A student zooms past his classroom building on his way to recesss. Photo by Scott Ball.
A student zooms past his classroom building on his way to recess. Photo by Scott Ball.

Parents who suspect that their child has a learning disability are often surprised to find that the road to help is thick with obstacles.

While some children are quickly and accurately identified and served by school psychologists and counselors, many are not. Conditions may hide behind compensatory strengths. A student might exhibit their learning specialities in unusual ways. Their uniqueness might be so unique that it falls outside available screening capacities in their school.

The reasons are many, but the effect is universal: undiagnosed or misdiagnosed learning specialties lead to discouraged kids and frustrated families. Assessment Intervention Management (A.I.M.) helps families and schools navigate the bureaucratic hurdles involved in getting special education services.

Diana Kenny, co-founder of A.I.M. Courtesy Photo.
Diana Kenny, co-founder of A.I.M.

Susan Houser and Diana Kenny worked as school psychologists before they started A.I.M. They saw first hand how difficult it was for schools to meet the wide range of needs that came through the doors while at the same time filing the necessary paperwork to get funding for particular special education services.

They decided to create A.I.M. as an independent consulting firm that could streamline the process for all involved. For families, they cut through the jargon, and ensure that they have the documentation they need to access the services they are entitled to through public schools. For students, A.I.M. provides the answer to the questions that have been nagging them, and the confidence to know themselves.

A.I.M takes referrals from schools to test kids beyond what the school can provide, and help schools maintain compliance to ensure continued funding of their special education services. A.I.M. currently works with Independent School Districts, charters schools, military co-ops, and individual families. The company’s 55 staff members specialize in a myriad of learning specialties.

Tiffany O’Neill found out about A.I.M. while serving as head of school at BASIS San Antonio. Like many charters, BASIS could not afford a school psychologist on staff, so they contracted with A.I.M. to screen and test students for potential learning disabilities. A.I.M. helps charters comply with state and federal requirements to receive special education funding.

Sitting in on a consultation with Houser, O’Neill was instantly impressed. As educators, O’Neill and her husband have seen a lot of evaluations.

Susan Houser, co-founder of A.I.M. Courtesy photo.
Susan Houser, co-founder of A.I.M.

“I’ve never seen anyone do an evaluation like Susan,” O’Neill said. “We come to the table with a lot of baggage and high expectations.”

At no time were those expectations higher than when the O’Neills enlisted A.I.M. to help their own daughter, Alina.

All of her teachers would tell the O’Neills that Alina was exceptionally bright. There was no explanation for her bad grades, especially in spelling or anything that involves writing. The prevalent diagnosis was that she just didn’t care, or wasn’t trying hard enough. For Alina, who knew that she was trying as hard as she could, this was demoralizing.

“It’s very unnerving as a parent to know your kid is smart but to see them struggle in school,” O’Neill said.

She enlisted the help of an A.I.M. consultant, who honed in the inconsistencies between Alina’s above-average intelligence and her bad grades. He discovered that she is “twice-exceptional.” Meaning that she has a “gifted and talented”-level IQ, but she also has a learning disability, in this case dysgraphia.

Alina O'Neill is now thriving in school. Courtesy photo
Alina O’Neill is now thriving in school.  Courtesy photo.

Now in fourth grade at Brooks Academy, Alina knows how to advocate for herself to get the tools and help she needs in order to communicate her mastery of subjects. Houser prepared Alina’s teachers, explaining how dysgraphia works and how they should clear a path for Alina to learn.

A holistic approach that also considers the child’s home and school life is absolutely necessary for Houser, Kenny, and their team. Students respond to their environments and internal challenges in different ways: frustration, apathy, compensation, etc. Sometimes that response makes it difficult to tell what’s really interfering with the learning.

“Without that full picture, you don’t know how to help them,” O’Neill said.

Roberta Benavides’ parents made a radical life change to help their daughter. Her teachers in Mexico City had never been able to determine what was holding Roberta back. They told her parents that it had to be low IQ. The constant struggle and bleak assessment were taking a toll on Roberta’s emotional wellbeing.

“She was having issues socializing,” said Carlos Benavides, her father.

They moved to San Antonio in search of help.

At Hardy Oak Elementary School in North East ISD they initially ran into similar roadblocks. Roberta was not an easy diagnosis, so they were having trouble accessing special education services.

Carlos heard about A.I.M. and reached out. The in-depth testing in Spanish and English revealed that Roberta was struggling with severe dyslexia and a learning disability in math, reading, and writing. Carlos and his wife returned to Roberta’s school armed with documentation.

“When I brought the tests from Susan they were like, ‘maybe we should speed this up,’” Carlos said.

A.I.M helped Roberta Benavides access the resources she needed at her school.  Courtesy Photo.
A.I.M helped Roberta Benavides access the resources she needed at her school. Courtesy Photo.

Now at Lopez Middle School, Roberta is flourishing. She has access to special education services and is reading and writing, mostly in English. Her parents help her maintain her Spanish at home.

While the Benavides family is fluently bilingual, Houser and Kenny point out that diagnosing learning specialties in the English language learner (ELL) population is extremely difficult, and is a major roadblock in San Antonio. It is complicated, for one, and culturally charged as well. Many families who immigrate to the United States carry with them the stigmas assigned to learning disabilities in their home countries.

“We have a whole generation who went through undiagnosed,” Houser said.

Other students families have been seeking help for years, struggling with hasty and incorrect diagnoses.

Students with rare conditions like Evan Hasberry’s often find themselves misdiagnosed with something more common. Beginning in third and fourth grade, doctors and school psychologists were convinced that Hasberry suffered from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. He clearly knew the content presented in school, he just couldn’t seem to get it out of his head in writing, projects, or presentations.

“My performance in school wasn’t matching my IQ,” Hasberry said. “It’s like my whole life has been writer’s block.”

Medications didn’t help. Traditional treatments didn’t help. Hasberry was almost out of high school when his mother reached out to A.I.M. with the tomes of diagnosis and testing her son had accumulated over the years.

Within 20 minutes with the A.I.M. consultant, Hasberry said they were on a new track, talking about a diagnosis he had never heard of, one that more accurately describing what was happening in his mind. A thorough battery of tests confirmed that Hasberry had executive function disorder.

Such intensive testing is expensive. While the cost to individuals varies, based on the number and complexities of the tests, Houser and Kenny estimate that the average is around $1,000-$1,500. Kenny said she spends a lot of time helping parents see that they do not actually need intensive testing. Many parents worry when their kids begin to display behavior different from their peers, or become particularly hard to manage at home. A.I.M. staff try to help parents see the wide range of typical behaviors – the younger, the wider – and give them help ordering their environment that lets their child develop cognitive and behavioral skills.

When a family does need a diagnostic test or series of tests, A.I.M. also helps them work out a payment plan that works for them. For post-adoption and foster care evaluations, foundations will often help differ costs. 

For Hasberry and his family, the cost was a worthwhile investment to a life where he can work and live independently.

A.I.M. referred Hasberry to a specialist who prescribed the correct medication. While Hasberry did not like the way the medicine made him feel, and ultimately chose not to continue, it did give him a short window of clarity and time to devise some operating strategies to work through the executive function disorder. He is now 21 years old and studying game design at the Art Institutes. He feels he can finally perform up to his potential.


Top image: A student zooms past his classroom building on his way to recess.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.