Military Moves & Autism – Moving To a New School District

Well, you just came down on orders. In six months from now you’ll be reassigned to a new duty location across the country. You have done this before, but this time you know things will be different. The last time you PCS’d you didn’t have little Johnny. Because Johnny was diagnosed with Autism a year ago, you know that the change is going to be difficult for all. But now that you know that EFMP approved your new assignment and you know the post or base you are heading to, then now is the time to start preparing for one of the most stressful parts of a military move with an autistic dependent – the educational transition to the new school district.

My wife and I have relocated to new school districts five times in the past four years. These moves have been both in-state and out-of-state moves and three of them have been with the military. For anyone who has relocated with an autistic child it can get pretty stressful. There are many things to consider in the move, and the bigger the jump you have in preparation the easier the transition will be (if you can even use the word “easy” and “PCS” in the same sentence, lol). From the usual concerns that all military families have during PCS time such as whether to live on or off post, rent or buy a home, what is the local area like, are the schools good, is the crime low and are there recreational things to do for the family within close proximity to base, a family with an autistic child has many more things to consider. Here are the top considerations we have when it is time to move:

How many local providers are available and how close are they to where we intend to live? In our case, we want to know how many providers of ABA there are and how far are we going to have to travel round trip from provider to home.

This can be done with an easy Google search or by looking at the recommendations from many mainstream websites of national Autism organizations such as Autism Speaks, Autism Society and many others. Also, a call to the local EFMP office of your new duty assignment can be helpful in directing you toward resources or providing information on providers of the specific treatments or therapies your kid needs. As a parent of an auttie, you can expect to do some driving. Most private providers don’t provide busing like your school district does. In fact, one of the biggest contributing factors for Moms staying at home when they have an autistic child is because of the transportation needs of their child. You’ll want to spend the least amount of time as possible in the car, so try to live as close to the center as possible. Plus, mileage deductions for the medical reasons only go so far on your tax return and gas costs a lot of money. It’s not a fair offset. Of course you’ll have to weigh the proximity of living near your provider with the point below – the school district that you feel will be the most conducive to their educations.

Do your due diligence on those private providers that appear to be the best fit. We want to know things like the credentials of staff, how long they have been in business, services they provide, do they do in-home care as well, do they take Tricare as an insurance provider, how long have they been in business in the area and do we get a “gut feeling” from them?

The biggest things to consider are above, but most importantly you want qualified professionals providing service to your child. In our case, we want certified behaviorists providing the interventions of our kids’ ABA. BCBA is required of course, and it is a bonus if they have a PhD, teaching certificate, ASD certification and other pedigrees to add value to their offering. Since we will have a relationship with our provider we want to make sure that the director or owner is someone we naturally like. Do we like how they express themselves over the phone and in person, the information they have provided to us? We aren’t as fixed on the accommodations on-site at their place of business (such as expensive facades, hi-tech computers, etc), but more importantly is my son going to get great programming here from professionals who really care about progress.

What is the “scoop” on the school districts in the area you intend to live? We want to learn as much as we can about the service offering typically provided by those school districts and how “friendly” they are to autism.

You are only going to learn so much with online research. For every blog post, discussion thread or article on a website that you find about the available school districts that sheds a negative light on them, with enough digging you will find positive as well. The thing with autism is that it is a ‘spectrum’ disorder. Because of this the treatments vary from one autistic child to another. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met…ONE autistic person!” They are not all alike and they all don’t respond to the same treatments. What provides the greatest result from my kids may not provide the greatest result for yours. Your child may require something entirely different to achieve measurable progress. So, don’t base your whole opinion on what you read on a blog post! Be careful who’s anonymous advice you take from someone your don’t know or you’ve never met – they just may be a lunatic (kind of like me and this blog, lol).

Calling the school itself is not going to yield much good information either. Here’s why: if there were particular schools out there that provided the utopia program offering for autism then every family affect would instantly move to that school district and quickly exhaust the limited resources available. When you call to a school’s special education (SPED) department and speak to anyone with credentials there they will usually tell you that you would first have to enroll your child, examine your IEP (or create one) and then they could discuss program offerings. That is the kind way of telling you, the discerning, investigating parent, that we’re not telling you one way or another (for the reason I stated above). Be careful to heed what I shared above. Don’t get duped just because 50 people said they were treated horribly by a district. If 50 people stand up in a crowded room and say something stupid, it doesn’t give it credibility just because 50 people said so. Those 50 people may not understand your child’s rate to a FAPE through IDEA or have a clue how to advocate for proper services with that particular district. EFMP at the new post may be helpful to give you some insight if you are able to articulate what your current IEP stipulates or you know the service needs of your child.

Your best bet as you are calling around to the different private providers as suggested earlier to determine which one fits your child’s needs best is to ask them which districts in the area are friendly in providing the type of services that they provide and your child needs. You see, with your insurance benefits through Tricare, (ECHO and Autism DEMO) up to $3000 per month of services will be provided by the private provider you choose. These private providers are usually your ally in giving you the straight scoop on local school because if they are a good one, they will want your child to attend in a district that will openly work with and file share with them to give your child the best continuity in care that is possible. The left hand (private provider) wants to know what the right hand (public school) is providing. Good providers will be able to provide guidance and some even contract with local schools and can indirectly help the transition when it is time to enroll because of the working relationships they have with the SPED at a certain school district. The insurance benefits your child receives will be provided in addition to the services he qualifies for with his ISFP or IEP. When schools are more likely to collaborate with your private service provider to provide the necessary and appropriate programming he needs, the better shape you are going to be in.

School districts are funny entities when it comes to special education and autism. I think the dramatic increase in autism diagnoses over the past 5 years has caused some shock to school systems that have and still continue to have ill-equipped untrained teachers and staff. Most schools still don’t readily have access to BCBAs nor have them on staff. Especially the more rural the setting the higher the likelihood that you may have unqualified teachers to provide the necessary services your child needs. Because EFMP has to approve your assignment, chances are you are going to be within a few hours of proper services based on your kid’s needs and there is going to be a sizable population with larger school districts. The rule of thumb is to guide your assignment to a location that is near a major metropolitan area. With an autistic EFMP dependent the chances are slim that you will be assigned to the middle of nowhere (as we have all seen or heard tales of the posts and bases that literally are in the middle of nowhere.) If you are fortunate to be near a population center, which I hope the assignment branch and EFMP has done for you, you will have more opportunities for proper care.

In addition to ours advice to above is what the Department of Defense offers on their new website for families with autistic dependent. They have some pretty comprehensive advice. You can click here to access the link.

Hopefully, these are a few things you will think about as you prepare for your next relocation!

In Advocacy,

Mike

Insurance Coverage for Autism & the Military, Part #3

IFSP’s and IEP’s are the mechanisms that drives our autistic children’s education in the school system. When your child is special needs you HAVE to educate yourself on the laws pertinent to advocating for your child’s rights to a free and APPROPRIATE educations. To get the right program for the unique and special needs of YOUR auttie, in most cases, you are going to have to fight for it. This fight with the school district will, in most cases, originate from the IEP process. Hiring representation in this fight is costly. Learning the ropes yourself takes a strong will, an unshakeable desire to keep plodding forward through your mistakes and frustration with the process, however, is necessary for your long term ability to advocate. For military service members, there isn’t much time and/or energy to fight the good fight, learn the ropes or hire representation to assist the IEP process. I know that organizations like Wrightslaw and others provide IEP clinics at different installations around the county, and local EFMP units will do their best to assist families in the process. Military families NEED a whole lot more legal assistance. I know that Marines and Air Force have and are continuing to make strides at having legal representation for their members at various installations to assist the IEP process and any mediation or due process that may result. But, I know that Army is sorely lacking in this right now. If service members were able to negotiate the IEP process with the assistance of an EFMP legal team at all installations, then I can assure you that the special care their children would get would increase in effectiveness by a definitive measurable amount. A proper IEP hat contains effective strategies like ABA with discreet trial training, BCBAs for oversight and when necessary center-based programs IN ADDITION TO the benefits provided under ECHO and the Autism Demonstration would be the on- two punch to really help our kids.

I am eager to hear how other service members have faired in the IEP process and if having legal representation would assist their ability to get the most appropriate education for their special needs children.