What I Learned About My Son’s First FBA.

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My son is our second child to have an IEP. Having gone through meetings and updates with my daughter, I thought I knew a great deal about the process. Not everything, mind you, but a good chunk of knowledge. Then came my son with his IEP for ADHD. This turns out to be so much more complicated than dealing with my daughter’s IEP. She mostly had communication difficulties, with a few behavior issues that were relatively easily dealt with. My son’s issues take more time and effort. And lately, they’ve amped up a bit.

Struggles at the end of the school year found us sitting down to come up with a new strategy to help him. I was worried there wouldn’t be much we could do about his behavior. I thought it would be just me trying to figure things out with his therapist and psychiatrist then implementing something to help him at school. It turns out the school was ready, willing, and able to step in to help. I didn’t realize this until his first colossal meltdown in quite some time near the beginning of the school year. That’s when we started talking about working on an FBA.

At the time I just nodded my head. I heard “we’re ready to help” and didn’t really think about what that acronym meant. Now that we’ve had our first meeting of the year to discuss his FBA and look into “provisions” that are available to him. (more on that word later) I decided to look into what these letters mean and how it applies to my son.

An FBA stands for Functional Behavior Assessment. An FBA is a process that gathers and analyzes information to figure out what is behind their behavior. When I first read about it, I was concerned that it was mostly for those with more severe disabilities like autism or an intellectual disability. Upon further reading, I realized this was exactly what we needed to do. The staff looks at his behavior, tries to figure out what triggers it, then comes up with a plan to fix it. This means we have to have a few meetings to talk about his disruptive behavior, what might be the triggers, what exacerbates the problem, and what will prevent it from happening or at least provide a procedure if the problem can’t be corrected or deescalated.

We looked at situations where my son experiences the most difficulty. He has trouble with situations that bring on too much chaos. He can have a meltdown if there is an extreme change in routine. He can get stuck in a neverending debilitating loop of indecision while trying to make a choice. He also challenges authority if discipline is heavy-handed. I always say he has an inflated sense of injustice. If he feels he’s being treated unfairly, he will resist.

I’ve noticed over the past few years that he has difficulty writing and often can’t get the words in his head onto the paper. He is brilliant but can’t get any of that brilliance onto the page. This triggers anxiety and frustration. Anxiety and frustration make homework like his weekly writing journal and showing his work in math assignments challenging. Trying to get him to write more than a sentence in his weekly journal, or any writing assignment, is like trying to get blood from a stone. In math, he prefers to do calculations in his head rather than writing it down. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter if he can do complicated math equations without pencil ever touching paper. His work will get marked down as wrong if they ask to show the work and he doesn’t.

This block between the words and numbers in his head and the page makes classwork and homework so much more difficult. It’s also unpredictable how difficult it’s going to be for him. Homework can go quickly, or it can be a plane of hell with lots of tears and yelling from both of us. The math homework that took him minutes to do one day will take hours as he stares into space and scribbles on the page. He will eventually get so frustrated because he can’t figure out the problem or know what to write that he starts getting angry and upset.

This also happens in class if there isn’t someone who can sit with him to help him through a challenging assignment or help him make a decision. It’s made worse if the teacher or substitute decides to push him or motivate him by being stern. When this happens, all bets are off, and it will most likely end badly.

We had a lengthy roundtable discussion about several key issues and worked on a plan that would help him. Everything from keeping him home more days if he has a cold (he has more meltdowns when he’s not feeling well), providing a safe space away from stimuli, or just making sure a snack is always on hand just in case his meltdown is due to a sugar crash. New domains will need to be reviewed, and they will check to see what provisions are available to him.

To clarify if you are unfamiliar, domains are areas that need to be assessed like academic performance, motor skills, communications skills, hearing and vision status, cognitive functioning, social-emotional status, and overall health. Every IEP starts with a domain review to figure out which evaluations the team needs to perform to gather the information they need about the student. Provisions are everything that is providing a service or accommodation to the student.

It’s a relief to hear that the school is willing to keep working on this. They were happy that I was looking at the FBA as a positive procedure, as opposed to feeling stigmatized. It’s scary to find your child in a situation where they can’t control themselves. It’s even more frightening for the child. My son often doesn’t understand while he is under the influence of the moment that people are trying to help him. He becomes defiant and resistant. It’s like trying to bite someone who is extending a hand while you are drowning.

Rather than just trying to figure out how to teach him the hand is helping, we’re also trying to figure out how to keep him from getting into a situation where he might drown. Not by preventing him from swimming or keeping him away from water, but by learning why he makes choices that put him in danger or what he is not seeing that puts him into those situations. It’s going to be an interesting journey this year.

Atypically Non-neurotypical

We’ve always been a little bit different. I’ve always felt like an outcast from the outcasts. My husband looks like Jack Armstrong All American Boy, but even he is sometimes just a little too different for other people’s tastes. Our kids seem to the worst and the best parts of us combined but not evenly mixed. Not a blend of quirks and idiosyncrasies that evens out to a mild flavor but a potent taste of the extremes. They are each non-neurotypical in their own way and don’t easily fit into any part of the spectrum.

When I try to explain my kid’s issues, it always becomes a dissertation on the subtleties of their mental state. It always sounds like I’m making it up or trying to gain extra help or sympathy for something that doesn’t exist.

But it does… by golly it does.

When my daughter was young, I wound up taking her to a therapist to find out why she often seemed to teeter on the edge between autism and Asperger’s. The therapist seemed to be bent on debunking every thing I had checked off on the Asperger’s symptoms list. To me, she stood too close when talking to people, and often didn’t make eye contact when talking to you. She tended to read of everything on a grocery store shelf or in the case at the bakery like she was cataloging out loud. The therapist couldn’t see this in our first two meeting so it must not exist.

Another therapist just said she had some anger issues and needed to learn how to control her emotions better. Really? Hiding under a desk or running out of a classroom was just some anger issues?

Everyone kept telling me nothing was wrong, but I knew she was different. It wasn’t obvious to the casual observer, but it was enough to affect her socially and made school very stressful. It took neurological testing recommended by her primary doctor to find she didn’t have Asperger’s but Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder.

My son was thrown out of pre-school. Yup, he was asked to leave because he couldn’t sit during circle time so he would wander around the classroom. He had trouble staying on task when they worked on cutting and pasting. Mid year, they said they couldn’t have him be a disruption anymore. In tears, I took him home for the last time feeling like a failed parent.

I home schooled preschool until he was old enough for kindergarten. The school system we were in put kids who didn’t make the August age cut off into a developmental kindergarten class. This class structure worked well for him, so the year went by with little incident. Problems started again in kindergarten. He screamed so long one day that they had to send him up to the principal’s office. I had to have another talk about how disruptive he was. At least the elementary school was willing to help. His teacher suggested it was ADHD. It was the first time anyone understood what was going on with him.

It took until Kindergarten to get help for my son and 3rd grade before my daughter had a diagnosis that got her the help she needed. We were able to start an IEP for my daughter as soon as she was diagnosed. It would take until 2nd grade before my son would get an IEP. Both kids now have a great team, but this comes after moving to another state and finding an even better school district.

While having a diagnosis helps me to figure out how to help them, it doesn’t help others to know what they are going through. Everyone wants to hear either autism or Asperger’s. They can understand that. ADHD is a more common, but people still don’t quite understand it. Some think it even doesn’t exist. There’s also more going on with my son than just ADHD; there are some executive function issues as well.

Social Communication Disorder, on the other hand, is way off the beaten path for most people. Explaining it requires a lengthy program note. I tend to refer to it as Asperger’s Lite or Sheldon Lite if they’re familiar with Big Bang Theory. Yes, she can experience empathy and doesn’t have the debilitating repetitive obsession, but that doesn’t mean she can easily interact with other people. Sometimes it’s challenging for her to remember that conversation is a volley back and forth, not just her talking endlessly about a single subject.

On top of all this, neither one of them has a learning disability. In fact, they’re quite brilliant. There is a shadow over that brilliance, and it’s the daily struggle with their unique brand of mental illness.

Oh, and it took me a long time to just own that term. Yes, it is mental illness. They both suffer from anxiety and depression. My son is often overwhelmed by his anxiety and can’t easily regulate his emotions. My daughter has social anxiety and is can sometimes be crushed by depression. There are layers of issues, and each one seems to trigger another. Anxiety can keep them from getting a project done without panicking, which makes it hard to problem solve when they feel overwhelmed. Depression and anxiety erode their self-esteem.

There are other roadblocks. My son has a hard time pulling information from his head and putting it down on paper. His handwriting is often nearly illegible. His executive dysfunction can make it difficult to take or complete a test. Sometimes homework is a nightmare. My daughter will have a hard time taking a test if there is too much noise in the room. She used to find it difficult to work in groups.

They both have sensory issues. Neither will wear jeans, and they find the seams very uncomfortable. They both hate loud high pitched noises. They both can be very forgetful. They also take things quite literally. It’s lessened as they’ve gotten older, but when they were younger, we had to be careful with things like sarcasm. They are more flexible than kids with autism or Asperger’s but have more trouble transitioning or getting used to new routines than neurotypical kids.

I was thrilled when my son’s therapist described them as “non-neurotypical” for the first time. It captures who they are quite well. Still, I’ve often found it easier to say they are on the spectrum. If a spectrum contains all the colors of the rainbow, then it should include all aspects of non-neurotypical brains. My kids exist in a gray area, neither here nor there on the spectrum. My husband and I also dwell in this realm. Atypical yet high functioning. None of it easy to define, or diagnose. We’re all doomed to wander through the shadows of the spectrum. Navigating the dreamlands the best we can.