Monday, April 30, 2012

Teachable moments

Since my son was four years old, we've made a point of returning to his pediatric neuropsychologist every two to three years for an evaluation.  It's not for the purpose of diagnostics (his primary diagnosis of PDD-NOS has remained unchanged since 2003), but to assess his visual-spatial reasoning, cognitive and social abilities, expressive and receptive speech, and fine and gross motor skills.  The best part about the comprehensive report written after all the tests are compiled and analyzed is the page of recommendations the evaluating team develops.  These suggestions are specific to home and school teams, lending themselves to better parenting and incorporation into the IEP (Individualized Education Plan).

When we were facing the transition to middle school for our firstborn, one of the best recommendations seems now to be the most obvious to me: Explain everything.  When you're watching a story on the news about the aftermath of a tsunami, talk about why the person being interviewed is crying.  When a commercial makes you laugh, explain that the play on words is what makes that funny.  If you ask him to put deodorant on before he leaves for school, tell him it's because his hormones are starting to prepare him for being an adult, and that means sweat in places like armpits gets smelly.

I remember reading in a book when I was expecting this same child that I should speak to him while pregnant and while he's an infant, well before his own verbal abilities formed.  It seemed unnatural at first, but came more easily as practiced.  I have found the same to be true with explaining the "hidden curriculum" we take for granted.

It's just as important (if not more) for my daughter with Asperger's Syndrome.  She seems more aware of these daily vagaries and therefore more confounded.  She will often come to me explaining a social situation that she felt she handled awkwardly.  We do a little debrief.  She starts to tell me who was involved and what occurred by her perception, and I begin to ask questions.  "When you laughed at her, were other kids laughing, too?  What did her face do when you laughed?  Did she smile or hang her head?"  And, since she's been taught to notice these things, she recalls.  While we're talking through it, she might come up with a response on her own that might have been more appropriate.  Sometimes it warrants an apology to her friend; but it always results in a better understanding of the scenario.

And while the brain wiring associated with autism spectrum disorders makes the hidden curriculum piece more difficult to grasp, it doesn't mean that these teachable moments should be relegated to the population of individuals with ASD. If you observe a situation in the classroom, on the playground, or in your home that presents an opportunity for a social-emotional lesson, capitalize on it!  Perhaps you saw a student stand up for another when group behavior was starting to deteriorate.  Be sure to point out how you appreciated the UPstander quality the model student displayed.  Maybe your own child made an unnecessary judgment about a child nearby who responded in an unexpected way to environmental stimuli.  Remind him that we don't all process information in the same way.

In being mindful of the value of these teachable moments, we will contribute positively to the mental well-being of the children in our care.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A day late and a dollar short. (Who's counting?)

Indeed, today's blog post comes a day late.  And it just so happens that I'm coming with a bit of sad news: Despite the extraordinary efforts of a handful of our bowlers and a truckload of Good Friend, Inc., volunteers, the funds raised through our 4th annual Hoa Aloha Autism Awareness Bowling Event on Sunday fell a dollar short.  Well, more like $1,400.

But who's counting?

I'll tell you what I counted yesterday: More than 200 moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, teachers and therapists -- all cheering and smiling and high-fiving.  I saw inclusion at its finest and counted zero people who wanted to participate being left out.  I counted the happy tears of a grateful mom as she counted the hundreds upon hundreds of dollars given to the cause in her son's honor.

My son counted and proudly reported to me his spares.  There were four.  His dad counted the two bumpers that went up to help him get those spares.  And there's nothing wrong with counting supports.

My hope is that the people with autism who bowled with us on Sunday can count everyone else in that bowling alley, and all the donors who gave, as someone who supports them.  May we count you in?  Our event page is still live and accepting donations, and any of our bowlers would be honored by your support. So would we.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rock some blue in your 'do!

QR Code entry point: CLICK HERE for the most recent blog post.

This week, I'm offering some respite from deep thinking.  ;o)  Let's have some FUN!

Here's my proposal: [High]light It Up Blue for Autism!  
A trio of moms raising youth with autism spectrum disorders has banded together to help create autism awareness in a unique way.  Get a blue natural hair extension, feather, and/or sparkly tinsel strands at Salon BrillarĂ© (Pewaukee)!  Janet D'Amato, the salon's owner, is donating the proceeds for this promotion from March 22 through April 22 to Good Friend, Inc.!  For $10, you can choose one option, or you can pump it up or mix and match any three choices for $25 (per client).  New clients are welcome!  You could walk in, but appointments are recommended.  Call 262-522-2914, or email for more information or to get yourself and your friends scheduled!  They'll do manicures, pedicures, and nail art, too!  And they'll be at our Hoa Aloha Autism Awareness Bowling Event on April 22!

I know, I know -- it's extreme, right?  Blue hair?!  How the heck are you supposed to blend with blue hair?  That's kind of the point.  We don't want our kids with autism to feel like they have to blend.  They have an invisible disability with some very visible manifestations.  Be willing to stand out and stand up for them during National Autism Awareness Month!

But if blue hair is just too personal, what about blue light bulbs outside your house?  Check out Autism Speaks' Light It Up Blue campaign.  World Autism Awareness Day is April 2!  Blue it up!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Partying with autism

When Denise and I do student services in elementary schools, we are often encouraging the typically-developing students to invite their friends with autism to their social gatherings.  Birthday parties are often a big deal in a little life.  And while some adventurous parents are willing to go all out and invite the whole class, most families opt for a shorter guest list.  Trimming the classmate with special needs can be an easy choice.  Let me offer a few potential perspective changing thoughts on that.

First, inclusion in education shouldn't stop when students leave the classroom.  Part of the reason that inclusive models are practiced in schools is to promote inclusive communities.  We have decided as a society that excluding people on the basis of their disability isn't acceptable.  However, we have also decided that providing supports, whether natural (peers, family members, etc.) or created (Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, educational assistants, etc.), is required for success.  Here are some supports you might use to make your party inclusive of a friend with autism:

  • Ask the friend's mom or dad what triggers for upset the friend might have.  For example, my son hates the "Happy Birthday" song and flash photography.  If we give him a heads-up when we're about to sing, he removes himself to a quiet place until the cake is cut.  And if we turn the flash off when we want to take a group picture, we've avoided causing discomfort.
  • Create a visual schedule.  When attending a party, it's a bummer to bring social deficits and anxiety.  Party-goers with autism will feel more control over the excitement of the day if there's some predictability built in.  The schedule doesn't have to show times, but it could.  Some simple pictures of eating, swimming, game playing, gift opening, or whatever is on the itinerary for the party in a pre-determined order will be helpful.
  • Put the menu on the invitation.  If your friend with autism has any special dietary needs, perhaps mom or dad could send along alternate treats if needed.
  • Understand that people on the autism spectrum have their limit for social excitement, no matter how enjoyable the company and/or event is.  If your friend comes late and leaves early, don't feel like you've failed in your attempt to include.  His/Her attendance at all is a major victory for both of you!

Second, going to extra mile to include a classmate with autism sends powerful messages to everyone involved.  Birthday parties are a celebration of the person of honor, but asking the birthday girl or boy to share her or his spotlight reminds them that it's not all about them.  That's a healthy shift of focus.  It reminds classmates that children with differences are people who enjoy friendship, too, even though they have to work a lot harder at those relationships, often with fewer social tools in their toolboxes.  And parents provide an example of leadership and acceptance when they encourage their birthday girl or boy to go out of their way to include.

Finally, children with autism don't get better at practicing social skills by sitting in an classroom or learning in their bedroom.  They need opportunities to generalize what they're learning about their friends with typical neurology in safe social settings.  You might even find that a family wants to send along a therapist with the child with autism to foster some of those social exchanges.  Jumping in at well-timed moments during a birthday party is a whole lot easier than trying to negotiate the pace of the playground at recess.

Thanks for giving some consideration to your child's next celebration.  Party on!

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Thank you for supporting the mission."

I am an unashamed Goodwill shopper.  In fact, for Easter, my daughter and I wore beautiful things I had found at Goodwill somewhere along the line.  And I just love it when you make your purchases and when you drop off donations, an employee says to you, "Thank you for supporting the mission."  I don't shop at Goodwill for the great bargains (exclusively); I shop there and donate goods to them because I believe in Goodwill's mission, its vision, and its values.

Events have great power and purpose when we believe.  Our belief in the power of acceptance has led Good Friend on a journey of five years.  We believe that children tease what they don't understand, so we purposed ourselves to teach them about autism spectrum disorders.  We believe that friendship is a right of all children -- not only socially adept ones -- and consequently we developed a model to foster relationships.  We believe that relationships have impact beyond school, and look forward to hearing stories of employment after graduation that can be tied back to what students learned by participating in Good Friend services.

We have had parents who believe that Good Friend can make a difference in their child's educational experience offer to pay for our services on behalf of the school.  And we generally respectfully decline -- not because we don't believe that we can make that difference, but because we know that the administration and staff have to believe, too.  We need them to be partners with us in autism awareness, acceptance, and empathy.  Because otherwise, when our hour is up and there is no support for those social pillars, they will crumble.

During National Autism Awareness Month, we encourage you to support Good Friend's mission by

Thank you for supporting the mission: To create autism awareness, teach acceptance of differences, and foster empathy for students with autism spectrum disorder among their typically-developing peers.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Creating a Culture of Acceptance

Yes, today is World Autism Awareness Day.  It's a day recognized by the United Nations as having significance to draw attention to the plight of individuals with a brain-based difference that impacts the way they experience the world.  So many have chosen to show their support by displaying the color blue - in their choice of clothing, exterior lighting, and even in their hair!

One school stands out to me as a particular example.  Swanson Elementary (Brookfield, Wis.) has really capitalized on the idea of home-school collaboration.  At the urging of a mother of a student with autism and with the support of other staff members, the school opted to ask the students to wear blue today (their school spirit wear is blue), use sidewalk chalk to create puzzle pieces and a supportive message, hang a blue banner in the foyer, and switch the dusk-to-dawn lighting outside to blue.  They also hosted a Good Friend assembly for their 2nd through 5th grade students, with payment coming from the school parent-teacher organization as well as district funds.

This is a school committed to a culture of acceptance.  They're not just creating a lunch bunch (which is great, but not campus-wide) and teaching social skills to those students with related goals in their IEPs.  They're not only teaching the staff about autism, but also allowing professionals to talk with all students about pro-social behavior on a day where positivity about autism might be hard to find.  (With the diagnostic prevalence of ASD in the U.S. creeping up to 1:88 children per the CDC, many have reacted with fear and anger.)  Swanson is working with families, administrators, staff, and students to send a message, loud and clear: "We accept you, students with autism.  You are a valuable part of our community, worthy of our support."

That we are all reminded about autism today in shades of blue is wonderful.  Now shine the light of acceptance on those who are aware by your example and leadership.