Last week we had an annual review IEP meeting for one of our 8th grade students. Because he is now 14, he came to the meeting for a few minutes, to discuss his transition plan. This boy is one of the most empathetic students I have. He carries a tremendous amount of anxiety, which I am willing to bet has to do with his diagnoses and learning challenges, but also with trying to figure out how to be such a sensitive soul in this world.
He walked into the room, and took a seat. He looked around the table and said “hi” to his mom, and then quickly addressed every single person at the table and said “hi” to them, too. Our IEP team facilitator greeted him, told him that we would all love to hear a bit about what’s going well for him.
“So, maybe tell us, what’s your favorite class?” she asked him.
“Oh, uh…Science.” he replied. Then, scanning the room, realizing that several of his teachers were there, but not his science teacher, he quickly added, “But, uh, I love Math too. And Reading is okay. And Language Arts. And hey Jen, I like Speech, too.” There were a few smiles, but I felt myself getting teary. I totally got what he was doing. He was terrified of offending one of us. So much so, that, his math teacher responded, “It’s okay. I know you don’t love math. And I would never be upset with you for saying so.”
Our team facilitator moved on. “You and your counselor met to talk about what you’d like to do in the future. You mentioned that you would love to stay at [our school] for high school, and that after high school maybe you would work with computers or animals.”
His counselor jumped in. “Yup, and we talked about way down the road, where you might like to live. Remember, you told me that one day you would like to live on your own, and not with your parents?” he nodded, agreeing with her, and then caught his mom’s eye and froze. Oh no, I could imagine him thinking. What is Mom going to think to hear that I don’t want to live with her?
“Uh, Mom…” he tried to explain. “I was just thinking that one day I’d like to have an apartment. But, uh, it’s not that I don’t love you. Because I do. You and Dad have been really good to me. But it’s just…” his voice trailed off as his eyes quickly darted from person to person.
His mom smiled, and gave a kind laugh. “It’s okay, buddy. I would hope you want to live on your own some day!”
After talking a bit about his career aspirations, and his love for computers and cartoons, his counselor sensed his mounting anxiety and backed up a little bit. “Now, all of this is going to be a long time from now. And we’re talking about things that might happen. But is it okay if your ideas change?”
“Uh…I guess so…” he said.
“Will anyone be upset with you if you change your mind about what you want to do or where you want to live?”
“Uh…I guess not…”
“Right. Because we’re just thinking. None of these are decisions that we have to follow. We’re just imagining. But just because we’re imagining does it mean you have to do these things?”
“No, it doesn’t. And we don’t even have to worry about those things. Those are your long-term plans, but right now, our main focus is that you’re going to finish 8th grade and then go to 9th grade.”
“Um. Okay. Yes.”
He headed out of the meeting then, after saying goodbye to every single one of us, and giving his mom a hug.
I think we were all overcome with emotion. And I totally got it – I understand that desperate need to please everyone, the fear of what people will think of you if you don’t give equal attention or love or praise. For the rest of the meeting, we talked through his IEP goals, but we kept coming back to his sensitivities and anxieties. Because among his autism, among his language and learning disabilities, sensitivity and anxiety are at his core. They affect every part of what he does every day. And the same is true for so many of our kids. I truly believe – there are times when noncompliance or overreactions, or other behaviors, are just a mask for that panic inside. And I am not autistic. I don’t have a language disorder. And it’s taken a long time for me to be able to identify my anxiety and sensitivity and put it into words. So I can only imagine what it’s like for our kids. And I feel really blessed to get to help them do just that.