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Navigating Autism in the Military: Insights from Two Spouses

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April is the Month of the Military Child and Autism Acceptance and Awareness Month. What better way to honor both than for two military spouses of two Autistic children to talk about Autism?

Destiny Huff: Navigating Public School with Autistic-ADHD Child

Hey – Destiny Huff here – late diagnosed Autistic-ADHD and Army spouse. I am a Doctoral Candidate in Psychology, a mental health therapist, a neuroaffirming special education advocate, and an IEP Coach. When my oldest son entered public school, my husband and I were concerned about how the transition would be. He struggled with transitions, perfectionism, black-or-white thinking, and occasional perfectionism. As a mental health professional who worked in the school and early childhood setting, we thought I had it covered. I spoke with the teacher beforehand and requested a meeting with the Military Family Life Counselor (MFLC), school counselor, and administration to discuss his strengths and concerns. Well…we were wrong. Let’s start from the beginning.

Addressing Perfectionism: Coping Strategies for Dysregulated Behavior in School

Our oldest son hit all of his milestones. He was in daycare from seven weeks old because I have worked outside the home his entire life until now. While in daycare, we had some things pop up here and there. Jumping off stuff and climbing – not to be unsafe, to be curious and have fun. Okay, he is a little daredevil. He was slightly dysregulated occasionally, but what child doesn’t get upset during transitions? It’s hard to stop what you are doing and move on to something you don’t want to do. Then he started Strong Beginnings, which is more structured and less about play. This is when we started to see perfectionism and black-or-white thinking. 

Navigating School Challenges: Adapting Strategies for Autism Support

Consider this scenario: He draws a picture but discards the entire paper because it’s not perfect. Additionally, his version differs when he tries to replicate something his teacher made, leading to dysregulation and prolonged distress. These activities trigger significant periods of being inconsolable, reflecting his struggle with imperfection and deviations from expectations.

So, we adapted. Colored pencils with erasers let him know to use his imagination and make it any way he wanted. This gave him extra time with the activity. It allowed him time to reset, decompress, and work on that social-emotional piece. Then, he entered into the school system.

Phone calls started coming in within the first week of school, followed by write-ups, emails, and messages. We requested meetings, behavior intervention plans, and a special education evaluation, doing everything to support our son. However, each time we raised concerns, they were downplayed. It wasn’t until he returned from winter break and was suspended three times in two weeks that my husband said enough is enough. They will not kick our son out of school because they are unwilling to help us help him.

While my husband went to the Superintendent, I sought out a psychologist. Since we were in a predominately white area where I felt that our son’s needs were not being met, I specifically sought out a black clinical psychologist and educational psychologist. They were able to work alongside the school, who had finally agreed a special education evaluation was necessary, and they were able to provide us with an answer – our son was Autistic and had been masking.

Overcoming School Resistance: Managing Autism Diagnosis in Education

With a formal medical diagnosis in hand, we now had a name for what our son was struggling with. While the school was not responsive to this diagnosis, we had a place to start in truly supporting him. The school completed the special education evaluation, and he qualified under social-emotional developmental delay because, in their words, “he can speak and he is very smart” and not Autistic. We knew this was due to previous conversations throughout the year about how “he was choosing to behave this way, he could not act this way if he wanted to, he knows when to act right and when not to.” The school was dismissive, which was fine because we were on to our next duty station, and at least we had an IEP and a formal diagnosis.

Finding Support and Advocacy: Handling School Transitions with Autism

Once we were at our new duty station, we were full of fear for what this diagnosis meant and what school would look like. However, we were pleasantly surprised. We entered the school and informed them that our last duty station had caused significant trauma to our family. Specifically, our son was greatly affected. We talked about the phone calls, the tears, the half days, or even him only being at school for an hour before we had to come and pick him up. Instead of dismissing us, they were responsive, supportive, and understanding.

They spent the first half of the school year collaborating with us to figure out what support he needed in his new setting while also building a relationship with him. The school re-evaluated him to get more accurate data. It corrected his category of eligibility on his IEP to Autism while addressing his need for speech pragmatics, which was dismissed at his previous school.    

As we prepare to move again, I feel anxious and fearful. However, I’m hopeful and optimistic because I’ve learned to advocate for my child. I know what he needs to feel safe and supported and what he needs to thrive.

Crystal Mahany: Advocating for Autism Awareness and Support in Military Communities

Hello – Crystal Mahany here – Autism Mom and Army spouse. I teach graduate school at the College of Professional Studies at The George Washington University. I’ve worked in the legal field for the last 20 years and worked as a Special Education Paralegal for several law firms across the U.S. When my oldest son was diagnosed with a rare speech disorder before turning three, I knew that wasn’t just the answer to what was going on. Shortly thereafter, he received an Autism diagnosis, and I had a clear path to learn more about him, his brain, and the therapies he needed. But it wasn’t a clear path. I relied on “experts” and professionals who, in some ways, helped. But some did actual harm.

Challenges and Triumphs in Military Life

Moving every few years presents its own challenges, and finding trustworthy and knowledgeable therapists and teachers who understand how his diagnoses intersect is sometimes impossible. Some duty stations and their respective school districts have been outstanding, while others have been a total dumpster fire. Some schools are inclusive and wonderful; others hold their breath until we leave. 

Early Education Challenges: Advocating for Special Needs Support in Preschool

He did two years of preschool because of his age. The school staff was kind but ill-equipped.
The speech therapist had never treated a child with apraxia. Therefore, I provided mounds of information and openly shared his private speech therapist’s notes and treatment plans. After many contentious meetings, they replaced her due to her strong resistance. His preschool years were a steep learning curve for me, but that’s when I dove into special education parent advocacy. At the same time, I was at the on-post hospital, calling out the inefficiency of the referral/authorization process at the pediatric clinic. The system did not accommodate parents who needed specialty care and strict adherence to therapy schedules. So, I advocated to change that.

Empowering Parent Advocacy: Transforming Special Needs Support in Education

When we PCSd to Texas, I had a much better understanding of what he needs to be successful in school. Needless to say, I was hands-on and pushed into the classroom to observe when I was getting constant reports of his behaviors. I called an IEP meeting with every single person with whom he came in contact. His therapists could visit the school, and we worked to collaboratively develop his IEP and BIP. After rallying everyone to get on the same page, his kindergarten and first-grade year were amazing – AMAZING.

I escalated my parent involvement by helping to create a Special Needs Advocacy Council for parents and a Special Needs Parent Representative position for PTAs district-wide. That was the first time I ran into tremendous resistance from district administrators. Wait – the people in charge didn’t like parents actively advocating for kids with disabilities? Nope. But I did it anyway.

Challenges in Special Education: Overcoming Resistance in School Districts

Our next duty station was the dumpster fire – in Alabama. We moved three times in three years to first change schools and then to make sure he stayed at the same “good” school. This is when I noticed he would comply with school but was not happy to be there. And once again, the district’s special education director did everything in her power – which she wielded without shame – to deny everything I requested. Reading curriculum? No. Evaluations? No. Observing him at school? No. Therapists observing him at school? No. Training for teachers? Also no.

Now we’re in Georgia. The district placed him at a school 30 minutes away but I was THRILLED because it is a fantastic school. Hold the phone – a district that intentionally puts students in the best learning environment based on their disabilities? Say it ain’t so! Needless to say, he experienced a dream come true during his 5th grade year. He started reading within a few short weeks, and he was (big sigh) happy. IEP meetings were wonderful – collaborative, open, communicative, informed, and gracious when I cried tears of joy.

However, the district’s school psychologist refused to evaluate him even though I signed consent – the IDEA and GA law says districts must conduct reevaluations in a “reasonable” amount of time. After months and months of chasing and pushing, he was evaluated in 6th grade (by a different school psych). Why, people? Why make this difficult? On a positive note, he has a friend, Kobe. An actual friend.

Empathy and Unity: Embracing the Autism Journey Together

My son is 12 now and not very verbal. I gauge his emotions by his behavior and my gut instincts. I don’t know if he knows what a bully is, but I do know he understands acceptance. He knows environments where he’s welcome and understands when people are uncomfortable with him. That’s the worst part – people who make him feel like there’s something terribly wrong with his very nature – something he can’t control. 

So, whether you are a parent new to special education and the Autism journey or have been on this journey a while, we are with you. No path is the same, but we walk them together. Supporting each other is the best way to support our military community as a whole!

Personalized Advocacy: Schedule Your 1:1 Consultation Today!

If you want to connect with Destiny or Crystal about your Autism or special education journey or need advocacy assistance, please complete this intake form. Destiny and Crystal offer 1:1 Consultation and advocacy assistance!

About the Authors

Destiny Huff

Destiny Huff: Navigating Public School with Autistic-ADHD Child

Destiny is the proud wife of an Army Armor Officer and the former military brat of a Retired CSM who served 27 years in the U.S. Army. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapist, and Certified Supervisor who has worked with military service members and their families as a mental health professional.

Destiny received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Georgia Southern University and a Master of Science in Clinical-Counseling Psychology from Valdosta State University. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate in the General Psychology Program at Walden University, where her research focus is on using bibliotherapy as a clinical strategy to address the unique challenges that military children face.   

In 2022, Destiny underwent a crash course in special education and IEPs when her oldest son received a diagnosis of Autism. After advocating early on for her youngest son, who has a Speech Delay, she learned the importance of having to advocate in the school setting. Destiny became a Special Education Parent Advocate and Master IEP Coach to help other families advocate for their children and prevent them from going through what her family went through.

Crystal Mahany

Crystal Mahany: Advocating for Autism Awareness and Support in Military Communities

A proud wife to an Army Aviator, Crystal has served the military community in many capacities over the last 21+ years and is committed to serving until and beyond her soldier’s retirement. She strongly believes in serving military families and the surrounding community at each duty station.

In 2014, her oldest son was diagnosed with a rare speech disorder and Autism. Two years later, her youngest son was diagnosed with the same speech disorder. These diagnoses thrust her family into the Special Needs and Special Education community. Driven by her passion to help, Crystal went back to school and focused her research on Civil Rights, Disability Rights, and Special Education Law.

Crystal has worked as a paralegal, advocate, and legal analyst in Special Education Law, facilitated panel discussions on protecting the most vulnerable, and taught courses on Special Education as a Civil Right, the importance of the 10th Amendment, and Disability as a Tenet of Diversity. She has been with Partners In PROMISE since its founding and currently serves as the Research Editor, Legal Analyst, and Parent Mentor. Crystal is deeply committed to policy changes to advance education policy and Disability Rights and works as Adjunct Faculty at The George Washington University.



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