Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fun Feeling and Emotion Games!

I am always looking for fun and interesting games to work on social and communication skills with kids This is called "Funny Faces" and it's perfect for young kids-- 3 years to I'd say first grade or so.

How the game works is that you set out the game board and pick three different colors of cards to use. Set all the cards (a total of 15) on the board and then pick out the same color cards from the drawing deck and set them aside.  One player will draw a card and without showing anyone the card will make the same face. Then, the other players will guess which face the person is making and will put their chip on the corresponding face on the game board. The quickest person wins that round. Also, it's adorable because the child can use the little mirror that comes with the game to help him/her make the expression. 

Using facial expressions to convey emotions as well as reading other people's emotions is a skill that can often be challenging for individuals on the autism spectrum and I love this game because it helps teach these skills and it's not overly complicated for little ones. If you're looking for ways to help structure turn-taking, then check out our earlier post of how to create a visual turn-taking board to make waiting easier: 

I fell victim of these online sale websites again and purchased a whole bunch of these tiny stuffed feeling guys. The brand is "kimochis" and you can check them out at I just thought they were so much fun-- I got a little carried away and bought like four packs, but I think I paid $7.00 a pack so you could chose which pack might be most useful for you.  Again, talking about emotions and feelings can be hard for the kiddos we work with and what I love about these is that they are so visual so even if expressive language is difficult for some to get out in a time of frustration or excitement, the child can show how they feel through one of these kimochis. 

If you need to create a new emotion, then you can also use one of these pens to draw a new face!

Many of the emotions are very abstract and so you may want to begin practicing the more basic emotions. Also I think these are great to use with siblings, play dates etc as way to start a conversation about feelings when things get rough. I've also seen similar little toys used in social groups to help all the kids be more aware of their feelings and the feelings of the group in a less threatening way. Anyway, there is just so much you can do with these little things-- oh, and they are small-- probably only 3 inches big all the way around.  Have fun!

- Molly

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Before Pictures: Autism and the power of objects

Individuals with autism are often, unfortunately, given strategies that are attempted to be one size fits all.  Trying to fit persons into techniques that are not at their level of understanding can be disasterous and overwhelming.  There are many different areas of teaching and therapeutic strategies where this is done.  One specific teaching misconception is that by making things visual for individuals we always use pictures, but this is not always the best idea.  Pictures are not always as clear as we may intend them to be.

Visual information can be more understandable to those on and off the spectrum.  Not all types of visuals are best suited and we must individualize as much as possible.  We often immediately go to pictures and icons rather than first assessing where the information is most meaningful for that person.  Objects can speak volumes to so many and it can be forgotten that this can be an important tool in giving information as well as teaching communication. 

Communication Exchange

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) developed in 1992 by Andrew Bondy made exchanges for communication more widely understood by parents and professionals.  Boardmaker, by Mayer-Johnson, also changed the field to make pictures quick to make and use.  It is rare that I walk into a special education classroom and don't see these icons.  This is great that it has become more mainstreamed BUT not everyone with autism understands pictures and icons as a means to communicate. 

Pictures and icons are more representational/abstract.  It is difficult for many individuals to make the connection between a symbol and the item or activity that it is meant to represent.  Objects are great to try with those that aren't quite showing that level of understanding in the area of pictures.  Molly gave great examples on how to set-up communication with objects.  Using the actual item helps to understand exactly what item is being requested. 

When making a communication exchange, whether with pictures or objects, it is important to focus on the back and forth/give and take.  Many individuals have trouble directing their language or requests to another person.  Handing a picture or object (such as a bubble wand) to someone else and then receiving the item (container of bubbles) helps them to understand the power and purpose behind these requests. 


Understanding what is going to happen is very important for us all.  Not knowing expectations of a situation can many times cause difficulties for those with autism.  Schedules or transition information can be so helpful to know expectations. 

When using objects, keep it simple!  Objects to represent a change in activity naturally occur on a daily basis.  We hand a child their blanket and take them to bed, direct them to their shoes and take them outside or get their bookbag before going to school.  Using these items in a more systematic way at school, in the community and at home, can be just like a schedule of knowing what is going to happen next. 

Simple objects can be used for letting the individual know what will happen next.
In this picture:
Pull-up = changing your diaper
Ball = Play in the backyard
Toothpaste = Go to bathroom to brush teeth
Duck = Go to bathroom to take a bath
Doll = Go to bed
Cup = Time for lunch

Think about the objects in your environment and make it specific to that child. 

Handing an object, such as this bath duckie, let's the child know that we are going for a bath. This is important to be specific since we can go to the bathroom to use the toilet, bathtime, brush teeth, etc.

Once the individual takes the item, such as the bath duck, to the location it then can be used functionly; as part of that activity. 

These are meerly a few suggestions to get you started in understanding the information behind objects.  Another wonderful blog, written by parents, shares lots of ideas specific to their child and home.  Check out one of their many posts regarding their child and use of an object schedule

For additional ideas on how to structure without giving too much information to overwhelm your child check out the book More than Words by Fern Sussman


Thursday, August 11, 2011

"The Devastating Effects of Autism on My Ego, or the amazing reality of being autistic before people knew it was a thing"

Middle school was rough. I was thirteen and still liked to dress up and then carefully arrange my dolls. I was obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, collecting every piece of media I could find that might be vaguely related and stockpiling it (for what, I still don't know). I had only learned to wear jeans in seventh grade, the fabric harsh and too unyielding to be properly comfortable, but the bullying for my preferred stretch pants was even less comfortable.
I was in eighth grade English when my teacher made an announcement. The school was going to be trying an integration program, with a classroom for artistic students who would be in our elective classes but not the core curriculum ones.
I seethed. How could I not have been invited? I was familiar with semi-integrated education already; I had been invited to go to a separate school for the Very Special Needs academically gifted kids. I was the best artist in my class, for sure! Had I not drawn and redrawn the same picture for most of fourth and fifth grade? That picture was amazing! Every one of the hundreds of copies! How dare they ignore me?
Later I found out the teacher had actually said "autistic." She was from New England and I'd never heard the word before. It's funny now.

It's funny because I am autistic. I'm apparently what they call "high-functioning," but I don't like the term very much; the division feels artificial and the inherent value judgement is off-putting. I'm not less autistic, it's really just that I communicate in a way allistic people seem to understand most of the time.
There are as many ways of being autistic as there are people on the spectrum. Autism is described in the medical model of disability as a series of deficits, things that make us deviations from Regular People, but I don't think that's true. Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference, a way of experiencing and thinking about the world that is certainly different, but not inherently bad. The disability part enters into things because the world was not designed by or for us, and as a minority group we are expected to conform to the majority, not the other way around. Autism accounts for the parts of me I dislike--low frustration tolerance, perfectionism, difficulties making friends, my propensity for depression and anxiety, my propensity for lists and em-dashes--and the parts I like a lot--loyalty, determination, artistic talents, a gift for learning, my propensity for lists and em-dashes--because you can't separate out autism from me. Autism didn't sneak into my room when I was small and steal me away. It's just a word to describe how I interact with the world around me. Just a word. I sometimes think autism makes me inherently existentialist.
            Being autistic means that I experience the world differently than most people, and not in a solipsistic way. There are sensory overloads, a world too bright and loud and full of textures, touching and grating and soothing. Things other people seem to find effortless, like reading facial expressions and making eye-contact, are difficult or distracting or downright painful. I can spend hours engrossed in reading about a favourite topic, unaware of pressing physical needs like hunger, and I communicate my enthusiasm in hand-flaps and wiggles and relevant echolalic quotes. My particular blend makes learning music by ear effortless and by written sheet music nearly impossible, while I prefer written instructions for academic or job-related things and watch TV with subtitles whenever possible (autism, by which I mean me, definitely has a sense of humour). It can be hard to make friends, but I keep the ones I have close, and love them dearly. I keep a planner without the school or high-powered career to warrant it, lists and schedules and therapy appointments all crammed in together because I invariably will not remember them--but my planner will. I get overwhelmed and scared and ecstatic and furious and many more besides, though I struggle to find the words for them in the moment. Words spill out onto my computer screen even when I can't sustain a spoken conversation or get lost in the pattern of the wood grain behind my interlocutor.
I was asked to write about what it's like to be autistic, with the guidelines of the DSM to focus the prose. It's hard, now, because I don't think going point by point for all the ways I can be seen as damaged is a wise way to build my identity or to speak of it to strangers. I am not a broken allistic person. I am not a collection of deficits wrapped up in skin. I am autistic and I use that word deliberately in the adjective form.
            I am just like you. Only, maybe, not.

- Ali St. James

Please see comments below to hear Ali's description of the term "allistic"

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Autism, Aspergers and Mainstreaming in Middle School: Let's Ease the Transition!

Most parents and students have anxiety at the start of school.  For those families with an individual with autism, the stress can be compounded.  We can't eliminate nor predict every area of difficulty but at least plan for as much as possible.  Middle school is a time of change.  Organizational skills are put to the test, hormones are raging and socialization reaches a new level of complexity.  How can we prepare?

Become Familiar with the School - Visit the school ahead of time.  Walk the halls, determine where classes are and try to meet with teachers on a one-on-one basis.  This is often a new environment but also different due to the fact that this is many times the first time the individual has had to change classes.  Gaining the schedule ahead of time with the classroom numbers/locations can help in practicing how to navigate the hallways. 

Use a Map - Put a map of the school in the front of the individual's notebook.  Highlight classrooms and put time period to go to that room.  Also show where the locker, cafeteria, library and other important places are.

The Locker - The dreaded locker can be a challenge in itself.  Try to get a heads up where the locker will be located and the combination.  Practice ahead of time how to open; this can be very stressful.  When writing out reminders of the combination, be very specific. 
  • Turn the locker dial to the right two times to reset
  • Turn the dial to the right and stop on '0'
  • Turn to the right and stop on number '25'
  • Turn to the left and stop on '10'
  • Turn to right and stop on '22'
  • Pull down to open
Schedule Locker Breaks - Often on a student's schedule I put the specific times they need to go to the locker.  This eliminates making judgements about when there will be enough time.  Also, putting what specific books to get and put back. 
  • Arrive at school
  • Locker - Keep English and Math books; put other books in locker
  • English Class - room 205
  • Math Class - room 400
  • Locker - Put English and Math books away; Get History book and lunch
  • Lunch
  • History - room 300
  • Study Hall - in Library
  • Locker - Get books for homework classes
  • Go to bus

Extra Books - Consider getting an extra set of books for your child/student.  Many schools will provide two sets; one to keep in each class and one for home.  This avoids the locker chaos that can be anxiety provoking due to time but also social demands.

Designate a Safe Place - Students on the spectrum often need a 'base'.  This can be a guidance counselor's office, homeroom teacher, resource teacher, coach, etc.  This can help them know where to go during times of stress or where to get more clarification for their day.  Middle School and High School are when this becomes very important since they are changing classes and teachers frequently. 

Organize Materials - It is very difficult for students with to keep papers, assignments, notebooks, etc organized.  Setting up a system for them, helps to know where things go.  Try to put most materials in one large notebook. 
  Notebook should include:

1.      Daily schedule
2.      Homework assignment sheet
3.      Sections for each class period
a.       Materials needed for that class
b.      Place for “finished” work
c.       Rules for social behavior for that class
d.      Academic tips or strategies needed for that class
4.      Rules for school behavior in various situations
5.      Extra paper and pencils/pens for written communication in time of stress
6.      Needed school information
a.       Calendar
b.      Locker combinations
c.       Lunch number
d.      List of items that should always go home with student

Communication - There is always room for improvement when it comes to sharing information between parents, teachers and others.  Knowing what is going on a daily basis at home and at school is important.  In our earlier post we talked about ways to make it easier to keep a daily communication log.
Additional Preparation - Reading from those on the spectrum can help those on and off the spectrum become more understanding.  There are lots of great resources including books specifically for middle school girls and teenage boys on the spectrum.
This is a tough milestone for parents and students on the spectrum.  Preparation can help so much in starting the year out right and decreasing anxiety for all involved.