Category Archives: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Preschool Soon To Be in Knoxville

autistic preschool

Brent and Jaime Hemsley are the parents of 5 year old Logan, who has autism. For most of his life he has been nonverbal; this began to turn around 5 months ago.

One night, as Brent was putting his son down for bed he told the boy he loved him. So far, this was the normal nightly routine. Unexpectedly, Logan replied to his father in a very clear manner, “I love you.” It was a beautiful moment Brent would never forget. He credits it to the years of therapy Brent has attended.

Through this experience the Hemsleys were inspired to create The Autism Achievement Academy. It will be the first preschool in Knoxville especially design for children with autism.

When trying to locate resources, the Hemsleys noticed there weren’t enough services available in their area. They found some programs and people available to help, but they were often met with long waiting lists and backlogs. An even bigger issue was when they did get the services they needed, they would only receive about one or two hours. But the recommendation for children is to get 25-40 hours of individual intensive care and instruction.

The idea for the preschool came after touring Hope Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. Jamie was particularly impressed with the real classrooms, filled with children who had similar diagnoses and received plenty of individual attention. She wanted to have that experience for her son and other children in Knoxville.

They Hemsleys hope to start school in the fall with only 1 preschool class. However, they also hope to expand throughout the years. The school is currently under an application process for non profit status. A curriculum, teacher, and administrative leadership has already been lined up. But the project is in need for more funding and a building. There will be a fundraiser held in late July to help cover finances.

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Words that Parents of Autistic Children Love to Hear

things to say to autistics

Raising a child with autism is rife with ups and downs. Parents are often the child’s biggest advocates- the true heroes who deserve to commended.

According to a blogger for The Mighty who is also an autism parent, there are certain approaches that are more welcomed when touching on the sensitive topic of autism in the family. Below is some of her advice for using the right words to say when referring to a beloved special needs child.

1. Recognize how far the child has come.

2. Emphasize what they are good at.

3. Focus on a positive example of a successful person with autism that resounds with you.

4. Ask if there is anything you can do to help.

5. Sympathize with their intense emotions and sensory perception which is probably more overwhelming than your own.

6. Take note of how fascinating this child’s mind is- their autism gives them an amazing ability to see things others cannot.

7. Tell his parent how much he loves them; they will really appreciate it.

8. Take the time to get in their head and try to figure out what they are thinking.

9. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask them because an autism advocate always wants to educate others.

10. Mention the ways the child has educated you and how they have enriched your world view.

11. Provide a listening ear and companionship to ease the struggling a caring parent endures every single day.

12. Offer to be the one to provide something the child needs, like the one food they reliably eat.

Above all, show empathy and understanding. The child or adult with autism may have severe language deficits. It is possible to say so many things without uttering a single word. On the other hand, an hour-long conversation might be the best thing an exhausted mother needs.



Alex Finds His Wings

jetblue for autism

It’s difficult to find an airline you can reliably trust for your travels. With factors such as seating, menus, staff, and more to consider, you can liken the search to Cinderella and her glass slipper.

For families with autistic kids and adults, this search is all the more difficult because their needs are so unique but often overlooked in the shuffle of accommodating hundreds of other passengers.

Mother Shawna Wingert is all too familiar with this situation. She and her son Alex have to travel by plane as many as nine times a year between Seattle and California as per a custody agreement. Despite requests and explanations for her child’s behavior, Wingert has had tremendous difficulty finding an airline that both understands and accommodates Alex’s need so as to avoid public meltdowns. As a result, the pair are all too familiar with the unsympathetic stares and comments of fellow travelers.

Since using JetBlue, however, the tides have truly changed. Wingert’s experience with the company has been so great that she now exclusively flies with them. “On JetBlue every time, it’s been like, ‘We’ve got you,'” she says, adding: “That’s a huge comfort. It’s a big deal.”

She’s taken to publicly lauding them on her blog, encouraging families with similar obstacles to reach out to JetBlue as their primary source of travel. Not only are they patient, she says, but they ask beforehand just how they can best accommodate Alex, solving problems before they are even given the changes to arise. Simple adjustments to seating, boarding time, and staff attitude have made a world of difference for Alex, and he is now able to travel without the anxiety he’d formerly experienced.

Of course all airlines are different, and even vary from plane to plane. Nevertheless, the Wingerts applaud JetBlue for its unique attention to disability accommodations and recommend its services above all others to those struggling with finding a patient aircraft carrier.

Written by Sara Power



University Helps 9-year-old With Autism Keep His Therapy Cat

therapy cat

When a serious illness threatened the life of Peyton Weidrick’s cat, the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Veterinary Medicine stepped in to help.

At 6-years-old Peyton was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and sensory processing disorder. It’s often difficult for him to transition between tasks or activities. Some days he would have meltdowns when coming home from school. But once he was graced with two kittens, things got much better. The cats allow him to manage many of his frustrations. Now, after school he picks them up and rubs his face in their fur.

Peyton has two cats – Clijsters and Stousur, both named after well known female tennis players. If he ever gets upset he’ll take one of the cats to his room to cuddle. It’s his way to calm down and self-regulate in order to better communicate what he’s feeling.

It came as devastating news when his mother, Karlinda, found out Clijsters needed a $2,000 dental procedure. It had come up unexpectedly and the surgery was definitely not within their family’s budget. They began to worry at thought of having to give up the adored cat. In an effort to keep Clijsters, Karlinda reached out to the Good Samaritan Fund at the local university.

The fund is intended to help animals who are ownerless or whose owners are aren’t able to afford treatments by giving free or discounted services. The program was established in 2011 but it is solely supported by outside donations. So it was suggested that Karlinda start a GoFundme account. At first she was hesitant because she didn’t believe any one would give money to a cat. However, support came flooded from everywhere. Soon she was able to raise $950 which helped cover all the aftercare and medicine for the cherished cat.

The surgery was successful! Clijsters is healthy and full of energy, but most importantly Peyton is happy to have his friend back again.

Written by Raiza Belarmino



New Lego Therapy to Help Build Communication

lego therapy for autism

Playing with Legos is an all-time favorite activity for kids. The colorful building blocks are now being used to help with social and communicative development for children who are on the autism spectrum.

It’s called Lego Therapy, and has become a very popular new type of Play Therapy. The idea is that using Legos will encourage children to have more meaningful interaction and communication with their peers.

Children with autism are often attracted to this kind of toy because it’s systematic, and building with them uses elements of predictability in a highly structured way. Researchers and practitioners throughout the US and UK have found that autistic children are focused, more motivated, and happy to participate in these types of therapy sessions.

This is what makes Lego Therapy hugely successful. Since the child is engaged they are more likely to benefit from it. It’s also said that skills learned in this therapy are easily transferred to other settings.

Some skills that are strengthened through this therapy are:

•   Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

•   Sharing and Taking Turns

•   Listening and Following Directions 

•   Goal Planning

•   Teamwork and Problem Solving

Lego therapy can be used in one-on-one sessions between a child and an adult facilitator. Using it in a group setting allows the children help one another achieve their goals.

The therapy has also been shown to improve communication and social skills as kids work together (or with an adult) to build the intended object.

Mother of 6-year-old Dylan Ryan has noticed a tremendous change in her son. Before, he had minimal language and often replied ‘no’ frequently. However, after years of therapy he’s taken a big step forward by asking to play with other kids.

Therapies for autism are just as individualized as the child. The new Lego Therapy gives parents more options to choose from.

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Inspiring Essay by Nonverbal Student Disproves Stereotypes

nonverbal autism essay

Just because 12-year-old Phillip can’t get the words out doesn’t mean that he has nothing to say.

The preteen keeps a blog to record his thoughts for an audience willing to listen. His corner of the internet on Blogspot is called “Faith, Hope, and Love… With Autism.” The tagline at the top reads, “This is the story of a boy who could not talk, but learned to make his thoughts known by spelling on a letterboard and typing. This is his path from silence to communication.”

In his post for World Autism Awareness Day, Philip offered a glimpse into his mind by explaining what daily life was like for him. He explained how he exhibits stimming behaviors such as arm flapping or tapping so that he can “feel his body better and peacefully work.” Though others may see these habits as pointless, Phillip says, the sights and sounds of the world around him become overbearing once he stops stimming.

He also points out how much he enjoys academics- math, science, social studies, and language arts- because he loves learning about the world. He cannot speak verbally and relies on a communication board, so at a casual glance, many people do not realize that his mind is active and full of knowledge.

Phillip explained in his essay how he once felt like a monster after constantly hearing others around him speak negatively about autism. He learned to hate himself at the time and felt like a burden on everyone around him.

Phillip is at peace with his autism now, accepting it as part of his identity. He is able to make friends and feels validated at his school. The boy also expresses gratitude toward his parents for all the encouragement they have given him over the years.

In this blog, Phillip wants to emphasize the importance of teaching children with autism to communicate, however that may be. After many unsuccessful years with ABA therapy, he felt he was just meeting pointless goals like pointing to flashcards.

“If pointless goals are your passion, then I pity your kids,” writes the 12-year old. “People need to be able to set their own goals. No person should be without a voice.”



Autistic Teen Defies Odds at Graduation

autistic teen at graduation

As graduation season approaches, we will honor and celebrate all the hard work students across the country have accomplished. One college student in North Charleston, South Carolina has improved far beyond anyone’s imagination.

Rhyan Coleman is a recent graduate of Trident Technical College and one of the honorary student speakers for their 2015 commencement ceremony. Any mother would be proud but for Angela Simmons, this was an especially miraculous moment.

When he was three years old, Simmons noticed there was something different about her son. He kept repeating what she said and wasn’t able to keep up in a conversation. Rhyan was diagnosed with autism and his repetitive speech is a symptom called echolalia. This is a common behavior for children with autism. Once he heard a word or a phrase spoken, he often just repeated it right back at the person.

After years and years of work through speech therapy, this symptom was treated successfully. His mother credits this achievement to the many supporters throughout his life, stating that Rhyan always had a village around him. The friends, family, teachers and therapists that did whatever they could do to help him laid his path to success.

Once high school was over, Rhyan was a bit unsure of his future. He decided to continue his education at Trident Technical College, where he eventually received an Associate’s Degree in Radio and Television Broadcasting.

On May 1, he addressed thousands of people in a crowd filled with students, faculty, family and friends. In the speech he shared his journey growing up with ASD and thanked all of those who have supported him in his academic career. He is most proud to walk across the stage along with his fellow 800+ students.

When asked about his next plans, he replies, “There is a next chapter to be written.”

Written by Raiza Belarmino



One Thousand Paper Chains

paper chains

Well maybe not quite a thousand, but no one has really counted.

Max is a teenager and most days after school he spends the afternoons at his grandmother’s house. He finds comfort in computer games and arts and crafts. There’s always paper around for him to cut out stars or numbers. His most recent project is paper chains, or as he calls it “making circles.”

His grandmother, Judy Warrens, started to collect the chains and hang them up on the ceiling of her basement. The area is now almost completely filled with them and she is trying to look for a new project. But for the time being Judy was excited to share a glimpse into Max’s mind.

At a young age he was diagnosed with autism and, at first, Judy wasn’t sure what to make of it. A close friend shared a beautifully written poem called Welcome To Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley. In it, she expresses what it’s like to raise a child with autism. She compares it to planning a trip to Italy. Before arriving, you might would research the Coliseum and Michelangelo’s David.

You may also try to learn some of the language and plan your sightseeing schedule. But imagine that once the plane lands, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to Holland!” You would be confused because you were expecting Italy but now you are in an unfamiliar place where you must learn a new language and a new way of life. It’s not that this unfamiliar place is bad, but it’s definitely different than Italy.

These are the sentiments Judy can relate to. Holland is still a beautiful place in its own right. And here she has learned things she never would have if she was in Italy.

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Stand Strong Against Public Discrimination

autism discrimination on travel

Parents should feel comfortable and safe when traveling anywhere in the world and have fun especially while on vacation. Dr. Donna Beegle of Tigard, Oregon who is a strong advocate for anti-poverty programs, took her fifteen year old autistic daughter Juliette on a family trip to Walt Disney.

On their way back on the flight during a layover she got hungry, like any child might, and became a little agitated. The mother was initially denied when she offered to pay for a hot meal, when the stewardess informed her that they were only available to first class passengers. After informing the flight attendant that her daughter may lash out if she is not fed, an exception was made and the child was provided with food.

The girl then ate and calmed down while watching a movie. Out of nowhere the crew announced that they were preparing for an emergency landing in Salt Lake City. The entire family was taken off the plane while a passenger was recording this entire incident with shock and disappointed of treatment.

No parent should ever feel this type of embarrassment or ridicule. Dr. Beegle is a world traveler flying to five countries and twenty four states and has never had an unsettling experience before. This is twisted case wherein special needs discrimination has been brought to light. We all understand that when there is a serious flight risk that is potentially dangerous to others, that the flight crew should always take precautions. But in this case, the mother and daughter should have not been treated with such disrespect.

As a mother, Dr. Beegle wants to make sure that no child with autism should ever experience something like this again. She will be suing the airline “not for money, but rather to ask that airline staff receive training.” In this case she’s doing what’s best for her and her family. 

Here is some helpful advice for parents to help them advocate publicly:

Parents traveling with autistic children should never feel prejudice, ignorance and mistreatment when their child is upset. An unfortunate incident like this may be avoided with positive training for future and current flight members. Parents with autistic children are like any other parent, in that they want to their children to have everything.

Positive re-enforcement, encouragement and having patience are keys elements to traveling in a smooth way. One of the most important things that every parent should remember is to bring a child’s favorite toys, movies, books or any type of creative toy that brings the child comfort from home. Parents should remember that children aren’t perfect but in the end, their experience when traveling away from home should be a positive one. May no child or parent have to experience this again by learning from this incident. 



Workshop Covers Emergency Preparedness for Autistics

emergency preparedness for autism

For the final Shema Kolainu workshop of the spring season, Dr. Stephen Shore of Adelphi University helped the audience with tips on disaster readiness involving people with autism.

When someone on the autism spectrum suffers from sensory overload or social difficulties, this adds an entirely new layer of difficulty to an already stressful situation. First responders, whether police officers, firemen, or 911 operators, are trained to respond quickly and often harshly. Even with just a small amount of awareness and training, authorities acting during emergencies can utilize effective and gentler techniques to accommodate a person with autism.

When a child or adult with autism encounters a police officer, there are some “unwritten rules” that may be understood by most, but are frequently missed. For example, a teenager with autism may come off as overly blunt or disrespectful when answering an officer, since they speak quite literally or may not understand the question being asked. One in a series of videos that Dr. Shore screened for the audience showed adults with autism being read their Miranda rights. Because of their difficulty communicating, many of these individuals did not understand their rights to remain silent, and whether they should be waived.

Dr. Shore emphasized in his presentation that a first responder should remain very calm and use extra patience when dealing with an autistic person. Flashing lights or a burning building are very intense for a child on the autism spectrum; it should be expected that their reaction will be intense as well, and a screaming meltdown may well ensue. It is important to comfort the child instead of demanding answers from them. In many cases, it may be required to restrain the person, so that they don’t run back into the fire or another situation that is dangerous for themselves and others.

Disaster preparedness is not only a topic of interest for authorities; perhaps the very first responder in an emergency is a parent. Therefore, parents must take extra steps to ensure their autistic child’s safety. Dr. Shore suggested that parents notify local authorities of their child’s condition and address, preparing police officers and other government officials for a situation where they may encounter their child in a state of high stress. They can then be educated on exactly how to handle the situation.

Parents may also alert others by providing their child with a medical ID bracelet, clearly giving out their name while making others aware of their condition, which is particularly helpful if the child is non-verbal. Another idea is to affix a sticker decal onto a car, or even on a child’s backpack, that lets others know how an emergency should be handled.

Sometimes, locking the doors is not always enough to ensure a child’s safety. It is advised that parents of an autistic child keep a close eye on them at all times, and that there is always a plan in place for when something goes wrong.