How Children With Special Needs are Assessed at School

Asher, who was given a diagnosis of autism several years ago, relaxes with dad.

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A little over a year ago, as COVID-19 was rearing its head and the nation was collectively realizing that it may become a much bigger problem than expected, I was laid off from my sales job with a large print shop in Montana, a result of company profits being halved overnight as our customers shut their doors in response to their own losses. My wife and I were already committed to extracting ourselves from the eight-month-long winters we had never quite grown accustomed to, and our move was accelerated by the pandemic.

We had decided to leave Montana primarily to give our 7-year-old son, Asher, who had been diagnosed with autism shortly after we arrived there, a warmer climate in which he could engage in the near-constant movement he requires without the need to bundle up every time – or pay for ski lift tickets every weekend.

In Montana, Asher had a wonderful team of therapists, teachers and college students who were devoted to his development, and we knew that it was crucial we find the same caliber of to maintain his growth here in South Carolina. While we had already been given a diagnosis of autism several years ago, I was nonetheless curious about how children with autism and other disabilities in the Palmetto State are diagnosed, how parents are involved and what options and resources are available. After making some calls to a couple of schools near our new West Ashley home, I was given the names of some extremely helpful people serving in various roles in the special-needs community. I was able to pick their brains about not only getting our son back into the groove but also the process of how they assess kids for special needs in South Carolina and what hurdles they may encounter.

According to Lisa Allison, director of intervention and psychological services with the Charleston County School District, “We would consider the most challenging aspect of the evaluation process to be ensuring meaningful parent participation. This is especially true for our parents of preschool students, for whom the evaluation process might be the first interaction with the school system.”

This conviction that parental involvement is paramount to the success of the student is one I heard repeated by several of the people I spoke with.

“The evaluation process can be overwhelming, and we try to make sure that we make it accessible for all of our parents. We provide interpreters and translators for our non-English-speaking families, and our evaluators make themselves available to answer any questions that parents may have. We encourage parents to reach out any time they have questions or concerns; it is our goal that all of our families feel comfortable every step of the way,” Allison added.

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Susan Sachs, director of Project Hope, an Applied Behavioral Analysis academy in Landrum, reiterated the importance of parental participation: “Parents are a key part of what we do … It’s a team effort. Our goal is to get the kids classroom-ready, and parents play a huge part in that.”

Early action regarding a child’s educational direction also is key to reaping the most benefits from their schooling. In 2018, Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law Act 213, directing school districts to implement Multi-Tiered Support Systems. One principle of MTSS is the belief that “intervening at the earliest indication of need is necessary for student success.”

Dr. Twila Wilson, supervisor of psychological services within CCSD, described MTSS as “our framework in which we help support all our students. We have a three-tier type of framework. Tier one is our universal support to make sure all students receive the support that they need. Those students who are not progressing at the rate we’d like them to move to tier two, where they can receive, depending on what they need, math intervention, reading intervention, writing intervention, behavioral intervention, etc. If those students are not making progress, then they go to our tier three, where we provide more extensive support. If our tier three students are not making progress, we might suspect a disability, and we will plan an evaluation process meeting to determine if we need to collect more information on those students to see if they have a disability or not.”

The process for assessing students’ needs, before they are even placed in a specific tier, typically begins by determining where the students will attend school, according to Beverly Holt-Pilkey, the executive director of CCSD’s Department for Exceptional Children.

“Oftentimes, parents reach out directly to the Department of Exceptional Children and indicate that they are moving to Charleston County. Perhaps the child already has an IEP – Individualized Education Plan – in place. That is one of the first things we would look at. What is the student’s IEP already saying? Within 45 days of looking at that, we will develop a Charleston County School District IEP,” Holt-Pilkey explained.

While the number of children in this program with autism is quite high, autistic students are not the majority.

“Our primary referrals are for students who are struggling academically with a learning disorder, specifically in the area of reading,” Allison said. “Any time a team suspects a disability, regardless of the tier, the team could move forward with an evaluation.”

This highlights the fact that the department is actively monitoring the development of each student, again with the intent of correctly diagnosing them and intervening in their education as early as possible.

As I was speaking with all of these experts, it became clear to me that behind the programs, the processes, the tiers and the assessments, the underlying motivator for all of them is a deep and genuine desire to see every child in the state develop and thrive as much as possible. While the process of finding the absolute best care and education for a child with special needs can seem daunting, it is reassuring to know that the well-being of your child – and mine – is of paramount importance to these educators.

INFOGRAPHIC: Special Education by the Numbers

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