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Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Three Trainings That Changed Our Lives

We have the good fortune of living in an area that draws a lot of the incredible speakers about autism. I've had the incredible experience of seeing Temple Grandin speak, heard Jed Baker talk about social skills, seen Carol Gray discuss Social Stories (boy is she funny!), and had the pleasure of listening to Michelle Garcia Winner present about Social Thinking at the Autism Society of North Carolina conference. In addition, I've also attended numerous trainings, workshops, and presentations by local speakers and organizations such as ASNC, TEACCH, and the ECAC.

I have taken so much from all of the workshops I've attended (and clearly I can't resist an autism training!), but there were three events in particular that were major game-changers for my family. These are the three trainings that utterly and completely changed our lives:

TEACCH Structured Teaching Boot Camp:

I attended this training shortly after our son was diagnosed with Asperger's and it was one of the best things I have ever done. At the heart of Structured Teaching is using visuals to provide structure. Children with autism are usually better visual than auditory learners, even if they have a lot of language, as my son always has. Visual structure can be used in nearly every aspect of life - you can structure spaces in your home, the flow of the day, how tasks are accomplished, and so much more. Schedules and visual structure relieved so many anxieties for our son and made our home a much calmer place. I bought a laminator on the way home from the TEACCH workshop and our lives were transformed instantly - visuals have been that powerful for us.

Visuals can be used to teach independent skills, to structure open ended play for more enjoyment, as a reinforcer for positive behavior, to show where toys should be put away, to ease transitions, and of course to create a schedule. Schedules, mini schedules, first-then boards, choice boards, work systems, structured tasks, we have used them all with great success. There is nothing that I won't laminate! There are also some good schedule apps for use on your phone or iPad on the go; I find them to be a useful complement to other forms of visual structure, but not a replacement. The Structured Teaching workshops teach parents how to use visuals effectively, with plenty of information about how to tailor them to your child's current abilities and how visual supports can change and grow with your child.

Wrightslaw Special Education Law and Advocacy Training:

For those not familiar with Wrightslaw, Pete Wright is a special education attorney who has written the definitive books on special ed law,  IEPs, and advocacy. He presents workshops around the country, and I was able to attend one he offered in Greensboro a couple of years ago. For the typical parent, learning the law and special ed vocabulary can be very daunting. But to truly be an equal and active participant in your child's IEP team, it is essential to become comfortable with the essentials of legal terms like FAPE, LRE, LEA, Inclusion, ESY, and so forth.

The Wrightlaw training is absolutely empowering!  Pete Wright is a dynamic speaker and he walks you through the key points of the law, even noting which passages to highlight for future reference. He also has excellent tips on how to be an effective advocate without becoming adversarial. Surprisingly, one of the first things he says is that most parents should not bring a lawyer to IEP meetings. The point is to learn how to become a strong advocate and work well with the other members of the team without introducing the adversarial dynamic of "lawyering up". Understanding the law gave me the confidence to advocate for my son's needs in the school district. 

Here is just one example:

Leading up to an IEP meeting to determine eligibility for EC services, I requested a copy of the district's evaluations to review in advance. I was told that they did not send those out because it was "best practice" for district staff to review those with the parents. Having read the federal laws and the North Carolina Procedural Safeguards: Handbook on Parents' Rights, I knew that the district had to release those evaluations to me before the IEP meeting. That knowledge gave me the confidence to pursue my request, while Pete Wright's tips on effective advocacy helped me to frame my second request in a way that would maintain a good working relationship with the rest of the IEP team. Rather than throwing the law at them, I simply said that I would be glad to have them review those documents with me and that I was happy to make an appointment before the IEP meeting to do so. Had they still resisted, I might have referred to the specific statute, but there was no need to escalate after my second request, because I got that appointment to see the materials.

I was able to effectively advocate for my son thanks to understanding his legal rights. Every parent with a special needs child should attend a Wrightslaw workshop if at all possible.

Parent Training About Behavior by Tracy Vail from Let's Talk:

Behavior is a complicated topic when it comes to our kids with autism, because there can be so many underlying causes for what we see on the surface. That said, the traditional ABCs of behavior - antecedent, behavior, consequence - are very important for parents and educators to understand. Tracy Vail at Let's Talk in Raleigh is our local behavior guru - she really gets it, and really helps others to "get it" too! We came out of our behavior training with a clear picture of what actions were inadvertently reinforcing undesired behaviors, along with an excellent plan of how to reinforce positive behaviors instead. Guess what - it worked! The behavior plan that Tracy created has also translated beautifully to school, so that there is consistency across home and school - a key ingredient to successfully implementing a behavior plan.
I would highly recommend a private session with Tracy Vail to any parents whose children have behavior issues. And if you can't have a private training or just want to learn more about effective behavior management, mark your calendar for Tuesday, November 19th - Tracy Vail will be the speaker for the November chapter meeting for the Autism Society of North Carolina Orange Chatham chapter. It is free and open to the public, so be sure to encourage all of your child's caregivers, therapists, babysitters, grandparents and so on to attend with you, because the more consistent everyone is, the sooner your child will learn the appropriate behaviors that will help them access the world around them.

These were the three trainings that changed our lives - what workshops have had the most impact in your family's day to day life? Please share in the comments below!

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