Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summertime fun for individuals with ASD!

Happy first official full day of summer! Although I'm sure that many of you reading have been excited about the summer months ahead, it can also be a daunting task to come up with enough activities and things to do to entertain the kids when school is out. I've recently come across a few websites that give some helpful hints of things to do to keep kids from bouncing off the walls!

Summer Camps: Summer camps can be a great way to provide some structure when school is out, but it can also be hard to find camps that tailor to children with special needs and ones that are affordable during these hard economic times. On the Family Support Network of NC website, they came up with a list of questions that parents may want to ask when looking into various camps and deciding on one that would be best suited for their child. Go here for more information. Included among some of the questions mentioned were: What is the experience of the camp counselors? What will happen in the event of an emergency (is there a nurse or doctor on staff)? Are activities organized and structured around age or developmental level?

Museums: Children's museums and science centers are always fun and entertaining places to take kids year round. Think about making a schedule ahead of time so the person with autism can see which parts of the museum you'll visit that particular day-- at the science center you may only have time to see the fish, the dinosaur exhibit, and the reptiles, for example so show him/her in an understandable way what to expect. For readers, simply make a checklist that the person crosses out as you move through the exhibits-- for individuals who understand digital photographs, try going to the museum's website ahead of time and print out pictures of things you're going to see so there is no confusion and inevitable tantrum when it's time to leave such a fun place!

The pool-- There's nothing wrong with sticking with the tried and true, like the neighborhood or community swimming pool. It's a great place for the kids to get exercise and work on their gross motor skills, for you to get some sun :) and to pass many a summer day. Many swim clubs offer private swim lessons or have swim teams if you would like something more structured, or just bringing lots of fun pool toys and a pair of goggles may be more than enough to provide plenty of entertainment.

Try a New Activity: Think about the person's interest and see if there are any organized groups in your area to make this interest more social and more of an activity or outing. Autism Speaks has a great resource guide for families (based on location) to find out about what is offered in your area. Go here for more info. A couple of things that caught my eye on this website were the American Special Hockey Association and Equine or Horse Therapy opportunities. On the Hockey Association webpage go to Member Programs at the top, scroll down to your area, and click on the team closest to you for more info. I recently worked with a elementary age kid whose parents recently put him in one of these leagues and they and the child absolutely love it! This particular child was originally in a very competitive league, which made the experience too stressful for him, but he now thrives and has a real passion for playing the sport with a little additional support. There are also numerous horse therapy groups that can be very calming for individuals with ASD. Many of these groups also participate in the Special Olympics, which is another great recreational and social outlet.

Go to a Sensory-friendly Movie: Getting the family together to go to a movie is always a great way to spend a summer afternoon or evening, but for children with ASD, it can be a really overwhelming experience. Now there are certain theaters that will play "Sensory Friendly Films" where the lights remain on, the sound is lowered, and it fosters an environment where it's not a problem if you need to get up and walk around etc. Although I have not been to one myself, I've heard wonderful things about them. For more information on AMC Movies Sensory Friendly Films go HERE to get a listing of theaters near you.

Try Some Activities At Home: Of course there is also a lot of down time at home on the weekends and during the summer and it's not always an option to go out. We hope that you've gotten some ideas of activities to structure from previous posts and also from other website links we've mentioned. On I came across a list of 10 fun activities for children with autism. Check it out. There are lots of fun arts and crafts projects and sensory activities.  

Stay tuned and we'll post more fun activities to make your 
summer fun and entertaining for all! 

- Molly  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day to all the wonderful fathers out there and especially for those with a child on the spectrum.  It is at time a thankless job and we want to thank all of the amazing Dads out there. 

Father's are at times quietly dealing with the varying emotions in handling the challenges of having a child with autism.  It can be challenging to express the day to day struggles they face.  We salute all the Dads out there that have begun writing about their experiences!  One of our favorite blogs features the real emotions of a mother and a father writing about their lives: Both Sides of the Coin  Here is also a great compilation of Father's Day Essays to celebrate this day.

Enjoy your day, Dads!!

-Abby and Molly

Friday, June 17, 2011

Early Screening for Autism Coming into Question

Canadian researchers are questioning whether early screening is in the best interest of the public.  On Monday of this week, an article was published in the journal Pediatrics against these tools.  They have seen these measures as premature and not coming to the correct diagnostic conclusion. 

"We don't have research evidence to show how well screening works and whether we do more good than harm," Dr. Jan Willem Gorter, a pediatrician at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, told Reuters Health.
While many screening tests exist—usually based on simple questions about the child's use of eye contact and gestures—none of them are very accurate, Gorter and colleagues report in the journal Pediatrics.
Often the tests will misdiagnose healthy kids, such as one recent test that yielded false positives a quarter of the time, or they will fail to detect autism.
"The potential burdens on families of receiving a misdiagnosis (either a false-positive or a false-negative) may be enormous," the researchers write, "and there might be labeling effects that can be hard to remove." 
Read more:

I have to say that I was dumbfounded reading this article.  The earlier the diagnosis, the sooner the intervention, right?  It truly can be challenging to diagnosis at an early age, especially with those on the higher end of the spectrum.  However, it is important to start looking at red flags when first noted.  With autism rates soaring each year, taking a step backwards is the last thing we need to do.  I was quite relieved to see that experts in the field have since stepped up to share their concerns with this journal article.  From Autism Speaks:
"By screening for autism at an early age, children are able to begin intervention as soon as possible," said Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the Autism Speaks advocacy group. "Studies have shown that early intervention results in significant increases in cognitive and language abilities, and adaptive behavior, and gives children the best chance for a positive outcome."
The journal article also made some additional strong statements:
  • "little support for the effectiveness for speech and language therapy for people with autism,"
  • "applied behavior intervention did not significantly improve the cognitive outcomes of children"
  • "screening is pointless, and almost certainly unethical."
I feel that this article may have set us back rather than pushing us forward in the field of autism.  The statements made against screening and interventions seems more harmful than what was highlighted in this journal.  Using terms such as "pointless" and "unethical" are astonishing statements to make for any diagnostic tool. 
I would love to hear other people's thoughts on this issue.  Should we call into question our screening tools or does this cause more problems in the long run?


Read more from the full articles:

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Trouble Taking Turns? Struggle Sharing?

One of the first things we want our kids to learn is to share and to take turns. 
After all, these are crucial concepts to learn in life, but I think we need to take
a step back and think about the typical time that kids learn these skills and think 
different ways to teach kiddos on the spectrum these concepts. 

Firstly, typical three year olds have a really hard time understanding how to 
share and take turns. It is not until four or even sometimes five years of age 
where kids have a pretty good grasp and understanding of what it means to
share and how to take turns. So, if your three year old is fighting over toys with
his/her sibling, breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that kids are supposed to struggle
with this skill at that age! 

Now, we may verbally emphasize the importance of sharing and facilitate 
turn taking with our little ones, but what's going to happen when we're not
there to tell them? Let's think of a strategy where we can back ourselves out
of that process and help kids be more successful when they are participating in
center time at school, for example, and the teacher is not always part of the

Below are so ideas of how to make this concept more clear:

For kids who are reading or recognizing familiar names we can simply jot the participants
names down and use an arrow or highlight the name to indicate whose turn it is.
I made one of the wheels for a family who needed help figuring out a way to show 
whose turn it was to pick the DVD on car trips. The child I was working with thought
he should always be the one to choose and had a meltdown when this was not the case 
so we used a more visual way to clarify the expectations for him.

These two methods are also great visual ways to indicate the turn taking process. 
You can use either digital photos or poker chips where the person manipulates
it by taking the photo/chip and putting it in the finished pocked at the bottom once 
the turn is taken. This way kidscan see ahead of time how many times they will
be able to go and help them understand that when it's the other person's photo
or chip, then it's his/her turn and the expectation is to wait.

These are just a few strategies you may try to help teach kids what it means
to share and take turns. Before you know it, they may get the hang out it 
and be doing it spontaneously! Hope everyone is having a great weekend!

- Molly

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Social Thinking Curriculum and Comic Books

 You Are A Social Detective! Explaining Social Thinking to Kids by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke is a fun way to introduce appropriate social skills to kids struggling in this area. The book is written in comic book style with thinking bubbles to illustrate the character's thoughts. The book is intended for elementary age students or older, less mature individuals. It's divided into three sections:
1. School vs. Social Smarts and Expected Behavior
2. Unexpected Behavior, and
3. How to Be a Social Detective

The authors recommend using this book as a springboard for discussion with kids and in my experience, I agree. The book covers several topics that need to be separated out. I think it would be overwhelming to teach all of the concepts in one sitting. I love how visual it is and it's not overly wordy. It teaches the concepts and skills in a clear and straightforward way. Also, in the text certain key words or concepts are in bold to help point out the most important information. This book is also intended to be read as a precursor to the Superflex Curriculum described below:

 SUPERFLEX..A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum
also by Michelle Garcia Winner and Stephanie Madrigal is an
awesome resource for parents, teachers, and therapists. The book is comprised of 13 lesson plans to teach in social skills groups of elementary age children. The first set of lessons introduces the social thinking concepts and the characters through which the skills are taught, then the next series of lessons is designed to help kids gain awareness of their social behavior and ways to modify inappropriate behavior, and lastly this section is dedicated to self-monitoring strategies. Although I have not used this curriculum myself, I have seen it in action through one of our local social skills groups and the kids seem to have a great time with it! The group facilitator did share that as kids get older, however, they are not as interested in the superhero characters. Although the Social Detective book can easily be read on its own, this social curriculum really is intended for group use and several other comic books are used with the curriculum as well, like this one:

  SUPERFLEX: Superflex takes on Rock Brain and the Team of Unthinkables written by Stephanie Madrigal is a cute comic book that can be purchased as part of the Social Thinking Curriculum package. It helps to introduce the characters and provides a fun way to frame social smarts through superheroes so that the children in the group do not feel like they are necessarily singled out. The premise of the comic is that The Team of Unthinkables are trying to take over Superflex and his town and through this story, kids learn specific strategies on how to overcome the "Team of Unthinkables." The book is a little busy , but I think it's a nice supplement to the Social Thinking Curriculum. Again, it's meant to be a part of the curriculum and not a book to buy by itself.

If parents familiarize themselves with the characters and terminology as well, it's really nice to use the lingo at home-- for example: "do you think you're being a Space Invader" (one of the "Unthinkables) or the "WasFunny Once" character for kids who seem get stuck on an inappropriate jokes/topics and repeat them over and over again, etc. In general this curriculum seems to be a nice, light way to talk about social skills in a kid-friendly way. Have fun with it and if your child or student has used this curriculum in some capacity, we'd love to hear what you think!

- Molly

Friday, June 3, 2011

ACTIVITIES ON THE ANGLE: Teaching Pretend Play

Many individuals on the autism spectrum have some difficulty with pretend play. Some children on the spectrum have extremely vivid imaginations and are extremely creative; however, we often find that some of our kids get in a rut when it comes to branching out in play themes and it's a struggle for many to know where to start in playing with toys.

 We hope to give a few ideas of how to make this abstract concept more concrete for our kiddos! Again, we do not always think about teaching these skills, but many children on the spectrum may be attending to details in the environment that may distract them from watching others to learn how to imitate them, which really is how typically developing children usually begin pretending. We sometimes see kids on the spectrum begin acting out scenes from television or movies, which is a great start and we want to help them expand these skills and to be more flexible.

Firstly, think about what may be motivating or interesting to your child, student, or client and use those toys to structure an activity. I will include an example of a play activity I just structured using an adorable little vet kit that I found on one of those online sale websites (they get me every time)! Most people have those beginning doctor's kits too, right?  You could use one of those with the child's favorite character-- (an Elmo stuffed animal, for example) so he/she could learn to play "doctor" with Elmo.

Next take photos of different pretend actions-- so here I took photos of me taking care of this puppy at the "vet"-- looking in his ears, checking his temperature, giving him a bone at the end of the "vet visit" etc.

Then, print the photos out-- I used 4 to a page so they were around regular photo size. I happened to purchase one of those overpriced laminating machines (Abby and I are working on a few other things to be debuted on the blog soon), but generally more sturdy paper, like card stock works great or you can even glue the printed photos to more sturdy folders-- whatever works, it does not need to be fancy or difficult!

Cut the photos out and hole punch the corner of each photo.

Then make a "flip book" by using a key or book ring so the child can flip through the pages to see what pretend action to perform. This is a concrete way to teach these pretend play skills and to increase flexibility, we encourage you to continuously change the order of the photos so the person does not memorize what to do and become rigid and insistent on only doing it that way... sound familiar anyone?

You can use this strategy with so many toys, just always remember to make it visual when teaching these extremely abstract concepts-- this will help make it more meaningful for the person with autism who is first learning these skills, and of course you can and should still engage in play with them and have fun during this process!

- Molly