Monday, October 29, 2012

"You're smart when you're calm."

Thankfully for me and my personal and professional life, there is no shortage of brilliance in the autism universe.  I've had the privilege, beginning in 2004, to see dozens of people through conferences and seminars who've become my autism heroes over the years.  Their knowledge of autism and related experience has made me a better mother and educator.

Tony Attwood's was the first presentation I attended.  At the time, I had a five-year-old son with PDD-NOS and a three-year-old daughter with Asperger's.  I just attended a seminar last week and enjoyed another entire day of Dr. Attwood's rich teaching, five years into Good Friend on the professional side and now the mom of a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old on the personal side.

One of the things clinical psychologist Dr. Attwood reminds his patients with ASD is that they're smarter when they're calm.  If they can keep their anger and anxiety levels low, they'll be able to think more clearly.  He compares that frontal lobe of the brain to a filing cabinet full of past conflicts and resolutions.  When the emotional fervor rises, it locks the cabinet and access is denied.  So if an IQ test were administered in this emotionally wrought state, the measure would be significantly lower than if the person were able to access that important information.  It's not that the person's intelligence is lost, but that it's not functional.

The truth of Dr. Attwood's statement resonates beyond the population of people with ASD to those of us with "typically-developing" brains.  As parents, when we get flustered by our children's behavior, we may respond by raising our voices, executing ineffective punishments, or making impractical threats or promises in the heat of the moment.  Teachers, some of whom are chronically under-supported in their challenging roles, may resort to the abhorrent practice of bullying themselves, and could even get so stressed out that they manifest symptoms associated with trauma.

Thankfully, there are plenty of preventative measures and practices that can help us all remain calm, and therefore smarter during crises.  Simple breathing exercises, over-practiced during calm times, can be very handy when stress levels rise.  Those who practice yoga, meditation, and/or visualization, or use guided imagery (even Cognitive Picture Rehearsal for our students who need visual supports), also report better quality of life.  Progressive Muscle Relaxation may help identify tense areas of the body and then release that tension.  And whenever possible, taking a weekend away or finding some respite care can provide a whole new perspective when returning to a challenge.

What do you do to stay smart during a crisis?  How have you helped your child develop and access coping strategies?

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Baby, You're a Firework!"

Were you one of the two million people to see the clip from Comedy Central's "Night of Too Many Stars" either last night or before then?  It featured 11-year-old Jodi DiPiazza of Rochelle Park, N.J. -- a talented pianist with autism.  She sang one of her favorite songs for the benefit: Katy Perry's "Firework". And the pop sensation joined her on stage in a magnificent, meaningful duet!  What an emotional few minutes as you considered the appropriateness of the song's lyrics and how far Jodi  -- this streak of light traveling across the sky -- had already come.  Perhaps the journey seemed slow to her parents at times, but we saw her talent flash before our very eyes.

Early Sunday morning was the Orionid meteor shower, and a group of friends and I waited up until after midnight to see it.  We were away from the bright lights of the city, so we were literally beneath a night of too many stars.  We couldn't possibly see the entire speckled sky, and when one of the five of us missed one of the bits of burning debris cast from Halley's Comet, we wondered aloud and with disappointment where it was seen.

Some of the "shooting stars" were spectacular, and others seemed underwhelming.  But we kept waiting and watching, despite the cold ground beneath us and the late hour, because we didn't want to miss "the big one."  And finally, almost an hour into our observation, all five of us saw the most dazzling singular display yet; and we opted to return to the warmth of home.

What if we had given up too soon?  What if we weren't watching the sky together at that moment of time?  What if our experience didn't meet our expectations?

As the parent of two children with autism, one Jodi's age and the other a teenager, I can apply all of those questions to raising these shooting stars.  I was expecting parenthood to be like fireworks: brilliant colors, symmetry and balance, glorious finales.  What I got instead was this never-ending meteor shower -- unpredictable in its highlights, but perpetual in its beauty.  The air might be cool enough to drive us indoors, and the night so long that we want to close our eyes.  But if we wait long enough -- if we widen our perspective -- we'll see that long tail of triumph yet.  And it will keep us there in anticipation of another brilliant success.

Monday, October 15, 2012

"Oh yeah, you blend."

A family's journey in dealing with autism is a highly personal one.  There are stages of grief, not unlike those brought on by the death of a loved one, that follow a diagnosis of autism in a young child.  The timeline and order of those stages are different for everyone.  There are people we meet along the journey: some of them walk with us, some point us in the wrong direction, and others give helpful navigation tips.  I don't want to pass judgment on anyone's journey.  It is our own.

Every now and then, I have the privilege of talking to a parent who is "stuck".  They're having a hard time moving through a certain stage or preventing themselves from returning to it; it's become quicksand, and they're sinking.  Ignoring families at this time in their lives is cruel, so we want to extend a branch to them to hold on to and maybe even wrestle them free, if they're ready.

Denial is such a common, natural reaction to so many facets of an autism diagnosis and raising a child with autism.  We want to believe our child is or will be "fine" -- that the symptoms of autism will subside, and he or she will eventually fit in seamlessly with his or her peers.  The rarity of this phenomenon isn't as discouraging as the light of its hope is energizing, so it's constantly drawing us in.  And hope is a good thing!  We should always hope for the best for our children, expect much of them, and accept nothing less than a coordinated team working together toward lofty goals.

Along this journey, we have to access new tools.  Each leg is different, and requires different supports.  One of the supports our families need is social.  Children with autism need social understanding and social skills to function well in inclusive settings, and their neuro-typical peers need specific autism awareness and acceptance training so they can support their classmate with autism.

Yet we have encountered families during our Peer Sensitivity Workshops who believe their child is indeed blending with their class, and does not want his or her peers to know about autism and how the diagnosis relates to him or her.  There have been times when such families would not offer consent for the inclusion of their child with autism in the training, but other families in the same grade level with children on the spectrum have.  (See our past blog posting on that.)  So we proceed with the training, speaking only about the student for whom we have consent.  More often than not, Denise and I can tell within minutes who the other child on the spectrum is.

And, for me, it always brings to mind a picture from My Cousin Vinny.  Joe Pesci's character (Vinny Gambini) looks over at Marisa Tomei's Mona Lisa Vito, in her black pleather miniskirt, and comments that she "sticks out like a sore thumb" in the small Alabama town they're in.  She eyes him up and says sarcastically, "Oh yeah, you blend."  It's an irreverent comparison, but can be applied to the behavioral and social differences of some intermediate elementary students with and without ASD.

Most of the time, our children with ASD don't blend in with their classmates.  They have different ways of self-regulating, initiating (or not) social interactions, and processing and responding to sensory input. To ignore these things -- to deny these differences -- won't make them go away.  Children often devise their own explanations for unexplained behavior, and you can imagine where that might go.  Our children with ASD may not blend, but they don't have to be sore thumbs!  We educate typically-developing peers so even when they don't blend, they mix well.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Holiday Drop'n Shop

Some of us need a little extra incentive to do our holiday shopping.  Denise and I were thinking of these  people when we dreamed up Good Friend's Holiday Drop'n Shop.  Once the full-on retail fervor of Black Friday hits, malls are prohibitive for the faint-of-shopping-heart.  Why not get a big chunk of the gift list taken care of beforehand?  And if you were imagining your shopping nirvana, would it include chair massages?  And chocolate?  Maybe a warm beverage to wrap your chilled hands around?  Would you like something for nothing?

Yeah ... me, too.

On Saturday, Oct. 27, from 10:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., meet us at Steinhafels in Waukesha, Wis.  We'll be in the Community Room, pumping laid back Christmas music over the speakers and snacking on various desserts while we peruse the cash-and-carry and catalog offerings of the following vendors: Lia Sophia (jewelry), Mary Kay (cosmetics and skincare), Pampered Chef (kitchen essentials), PartyLite (candles and home decor), Pepper it Up (custom paint-your-own pottery), Tastefully Simple (food ingredients), T.F. Woodworking, Thirty-One (tote bags), Tupperware (food storage), and Uppercase Living (wall appliqu├ęs).

Just walking through the door qualifies you (and our other guests) for some great door prizes, including those pictured here.  And there's NO admission fee!  Want your name entered more often for the giveaways?  Every time you make a purchase from a vendor, you'll get another chance to go home with an item.  Here's the hitch: You have to be present to win.  If we call your name and you're not there, we pull another one.

So come for the shopping, stay for the demonstrations and prizes, and help Good Friend create cultures of acceptance in schools!  All of the vendors are donating a quarter of their proceeds to further our autism awareness-acceptance-empathy mission!

Questions?  Contact Denise, 262-391-1369.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Bullying Prevention Month

A couple of my Facebook friends have sent me the same meme, which says something along the lines of, "I don't think the worst thing in the world is raising a child with autism, but raising a child who is cruel to someone with autism."

Bullying is not a problem of childhood.  It's not a developmental phase.  It's not a cry for help.  It's "a profound public health problem"; an unhealthy social practice that's been allowed to exist and morph in so many environments that it's become pervasive.  And as a society, we have too many people standing BY and not enough people standing UP when they see these power imbalances.

The disgust with the lack of engagement has reached a tipping point in the last five years.  As a result, new bullying prevention and awareness programs and initiatives are popping up all over the place.  Good Friend, Inc., has been differentiating between disability harassment and bullying since 2007.  But in the absence of a Disability Harassment Prevention Month, we'll piggyback on the Bullying Prevention Month efforts.

On Wednesday, Sept. 26, which happened to be Bullying Awareness Day in Wisconsin, BULLY put out a great "Battle of the Bullied" infographic which put some statistics behind the need for grassroots bullying prevention campaigns.

Stomp Out Bullying™ has initiated Blue Shirt Day™ as a World Day of Bullying Prevention.  So if you're not wearing blue today, you've missed that opportunity.  But don't fret -- you can (and should) still wear orange on Unity Day, Wednesday, Oct. 10.  And you can do something on an even grander scale during this month, which is National Bullying Prevention Month.

Some people might be feeling inundated with requests to draw attention to bullying and prevent this epidemic.  If you're one of them, please let me know which day we can stop thinking about the social emotional health of our children.  Let me know when we should stop offering practical tools to bystanders so they can intervene in a bullying situation.  Tell me when our children's safety and relational aggression are no longer concerns.

For the rest of you who will heed the calls of these wonderful organizations and join in demonstrations of support, be sure you post pictures of your blue or orange shirts on our Facebook page, or tweet them with hashtag #GoodFriendInc.