Interview with Dee Marks, Parent Mentor for Dublin City Schools

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Interview by Casey Ferrara

Can you briefly describe the professional work you do to provide support for families navigating the special education system within the Dublin City School district?

The role of a parent mentor is to first support parents in their role as an advocate for their child in the special education process. We help them navigate ETR meetings, IEP meetings, help them think about what goals they might want to have for their child. Within that, we help them understand their rights and responsibilities as the parent. Secondly, we act as a parent liaison between the parent and the school in order to provide an opportunity for more effective communication. We can reduce tension if the school team is not agreeing on various ideas for the child’s support. We can also provide a more collaborative relationship with that school on behalf of the parent. Thirdly, a parent mentor helps to be a liason for community resources. A parent mentor can connect parents to the appropriate resources based on a family’s needs. I also help families to provide training to help better educate families. A parent mentor is there to cry with, laugh with, and support families. 

What are the most common issues parents come to you as a parent mentor for?

 The most common issues parents come to me for are three-fold. When their child is first diagnosed, and they don’t understand the disability and begin to panic. I help them understand the disability and help them understand how their child is different from another child with the same disability. I help them understand not to give up on their dreams, and explain that we are just going to get there a different way. I also help them through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process and help them understand all the acronyms that are in it. I make sure they understand the document, so they know what they are signing. I help them with their rights and their responsibilities. As well as, providing community resources to those who may not know where to take their recently diagnosed child. This includes resources like dentists, summer camps, and occupational therapists. 

What difficulties have you seen children with Autism have in trying to participate in sports, whether it be in gym class or non-school related activities?

The biggest part with that is just because you have one kid with Autism means nothing when it comes to the next kid. They are so different and their sensory needs are so different. So, I think the biggest part of it is until you get to know the child you are working with, you will not understand what their reaction is going to be to that sport you are playing. So whether they have a sensory processing disorder or not, the education curriculum states they must learn all skills. How can we modify the curriculum to not cause the kid harm? Most of the time children have fine and large motor skill deficits. So, they struggle to participate in a regular gym class because they do not have the same skills of other children.  

Can you briefly tell me a little about your son? His strengths and weaknesses?

I adopted CJ on his 9th birthday and he is now 16 years old. His biggest strength is perseverance. He witnessed a lot of trauma before he moved in with me. All of this had an impact on him. He was nonverbal at the time, and he had no way of communicating, so he had a lot of extreme behaviors. With the right team, we were constantly navigating what was best for him. When I first adopted him, he did not have any academic goals on his IEP. We knew we could not teach him anything because we could not get him to behave long enough. So, all of his goals were about behavior and communication. We worked on the behavior skills first, and it took us about a year to two year before we got that before we really start working on education. Once we got him to that level, it took off. In second grade he didn’t even know the alphabet, but he is in 10th grade now and he reads at a 6th grade level. He is considered accelerated. He gained multiple levels of reading in the span of a few years. My goal for him is read at an 8th grade level by the time he graduates. 

Weaknesses, he does have Autism. But I have said all along that the biggest weakness for him is his post traumatic stress. When the stress flares up, the Autism flares up to a higher level. The mental health piece is the problem. We have to deal with the mental health first for the Autism to settle down. So I think that PTSD causes a huge issue. When his brain is in fight or flight he can’t do anything else. Every other part of the brain shuts down, and that holds him back in a lot of capacities. And obviously, the communication, I know how to have a conversation with him, but he cannot do the same with you. 

When did your child first get involved with sports? Which sports?

He first got involved with sports in school because of gym class. I wanted him to be involved with extracurricular activities, and in Dublin, school sports start in seventh grade. He loved basketball, but he couldn’t understand the team perspective of it. So, we looked at him being a basketball manager, but that was not him being a participant. So, track had an anyone-could-be-in-it policy, so I said well let’s try it. So we tried it, and he just went. He’s not the fastest, but he has heart and just keeps going. 

Were there any challenges he had to overcome in the beginning?

Communication and understanding the rules of the game are challenges he is still working to overcome. So when the gun goes off at the beginning of the race for track and cross country, everyone else knows to go, we have to be like, GOO! We have to help him to understand the rules of engagement of the game and to run through the finish line strong at the end of the race. I used to stand 20 feet past the end of the finish line holding two hotdogs to make sure he ran fast all the way to the end. We have to make sure everyone else involved understands as well. Trying to help everyone else see, whether it’s the coaches or the other attendees, that his participation is just as important. Helping Cj to be the best that he can and how we can help him. How do we teach him to do these things independently is something we are still working to overcome as well.

What sport does he enjoy the most? Why?

Basketball, because it is an immediate reward of getting a basket. Whereas other sports, you have to be apart of the team. He might not be the person getting the goals, so he doesn’t understand why he should be excited about it. 

What sport does he not enjoy or struggles the most with? Why?

He struggles with all team related sports. He struggles because of the fine and gross motor skills. He also struggles with understanding the team concept. If he gets the ball he is going to want to keep the ball. He does not understand that he needs to pass it on because another person is better at striking. He does not have the ability to think ahead.

What do you think could be improved to better teach children with Autism how to play sports?

First, I think it is important to get to know the child. Being more focused on the kid, learning a skill at the best of their ability instead of learning a skill for a grade. I do not think we should just teach the children with Autism, I think we should also teach the peers how to include these kids. If you are not teaching the peers to include the kids in a way that is not pitying, then you are not benefiting anybody. A big piece of that is how to teach the peers. Also being sensitive to what their sensory needs are.