Navigating Difficult IEP Meetings Successfully, Interview with author Jeff Cohen

While looking for an expert to speak with about IEP Meetings, I happened upon the book Guns A’Blazing: How Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum and Schools Can Work Together – Without a Shot Being Fired, by Jeffrey Cohen. I immediately liked the title, because most families I talk with do attend meetings with their ‘guns’ (at least in their holster) – and few are able to actually leave them at home.

So I looked up the author, Jeffrey Cohen, to learn a little more about him, and here’s what his Amazon page said, “Jeffrey Cohen started life as poor street urchin, orphaned and taken in by a gang of pickpockets led by an older man named Fagin. No, wait. That's someone else, entirely.”

And I laughed out loud. Really hard. Which was just refreshing, because you know what, this parenting a special needs kid is HARD – and you all know my motto: If you can’t laugh at my life, you have no sense of humor.

Between the book and the bio, I was hooked. This was my expert.

Luckily for me, Jeff was able to make time in his busy schedule – turns out he is a successful freelance writer, screenwriter, teacher and author of the Aaron Tucker mystery series, which features a character that has Aspergers Syndrome, and the current Night of the Living Deed under the name E.J. Copperman (more info and links below -- check them out!). He has written articles for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Weekend, Writer’s Digest, Parenting and may other publications, not to mention having his work developed by Jim Henson Productions and CBS, among others.

After reading his book, Guns A’Blazin’, it is easy to see why he is so successful – the book is an engaging and enjoyable read, full of good information and useful examples. He addresses the real issues, while trying to maintain a sense of perspective, and as you might guess from his Amazon bio, has a great wit and charm to the way he writes, which is underscored by a little sarcasm – a definite plus for me when it comes to reading (yet another) book on autism. Finding a book that is different, funny and a true ‘page turner’ in a world of dry texts is, without sounding too corny, refreshing. And as you probably already guessed (am I getting predictable?), you can win your very own copy here on HLW3B! Look for details at the end of the interview.

Jeff has agreed to answer the hard IEP questions – those about advocates, bad school IEP meetings and more. This is definitely an interview that you will want to save – bookmark this page so you can come back to it when school starts. Although I am hoping you won't need it.

Alright partners, holster your weapons, and saddle up for a good time, the rodeo’s startin’! Yee Haw!


Hi Jeff! Thank you so much for being here today and sharing your knowledge on IEP meetings. When you wrote this book your son Josh, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, was in high school. Tell us about your family now? How is your son Josh?

Josh is just fine. He’ll turn 21 in August (!), and will complete his sophomore year of college shortly thereafter. He lives in an apartment on campus, has a few friends, and is devoting himself to his work as a film/video major. He’s currently looking for a six-month co-op position in the film business to fulfill a college requirement, and is interested in editing and writing, so if anybody out there knows of anything, don’t be shy.

IEP meetings are stressful, plain and simple. We go in with a huge chip on our shoulder as parents, and I am sure teachers and administrators come in with preconceived notions of us too – probably based on the hundreds of other “Autism Parents” who came before us. How should parents prepare for their child’s IEP meeting so that we don’t come across as overbearing nutcases, but still like we mean business and expect good things for our child?

First, it’s helpful to know the school personnel before the first IEP meeting. Ask to meet the principal, the teacher, the special education teacher (who is required to be there whether your child is an inclusive class or not), the school psychologist and, if you can, the speech and language expert. Get a feel for how well they “get” your child. And yes, you should listen to other parents who have horror stories, so you can be prepared, but don’t expect that your school will be one of the difficult ones; it’s quite probable you won’t have the same problems as people you talk to. Keep in mind that the possibility exists that parents with horror stories really are expecting more than they should, or have issues different from yours.

For many families, there is already animosity and mistrust between themselves and the school, often created from years of miscommunication – it would be fair to say they have ‘gotten off on the wrong foot’, and some feel as though there is no way to mend that broken relationship. What would you suggest these parents do come fall when they are in yet another IEP Meeting? How can they begin to mend the relationship with their child’s team without giving up what they believe is necessary for their child?

One of the things I most strongly advocate is empathy—you have to get into the mindset of the people you’re talking to at IEP meetings. What is it like for them to have your child in class every day? Now don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting for one second you apologize for your child’s ASD. But I am saying that if you understand how your child affects the teacher’s day, and the principal’s, and so on, you can address their issues as you address your child’s. Start with the assumption that the school personnel have the same goal as you do: to help your child level the playing field. And let them prove you wrong, or be pleasantly surprised.

I truly believe, much like what you write about in your book, that schools do want to do what is right for the child, but the challenge is that those stories aren’t talked about – no one is out there bragging about what their school does for their kid on blogs or forums because those families aren’t looking for help. Mostly you find parents, desperate for help, publically ranting about the injustices their child is suffering. I have heard my fair share of what you call “Horror Stories” ranging from the simple, “My child has to do PE and hates it” to the more complex, “My son was told to sit in the middle of his Kindergarten classroom while all of the children, one at a time, by direction of his teacher, told him why they hated him.” And much worse. How should parents handle real problems – from small ones to big ones?

There are often very real problems in the classroom, and more often in the schoolyard during recess or gym. I am no apologist for school systems or teachers who aren’t interested in helping students with ASDs. Some of them are awful, and that’s the fact. But most teachers I’ve spoken to and heard about really want to find a way to help the child—if for no other reason, because it will make the teacher’s day easier. When there is a problem, start with communication. Start with the person involved. When my son was in primary school, maybe first grade, he said his phys ed teacher “hated” him and “yelled” at him “all the time.” We went in to talk to the teacher. Turned out her concern was that Josh—who was just learning to tie his shoes—always had laces undone when the class was running around, and she was concerned he’d trip, and would repeatedly have to stop him and get him to tie his shoes. We got him a pair of Velcro shoes, the problem was solved, and that teacher was his strongest advocate until the day he left that school.

Many people seek outside help when their relationship with their school starts to deteriorate. Often families hire an educational consultant or request a volunteer advocate to help them ask the right questions; create the best goals or accommodations, or to help get the right information during an IEP meeting. It is a hard road to travel, as I have found that just the mention of ‘bringing someone in for an outside opinion’ seems to have the school district hiding behind legal terms. Have you used either of those supports? What kind of help can they provide?

We never had to use consultants or legal advocates; of course, it helped that my wife is an attorney who boned up on disability law in our state before we went to any IEP meeting. But I know parents who have paid consultants and advocates, and in some cases, attorneys, with varying degrees of success. Yes, sometimes a school system gets its back up at the suggestion of “hired guns” coming in to advocate for the child. But it’s completely within your legal rights to bring anyone you like to the meeting. I think if you feel that you’ve been intimidated or unsuccessful in your solo attempts to help, you might want to look into using a consultant. But find one someone you trust can recommend.

You say in your book that breaking the ice with a bit of humor was one of the best things you did during your IEP meetings, and I absolutely agree! What are some good ice breakers that we can use with our child’s school that will help ease the tension, and remove those ‘chips’ from everyone’s shoulders?

At the first IEP meeting my wife and I attended, I opened by looking the assembled group in the eyes (which wasn’t easy, because that encompassed about 10 eyes) and saying, “I know my son can be a pain in the butt.” And everybody relaxed. If you go in with an attitude that says, “I know you’re going to try and stop me from getting what I need (which is something I’ve heard parents say), you’re asking for resistance from the school personnel. First of all, you don’t need anything here; your child needs the help. Look for ways you can help him/her together. Ask the representatives at the meeting what your role should be. Ask for their suggestions and offer some of your own. Don’t demand. Don’t gnash your teeth. Don’t show your claws. That’s not going to help.

Bring donuts or bagels. Make comments that suggest you’re looking at things from the school’s point of view as well as your own. And above all, never lose sight of what you’re trying to do—help your child, not score petty points in a perceived battle between yourself and the mean people at the school.

And lastly, tell us about your novels -- it is always great to read something for entertainment not just education!

Here they are:

1. The Aaron Tucker Mystery series (AS DOG IS MY WITNESS) features a work-at-home dad who writes about crime stories for local publications. He has a son with Asperger's, and in the book pictured, investigates a murder for which a young man with Asperger's has been arrested--and for which he confessed.

2. The Double Feature Mystery series (SOME LIKE IT HOT-BUTTERED, IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE, A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION): Elliot Freed owns Comedy Tonight, an all-comedy movie theatre where he shows one classic and one contemporary every day. He deals with his ex-wife (for whom he still carries a serious torch), his teenaged staff, his parents and the occasional murder.

3. The Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series, by "E.J. Copperman": Alison Kerby has moved back to her Jersey Shore hometown after a divorce, so she can renovate and run a guesthouse and keep a roof over her head and that of her nine-year-old daughter. When she discovers the place is haunted, she has a problem--the ghosts won't let her finish her renovations until she finds out who murdered them.

Thank you Jeff for taking the time to talk with us – and answer real questions that real families like mine struggle with each year! The IEP process is difficult, draining, emotionally charged and even downright scary at times and we all need guidance – and a little humor too.


Contest details to follow.

Here is how you can win:

You will need to follow this blog publicly through Google located on the top of the right column or via RSS/email (please indicate in your comment which one you use) and

2. Post your best IEP advice or feel free to ask other questions too!

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The contest will run from Monday 8/09/10 to Monday 8/15/10 and will end at 7pm PST. The winner will be selected by random drawing and emailed (don't forget to leave your email address!!). If you do not respond, a new winner will be drawn.

Good luck!


Just another Mom said...

Fantastic interview with great advice. Jeff has highlighted all the important steps to ensure the best possible outcomes for those IEP meetings that we dread. These are all things that I have employed at my meetings (with the exception of bringing a treat) and have had great success. That's not to say these tips will work every time with every school. We have had our disappointments and have had to move on. But what it does do is ensure success with a school team that is genuinely wanting what is best for your child not themselves, and that is most schools in my opinion.

Angela Fish said...

My best advice is: 1) Never go to an IEP meeting alone, and 2) Don't feel pressured to sign anything during the meeting.

In regard to #1, if your spouse cannot attend the meeting with you, bring a friend, neighbor, relative, or a hired advocate. Even if this person is there to quietly sit and observe, it is one more person with open ears during the meeting that you can download information with post-meeting. I always try to get this person to take notes for me also. It can never hurt to have information, and it's hard to take notes and hear everything that is going on among a group of people without missing details somewhere.

In regard to #2, get whatever business you can get done during the meeting, and then request to take a copy of the IEP with any additional attachments home with you for further review. Once home, try to bounce off the key points to other special needs parents you know in similar circumstances. Get at least one other set of eyes on it to make sure you haven't missed something critical. You have the right to bring back the IEP and sign it upon your return. Usually, they won't call another meeting unless significant changes are needed. I've typically received a copy with all of the IEP team member signatures on it except mine, and then I have a deadline to bring back my copy. At that time, I can discuss proposed changes (and whether that warrants an additional meeting) or I can sign it as-is.

Jeffrey Cohen wrote one of my all-time favorite books on autism - The Asperger Parent. It is one of the only books my husband read on the topic that he actually enjoyed. Mr. Cohen has a wonderful sense of humor! I would love to add this new book to my library! Besides, I make all my books available to other special needs parents through my support group, so it would be very beneficial to a lot of people!

Gavin Bollard said...

Great interview Jeff and Hartley! I'm going to have to see if I can chase down that long-titled IEP book.

The best advice I can give for the IEP meeting is to never let go of the things your child enjoys.

If your child is good at something, particularly if it develops into a special interest, make sure that you keep it in mind as you set priorities and tasks during the interview.

In my son's case, Star Wars is a special interest.

It could be that part of the IEP is to reward certain behaviour. For example, give the child a star-wars themed sticker or a piece of paper to draw a star wars spaceship on if they finish their work on time.

Alternatively, it could be that certain lessons could "lean on" the special interest. For example, If he has to write a poem or story, let him write about Star Wars.

The special interest is the most powerful driving force behind many children with ASD's. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

KDL said...

I am already following on Google reader. kdlavoie-at-pacbell-dot-com.
I loved this interview and will definitely check out some of Jeff's books. I review books on my blog, too, so this gives me some new ideas. Regarding IEPs, the best advice I can give (besides what Angela said above, which are both essential, IMHO) is to think of yourself as the "expert on your child" member of the team. Everyone else has a title and this can be intimidating, but no one knows your kid like you do. It swings both ways, though. You know your kid better than any of them do and therefore can give input and make suggestions to truly individualize their IEP for them (as opposed to letting the school use some cookie-cutter approach that they're comfortable with. It also means checking emotions as much as possible and remaining very professional (if passionate) in demeanor.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Cohen's book, The Aspberger parent is the best I've ever read. Even though it undoubtably gives you something to laugh about, I cried through most of it. It is the first book on aspberger's I have ever read that I felt like it was my child they were writing about. Josh's behaviors were identicle to by son's. IEP's started out as a nightmare our first year. Teachers with no clue and no desire to have a clue. Constantly giving me THE LOOK. Things are a bit better now. I had to bring an advocate with me one year and hated the fact that we HAD to go in with GUNS ABLAZING. Keeping the district from constanly changing his aid because of budget cuts and a seniority system amonst the aids is our greatest problem now. Any ideas on how to stop this from happening. The constant changes create hell for my boy and at home for us as well. The school and his team pay big through his behaviors, but they appear to be without a clue and uncaring for not recognizing this. Anyone with suggestions?