Amber Stranahan has always considered her 9-year-old son, Sully, "an extremely talented young man."
But it wasn't until she received support from Michigan Alliance for Families (MAF) that she felt truly empowered to ensure that Sully gets the education he needs to develop to his full abilities.
Growing increasingly dissatisfied with her public school district's approach to educating Sully—who has nonverbal autism, meaning he uses limited words—Stranahan in late 2016 sought advice and support in a Facebook parenting forum.
She soon heard from Debbie Rock, an MAF parent mentor.
"She's definitely an amazing woman who has helped us out in so many ways," Stranahan said. For instance, Rock and MAF provided Stranahan and her husband, Jeremy, with empathy and peace of mind, tips from other parents who had children in special education, and—perhaps most important—information on how to support and advocate for Sully.
Such is the mission of MAF, an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Grant Funded Initiative of the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education, and the Parent-Training and Information Center: to provide the support needed by families with children, up to age 26, who receive or are eligible to receive special education services.
For example, all MAF parent mentors have had a child or close family member go through the special education system, so they understand what parents are experiencing. MAF also provides or directs parents to resources, including workshops and classes where they can learn more about their rights and the ins and outs of special education.
The key to the process is gaining foundational knowledge about the individualized education program, or IEP—a document developed for each public school child who receives special education services.
"I describe my job as helping to put the 'i' in 'individual,'" said Rock, who assists parents who have children receiving special education services in Kent, Ionia, Barry, Montcalm and Ottawa counties.
Thanks to MAF, the Stranahans were armed with a deeper understanding of what Sully's program should look like. In 2017, they continued communications with their school district about Sully's first-grade education. The Stranahans thought Sully would best thrive in a general education setting, while the district contended he'd be better served in a classroom devoted to other students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
"I definitely believed that was not the best scenario," Stranahan said, explaining that she thought Sully was too isolated and didn't have enough opportunities to interact with other students in the ASD classroom.
"From what I observed, it was glorified babysitting. I noticed he really couldn't do any of the first-grade work. I didn't think they were educating him in any shape or form. I wanted him educated."
Eventually, the Stranahans and the district reached a compromise: Sully would spend 10 hours a week in the ASD class and the rest in general education. "We figured we'd try that, since we'd tried everything else."
Yet as Sully moved into second grade, he continued to struggle.
"For having a social disorder, he's actually very social," Stranahan said. "But we've noticed he's not being as social lately."
She notes it's often an ordeal to get him ready for school in the morning. He'll have meltdowns because he doesn't want to take the bus in the morning, but he'll readily hop on it after school for the trip back home.
"That just tells me that he doesn't like school."
Given Sully's apparent unhappiness, the Stranahans—who also have a younger daughter and son—made the difficult decision to have him finish out the current school year in their public school district and begin homeschooling him in 2018 – 2019, through the K12 online school program.
However empowered the parents, disagreements with schools still arise. "I do believe in the hearts of our educational staff there is a sincere desire to help children," said Rock, who notes problems are often rooted in laws that are open to interpretation and in the lack of leeway afforded teachers to customize education approaches.
Although she was ultimately unable to resolve her differences with the school district, Stranahan remains thankful for MAF.
"If it wasn't for them, honestly, I'd probably be sitting back and thinking that just accepting what they told me was the only option I had. It made me a much better advocate for my son."
Stranahan proudly notes that Sully plays baseball and skates, and she believes he has the ability to attend college.
"I really think he's an extremely talented young man. I don't see his autism getting in his way. Anything we have set for goals he has quadrupled and done 10 times more. He's just an incredibly smart kid."
Photo Courtesy of Michigan Alliance for Families.