Image Analyst: A New Career Path For Autistic Adults

israelBecause of the challenges associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, people living with autism too often find themselves in situations of exclusion and/or isolation. For instance, autistic adults are likely to get exempt from military service in countries where it is mandatory to serve. But the Israeli Army is now proving society that we should not be too quick at labeling autistic people “deficient”.  Autistic soldiers’ unique skill sets actually present a strategic advantage as part of Unit 9900 in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and turns out to be extremely valuable to intelligence services.

People living with autism demonstrate superior capacities for visual thinking, which is much needed for aerial analysis. “People with autism often talk about thinking in pictures, rather than categorizing information according to language,” explains Geraldine Dawson, the director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “They tend to think less in a holistic form, they’re integrating lots of pieces into a whole, and they’re much more likely to see the finer details of something,” she says.

Those finer details are Unit 9900’s reason of being. Autistic soldiers decrypt complex satellites images delivered in real time and thus act as eyes on the ground for highly sensitive operations. Through its program Ro’im Rachok (Hebrew for “seeing into the future”), Israel is working on training image analysts-to-be among the network of special needs schools. 

Those developments are not only giving hopes to autistic adults who can now dare to dream to being employed and sustain themselves, but it is also promoting a sense belonging and civic integration to the nation as the IDF widely influence the Israeli collective psyche.  With new hopes, a whole new life has started for the autism community in Israel.

Surfside, Proclaimed as the First Autism Friendly Destination

beachSouth Carolina keeps getting good press. For the past few years, the coastal town of Charleston has been listed as one of top-ten travel destinations in the United States. Today, South Carolina’s Surfside Beach Town is making the headlines as the first autism friendly destination in America and in the world.

More than just offering a few hours of safe and free play on the shore, the town of Surfside aims to create a permanent judgment-free zone by educating its population and the area businesses on autism, and the needs and challenges of those who are affected by autism have to face. Besides the special needs and sensory friendly family programs and events taking place around town, the Surfside Beach Town Council will implement strategies and policies to better welcome and serve the autism community and their peers.

 If vacationing with children can sometimes be challenging, the experience may even be more challenging when traveling with autistic children who need  structured activities and firm routines. 

“Being a family beach, keeping a low profile, and staying at a less densely populated area- it all sounded like a perfect match,” the mayor of Surfside Beach, Doug Samples said.

This initiative gives hope to the families affected by autism. They can finally dare to dream of an enjoyable and safe vacation. We can only hope that it will inspire other tourist destinations around the world to pursue similar initiatives and break the stigma. Autistic children may be different but they are no less.  Not only raising awareness but also promoting acceptance and inclusion is a good way to enforce the principle of “all human beings are born equals”.

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Essential Oils: Can They Improve Sleep for Children with ASD?

oilsEssential oils have been used throughout history for multiple medicinal purposes, ranging from skin care to cancer treatment. In more modern times, they have been used in aromatherapy to aid in easing one’s stresses and anxiety.

Recently, a study has just begun at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Nisonger Center to see if there are measurable results in using the oils to treat children with autism disorders. Furthermore, parents of children with ASD have been sharing their experiences on support sites, expressing how these oils may improve their child’s quality of life.

Jill Hollway, research scientist at the Nisonger Center states, “[Parents are] reporting that they’ve seen improvements in quality of life, noting that transitions throughout the day appear to be smoother as their children go from one activity to another.” Parents have expressed that the oils have increased relaxation in their child during times that they may typically be hyperactive, including helping them wind down prior to bed time, improving their quality of sleep. They also assist during transitional times throughout the day (where the child goes from one activity to the next), which is often difficult for them.

Due to the fact that the parents’claims are subjective, Hollway and her team of researchers are launching a study to see if the oils actually improve the quality of sleep for children with ASD and aid in their relaxation. The team will use the oils and a watch-like activity monitor, called an actigraph, to see if the oils can improve sleep.

Researchers will compare the effectiveness of two mixtures of 18 essential oils. For the first three months, only one mixture will be tested, by giving the child a topical skin application on the back of their neck and feet prior to school. Furthermore, prior to bedtime, the mixture will begin diffusing throughout the child’s room, continuing through the night. When the mixture begins diffusing (20 minutes before bedtime), the children will wear the actigraph, measuring their sleep quality and movement. Measurements are recorded prior to falling asleep, during sleep, and 20 minutes after the child wakes up.

“A lot of these children wake up during the night, and the actigraph will capture those times. So, it will record the minutes awake, minutes asleep, and calculate overall sleep efficiency,” Hollway states.

After three months of testing out the first mixture of oils, there will be a one-month break, where no oils are tested. Once that period concludes, another three-month study will take place, using the other mixture. The researchers have set a goal to test the two mixtures over the next two years, and will then focus on another group of children with ASD, building a significant data collection. They are hopeful that the study will provide evidence to the effectiveness and safety of using essential oils as a part of the child’s therapy plan.

Model School Shema Kolainu – Hear Our Voices Hosts Workshop On Language Acquisition Because Communication is Life

NEW YORK, NY – December 8, 2016 –


Once again, a crowd of distinguished professionals and dedicated parents rushed to attend School Shema Kolainu – Hear Our Voices (SKHOV)’s autism workshop hosted at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. Thursday’s workshop focused on the acquisition of language by adopting a behavioral approach based on the principle of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. Academic Leader in the field of autism and IEP Coordinator Chani Katz of the school and center for children with disabilities addressed an audience eager to expand their knowledge and obtain continuing education credits by benefiting from Katz’ expertise.

For Katz, Verbal Behavior complements ABA science. Children with developmental delays are taught how to make sense of words. Through Verbal Behavior Intervention, they experience the purpose of words applied to their reality. Quoting the works of B.F. Skinner, Katz elaborated on how to teach a child with developmental delays elementary verbal operants of language. These include echoics (vocal imitation), mands (making a request for reinforcement), tacts (labeling), and intraverbals (conversational skills). Katz also discussed different milestone assessment methodologies and the common barriers to progress.

Under Katz’s leadership, the Model School Shema Kolainu – Hear Our Voices implements and experiments the principles of Verbal Behavior Intervention on the daily basis. The school strives to help autistic children on the road to recovery and ultimately, achieve independence, productivity and their inclusion in the community. Teachers use augmentative communication devices and different computer programs to supplement verbal behavior program.

The school has established itself as an example in the field of special needs education and has earned a reputation of the most respected leader in autism education. The workshop series is a great opportunity to gain knowledge from some of the best resources in the field of autism.IMG_2295

The workshops are made possible by NYC Council Autism Initiative Funding. The next workshop will be held on February 2nd, 2016 and will discuss senses and sensory issues. Admissions are free of charge. If you would like to partake in their programs, please send an email to to be in attendance at their future events. If you cannot attend the workshops, you can always catch the replay on the webinar platform

Helping Teens with Autism in their Transition to Adulthood

Cheak-Zamora-Nancy-103x135With the prevalence of autism growing in the United States, professionals have focused on early diagnosis and intervention. Multiple types of therapy are often provided to children on the spectrum, giving them better opportunities to develop a wide array of skills. Although this has been proven to be incredibly beneficial to the autism community, less attention has been given to children as they enter their teen years and approach adulthood. In order for these teens to have opportunities for higher education, employment, and fulfilling social lives, it is critical to provide them with the attention, care, and advice that can ease their transition into adulthood.

A researcher at the University of Missouri is working to find ways to support teens on the spectrum, as well as assist caregivers so that the teens can transition into adulthood more independently. Nancy Cheak-Zamora, assistant professor in the MU School of Health Professions and a researcher at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders states, “We need to focus our efforts on addressing the needs of young adults with autism in a much bigger and broader way.” She continues, “As health care providers, we cannot only help them take care of their health care needs; we also need to assure they’re connected to resources necessary to live independently and succeed in employment and education.”

Cheak-Zamora, along with a team of researchers, focused on two groups: teens with autism, and their parents or caregivers. Their mission was to understand what exactly the teens need (aside from healthcare), and how the caregivers can plan to assist their futures. In their study, the researchers found that both the teens and the caregivers felt nervous and anxious about the teens entering adulthood. Additionally, more resources were needed to support the teens’ social and educational needs. As caregivers, they felt they were struggling to assist their teens in these specific areas, highlighting the importance of creating programs that will aid this age group. Furthermore, it is essential for parents and caregivers to speak with their children about their plans for the future as early as possible, helping them plan for a smoother transition.

Cheak-Zamora states, “A lot of the young adults in our study told us about their goals for their future, but few had ever communicated these goals to their caregivers.” She continues, “Our young adults with autism really want to be able to socialize and succeed in higher education, but sometimes they don’t know how to go about doing that. Caregivers need to start saying to their children at the age of 12 or 13, ‘What do you want to do? We’ve got 5 years, so let’s make a plan.’ They can even do that in the doctor’s office and with a school counselor.” Expressing their hopes for the future can really help caregivers direct the teens towards their desired path by finding specific programs that can help build the skills needed for the field they are interested in, or better prepare them for the schooling they wish to pursue.

Initiating independence for the young adults is something that caregivers should also focus on, and it doesn’t have to be expensive, according to the research team. “Care coordination should be in the health care setting, and this is a part of the medical home model – making sure that the family isn’t just meeting with the doctor for 15 minutes – that somebody else is following up with them to again think about what resources and unmet needs they have and how to connect them with resources. It would also be an opportunity for the family to feel supported.” Providing new resources for support will make a world of difference for the adult autism community. As this study shows, having in-depth conversations with your teen about their goals can really be the starting point in turning their hopes into true possibilities.

Robot Teaches Social Skills to Kids with Autism

Various technological breakthroughs have proven to be very effective in the development of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Most recently, a motion-sensitive robot called “Leka” has been developed to specifically assist children with their social challenges. The engineers that created Leka have stated that it performs similarly to a “guide dog”, helping children navigate their social struggles.

Leka was recently introduced to the public at CES 2016, a technology tradeshow in Las Vegas. The interactive robot helps stimulate children with disorders such as autism or Down’s syndrome. The robot revolves around the concept of gamification, where elements such as competition and point scoring are applied to the learning process. Both single and multiplayer games are available to the user to help develop motor, intellectual, and social skills.

Founder and Chief Executiverobot of Leka, Ladislas de Toldi, states, “As a robot, Leka is both predictable and stable in its interactions, which is very important for the child’s sense of safety and serenity. [It] caters to the specific needs of the kids and focuses on multi-sensory stimulation. Its colors, sounds, vibrations help improve sensory processing and reduce anxiety.” He continues, “Children with disabilities are still children. They want to play, they want to have fun.”

Leka currently displays various lights and gives off sounds and vibrations; de Toldi aims to incorporate a screen in its modified version in order to display emotions, as well. Although Leka is currently a prototype, researchers are working widely throughout France and the UK to see its effectiveness, and crowd funding has now been initiated to mass produce it.

“We base our developments on research which has been done in the United States and in the United Kingdom as well”, de Toldi states. He continues, ‘With the help of parents, with the help of caregivers, we are pretty sure that this robot is going to help the children who are using it.’ Although Leka is still in development, it holds a lot of promise. Technological initiatives like this one can hopefully enable children to interact more with their parents and peers, as they can gain a better understanding of human emotions and interactions.

The Importance of a Healthy Diet for Children with ASD

obesityWith various diseases and disorders rising across America, it is becoming increasingly critical to examine what exactly may be contributing to this rise, affecting the health of our children. Autism, ADHD, and asthma, among others, have become commonplace – and it has researchers wondering if they can pinpoint factors that may increase or downplay their severity.

Autism, for one, is being widely researched as there are a number of factors that may contribute to its occurrence in children. Although there are many things that are out of one’s control, a child’s diet is something that can be regulated, and may play an important role in improving the child’s behavior.

Parents already know that it is important to feed their child nourishing meals and to avoid processed foods – however, it is essential to help try to educate their child that they need to eat quality products, and that they cannot just eat whatever they want all the time. Processed foods contain inflammatory fats and chemicals that can create imbalances within the body, resulting in irritability.

Furthermore, food dye is commonly found in products marketed towards children, and research has shown that the dyes can cause hyperactivity. Multiple reports have shown that behavior improved in the autism and ADHD community by removing the dyes from one’s diet. Another item shown to affect behavior is brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, which is found in many soft drinks. Studies showed that the chemical led to impaired neurological development in humans and animals. The effects of BVO were so alarming that PepsiCo announced it would discontinue its use in May 2014.

Lastly, multiple researchers claim that gluten-free regimes have improved behaviors and digestion in children with autism. It is well-known that many children with ASD suffer from poor digestion or irritable bowels, making it difficult to process heavy foods containing wheat, barley, or rye. Although further studies need to be done to establish a link between gluten-free diets and improved health, many parents are finding that the removal or limitation of gluten has improved attention, bowel movements, and sleep patterns.

Different But Not Less Capable

Artistas Café, located inside the Mercedes-Benz Tampa dealership, is more than just another coffee shop. All the staff members behind the counter are on the autism spectrum. They prepare espressos, coffees, smoothies, and snacks and run a cash register BECAUSE THEY CAN.

Autism has the highest unemployment rate of all developmental disabilities because there is a common belief that people affected by autism are unable to function and operate. Artistas’ team of baristas proves society wrong. Andrew Richards, Mercedes-Benz customer, actually says they completely changed his opinion. ”I think these people have the capabilities just like any other normal people,” says Richards.

In the hopes of breaking the stigmatization that autistic people suffer from, the cafe has been training and employing workers with autism since 2011. The need to boost the employability of people living with autism is artistasconsiderable.  Studies show that this upcoming year, 500,000 people with autism in the U.S. will turn 18, and 90 percent of them will not be able to find a job. “When they turn 18-22, doesn’t seem to be a lot of options still for young people with autism,” argues Westra.

A few non-profit organizations are trying to meet those needs and develop programs to teach autistic adults workplace skills. ICare4Autism is leading the way and is currently developing a High School training program that will be available everywhere in the United States. The initiative will involve a dynamic partnership among medical, behavioral, educational personnel with community business partners, fostering research-based best practices to effectively WORKFORCE READY youth ages 18-25, diagnosed within the Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Its founder, Vicky Westra who is the parent of an autistic child, has made it her personal mission in this world. Employees of Artistas Café report feeling comfortable and safe being whom they are. Westra has created a positive environment that suits them and in which they can thrive. Their disabilities are no longer the focus of attention, but rather their “uniqabilities” are. Just like she wants it and how it should be.








Scientists Discover a Brain Link to Autism

In a recent study published in the journal Current Biology, Harvard scientists have discovered a link between a specific neurotransmitter with behavior associated with Autism. By use of a visual test that elicits different reactions in brains with Autism and brains without Autism, the Harvard Society of Fellows was able to show that the differences were associated with a breakdown in the signaling pathway used by GABA, one of the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitters.

Caroline Robertson, a junior fellow, details the important discovery in Autism research:

“This is the first time, in humans, that a neurotransmitter in the brain has been linked to autistic behavior – full stop. This theory that the GABA signaling pathways plays a role in autism has been shown in animal morobertson-300x200dels, but until now we never had evidence for it actually causing autistic differences in humans.”

Robertson said the finding offers insight into the disorder and the role neurotransmitters play in it. The discovery also suggests that similar visual tests could be used to screen younger children for autism, which would allow parents and clinicians to intervene sooner.

The team utilized what is called a binocular rivalry test. An easily replicable test, it produces consistent results in people with and without Autism. Robertson describes the test:

“The end result is that one image is just suppressed entirely from visual awareness for a short period. So if I show you a picture of a horse and an apple, the horse will entirely go away, and you will just see the apple. Eventually, though, the neurons that are forcing that inhibitory signal get tired, and it will switch until you only see the horse. As the process repeats, the two images will rock back and forth. Where the average person might rock back and forth between the two images every three seconds, an autistic person might take twice as long.”

Robertson cautions that understanding the signaling pathway for GABA will not be a direct cure for autism. Excited about the recent study, she explains how there are many molecule in the brain that may be associated with Autism in some form, and there is more research to be done.

“We’re not done screening the autistic brain for other possible pathways that may play a role. But this is one, an we feel good about this one.”

New Program Eases Fears of Flying for Children with ASD

flying with autismWith flight being a sole means of travel in order to reach certain destinations, it has become a focus of concern for parents of children with autism to prepare them for the experience. Both the airport and the experience of flying can be overwhelming to any individual, but for a child with autism, it can be terrifying. With so many parents wanting their children to experience the joy of a vacation, several programs are being developed to help prepare them for the entire concept of flight – including the noise, movements, and interactions with the crew.

One new initiative in particular, Flying with Autism, provides parents with the opportunity of having their children experience a short flight so that they can process everything they are experiencing, and therefore they can later evaluate how the child reacts. As a result, they can potentially come up with strategies on how to overcome any particular issues they may have run into during the trial.

Flying with Autism was first launched in London, aiming to make the experience of flying a little easier for families touched by ASD. With thousands of families affected and the numbers only growing, it is becoming increasingly more important for programs like these to be developed – offering opportunities in areas that may have once been viewed as limitations for individuals on the spectrum.

Flying with Autism, led by specialist aviation training company FOF events, was established to help children with ASD familiarize themselves with flying, but also for parents to make the necessary preparations to ensure that the flight will be as comfortable as possible for their child. The program runs in two parts: at first, the families familiarize themselves at the airport and on the aircraft. Second, they partake in the “Experience Flight”, a 30-minute flight that allows children to get a grasp of air travel and for parents to assess how they handled it. This enables them to see if their children may be ready or not for a more extensive trip.

The program offers much advice and coping techniques to assist parents with the stressful parts of flying, as well as dealing with airport security and all of the interactions they may have along the way. Kelly Railton of The National Autistic Society (which financially supports the program) states, “We are very excited that Flying with Autism has nominated our charity to benefit from donations from their courses. A recent survey by the NAS showed transportation is a huge issue for people on the autism spectrum and their families, and can prevent them from taking part in everyday activities, particularly leisure opportunities such as holidaying abroad. We hope that Flying with Autism’s courses, along with our own current work in creating more accessible transport environments (such as airports and trains), will help [those] the autism spectrum.”

Initiatives similar to this one are popping up throughout the U.S., as well. For a list of airports offering programs for families touched by ASD: