanel such as finding competitive employment, getting her involved in social events in the community, and curbing her addiction to the iPhone, computer, and television. After high school, there’s a whole new set of challenges for us parents of neurodiverse kids.

With that example, let’s focus back on how parents can learn to support their neurodiverse child to understand their differences and accept the accommodations and help they need to be successful in their school career.

There are several reasons why parents have an issue with how to handle teaching their child to become self-aware about their differences.

1. Parents may take issue with placing a label on their child because they don’t want their child to be forced to carry that label after high school.

I don’t like labels either; in fact, I think they are discriminatory. IDEA does not require a child to be labeled in order to receive FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). However, labels are what differentiate eligibility for an IEP and areas of need, which assist in the development of appropriate goals, supports, services and placement for the child. Currently and very unfortunately, we have a system built on labels and until our system is reformed, we must work within the IEP process if we want our child to attend public school. Instead of fighting the system on the issue of labels, I would rather focus on advocating for the most appropriate IEP to meet a student’s needs. The IEP will either make or break a child’s education. The IEP can either ensure your child graduates with a High School diploma or simply a credential of completion, which isn’t’ worth the paper it’s printed on.

2. Many kids want to prove to themselves that they can accomplish something without help because they don’t want to look different so they tell their parents that they don’t want accommodations that would cause them to be treated differently.

It’s very common for teachers and parents to report that the child refuses to accept accommodations of curriculum or special supports in the classroom. Many kids are very concerned with what other kids think about them and care more about standing out than they do about their grades. Now this isn’t a bad thing, it is natural for kids to want to fit in and social status and peer pressure is a big part of school.

Sadly, our society still holds a very judgmental and discriminatory mindset toward the neurodiverse population. Our kids don’t want to stand out and they don’t want their peers to ask, “Why does Jimmy have something different than the rest of the class?”

What’s even more concerning is when a teacher says, “It’s not fair for your child to have accommodations that the other students don’t receive.” This is in complete opposition of IDEA, federal law, which requires schools to address any deficit that impedes that student from accessing the curriculum. Deficits are addressed by providing goals, accommodations, supports, and services.

Parents can address this issue by asking the IEP team to train the teacher on how and why they are required to implement accommodations. Non-implementation of accommodations is a violation of state and federal law. Parents can write a state compliance complaint and any teacher who refuses or fails to implement accommodations will be found in violation.

Ensuring the teacher is providing accommodations in a very confidential and discreet manner is critical in your child’s ability to learn. It is very common for teachers to announce, “Jimmy, it’s time to go to Speech and Language,” or “Jimmy, you only have to do 8 Math problems instead of all 15.” This is completely inappropriate. It’s no one’s business what accommodations another student is receiving. The IEP is a confidential legal document and announcing accommodations to the class is a violation of confidentiality.

If a student is self-aware and understands their strengths and weaknesses, it is more likely for a student to be able to accept why they need certain accommodations and even learn how to self-advocate by requesting their accommodations so they can learn. Some students don’t have the ability to request accommodations due to their speech and language and/or cognitive deficits. Provision of accommodations is not contingent upon a student requesting them. Teachers are mandated to provide accommodations without a student asking for them and must be written in this manner. When students understand their weaknesses and how their disability affects their learning, they are able to see the value in having accommodations.

The bullying issue remains to be a huge problem in schools across the nation. Most schools do a very poor job of holding students who bully accountable by conducting investigations when a bullying issue occurs. It’s not right and it isn’t just, but we as parents can help our kids to learn there are people in life who are cruel and support our children to build a strong self-esteem based upon their areas of strength.

3. Some parents are tired of inaccurate stigmas and misinformation that can cause a discrimination mindset from teachers in the classroom.

This issue goes back to my point about ensuring teachers are held accountable and are trained to teach students on an IEP. Every teacher is obligated to teach ALL students and that includes students on an IEP. If a teacher doesn’t know how to implement accommodations in a discreet and supportive manner, that teacher is violating your child’s civil rights and IDEA, federal law. This is where parent advocacy is required.

If parents don’t know their state ed code and what IDEA requires, most likely, their child’s IEP is insufficient and their child’s needs are not being met.

If you’ve been following me, you know how strongly I believe in IEP Parent Training. Parent Training is a large part of the services I provide as a special education advocate.

4. Parents don’t have any actual proof of their child’s disability such as an official assessment required to get accommodations, supports and services.

The assessment process is the foundation to develop an appropriate IEP. If you don’t have an accurate medical diagnosis and educational eligibility for special education, most likely, your child is not receiving the goals, supports, services, and placement they need and deserve.

If you want to learn more about the district assessment process, click here.

5. Some parents aren’t even aware their child has a disability or where to start in getting help for their child.

If your child was sick, you’d take them to the doctor to get a medical diagnosis and help them to get better. Neurological disorders require medical and educational intervention to get the help they need and secure their future.

Parents who remain in denial or hope next year will get better are sacrificing precious time and delaying the help their child needs to learn. Your child can’t progress without the support they need just like without medical intervention; healing is delayed. It is much more prudent to rule out the possibility of a neurological disorder than to allow your child to lose educational benefit year after year. Schedule an appointment with your doctor and request a medical diagnosis to support the development of an appropriate IEP.

This article will give you more information regarding the IEP assessment process.

Our educational system and society remain discriminatory, lacking knowledge and understanding of the 1 in 7 population of neurodivergent individuals nationwide.

Society considers “desirable behaviors” as appropriate eye contact, sitting still, the appearance of concentration, and appropriate social skills. Education evaluates our kids though standardized test scores and requires labels to develop an appropriate IEP. Schools place our kids under a microscope and punitively discipline them for behaviors that are caused by their disability. Their strengths, talents, and potential are overshadowed by focusing on weaknesses and deficits.

For students to be successful in navigating life as a neurodiverse individual, parents should encourage their child to learn self-identification by having open conversations and using inclusive language, focusing on their strengths rather than their weaknesses.

Utilizing disability training, accessible websites, support groups, providing inclusive opportunities, and most of all, IEP Parent Training are all resources to help you and your child.

We can begin to see reform by accessing feedback from our divergent thinkers rather than ignore it or have them fear speaking their truth. But this won’t be possible without teaching our child how to self-identify and become self-aware of their differences, with the ultimate understanding that we are more alike, than different.

Cheering you on always!

Valerie Aprahamian

P.S. If you haven’t joined our Private Special Education Parent Empowerment Facebook Group yet, you should check it out here.

Here’s what parents are saying about the group:

“Thank you for sharing your knowledge Valerie! This world needs more people willing to speak the truth.” – Elizabeth

“Please keep blowing the whistle Valerie! So many children are being deprived of an education because of all the corruption and lies being told to parents. We pay our taxes like everyone else, which can be interpreted as our children have the same rights as any other child.” – Maria

Valerie Aprahamian is a special education advocate, IEP strategist, and speaker. She speaks on behalf of parents to protect the rights of neurodiverse children to receive the supports they need in public school.


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