Film Gives a New Perspective on Autism

autism film x + y

The 2014 movie X + Y follows a young teenage boy’s journey through the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO).

Nathan, the main character, is described as being socially awkward and having difficulty with the relationships in his life. It is soon discovered that he has a brilliant gift with numbers and is selected to be a competitor on the British team. The story goes on to follow his experiences with new challenges, particularly working to gain a better understanding of the nature of love.

It was inspired by the BBC television documentary Beautiful Young Minds where director Morgan Matthews takes you through the selection process and training for the competitors. Most of the young men on the team had some form of autism but excelled in mathematics. One in particular, Daniel Lightwing, was the focus and inspiration for X + Y.  As a child he struggled tremendously with the pressure from his parents and teachers to be social and “normal.” At the age of 16 he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a syndrome that falls within the autism spectrum. Thereafter his parents realized that he simply had different strengths.

Once Lightwing found competitive math things got a lot better for him. His self-confidence and self-respect increased. In that environment he was able to relate to others more than he did in school or even his own family.

Soon after college he lived in China for some time where his academic achievements were held in high regard. He then landed a job at Google but encountered many struggles with social interactions. During his time there, he avoided others as much as possible. On the rare times he did participate, he was rejected.

Lightwing believes that the film is powerful in the way it portrays his experience with Asperger’s syndrome. It shows that there are many types of people in the world who are valuable and can contribute great things to society.

by Raiza Belarmino



The Social Network: TheraConnect

autism social media app

In today’s world, social media is everywhere. Whether we use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or one of many others, there are endless modes through which people can connect. Individuals are able to instantly communicate anywhere at any time; the opportunities are boundless!

However, connecting with people in the right way is not always that simple. These sites may be open to everyone, but the online community is so vast and intricate that often people get lost somewhere in the shuffle. UC Irvine student Chanel Fischetti hopes to fix this for adults with autism.

Fischetti recently developed an app called TheraConnect, which is designed to bring together autistic communities. Like Facebook, it establishes a person’s interests and allows them to connect with others who share their passions. However, TheraConnect goes one step further in that it simultaneously serves as a database for therapy as well as employment opportunities, housing facilities, and continuing education opportunities specifically designed to fit users’ needs.

Fischetti hopes to bring people affected by autism together in an easy and accessible way. She recognizes the social difficulties experienced by those with ASD and believes that TheraConnect could alleviate these communicative stressors. Currently, Fischetti and her team are still raising money to Kickstart the mobile application and website.

Sara Power, Fordham University



Interpreting the Correlation between Infant Communication and Autism Onset

autism diagnosis

Over the years, researchers have fiercely debated the origins of autism. Theories regarding its conception have targeted everything from inattentive parents to biological bases. Despite their sundry allegations, these theories all have one thing in common: an emphasis on infant development.

Experts maintain that a clear diagnosis of autism cannot be established until early toddlerhood. Before then, behaviors vary too much to create a firm connection. Studies regarding eye movement and tracking have come close to identifying early clues to autism’s onset; however, they remain somewhat insufficient to establish an accurate diagnosis.

Jonathan Green, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, strives to substantiate an intensive evaluation and therapy approach that could create a stronger, more accurate method for infant diagnoses. He is currently supervising a study following 53 at-risk infants in order to document autism’s manifestation.

Green believes that it is a combination of genetic and parenting influences that activates autism during infancy. He has not been satisfied with the popular notion that biology alone determines autism development so he hopes to outline compounding factors. Thus far, he’s discovered that an intensive parental intervention correlates to increased social interaction and attention in the infants.

It is important to note that Green does not place the origin of autism on parents. Rather, he believes that parent-child relationships may simply influence the trajectory at which a biological predisposition towards autism may begin.

His intervention consists of training parents to recognize and interpret attempts at communication, fostering an interest in the infant’s changing attentions, and translating gestures into words to build verbal understanding. It also expounds on electroencephalography findings regarding brain response to speech sounds.

It is too soon to say whether this training can truly alter the course of autism’s development. Nevertheless, Green’s program does provide important feedback to parents regarding how their interactions play into the child’s development, whether they be typically developing or not.

“I don’t want to say that one can ‘cure’ autism like this, that’s not true,” Green says. “But I hope we’ll be able to make a difference.”

Sara Power, Fordham University



A Voice Out of Silence: Hope for Nonverbal Communicators

hope for nonverbals

The world is filled with sound. Everything from our footsteps to our breath makes an audible impact on our environments. Most notably, these human sounds come in the form of words spoken to one another. Unfortunately, this aspect of reality is not one that all individuals get to experience.

For twenty-year-old Federico, silent participation marks the entirety of his world. Diagnosed at age 3, Federico lives his life on the autism spectrum. One of the most marked distinctions of this handicap is limited language capability, both in terms of its spoken quality and understanding. For Federico, this impairment is extreme: he is nonverbal; in other words, he cannot communicate by speaking.

Over the past decade, there has been a great rise in augmentative and alternative communication devices that have allowed verbally limited persons the ability to speak. It may not be in their natural voice, but such devices grant people like Federico the autonomy to form their own words and sentences via computers.

Federico first happened upon such technology when he was eight, and it has made a world of difference. Since then, Federico has learned to technologically verbalize his needs and thoughts. Recently, they have adapted to even imbue a sense of feeling into the automated voice, which he controls via his device.

Recently, Federico used his newfound voice to publish his autobiography entitled “What I Never Said.” In it, he details his spiritual journey along the path of surmounting the limitations his diagnosis has placed on him. He opens with the following words:

“Today I share with you a great joy. After 20 years of silence, a life passed without being able to speak, and 12 years struggling to learn to write, my book arrived in the bookshops. In my book I tell my story. I explain my autism. And finally I can say how I see the world and what I believe in. After a life spent in silence, communicating is finally the long-desired joy that I have attained.”

He makes a point of explaining his autism while at the same time instructing readers not to think of it as a handicap. Federico describes it as something much more profound, and describes his gratitude for the other skills of listening and understanding that have been strengthened in the absence of his voice.

Nevertheless, he dreams of a “sunny day when my feelings and thoughts flow like a river or spring of words for all my friends. How lovely it must be to be able to talk.”

Federico has big plans for the future and hopes to one day help young children come to know their inner narrator just as he has over these past 20 years.

Sara Power, Fordham Univeristy



Finding the Perfect Fit: Enrichment Programs for Your Child

individualized education for autism

Although there is so much information available to parents and caregivers of children with autism today, there is only so much help that they themselves can provide.

Enrolling your child into one or more ‘enrichment’ programs designed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can significantly improve not only their cognitive skills, but their social skills as well. The only caveat is figuring out which program would work best for your child. Many factors come into play when finding the right programs:  the child’s ASD symptoms and the ‘severity’, their physical and mental age, and their level of sociability.

These factors are important to consider because of how tailored some programs are. You will want to find out about the counsellor to child ratio, the activities and tasks completed in the program, the different trips that may be taken at older ages, etc. The person who knows your child best is you, so by doing research into the programs available in your area as well as finding any ‘secret’ programs which may not be as well advertised, you will find there are many options available. A good starting place could simple be a search engine such as Google (try searching “[your area’s name] enrichment programs”). You can also explore your options by talking with family doctors, friends, and other parents with children with ASD will open many doors to programs.

A good example of a ‘hidden’ program in various cities across Canada is a non-profit organization named Making Waves Canada. Volunteer university students teach disabled children (infants to pre-teens) swimming and water safety in a one on one 45 minute lesson once per week over the course of 8 or 9 lessons. These tailored lessons are available at a ‘donation’ rate, making it affordable and accessible to families with children with a disability (regardless of whether it is physical or cognitive).

Once you begin your search, opportunities for your child will start presenting themselves, and they will be able to engage in fun activities while learning and developing at the same time. For more information about enrichment programs, please visit the Autism Canada Foundation’s page on recreation therapy, or the Autism Treatment Centre of America’s page for the Son-Rise Program, a program which has been running since 1974.

By Sydney Chasty, Carleton University



New Database Helps Officers Locate Those with Special Needs

bolo bring our loved ones home

When a loved one has gone missing, it is on of the most frightening scenarios imaginable.

Young people with autism are known to get lost or wander away from their homes. Just as you would describe to the police the details of the person’s appearance and what they were wearing, it is also imperative to explain his/her disabilities. The police officers in Delhi Township, OH have noticed how difficult this task came to be. Authorities knew they needed a better method to have information on hand during these types of situations.

In the case of Tami Haskins, a mother of four 8-year-old quadruplets, this holds especially true. She has two girls and two boys. Both of the boys have autism but only one has a tendency to wander. A few years ago her son Brendan walked off on his own. By the time police officers found him, they were not able to communicate effectively with him. He couldn’t tell them who he was, his parents’ names, or where he lived. It was a challenge to get him back home to his family.

Situations like these lead to the creation of a new database program called Bring Our Loved Ones home, or BOLO for short.  With this system, people are able to register family members who have a tendency to get lost and require special needs. Their profile includes a recent picture and a general physical description. It also provides information such as certain triggers, tips on ways to calm the individual, and better communication strategies. For Brendan, that included letting officers know when he puts his hands over his ears it means he is frustrated.

Since it’s implementation the program has proven to be a very effective tool for police officers to use.  Instead of jotting down the information of the missing individual they are able to download all that they need to their dashboard computers within seconds. It has not only helped those with autism but has been used to locate elderly persons who suffer from with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

This type of specialized training has brought about more awareness in the community and comfort for the families involved.

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Albany Discussion Forum Addresses Workplace Diversity

autism in the workplace

As ICare4Autism gears up for its Global Workforce Initiative programs, more organizations are cropping up who recognize the importance of lowering the autism unemployment rate.

On Tuesday, March 17, The Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region sponsored a forum addressing workplace opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum. Directed at employers, the workshop emphasized the advantages of workplace diversity.

One topic discussed included the interview process, which can be extremely difficult for those on the spectrum since they are quickly judged on their social skills. The speakers also addressed the benefits of recruiting and training qualified candidates on the autism spectrum, who often possess degrees in science and technology but fail to snag jobs in their field because of their misunderstood condition.

Marcia Scheiner, the event’s keynote speaker, is the founder of the Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership. Scheiner spoke at ICare4Autism’s 2014 International Conference about ASTEP, which was created to bridge the gap between highly skilled, educated candidates with Asperger’s Syndrome and a sustainable job. According to Marcia, 35% of individuals with Asperger’s, a form of autism, have sought higher education. Some estimates assert that more than over 85% of “aspies” are unemployed or underemployed.

But this lack of success in the workplace does not typically result from poor job performance- in fact, 80-90% of people on the spectrum are terminated from their jobs because of social missteps. The lack of autism awareness in the workplace, coupled with an unwillingness to disclose the disorder, creates a roadblock in front of otherwise highly capable employees.

Also attending the conference were representatives from a newly-formed non-profit called Spectrum Employment Services. Jason Kippen, director of the program, works to seek out educated candidates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math and then match them with appropriate job openings.

Kippen is currently working with a talented young man who earned a computer science degree from the University of Albany. Although he graduated with a 3.2 grade point average, Kippen says, he is currently stocking shelves at Walmart since he has had no luck finding work in computer science.

“He is woefully underemployed,” Mr Kippen said to the Albany Business Review. “He has so much to offer.”



New App “Caters” To Autism Families

autism friendly restaurants

Recently, one of our blogs commended the restaurant “Not Your Average Joe’s” for increasing autism awareness and accommodating autistic visitors and their special needs (read here: http://blog.hear-our-voices.org/2015/03/13/not-your-average-service/). Part of the reason the restaurant owners’ effort has been so noteworthy is the fact that they have gone to lengths to maximize their customers’ comfort- to an extent uncommon in the industry.

For parents of children with autism, catering towards their children’s preferences, as well as their hypersensitivity, can be a daunting task. For most families, going to a restaurant is a run-of-the-mill experience where, at worst, you have a slow server. On the other hand, families in the autism community run into far worse problems.

Issues concerning the environment of the establishment, the impatience of workers, and the means by which you navigate such spaces (i.e. a large open dining room versus a cramped area) can drastically alter the child’s experience. Paired with their hypersensitivity to sound and light, this can create a brutally discomfiting experience.

To counteract these negative experiences, father Topher Wurts recently created a Kickstarter to raise money for an app that he has designed called “Autism Village.” Akin to the likes of Yelp and Trip Advisor, the program features reviews by families on local establishments, whether they be eateries or haircutters, and their “autism-friendly” experiences. One merely has to enter their location to get recommendations from past users. This feature can be useful for connecting a parent with a particular waitress who has experience serving autistic customers, for example.

Wurts, who is the father of a thirteen-year-old boy with autism, hopes to improve other people’s family outings through his app. He knows first-hand of the trials and tribulations different establishments pose; luckily, he’s found a way to provide the best experiences possible for his son and family.

Currently, Wurts is still working towards his goal to launch a version of “Autism Village” on iOS. The app will not only benefit customers, but also establishments as it offers constructive advice on how to better serve this growing population.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/like-yelp-but-for-autism-friendly-businesses/387685/

By Sara Power, Fordham University



Dr. Shore Speaks About Successful Transition to Adulthood

Stephen Shore on transitioning to adulthood

Professor Shore has been able to remedy his sensitivity to overhead lights by wearing a baseball cap during his lectures.

Dr. Stephen Shore is no stranger to awkward situations. Through his lecture “Promoting Successful Transition to Adulthood for Individuals on the Autism Spectrum” presented on Friday at Hotel Pennsylvania, Dr. Shore hopes that his experiences navigating through life with Asperger’s Syndrome are instructive for young adults on the autistic spectrum.

A successful transition to adulthood often revolves around choosing the right career. Dr. Shore spoke about his fascination with mechanical watches as a child, and how he was able to parlay this strength into a college job repairing bicycles.

It is an unfortunate truth that the unemployment rate among adults with autism remains high today. The majority of young adults affected by asd struggle to achieve full-time employment- some estimates suggest over 90%. While teens on the spectrum vary widely in their degree of functioning (high/low), there are steps that may be taken to improve their likelihood of achieving independence.

Anyone on the autistic spectrum has their own set of strengths and interests. A child may love putting items in the correct order, for example. It may be ideal for this individual to take a job stocking shelves. This could parlay into a career in inventory management.

There are various professions that benefit from the skill set exhibited by some people with ASD. We have seen several companies, such as engineering firms, that actually have programs designed to place bright young adults on the autistic spectrum with jobs that utilize their math skills and minimal socialization. Employers sometimes praise these workers for their lack of idle chatter during a productive work day.

But proper employment is not the only challenge on the path toward adulthood. Learning to build social and relationship skills is usually a challenge for someone with ASD. Dr. Shore suggests that we ask for what he calls “reasonable accommodations” in order to successfully integrate into social groups.

For example, Dr. Shore typically presents his lectures wearing a baseball cap. Although this may seem unusual, his reasoning has nothing to do with making a style statement. He explained how the overhead LED lighting in lecture halls bothers him more than it would the average person, who may not even be affected. Asking for reasonable accommodations like this can help a person with autism fit in with others. The key, as always, is awareness- if the adults around him understand what his needs are, they may be more likely to feel comfortable with his differences.

Children with autism are poorly prepared for their adult lives, according to Dr. Shore, which is something that caregivers, therapists, and teachers need to change. It is typical to begin preparing a child for their adult lives at 16.

“This is about ten years too late,” said Dr. Shore, in response to that idea.

ICare4Autism is in the process of creating a Global Workforce Initiative vocational training program that will help teens develop their skills and translate them into a career. It is estimated that this year alone, around 50,000 18 year olds with autism will enter the workforce or choose to continue their education.



Not Your Average Service!

not your average joe's

Family dinner in a public restaurant can be a nerve-wracking idea for those with young children. Typically parents get discouraged in fear of other people’s reactions and judgments.

These same feelings tend to be even more heightened with families that include individuals with Autism. However, a restaurant in Acton, Massachusetts is changing their daily operations in order to cater to a broader range of their customers. Not Your Average Joe’s has teamed up with a local family determined to make changes in the service industry that bring about a better awareness.

Oftentimes, restaurants can pose a particular challenge. Between the noises from the kitchen, hustle and bustle from the waiters, and conversations from fellow restaurant goers, the experience can elicit an overload of sensory processing. In response to this, repetitive physical behaviors often arise to help control the chaotic environment. These include hand-flapping, snapping fingers, scratching, making vocal sounds, rocking from side to side, licking or smelling objects, etc. The staff at Not Your Average Joe’s is trained to be sensitive and accepting to this behavior. They are instructed to help alleviate the situation by lowering the music, dimming the lights, and shutting down the kitchen for a period of time.  

Their inspiration comes from Maribel Rueda whose son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 2. She was told that her child would not be able to speak and would need to live in a group home. From then on Rueda has made it her mission to make a better life for her son. She became an advocate for the Autism community and eventually the founder of a nonprofit organization called Autism Geniuses. Now her son is 18 years old and living well. Rueda believes that through her personal story she can show other parents the condition can be managed with early intervention. 

The movement that was started at Not Your Average Joe’s is something to be admired because it goes beyond the restaurant business. They believe awareness is the key that will help create a better environment for all. This motto is definitely one that can be spread throughout other establishments and make a difference in many communities.

By Raiza Belarmino