Monday, June 25, 2012

Ce-le-brate Good Friend, C'MON!

OK, so it's not quite Kool & the Gang.  But we do have a lot to celebrate!  August 10th marks Good Friend's FIFTH incorporation anniversary, which is a big deal in the life of a nonprofit organization.  It means we're here to stay.  It means that, though the economy has been shaky these past few years, our mission is valuable enough that people are investing in it.  It means, in the eyes of some larger foundations, that we are worthy of support.

THANK YOU for what you've done to enable us to present the Awareness-Acceptance-Empathy® message to nearly 17,000 people since December, 2007!

Our fiscal year ends June 30th.  This last week is the perfect time to get your donation counted!  We have two HUGE projects coming up this fall (one being University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's independent study of our elementary school staff and student services, and another that's so big, we can't even tell you about it yet!) which will require a lot of resources.  And since school's out in the summer, we're generally not generating as much income.  So while we're already up more than 12% this year over last in revenue, we've fallen rather short of fully-funding our operations.  Any amount you can contribute, whether by mailing your check (to Good Friend, Inc., 808 Cavalier Dr., Waukesha, WI 53186) or donating through our website, is greatly appreciated and goes a long way!

And did you hear that Choosing To Be a GFF was named by the American Library Association a 2012 ALSC Notable Children's Video?  Another reason to celebrate!  We hope you'll join us at 6:30 p.m. on August 3rd in Steinhafels' Community Room (Waukesha, Wis.) to celebrate these successes and the people who helped make them happen.  The registration page will be on our website next month.  Stay tuned for details!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Vertigo Builds Empathy

Who knew?  Who knew that what started out as an awful world-spinning, head-dizzying week could end with me having a better understanding of what some people with autism must experience?  On Tuesday, our family had scheduled a fun-filled day at an amusement park complete with water park.  We were excited!  We had worked it out so my son's therapist could join us, in case our two children with autism spectrum disorders required us to divide and conquer.  What we didn't really plan on was Mom ending up with vertigo before we even walked through the gates.

Yes, what seemed like an adventurous string of three thrill-seeking roller coaster rides turned into a nauseating nightmare.  I guess I should have known by the near stumble up the ramp to the second coaster that my inner ear was far less amused than my brain, but I chose to ignore the dire warning and pressed on.  And on.  Until fail.  Literally.

So the 80-minute ride home was a malignant medley of starting and stopping and snack smells and horn blows, endurable only with my eyes closed and focused deeply on my breathing.

photo by Vincent Laforet
A couple days later, when my thoughts could focus on other than the symptoms and side effects of vertigo, I recalled what Judy Endow had presented on at the 2011 Autism Society of Wisconsin Conference.  She talked about her experience traveling to New York City.  She showed PowerPoint slides with tall buildings contorting and swaying, noting this animation was similar to the experience she had.  She needed help to get onto and off of public transportation.  And by the time she got to her hotel room, she was exhausted.

So many of us take our senses of balance and proprioception ("the sense of the orientation of one's limbs in space") for granted.  We know when we're upright and when we're seated.  We understand, without having to think too hard, that our feet are connected to our legs, which are firmly attached at our hips.  And yet, a touch of vertigo can flip all those senses.

And what of our children, students, or friends with autism?  These connections to the exquisitely sensitive inner ear in individuals with different brain wiring could certainly mean that feedback regarding parts of their bodies and steadiness is unreliable.  And if that feedback were a sense of disconnection, dizziness, and/or nausea, isn't it reasonable to think that associated "behavior" could be holding onto walls, lack of awareness of personal space, or avoidance of certain motion-related activities?

When I think of all the things people with autism must feel without being able to successfully communicate those sensations to us neuro-typicals, I am urged to do better to understand and make accommodations for their differences.  I encourage you to do the same.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Self-Advocacy: The Right Stuff

One of the more remarkable things about my (almost) 11-year-old daughter is how well she knows herself.  In fact, there are things she tells me about the way her brain works that astonish me, and give me keen insight into why other children with autism spectrum disorder might respond in certain ways to environmental stimuli.  For example, I opted to flat-out ask her a couple of years ago what was going on in her brain and/or body when she flaps her hands.  This behavior (sometimes called a "stim" or "self-regulating"), which we as parents first observed when she was approximately 10 months old, accompanied anything from watching bubbles being blown to water splashing in her toddlerhood, lining up plastic toys in early childhood, and drawing as an elementary school-aged student.

"I'm using my imagination," was my daughter's response to the query.  And the expression on her face was one of disappointed shock, as if to punctuate with a "Duh!".  I dove deeper into her account.  She explained that lining up her Barbies while they were all facing her allowed her to retreat into a creative process where the dolls could move and talk instead of having to be manipulated.  And there was a lively setting rich with sounds and smells and experiences.  There was no way to create all that physically; but in her mind, it was all happening.  And it was wonderful.

Her knowledge of her self is the beginning of self-advocacy.  Because knowing how her brain works well (or not), and knowing how that compares to other students, can be used to craft learning environments and teaching methods into something functional for her.  She knows that too much noise (students shuffling papers, talking amongst themselves, etc.) makes it impossible for her to process thoughts.  So when she's feeling overwhelmed, she's learning to make some assessments about her environment and ask for an alternate workspace if needed.

Not all children with ASD are as adept at communicating their unique needs (and neither was my daughter, frankly).  But it's never too early to begin to get them to recognize signs of stress in their bodies and help them and their education/care team identify alternative activities or adapted experiences to maximize success.

Using a common language is important, so the student can express him-/herself in a way everyone can understand and respond to appropriately and in a timely fashion.  If a child is unable to evoke the desired response, he/she is unlikely to continue attempting to use budding self-advocacy skills.

Good Friend's videos can help families and educational teams establish a common language.  Using the vocabulary and principles in the elementary and secondary version of our films can be a starting point for self-awareness.

The better a student understands him-/herself, the less dependent he/she will be on the care team to recognize signs of distress and the more likely a successful outcome will result from an inclusive atmosphere.  This will be especially important at the beginning of the school year, when the new educational team will not know the student very well and will be responsible for getting to know a classroom full of learners.
photo by Royce Bair
Students with "the right stuff" (as it pertains to self-awareness and advocacy) will have a better sense of control when the unpredictability of September crashes on them like a breaking wave.  Their feet will be properly positioned to withstand the rushing waters.  Here's to a summer of preparing those balancing skills!

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Things We Do for Love

I think it's safe to say that teachers love kids. Why else would you spend six hours a day, five days a week, in a room with 25 students? Now I love my kids, but I can guarantee you that if I spent every waking moment with them for the summer, I would go bonkers. In fact, the final weeks of the school year are always a scramble to be sure we have the right mix of down time and scheduled, supported activities to keep everyone happy and healthy (and lovely).

I also love my job, part of which is to go in to schools to teach students about autism. And I often say I can do it for an hour, but it might be a different story if it were 8 to 3.
photo by Curtis Compton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2010)

Yet there are these educators who not only punch in and punch out, but think critically about how to make learning more fun and functional for their students.  And not only between those hours of 8 to 3, but specifically before- and after-hours; because often while the students are there at school, they're commanding full attention.

Recently, my 13-year-old son was struggling with team activities in Physical Education (Gym).  His Specially-Designed Phy Ed teacher contacted me, starting off the phone call with, "I've been thinking all night about how we can design a program for him that will be meaningful."  It's the stuff of dreams, really -- both the inspired ideas and the collaborative effort that combine for the magic of effective inclusive instruction.

During an Autism Spectrum Disorder/Developmental Disability Community of Practice meeting last month, one of the round table sessions was on "Hot Topics" for the population in discussion.  It was moderated by a staff member for the statewide Autism Society chapter and a speech therapist for an area school district.  One of the parent-initiated discussions was regarding socialization and meaningful inclusion in elementary school.  

The speech therapist was eager to share her idea of a "Birthday Manager".  This job was created for students with special education needs who benefit from positive social interaction, practice in decision making, and fine and gross motor skill development.  The Birthday Manager has a list of the week's student birthdays.  He or she selects a pre-made card, chooses a piece of clip art to add, and addresses and delivers the card.  The birthday student is happy, the Birthday Manager is proud, and everyone sees how valuable an exchange the exercise is.  Brilliant!  The speech therapist shared a number of ways such an activity fits into existing IEP goals.

Ah, the things we do for love -- for love of students, for love of education, for love of success.  Thank you, educators and therapists, for the love you've shown this past school year.  We look forward to your renewed energy and ideas again in August/September!