There’s been an uptick of interest in neuropsychological assessments among parents in my circle, possibly fueled by the emergence of a one-size-fits-most core school curriculum here in the U.S. that, in a word, sucks. By definition, the one size that fits many excludes the few, and the different and disabled learners in our classrooms – many of who reside on the autism spectrum – are now scrambling to compensate with tools like neuropsych evaluations.
So what exactly is a neuropsychologist? When and why should you get an assessment done? And how can it help your kid?
If you do the research, you’ll read that neuropsychology is a newer discipline in the field of psychology concerned with identifying and treating the behavioral and cognitive effects of neurological disorders. That’s me paraphrasing Wikipedia as simply as I can – it gets much more convoluted than that. However, I recently had a hands-on education about all things neuropsych, as my own son went through the testing process himself. And the best way I can really answer the What, When, Why and How of these assessments is by sharing my experience with you, as a parent:
I first heard the term neuropsychology as a newish mom at a parenting group in my neighborhood. During one of our meetings, a neuropsychologist came and spoke to us about the importance of assessing for potential disabilities before kindergarten to determine the best educational fit for our kids. This was her specialty. She said some interesting things, but at that phase in my life anything chronologically past the point of potty training wasn’t on my radar yet. And while my little guy had a slight speech delay, everyone assured me that it was just a boy thing.
Months went by, his speech delay snowballed into an autism diagnosis, and we were ushered out of our quaint Reggio-based preschool and into the special education pool of a large, public school system. Not only was the school district underfunded, but suddenly we were, too. Our tuition budget had been reallocated to all things medically necessary in the world of early intervention, plus I was pregnant again and not going back to work anytime soon.
So, no, we did not have thousands of extra dollars to spend on neuropsych assessments that I barely grasped the point of when my son’s kindergarten year rolled around. By then we had accumulated a bunch of other professionals, and they handed us tools whenever our lifeboat sprang a leak. They seemed to be effective most of the time…
THE WHEN AND WHY
But recently I was once again sitting among a parent group, this one regarding students on the autism spectrum. Someone asked for a referral to a neuropsychologist because their child’s school accommodations weren’t working anymore. The topic struck a chord with us all, and we ended up discussing it at length. It seemed that the tipping point was between 3rd and 5th grade, when the workload and class size bulked up, and when kids in general became more self-aware. Falling behind made them insecure and anxious, and for some it was socially polarizing. Their teachers were too busy cranking out the core curriculum to diversity it for those who needed extra time or a different approach (i.e. accommodations), and parents were suddenly desperate for new tools to stop the boat from sinking.
Including me. My son’s perfectly differentiated public school education had reached its tipping point in 3rd grade. I knew what he was capable of, and that his education was no longer allowing his abilities to shine, but no one – including myself – could explain why in any concrete terms. As I absorbed more about the process of neuropsych testing from these other parents, the whole point of it finally made sense. A neuropsychologist would answer the why. It was time to add this to our toolkit.
Armed with a shortlist of referrals, I conducted some phone interviews and decided on “our” neuropsychologist, a woman who I believed would mesh best and pull the most out of my son. There were six meetings in all: An initial parent interview, six hours of assessments (that I was not allowed to attend) broken down into three meetings, then two more parent follow-ups to talk about the results and hash out an educational plan. She also paid a visit to my son’s school before meeting him so she could observe him anonymously.
Her results identifying specific academic gifts as well as learning issues that had all previously been explained away on paper as a part of “his autism”. I’d long-since given up on getting the school district to stop using his diagnosis as a blanket explanation, but now there was a clear replacement for it. She defined his autism as a social/emotional disability that, in itself, didn’t set him behind academically. In fact, there was a learning disability superimposed on his underlying diagnosis that was the true culprit, the real reason he was at a disadvantage with a one-size-fits-most curriculum.
How did we use her report? I won’t go into detail, but with the information and diagnosis she uncovered, we have been able to overhaul my son’s I.E.P. and provide his teachers with appropriate supports that work for him. Things at school aren’t perfect, 3rd grade is still a tough year, but he’s less anxious to go now, and he’s more social as a result. But I’m most excited about the doors that have opened up to him for next year as a result of this process. We now have a guide more concrete than gut instinct (no offense to my gut; it’s had a decent track record). We have all new options for 4th grade, and I feel confident in my pursuit of them.
That’s the most surprising part – the confidence. Our neuropsychologist has done as much for my confidence as she has for my son’s. Who would’ve thought?