Teen Becomes Advocate for Children with Autism

Autistic Teen Support Group

Connor Cunningham, a junior in high school, has become an advocate for autism, speaking to children and teachers in the Sunny Isles Beach area about autism and the importance of tolerance.

Cunningham, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, enjoys public speaking. He said that, as a child, he received help for his Asperger’s, but it was never from someone who knew what he was going through. This encouraged him to become an advocate.

The speeches that Cunningham gives are particularly for third and fourth graders. He also addresses some other middle-schoolers. In his speeches, he starts out by relating to the audience he is talking to – touching on topics, such as art, video games and favorite movies. He continues with facts, personal stories, humor and games. He also gives the children a chance to ask questions.

Because of his success with his advocacy, Cunningham has started his own organization called “Stand in My Shoes.” His hope is that the organization can grow into a speaker’s bureau and then it can be used as a school resource. He also wants to start recording podcasts and have an online forum for children with autism to help them connect.

Cunningham says that speaking at Sunny Isles was, and has been, a great opportunity. He says that the kids are a lot of fun and that knowing that they listened and felt compassion was rewarding.

Cunningham hopes that his speeches and advocacy have helped other kids who feel different and that they know that there is someone in similar shoes there to listen to them.

By Sejal Sheth

First-Responders Train to Assist Those with ASD

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With more autism diagnoses taking place nationwide, it is becoming increasingly more critical for all first-responders to be properly trained in assisting those on the spectrum. Police officers, for example, are beginning to experience more training on how to successfully interact with those with autism in order to best assist them in a time of crisis.

Pennsylvania, for instance, has recently enforced a new state law that mandates officers to learn about mental illnesses, autism, and other disorders, in order to recognize and manage a crisis. Luciana Randall, executive director of Autism Connection of PA states, “This law is probably going to save someone’s life. It will help officers do their job more safely. They don’t want to make a mistake.”

The new law requires officers to learn what services may be available when autistic individuals are in a state of crisis. Furthermore, it teaches officers how to best interact with those on the spectrum, such as speaking gently, avoiding sudden movements, accepting the fact that the individual may avoid answering questions, as well as be more patient and understanding.

Police Chief Todd Graeff states “We take training seriously, and if it’s a mandate, we’re going to make sure it happens.” He continues, “If police officers can help identify (a crisis) and prevent a tragedy, that’s a plus.”

In a state of crisis, anyone can become anxious, fearful, or irrational, but for those on the spectrum, the situation can truly be terrifying and too much to handle. Training will enable officers to properly de-escalate a situation and minimize the chance of meltdowns.

Sue Walther, executive director of Mental Health America PA, states, “Often times the interaction between police and someone with a mental illness or someone with autism escalates needlessly. If police understand what they are confronting, they may go about it in a different way.”

Moving forward, this mandate should serve as an ideal for all other states. It is essential for all first-responders to learn how to best communicate with those on the spectrum, enabling them to receive the utmost assistance and to prevent an escalated situation.

Autistic Students Regain their Appetites

Chef Lucio, changing lives one meal at a time

Chef Lucio, changing lives one meal at a time

Mealtimes can be difficult for people with autism. This was the case at Queensmill, a West London school for children on the autism spectrum. But, times have changed. Ever since Djalma Lucio Polli de Carbalho, a Brazilian chef who goes by the name of “Lucio,” joined as head chef, Queensmill’s students are regaining their appetite.

Indeed, the children are showing incredible progress at lunch time. Jude Ragan, the headteacher at Queensmill is delighted. “Tables used to be thrown over,”she says. “That’s stopped. Because the kids are eating, obviously they aren’t hungry which means the afternoons are better. The teachers feel properly cared for, which they deserve to be. But mostly we can just take pleasure in food. It’s a part of the day we all enjoy.”

Queensmill is composed of 140 students between 2 and 19 years of age. Most have trouble communicating and are non-verbal, using pictogram systems to show what they’d like to eat. Their relationship with food, however, is very complex.

Autistic people often experience a sensory overload when they approach food, as they may be hypersensitive to various temperatures and textures. Some seek a sensory hit and desire strong stimulants like crunch or heat. Others seek just the opposite and stick to warm or cool, bland foods. At times, depending on circumstances like quantity and quality of sleep, an autistic person may swing from one preference to the other.

Patterns are also very important for some autistic people; a small change in their daily routine can severely throw them off. This can be extremely stressful for the parents of autistic children. Evidently, Lucio’s cooking is turning things around. His food is made from scratch and a pleasure for everyone— even the staff at school. Ragan admits “the benefit he brings to us is incalculable.” He prepares everything from chicken with lemon and garlic to roasted butternut squash and sweet potatoes. His objective is to expand what the children eat to ultimately prepare them for an unpredictable and diverse future around food.

One mother recounts, “I was absolutely astonished when Matthew started eating. Since the new year, he’s eating things like curries that he would never have touched before. The fact is our children have very little control over their own lives and Lucio’s food has given them the opportunity to try things.”

Queensmill is thankful and grateful that Lucio joined their team. Their past year of delightful progress will hopefully inspire other schools to make changes in their kitchens for the children, their families, and their future.

For the original article, please click here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/19/lunchtime-revolution-school-children-autism

By Maude Plucker

Wings for Autism – Allowing Children with ASD to Prepare for Travel

(photo: usatoday.com)

(photo: usatoday.com)

With all of the hustle and bustle of a typical airport, including the security screenings and anxiety of being on a plane, the entire experience of flying can be nerve-wracking and aggravating for anyone.

However, for children with autism, the fear and stress can simply be too much to handle. As a result, families often dismiss the idea of taking trips together to avoid the potential meltdowns or anxiety that their child may suffer while on the plane.

To help ease the fears of children on the spectrum, Wings for Autism has developed a program that allows families to practice flying without having to ever leave the ground. Children are given the opportunity to take a practice run through all the standard procedures of an airport, such as getting to the ticketing line, boarding the flight, and even sitting on a plane.

Wings for Autism was developed by ARC of Jefferson County in conjunction with Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Alabama. The program has been running in many cities nationwide, and takes place annually, with directors hoping to hold the program more often.

Not only does the program enable children with autism to get comfortable with the airport and the experience of flying, but it allows staff to better understand how to help those with the disorder during times of distress when they travel. The experience gives staff a better perspective of how to approach autistic children, in order to help assuage their fears and make the experience of flying a much more comfortable one.

For more about the program and to enroll: http://www.thearc.org/wingsforautism

Camp Program Prepares Autistic Teens for College

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With growing numbers of autistic teens graduating high school and moving on to higher education, it is becoming essential to develop more programs that prepare these young adults for the next chapter of their lives.

One program that is helping these teens transition into college is the College Prep Summer Camp in Arizona, serving young adults on the spectrum between the ages of 16 and 26. For the third consecutive year, the University of Advancing Technology (UAT) has partnered with Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) to host the summer camp.

In the week-long camp experience, the staff offers participants the opportunity to partake in typical college processes, such as admissions, moving into dorms, and attending classes. Furthermore, the students can participate in social activities such as student life, meeting other students at the university café, and partaking in group projects that focus on team building.

The accepted participants fall into three categories: those planning to go to college, those with some experience who plan to enroll again in the future, and those who have not attended before and had lacked the confidence to move forward with enrolling. Participants in each of these categories are given equal attention and opportunities to gain the skills that are necessary to advance in college.

When the week-long session concludes, participants can celebrate their new skills and achievements with family during a closing ceremony. After the camp ends, participants are also offered an online class they can take to further practice their college skills. If they complete the course, they are eligible for college credit.

Programs such as these are truly changing the way autistic teens and adults shape their futures, as it provides them with the chance to gain confidence in moving forward with the next step of their lives.

Florida Teen Launches Operation Super

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Big brother Andrew ‘s goal is to help kids with disabilities. He’s inspired by his 10 year old brother, Nate, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

They two were born 6 years apart but their bond is unlike any other. He sees his younger brother have difficulty with common everyday activities. So he decided to start gathering gently used therapeutic toys and devices for children on the autism spectrum disorder.

Through his Eagle Scout team he created Operation Super. He explained he doesn’t like the word ‘special’ because, nowadays, its used in a derogatory manner. So he decider on superhero because that’s how he sees his younger brother.

At the moment, their most sought after items are noise-canceling headphones, ring stackers, shape sorters, fidget toys and tables, and educational activity games. There are six collection sites set up around the area in Hope Lutheran Church in Viera, Faith Viera Church, the Holz Law Group in Rockledge, Parkway Psychiatry in Melbourne, Merritt Island Christian Academy and Florida Counseling Center in Melbourne.

He’s teamed up with local organization Autism Early Enrichment who will be distributing the donations to various programs and schools who assist children with special needs.

So far he hasn’t received many toys but he’s hopeful that with more exposure and word-of-mouth more people will donate. He would love to give other kids the opportunity and support that has been helpful for his brother.

Andrew is an active member in the community, a camp counselor at Kiwanis Island Summer Camp, and volunteer at Viera Hospital. He loves science and working with children. In the future he hopes to combine both of his passions and become a pediatrician to continue to help others.

His efforts have been recognized by others as well. Director of Autism Early Enrichment James Holz, who is also a parent of an autistic child, was extremely impressed by Andrew’s vision and ability to execute such a ambitious project.

By Raiza Belarmino

Teenager With Autism Raises $10,000

autism advocate teen raises money

Seventeen year old Connor Archer is, for the most part, a typical high school senior. He’s a distinguished student who is on the honor roll and a member of the National Honor Society. He plays in several school bands. He is part of the Cross Country, Track & Field team. But at the age of 3 he was diagnosed with Autism. Although he is still overcoming his own challenges, he has been determined to help others overcome theirs as well.

Two years ago, Connor started the Courageous Steps project in an effort to spread awareness about his condition and to fundraise for local programs that have helped him throughout the years. He would like to give others the same opportunity to defy stereotypes associated with any disability.

He was able to generate over $10,000 through his fundraising event held at Victory Field. Two special education programs were given $1,000 each. The Green House Nursery School was given $2,000 to help purchase adaptive equipment and technologies as learning devices. Connor even set up a scholarship fund that awards graduating seniors who have overcome substantial challenges. This year $300 awards were given to three students.

Currently, Connor is working on two summer projects. The first is a benefit dinner that was held at the Old Town Governor’s Restaurant. Ten percent will be donated to the Courageous Steps project. He’s also teamed up with the Old Town Recreation Department for the annual Back to School Drive which donates much-needed school supplies to the local community.

In a recent email he shows his gratitude to all his supporters, stating “It takes a community to come together and support these kind of endeavors, and I cannot thank enough the businesses all over the Bangor area for supporting Courageous Steps. One person can make a big difference, but several can make an impact.”

By Raiza Belarmino

Shema Kolainu 17th Annual Legislative Breakfast A Great Success

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With esteemed political guests, great food, and artwork created by children presented as awards, the Annual Shema Kolainu Legislative Breakfast wrapped up as another wonderful success in 2015.

Speakers from all over New York City delivered inspiring addresses pledging their support for the special needs community in Borough Park’s Renaissance Ballroom.

The morning’s honoree was Dr. Merryl H. Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. Dr. Tisch has long served as an educational advocate.

Dr. Tisch began her career as a schoolteacher in Manhattan. She was later appointed to the Board of Regents in 1996. Eleven years later, she was elected Vice Chancellor of the Board, and soon after became Chancellor in 2009.

Also honored at the event was NYC Councilmember Andrew Cohen, and Zelig Friedman of The Tantzers, the dance group who performed at the Shema Kolainu Alumni reunion.

Opening remarks were made by Dr. Joshua Weinstein, Founder and President of Shema Kolainu Hear Our Voices.

“The mission of Shema Kolainu is to allow children with autism to enjoy a better life and a better future,” said Dr. Weinstein. “ We have seen such a tremendous amount of success stories from the kids.”

Also in attendance was Letitia James, current New York City Public Advocate and longtime friend of Dr. Tisch.

“From education, to poverty and beyond, Dr. Merryl Tisch’s advocacy knows no limits,” said James.

Shortly after, NYC Councilman David Greenfield introduced award recipient and fellow Councilman Andrew Cohen.

“Andrew Cohen has single-handedly saved millions of dollars this year for mental health services!” Greenfield said.

Finally, US Assistant Attorney Tali Farhadian Weinstein took the stage to introduce Dr. Merryl H. Tisch.

Dr. Tisch brought up a memory she had when dealing with a mother of a child who had special needs. After hearing much anxiety and uncertainty, it became clear that this mother wanted Tisch to be able to “fix” her child.

“We can’t fix them, but we can help every child in overcoming challenging circumstances,” said Dr. Tisch.

She wrapped up her speech by mentioning how honored she is to advocate for New York City’s children.

At the end of the ceremony, Dr. Joshua Weinstein delivered closing remarks.

“I want to thank Merryl Tisch again for what she stands for, what she has done, and what she will continue to do,” said Dr. Weinstein.

Daniel Tiger Becomes Autistic Boy’s Guide to Social Life

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Daniel Tiger, a recent creation of PBS, provides life lessons for all children, but his teachings are particularly effective for those who have trouble reading social cues. 

Daniel Tiger is a relatable preschooler who wears a red cardigan and has friendly phrases to help children understand things like disappointment, frustration, anger and fear of the unknown. He also gives lessons on certain skills like turn taking, cooperation, problem solving, and empathy. 

Rasha Madkour, who has an autistic son, says that she has seen Daniel Tiger’s lessons and sayings being used by her own children when they play with others. The first time she noticed it, she was waiting for her 5-year-old’s occupational therapist. The therapist was very busy, and a small child, was crying about wanting a toy that her child was playing with.

Madkour sang the words, “Think about how someone else is feeling; maybe you can help them feel better” to her son, a jingle from Daniel Tiger. Her son thought for a moment and then handed the toy to the crying child. The child immediately stopped and Madkour could see that her son understood that he had helped.

Individuals with autism often times have a hard time understanding unspoken social codes. Daniel Tiger uses a different approach by explicitly saying a certain social skill and then providing multiple examples in each episode.

From providing encouragement to teaching children what to do when they have wronged someone, Daniel Tiger’s words of wisdom are beneficial to all children.

By Sejal Sheth