When Should You Hire a Lawyer in the Special Education Process?

Special Education Process Lawyer Asperger's summer tourThis article was originally written by Nicole Joseph an attorney who practices special education law in Maryland.

As any parent whose child has a 504 plan or an IEP knows. Sometimes the special education process can be frustrating, if not infuriating. Parents struggle to maintain positive relationships with school staff while also ensuring that their children are getting their needs met. Some school IEP “teams” are effective professionals with the child’s best interest at heart. If you have one of those, count your lucky stars and bake them some cookies! However, even these types of teams sometimes face limitations, like lack of staff or pressure from the district. “Good” team or ineffective team, children are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Protecting your child’s right to FAPE can be exhausting and confusing. There may be times when you need some help. Consider hiring a special education attorney when:

Special Education Process Lawyer

  • The IEP team refuses to evaluate your child for a disability, or staff outside the IEP process tell you your child doesn’t need to be evaluated.
  • IEP Team says “we don’t do that” [in general]. Remember, this is an INDIVIDUAL education plan.
  • IEP Team says they don’t have the resources or funding to give your child what she needs.
  • Your child has an IEP but is not making progress in YOUR opinion. For example, a child with a learning disability is not making reading progress, or a child who needs social support isn’t getting services to address this issue or doesn’t seem to be improving.
  • Your child is suspended or expelled, ESPECIALLY if you believe the behavior was related to the disability in some way.
  • You are considering filing a state complaint under IDEA, or you are considering filing for due process.

Keep in mind that as you move through the special education process, and especially if there are active disagreements. The school team has access to, or is actively consulting with, the school system’s attorney. If you are considering steps that will get their lawyer or legal office involved. (like contacting the director of special education or superintendent, filing for due process, or filing a complaint under IDEA) You should also have this benefit, since you can be sure that their lawyer will be reviewing everything you say or write.

How to hire a special education lawyer

If you decide to hire an attorney to help you through this process, be sure you are consulting with someone who practices special education law exclusively or at least primarily. There are certainly general practice attorneys who will be happy to get involved, but special education law is a highly specialized practice, and interacting with school systems is more effectively done by someone who is familiar with the players in your district. Ask any lawyer you are considering hiring what percentage of their practice is special education, how many special education cases they have handled, and what their familiarity is with your district.

A word about “advocates”

Hiring an “advocate” can be tricky, because there is no universal qualification or training process. Ask anyone you are thinking of working with to describe the specific and on-going training they have received, their level of experience, their relationship with your district and the point at which they would refer you to a professional educational consultant or attorney.
Hiring a special education consultant, meaning a trained special educator, psychologist, or another qualified professional to observe your child in school, review records, and make behavioral or educational recommendations, including possibly presenting those recommendations to the team, is often an effective, helpful step to ensuring both that your child gets what she needs and that you are confident that her best interest is paramount. Special education attorneys consult and work closely with educational consultants.

To locate a special education attorney, a good place to start is with Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc.: https://www.copaa.org/. COPAA also holds an excellent, content-rich annual conference.

If you need low or no cost assistance, contact your state’s Protection and Advocacy agency: http://www.ndrn.org/ndrn-member-agencies.html.

Nicole Joseph is an attorney who practices special education law in Maryland. She can be reached at naj@nicolejosephlaw.com or www.nicolejosephlaw.com.


Vermont Camp Winter Weekend New York Quirky kids camp

Winter Weekend 2018

Our fourth annual Winter Weekend was a big hit! All of us are incredibly proud of how our campers represented Akeela throughout the weekend. It was so great to see our campers (and staff!) reconnecting with each other, and also building relationships with new friends! Campers took full advantage of the perfect winter weather with lots of sledding and snow play, showed off their bowling prowess at a local bowling alley, and showed true Akeela spirit by donating food and winter clothing to a local community center! We’re already thinking about next year and can’t wait to get back. Check out some images from the weekend below.


Camp Akeela Vermont Happy Holidays Card

Happy Holidays from Camp Akeela

Happy holidays from all of us here at Camp Akeela! We’re thinking of all our camp friends during this season, and can’t wait to be back at camp with you in 2018. We have posted the end of session slide shows from Vermont’s first and second session below so you can relive the magical moments of last summer with us. Wishing everyone a safe and happy rest of the holiday season!

Love,
Debbie, Eric, Dave, Greg, & Kevin

Vermont ’17 First Session

Vermont ’17 Second Session

Camp Akeela Vermont Happy Holidays

Aspergers Camp Program


Girls on the Autism Spectrum

Girls Autism SpectrumWe speak with parents who have girls every day and they often tell us that people just “don’t get it”. Girls who are struggling socially present differently than boys. They are often masters at “small talk” and are not shy about introducing themselves to new people and chatting with acquaintances. However, as time passes, they struggle to get deeper into their relationships. They don’t understand the next steps. For other girls, their social enthusiasm can be a turn-off to peers as some girls insert themselves into social situations at inopportune times or in a way that seems “off topic” or “odd”. For this reason, girls are often underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, leaving them without support for far too long.

I recently listened to an older Australian radio interview (http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/dr-tony-attwood-turns-his-focus-to-women-with-aspergers/7756374 ) with Dr. Tony Atwood – guru of all things Aspergers and an outstanding clinician and lecturer – about girls on the Spectrum. He pointed out that often times girls do not present as a “problem” until the social scene in school becomes more complicated. We hear about this frequently. All children – but girls especially – blend in with their peers at a young age. As kids get older, the discrepancy with their peers broadens and the struggles become more apparent. Dr. Atwood also mentioned that girls are often good “actors” and are better able to “play the role” that they may see on TV or in movies. After some time – even after school at home – “the exhaustion of wearing that mask catches up” to them and they begin to really struggle.

He stated that what is most important for girls on the spectrum is to BRING THEM TOGETHER so that they can be with other people who “speak the same language” and so they can relate to one another and recognize they are not alone. They will learn that “their suffering comes from the ignorance of others”, not from a flaw in themselves. When I heard him say this, I became emotional – this is why Eric and I are so passionate about what we do. We believe firmly that bringing the right group of children together each summer is what is so transformative. Allowing our campers to support each other and to share their own struggles is what makes Akeela so magical. Having Dr. Atwood confirm this is just the icing on the cake!


On Going to Camp with Asperger’s | Part 2

This blog was written by guest blogger and Camp Akeela alumna, Lara Lewis. We are so grateful to Lara for contributing this article!

 

You can view Lara’s blog here https://awetisticwriting.wordpress.com/

I attended Camp Akeela for three years, which is a large amount of time to compress into so many words. So for part 2, I wanted to write a sort of “Greatest Hits” summary – my favorite parts about being at camp, but also the parts that helped me grow in ways I didn’t expect, working my way up to the best of the best. To start off: chores.

I hear you on the other side of the screen. “Chores? How is that fun?” The chores themselves weren’t always. We were our own clean up crew; everything from sweeping to trash. The reason I list it is what I gained from it; namely that I actually learned how to do those things, with everyone’s responsibilities shifting regularly. It’s a skill you don’t realize you need until the moment you need it. Speaking as somebody who’s lived in a dorm by herself, you will need it.

Next on the list is a tie of two places – the Art Barn and the library. The library was a little uphill cabin full of books waiting to be cracked open, which was something I adored, and the Art Barn was basically a craft studio full of supplies for young artists, and art was something else I adored. It wasn’t just my luck, though; there seemed to be something for everybody, from sports to swimming to anything else you could expect a camp to have. I still have the little sun-catcher I made one year – it’s hanging in the window!

The best I saved for last – the community. I know, that’s cheesy, but it’s true. I was among my own; you don’t realize just how much you need people like you, who know how strange your experience can be, until you’ve found them. I was surrounded by other kids with sensory issues, with ticks and quirks, with passions like mine. There’s something valuable to be had in a space where you can find people like you. It taught me something I think every kid deserves to know: You are not alone.

For those who missed Part 1 Click here.


Teens and Technology

I just finished reading two articles about the impact of smartphones on our emotional wellbeing and our intelligence. Neither article was uplifting. The bottom line is that our constant use of our phones has caused us to feel more depressed, to sleep less, to interact with others less and to be more distracted. All of these factors are even more intense for teens who are using phones these days as a way to interact with peers.

An article in the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/) highlights how much things have changed for teens since most parents were going through middle school and high school. The author reminds those of us who are GenXers of an adolescence marked by events like rushing to get our drivers licenses, an eagerness to have time with friends away from parents and dating. Teens now are much more likely to spend time alone in their rooms connecting with peers using social media. They use Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. None of this is inherently bad – in fact, teens these days feel lucky that they don’t have to leave home to be with friends. The problem is that, although they are connected to peers, the author notes that teens report feeling “alone and distressed”. Teens report that they struggle to interact in person after being so used to screen interactions.

Most notable to me was the author’s findings that teens feel MORE left out these days. It’s obvious when a teen is not invited to a party when everyone on social media is posting photos of parties or gatherings from which they have been excluded. Girls, in particular, are masterful cyberbullies and it seems that teens feel more at liberty to be unkind when they don’t have to look their victim in the eyes. For young adults who are struggling socially, for those who have trouble navigating the complicated social world, who are feeling left out and different, social media is even more troublesome.

The author suggests that, although very difficult, parents should work hard to limit time teens spend on social media. (The other article I read in the WSJ – https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-smartphones-hijack-our-minds-1507307811, also suggests that even having a phone NEAR us decreases our ability to focus.) The more we can encourage young adults to spend time face-to-face with one another, participating in activities that DON’T involve screens, the more likely they will be to feel less depressed, to sleep better and to feel less alone. Camp seems like a great opportunity to practice this. Taking a break for a few weeks from screens can literally be life-changing.


asperger's summer camp

Akeela Vermont Fall Newsletter

The latest newsletter, the Akeela Circular, is here!

Here’s an excerpt, in which Debbie and Eric reflect about the camp’s 10 year anniversary:

In late August of 2007, we were given the opportunity to start our own camp. It was a dream come true – especially for Eric, who had been working in camping full-time for almost 10 years. We have such vivid memories (aided by some of Debbie’s photos) of our first walk-around on the property that would soon become Camp Akeela. We can laugh now about how nervous we both were, seeing how much work the site needed. Buildings were falling down, the dining hall was dark and dirty, and there were virtually no indoor gathering spaces. The beauty of a great partnership is that where one partner sees trouble, the other sees possibility and beauty. That has been true for us both professionally and personally. While Debbie cringed in fear that the site would never be ready in time to welcome campers in less than a year, Eric saw endless potential and his excitement was palpable. Thank goodness, because in those 9 months, Blayne and his crew literally moved buildings and earth, built a new health center, dug a pool, transformed the cabins and created our amazingly beautiful site.

We just finished our 10th summer at Akeela and we are so proud and honored to have been a part of the creation of such a special community. Over 1,000 campers have attended Akeela, 8 staff couples have gotten engaged or married after meeting at camp, and countless lifelong friendships have been forged. We are working on plans for an official 10-year reunion for our campers and staff and will let you know once we have a finalized date and itinerary.

Thank you for being a part of our community. We look forward to many more years of friendship.

Read the entire newsletter here.


On Going to Camp with Aspergers

This blog was written by guest blogger and Camp Akeela alumna, Lara Lewis. We are so grateful to Lara for contributing this article, and look forward to posting Part 2 soon!

You can view Lara’s blog here https://awetisticwriting.wordpress.com/

On Going to Camp with Aspergers (or My Camp Akeela Experience), Part 1
Lara Lewis

In 2009, I took my first steps into the world of Camp Akeela. It’s a Sleep-Away camp, but it was founded with “quirky” campers in mind – primarily those with social and learning disorders. I remember a large open field with two rows of cabins, one on either side. A big mess hall and a small sports field. A nature walk, a barn, and a lake.

I also remember being scared out of my mind. I had gone to a camp away from home the year before, and it had been a testing and tiring experience. The difference was that place was for kids in general – this was a place for kids like me.

Camp with Aspergers Summer Camp

I had never been around so many kids with conditions like mine. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many people like me in one place since. Sometimes it can be easy to forget there are other people with Asperger’s who are just out living, real people and not symptoms listed in a doctor’s book.

It was not easy to forget when I was at camp.

Being in the outdoors and living in cabins provided a whole host of issues – dirt, lack of temperature control, timed showers (five minutes each, and I’m still able to make that time today), and most of all living with other kids who had as much trouble reading social cues as I did. Communication was both simple and unclear – what was straightforward to me might have been vague to somebody else and vice versa.

But the thing I remember most, eight years later, is that we were experiencing them together. We were all “quirky” and we found a community, and it’s hard not to bond over getting sand in your shorts when you were all at the same fire pit. There’s something special to be had there, realizing you’re all going through the same thing, even if you experience it differently.

Part 2 Coming Soon!


Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorders and Mental Health Diagnoses

NPR published an article this week about the prevalence of Mental Health diagnoses in those with an Autism diagnosis (http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/10/01/554461501/many-young-adults-with-autism-also-have-mental-health-issues).  While it is not shocking to read that many young adults who have a diagnosis of ASD also have a co-morbid (additional) mental health diagnosis, I was somewhat surprised to read that youth on the spectrum are more than FIVE times likely to have an additional diagnosis such as depression, anxiety or ADHD.  (The article states that the study they are referencing found that 52% of young adults with Autism also have a mental health diagnosis.)

The author quotes a young man on the spectrum who states, “Relationships are so much harder” for those on the spectrum and living in a world that is often fast-paced and filled with nuanced communication can often feel very lonely.  We hear this from our own campers all the time.  Depression and anxiety often stem from feeling disconnected and different.  When our campers live in a world that doesn’t feel like it “fits”, they often feel “less than”, lowering self-esteem and pride.  We feel lucky to be a part of a community that enables our campers (and staff) to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, a community where they feel like they belong and aren’t alone.  We witness a great sense of relief in our campers during the summer because they are less anxious and happier being surrounded by friends.

The article also points out how difficult periods of transition are for youth with an ASD diagnosis.  The author writes:

“Transition for youth with autism is a very challenging process,” Davidson says. “It is doable, but it takes a lot of preparation and a lot of time on the part of the families, on the part of the patient and on the part of the providers. The earlier one starts, the better.”

“Research literature suggests that it’s good to start learning daily living skills, such as laundry, cooking, bathing alone and similar chores, around 12 to 14 years old, Davidson says. But she believes that should start as early as possible, depending on a child’s intellectual, social and mental health disabilities.”

“Youth on the autism spectrum may need repetitive modeling and experiences so that they get those skills down and become as independent as possible,” Davidson says. Too many families, she says, do tasks for their adolescents long past when the teen could do them on their own. Other youth continue to need support for what might seem like basic tasks, so parents and care providers have to work to learn the boundaries and abilities for each person on the spectrum.”

Autism Spectrum DisordersOf course, we know that sleep-away summer camps in general, and Camp Akeela in particular, provide precisely the opportunities for independence that this article suggests are necessary.  Being away from home in a safe environment, like camp, allows campers to practice the skills necessary for them to be successful later on in their young adulthood.


Social Skills Camp New England

Akeela Wisconsin Spring Newsletter

The Wisconsin version of our spring newsletter is here!

Here’s an excerpt from the newsletter:

Happy spring, friends! This has always been the most exciting time of year for us, as we gear up for the camp season. This year is even more exciting as we are preparing for our first summer at our new Wisconsin site! As a family, our transition from Philadelphia to Wisconsin is a busy one, but it will be well worth it as we eagerly anticipate spending this summer with you at camp!

In addition to our excitement, we also feel a bit anxious about our transition. Katie especially always gets “butterflies” in her stomach when she leaves home. When she first started as a counselor at Akeela in 2011, she felt very homesick flying from her home in Ohio to a place that was totally new to her. Even though it’s now her 7th year at Akeela, she stills feels a little homesick at the start of every summer! We want our campers to know that all of these feelings – being excited, nervous, sad, anxious – are all normal and once at camp, our community will be there to support them. Katie can attest to the fact that after the initial settling-in period, camp feels like a second home and time flies by faster than we’d like!

Many people ask us what we do during a typical day at camp … and our answer is that “it depends”! Between June 11th and the 16th, we’ll be at our site in Vermont, along with our head counselors, Lauren and Dr. Dave, collaborating, sharing ideas, and going over expectations for the summer. This Senior Staff training is a great opportunity to come together as a larger Akeela team, to share best practices, and to make sure that there is consistent implementation of our greater camp goals at both of our sites. On June 16th, the Wisconsin Leadership Team packs up and heads to Appleton! The rest of the staff arrives on June 19th, and we spend that week training our counselors and preparing for campers’ arrival.

During a typical camp day, we spend as much time as possible on campus with our campers and staff (rather than in the camp office, which is why we rarely answer the phone during the camp season.) Our primary responsibility – and our favorite thing to do – is to make sure everyone at camp is safe and happy. One of the most wonderful aspects of our job is that we never know exactly what each day will bring; we make ourselves available to the people who need us most at any given moment. That includes those of you at home who have trusted us with the care of your children! You should expect to hear most often from your camper’s head counselor, who will call with updates and concerns, and will return your phone calls. However, you can always feel free to send us an email or call the office and ask to leave a message for Dave or Katie. We generally return parent phone calls in the evenings, after our campers are in bed.
We can’t wait to kick off the summer of 2017 and lay the foundation for many more years of community, friendship, growth, pride, and fun at Camp Akeela in Wisconsin!

Love,

Dave & Katie

Read the entire newsletter here!