Developmental Disabilities, Special Ed, and Retention: Q and A Part I

By on February 26, 2016

QUESTION: My son Tyler is developmentally delayed with ADD and High-Functioning Autism. He was retained in the first grade. Now that he is in the 4th grade, his progress in school is minimal. He is in a regular class only for math and science and he is not performing on grade level in math, mainly because he does not know his math facts. He just shuts down whenever he runs into trouble solving a problem. He is also very immature socially, mentally, and physically. Tyler is very hard to motivate because of his special needs. He can be motivated in a situation by situation (instant reward) kind of task, but otherwise he must constantly be prodded to stay on task.

The other children in his class are not his peers developmentally and next year the gap will just broaden. With that said, these children have known Tyler since first grade. They accept him and consider him a friend. My concerns are…should he be promoted to the 5th grade or retained in fourth grade? The teachers and I agree that if Tyler applied himself he could master the assignments, but he shows little to no interest in doing well. He will write paragraphs at home for me…to earn TV time, but in school it is hit or miss. I hope that with time and maturity he accept that he must do the work. Fourth graders are expected to be able to work independently and ask for help etc. Tyler is not doing that.

Now, my thoughts on retention: Socially, Tyler does not conform to peer pressure, nor does he show any embarrassment for his special needs. He plays best with younger children. He has language delays that make conversing with him difficult. Other children his age frustrate him and do not understand him. So being in the fourth grade again would be like treading water until he decides to move forward.

What I would like from you is advice. Do you think that special needs children can benefit from retention? How much does maturity depend on motivation? When Tyler decides to apply himself real progress will be made. He is getting so much better each year that his day will come. Does it work that way? I just don’t want him to be in high school when he gets it. I would love to have your input. Do you do evaluations? Do you have a private practice? I only want the best for my son. He is such a bright star with a gentle spirit that I don’t want broken.

ANSWER: Thank you for writing me. I was the psychologist on our school system’s Autism Team for several years, so I already have a place in my heart for your son. Please remember, though, that any advice I give may not apply to Tyler specifically, since I don’t know him.

I would not recommend retention. I generally think that children with disabilities don’t benefit from retention – academically or socially. It’s really sort of an easy way out for the school – the child looks better because he’s with younger kids, but his skills haven’t really improved.

My recommendation is that his IEP goals should reflect his areas of deficit: work completion, asking for help, working independently, social language, social skills. Don’t just wait for maturation to take care of it – because it probably won’t! Autism is a developmental disability, and Tyler’s development will be on his own clock. In the meanwhile, it is the school’s job to directly teach and practice the skills he needs to be successful. That’s the “specialized instruction” that special education is supposed to provide. It’s also the school’s job to provide the modifications and accommodations necessary to keep him in regular classes if at all possible. (For example, letting him use a calculator for math facts!)

It can be hard for a parent to look at an IEP and see what needs to be changed or tweaked, so you might need an advocate to help you with the IEP. The Autism Society often has parent advocates available. There is nothing wrong or adversarial about calling an IEP meeting (you can do that any time) and bringing an advocate (you can bring anyone you want to an IEP meeting). Granted, some advocates are divisive and unprofessional – yelling, threatening – and that’s awful. But most advocates are there to be helpful and protect a child’s right to a free and appropriate public education. It’s a good thing, and strong special ed programs aren’t afraid of advocates.

If you want to have Tyler reevaluated, you can request that, in writing, from the school system. Many school systems have autism evaluation teams, and you can ask that the reevaluation be done by one of those teams. You mention that he has gross motor and language delays. Does he receive language therapy, physical therapy, or occupational therapy? When was the last time those areas were evaluated? You mention he has social issues. Is he in a social skills group? When was the last time his social skills were evaluated? Has he ever had a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA)? Does he have a behavior plan for his problems with work completion? Does he have a visual work schedule in his classrooms? These are all appropriate areas for evaluation.

So – if you are comfortable and assertive, you can do this on your own. Ask for an IEP meeting, ask for goals and services that reflect his specific needs, and ask for a reevaluation by an autism team. If you do better with some support (like most parents), contact the Autism Society or another local advocacy group.

I really appreciate that you would ask me to work directly with Tyler. There’s nothing I love better than a “bright star” with a “gentle spirit”. I don’t have a private practice, though, and you’re much better off using local resources. Local folks can follow through on an on-going basis.

Please reach out to the resources in your area and see what’s available to you and to Tyler! If he doesn’t have a visual work schedule and a work system, if he isn’t in a social skills training group and/or a social language group, and if his IEP goals do not reflect your concerns, you need some outside help.
Good luck, and let me know what happens.


Copyright 2016 Alice Wellborn