Friday, December 30, 2011

The Virtue of Life-long Learning

As we close out 2011, it's important to circle back and recall the valuable lessons of the year so we take them with us into 2012 and apply them effectively. When I participate in conferences and other continuing education opportunities, I return with volumes of new material to consider. I have to revisit those folders to reclaim their treasures! And that's one of the blessings of studying autism: There's always new research (some promising, some lacking credibility) and theories. And as the years go on, sometimes those of us who care for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have to up-end completely our approach to certain aspects of interacting with these often misunderstood individuals.

Think about it -- Thirty years ago, "refrigerator mothers" caused their children's autism, then believed to be a psychological manifestation of a failed mother-child bond. Twenty years ago, a British researcher translated the writings of Hans Asperger and coined the diagnosis Asperger's Syndrome. Ten years ago, occupational therapists starting exploring the sensory integration aspects of treating ASD. And now, we realize that lacking the ability to talk doesn't mean a person has nothing to say.

So when earlier this year I had an administrator tell me that the school staff had been "in-serviced to death" on the topic of autism, I wondered aloud what their last training was. I learned one hour five years ago was the exposure. I recognize that autism accounts statistically for 1% of a school's population, but the good news is that best practices in teaching a child with autism often apply typical students as well! Establishing expectations, maintaining a visual schedule, and employing regular movement breaks are examples of these.

So next time you think your school couldn't use another hour of training (for staff and/or students), consider the virtue of life-long learning and give us a call.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Gift of Friendship

I had the kind of conversation last week with a mom that throws me into fits of hate and hope. She told me a sad but familiar story of a misunderstood boy who spends his recess pacing the playground perimeter because he and his peers just haven't figured out how to have successful social interactions. And without intervention, they won't.

No one "just knows" how to interact appropriately with someone with autism. Certainly, there are those with a sensitivity and compassion that encourage them to continue trying in spite of pratfalls, but unless you have an understanding of that differently-wired brain and how it impacts the way that person experiences the world around them, you will struggle.

And children with autism can't be expected to be socially graceful.  A hallmark of their disability is lack of social understanding, so how can we as parents and teachers expect them to generalize to the playground skills taught in a speech therapist's office without coaching?

And this mom told me about how this boy was trying to initiate social interaction by hugging, which he was told specifically was unacceptable.  The poor child.  So while I hate that this downtrodden boy is despairing of his young life because he can't find a way to fit in, I have hope.  My hope springs from the results we've seen from our staff and student services.  I know that we can go into that school and work with its community to create a culture of acceptance, where glimmers of understanding and empathy shine more brightly than the darkness of despair.

But we can't do that without your help.  Please consider giving a year-end gift to Good Friend, Inc.  Your donation of $10 pays for us to send a Presentation Kit loaded with helpful resources for educators and families to the school that invites us.  A $25 donation pays for gel bracelets and personalized certificates for a classroom of students who learn to be good friends.  Only $50 covers the expenses associated with a guest lecture, where upwards of 100 college students at a time learn about best practices associated with interacting with people with autism.  And a $100 donation allows us to go to a school and provide an hour-long staff in-service. 

You can donate online through our website (right-click on the Donate button to open a new PayPal checkout window) or Cause.  Checks can be made payable to Good Friend, Inc. and mailed to 808 Cavalier Dr., Waukesha WI 53186.  Donations are tax-deductible to the extent provided by law, and should be postmarked by December 31st for this year's application.

Thank you for your generous support of our mission!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hosting Autism for the Holidays?

While I am sure most people with neuro-typical development ("NTs", as they're sometimes referred to in autism circles) look forward to the holiday season, it is not always so readily welcomed by those experiencing the world with autism.  And if you're the host/-ess of this year's festivities and you have a family member with autism who's attending, please keep this seasonal AUTISM acronym in mind ...

A is for anxiety. Anxiety is a real factor in determining behavior for a person with autism. Not knowing where one is going, whether or not and when there will be gifts, and if there will be a place where one can compose one's self with dignity are all fears that may block joy.
U is for uncomfortable. Scratchy formal attire, while handsome for photo opportunities, does not a happy person with tactile-defensiveness make.  Caregivers: lose the shirt, tie, and/or wool sweater and give yourself permission to bring your loved one in his/her comfiest clothing.
T is for tips & tricks.  What's your family member with autism's special interest?  Maybe you could ask his/her caregiver what you could have on-hand in case of "emergency".  Grab some fidget toys from the dollar store (but watch out for the ones that have gel or liquid inside - that can get messy!).  Some people with autism like light-up and/or music-making baubles and others don't.
I is for information.  One of the greatest gifts you can give to the family bringing the person with autism is a good idea of what's going to happen.  What are we eating and when?  Will we open gifts before or after the meal?  Do you have a TV where we can pop a movie in as a distraction in case we're waiting?
S is for sensory overload.  I have always liked the song "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas", but I'm starting to think it's just a terrible reminder of the metallic bells, bright lights, and scented candles that come with the season.  Too much input for the senses will diminish the coping ability for your loved one with autism.
M is for meltdown.  And if that loved one runs out of ways to cope, he or she will indeed have a meltdown.  It's not a tantrum.  Don't punish it.  Understand that it's meant for your understanding of the state he or she is in.  Respect his or her limitations.
What are some ways you've adapted your holiday celebration to be respectful of your family member with autism?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From anecdotal to research-based

Last week's blog posting was more timely than I even thought.  The next day, an article about the benefits of peer education regarding autism was published in Disability Scoop, an online news service.  The piece was written regarding a study as published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.  I remember reading about this study in The Orange County Register nearly three years ago.  I contact Connie Kasari at UCLA, ecstatic about the findings.  I knew so little about how long it takes for such work to be published!

But here it is.  Proof of the effectiveness of preparing peers in an inclusive or mainstreamed classroom to receive their classmate with autism.  While it wasn't Good Friend's specific interventions that were studied, one does not have to take much of a leap to generalize the data to our Peer Sensitivity Workshops (PSWs) for elementary school students.  And soon enough, that leap won't be necessary.

Good Friend is thrilled to be working with UW-Whitewater on a study of our staff in-services and our 3rd through 5th grade PSWs.  We're in the process of identifying the pilot school, and the intervention and control groups for the study.  If you are an administrator in a public elementary school between Waukesha, Wis., and Whitewater, Wis., and wish to participate, please email

While I will never tire of the "proof" of the effectiveness of our services we currently receive, such as spontaneous hugs from 2nd grade students and affirmations from pleased parents, I will be glad to share the peer-reviewed evidence basis for teaching autism awareness, acceptance, and empathy.