I’m a high school student in America. Recently I was called in to talk to a psychologist because the adults at the school noticed I was having problems. I’ve known I was autistic for about two years now, so I was relieved to finally have a chance to get my diagnosis. But I’m scared — what does…
My first social work internship was mostly doing educational advocacy services for kids with disabilities. Here’s what I know, with the disclaimer that I’m in upstate New York and the educational landscape is a bit weird in this state, so check your local info:
- There are two different laws that you might get accommodations under: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), under which you might get an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, under which you might get a “504 plan”. Generally speaking, an IEP is more extensive than a 504 plan, and is what you need if you need something about the curriculum itself modified.
- New York also used to offer something called an “IEP Diploma”, which was a high school diploma with extensively modified requirements. This isn’t offered anymore for a number of reasons. But even when it was, having an IEP didn’t necessarily mean that you’d get an IEP diploma; standard and even honors diplomas could still be an option.
- IEPs and 504 plans are confidential and off-limits to anyone except you, your parents or guardians if you’re under 18 (21 in some situations), and the teachers and other staff who are involved in creating or implementing the IEP or 504 plan. Depending on what’s in the plan, putting it into effect may make it obvious to others that you have one, but not your diagnosis or the specific reason for the plan.
- This specifically means that colleges won’t know anything you don’t tell them.
- However, if you do have high school accommodations, I strongly recommend you keep a record of them and when you’re in college you go directly to the college’s disability services office so that stuff is on file BEFORE any kind of problems happen. Colleges don’t do IEPs as such, but they are covered under Section 504 so you can request “reasonable accommodations” related to a disability. This applies to classroom as well as residential life.
- As a high school student, especially if this is your first go-around with services, you absolutely should have input into your IEP or 504 Plan. You also have the right to bring an advocate of your choice into meetings, and sometimes it’s helpful if the advocate is an adult with similar disabilities to your own (I did a lot of this for kids with ADHD, because I’m an adult with ADHD).
- The school needs to accommodate anything you need to effectively participate in the meeting. I worked with a girl who couldn’t physically go to her IEP meeting for mental health-related reasons, so we set things up so she could Skype in. If you need to call/Skype/text to participate effectively, they need to be able to accommodate that.
- School districts can be lazy about all of these things. They often want to put together an accommodation that is close to things they’ve done before even if it’s not really what you need, that is less expensive, that is less “trouble”, or that tries to make you or your parents look like the bad guys. Don’t buy into it. It’s their JOB to do what you need to get through school, and it’s the LAW.
I had an IEP for my entire time in public school in North Carolina, from kindergarten to my senior year in high school— now I’m a sophomore in college. My disability was vision-related, so it never showed up on my diploma (although if I had taken VI (visually impaired) tutoring classes at my school it would have)— I graduated with a full IB diploma and honors, and I have a friend whose story sounds more similar to yours who did as well.
My experience with the system was really positive— a lot of that was because my parents were very involved from the very beginning, and really advocated for me (like the poster above mentioned, they often try to paint you as the bad guys). It sounds like your school is suggesting this, not you/your parents/guardians, so maybe they’ll be less prone to doing stuff like that? I dunno. Something that was really tough for me was getting MY needs heard— especially if they were different from what I was “supposed” to need. Also, in your IEP, you get a “goal” for the next semester, and often my personal goals weren’t the same ones my caseworkers and the administrators at the school wanted to put.
The only reason a college will learn about this kind of thing is if you take special classes, you write your college admission essay about it, or maybe if you need accommodations on your application? All universities have offices for students with disabilities, although once you’re in college you have to advocate for your own needs. (At least, I’ve been to two, and I’ve had to do that at both.) Everything annekewrites said above about self-advocating in college is exactly right, at least in my experience.
Discriminating against you in apps is totally illegal, by the way (not that admissions officers aren’t often biased in the worst ways).
And you were worried your classmates would know— the only time my classmates knew I had accommodations was when I either told them or when my exams were put in front of me (because large-print standardized tests are printed on 15x20 paper, often 50 pages long, and are so heavy you need two desks pushed together— but they were what I needed).
In my four years of high school, my teachers always accommodated me and took my needs seriously. You have a different situation, but I hope you have a similarly positive experience.
EDIT: After you’re 16 it’s illegal to have an IEP meeting without you present (unless you sign a form giving them permission!)— and I know they invited to me to mine even in middle school!