Category Archives: Education

Future Funding A Serious Issue for Autistics

Road to Adulthood

We always talk about how to best get people on the autism spectrum the resources they need to thrive. Typically, that conversation centers around early intervention, therapies inside and outside of school, routines and advice for parents in the home, and advocating for a safe and healthy environment for these kids. But what happens when they become an adult? We put all this effort into having them reach their highest potential, but not everyone on the spectrum at 21 is developmentally at that age. So does all that effort go down the drain?

Christopher Merchant, now 19 years old, was diagnosed with autism and is developmentally on par with an elementary school student. He can read and do simple math problems and dedicates three hours daily at a car dealership where he has an aide to keep him on track. His mother, Lisa Merchant, has seen her son reach these milestones that she didn’t think were possible after his diagnosis, “it’s like learning a sport or playing an instrument: The more therapy he gets, the better he gets at it,” she explains.

When Christopher turns 21, he will no longer be eligible for therapies that address his speech and feeding challenges. His mom, expresses her concern, “Our biggest fear is he won’t end up with funding and he’ll end up sitting on the couch. My school district does a really food job–I’m just afraid all their good work will be for naught.”

In Pennsylvania, where the Merchants live, the number of people with autism has more than doubled, with adults being the majority of the growing population. In 2013 there were 8,395 adults on the spectrum in the state, and that number is projected to be over 30,000 by the year 2020. These numbers are reflected across the country with autism diagnoses being made for 1 in every 68 children. A report from their Bureau of Autism Services (BAS), created in 2007, found that even though they have started creating programs for adults on the spectrum, “as people transition to adulthood, the needs for supports and services often increase, although services become more difficult to access.”

This transitioning process and lack of funding/resources for people in the autism community is a serious issue; it is an issue for the parents who sometimes lose their job since their adult child still needs them, it’s an issue for the person on the spectrum, who after making so much progress up to this point now faces a brick wall, and it is an issue for the state, who has to find a way to incorporate people on the spectrum as productive members of society worth investing in. However, states like Pennsylvania are really taking these issues by the reigns. Other states should also being to recognize the need to address these challenges sooner rather than later.


Read the original article HERE

Read about ICare4Autism’s Workforce Initiatives HERE

Kids Helping Kids

Tate Smith (middle) with two of his peers. (

Tate Smith (middle) with two of his peers. (

Lisa Smith is a stay-at-home mom with two children who have special needs. After doing her own research and attending conferences on autism, Lisa decided to write her own booklet that explained autism to kids who were in kindergarten and first grade. After getting approval from teachers, she was able to share it with her child, Tate’s, classroom. Mrs. Smith explains the importance of teaching kids about disabilities, “if they don’t know what the disability is, or that there is a disability, they just think the kid’s weird. There’s no understanding, and no real compassion. I don’t think there’s anybody that Tate goes to school with that doesn’t know he has autism and what autism is.”

At the age of 7, Tate’s mom pushed his speech therapist and school to initiate a lunch buddy program, where he would be able to sit with a few assigned peers who were also willing to have lunch with him, and thus be able to work on his social skills with people his age. Tate’s teacher sent notes home to each child’s parent asking for permission for them to have lunchtime with Tate, and they all responded with a yes. “When I thank parents for loaning their children to me for all of their lunch period, they often tell me that their children have learned more from Tate than Tate has learned from them. Compassion. Understanding. Perseverance. When they ask Tate a question, he doesn’t always respond right away. He has to process the language. Sometimes they have to repeat the question. And they stick with him. They don’t lose interest and give up on him,” says Mrs. Smith.

Tate’s speech and language pathologist, Jessica Barker, reflects, “It’s evolved quite a bit with Tate and his age and how far he’s progressed. He’s always had to be taught those explicit rules of social communication: to make eye contact, what tone of voice to use, that facial expressions and body language are important. Also reciprocity: he’s had to be taught that when someone asks you a question, you need to answer. Tate and I worked a lot on how not to kill a conversation. ‘Lunch bunch’ was a great way for him to take what we learned one-on-one and apply it.”

Even his peers see the progress he’s made. One boy, Jayson Brown, has been one of Tate’s lunch companions for the past three years. “He has his own personality. He’s respectful toward others. He’s changed quite a bit, just in his maturity. His manners are much better now, he’s more comfortable in his talking, and I think we’ve helped him with that.” Tate not only feels more connected to his peers, but also feels like he has real friends that he can talk to, which is a nice break from constantly being with a teacher, therapist, or parent. Stories like these make us realize the importance of awareness and the importance of teaching our own children to be sensitive to the needs of those with disabilities.


New Perspectives for Children on the Spectrum

Paul Braun with son Mitchell working with a drone.

Paul Braun with son Mitchell working with a drone.

One group of parents is using technology to help engage children who are on the autism spectrum in something that they are interested in, with children who also share their interests. “Taking Autism to the Sky” or TATTS, was developed mainly to help with socializing skills and learning about the physical world around them. Paul Braun’s son Mitchell inspired him to start this project. As a geographer, Braun noticed how useful drones were in helping them survey and map the land, so he was curious as to how seeing the earth from an aerial view would help an autistic child view and understand their world.

Getting a group of kids together that liked technology and were fascinated by the flying drones was an easy enough task. The kids were able to get together and work on every aspect of the drone, including building and customizing their own. They are then able to be the pilot and navigator and even edit and analyze the video that they capture. Braun’s son says, “Sometimes, I imagine actually being in the drone when I fly it. We use some goggles and in there is like a little TV…you could actually see what the drone is seeing right now.”

Dr. Peter Williamson, a neuropsychologist at Dean Clinic, talks about the benefits when autistic children especially, are able to connect to their peers through a shared interest, “when you have kids and they’ve got a common interest and they’ve got something that can kind of bring them together, galvanize them as a group, all of a sudden these kids start talking to one another, they start relating to one another. So technology is a perfectly good hook.” Not only was this helpful to their social skills but they were also able to gain a deeper understanding into how the world looks on a realistic scale, including improving their depth perception.

When the kids were asked to draw their surroundings before seeing the video from using a drone, this is what they came up with:

before dronebefore drone 2After experimenting with the drones and seeing the world from an aerial perspective, this is what their drawings looked like:

after drone

after drone 2As you can see from their drawings, their understanding of reality was definitely enhances from being able to see a new perspective they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. Paul Braun hopes to expand this program into a non-profit one day so that other children on the spectrum can have the opportunity to engage in new perspectives too.




colin abbot

Colin Abbott and his piece “My neighborhood … My community”

Colin Abbott is a seven year old second grader at Hopewell Elementary who is making a big impression with his artistic abilities. So much so, that the Department of Education in Washington D.C now has one of his pieces, created last spring, on display in an exhibition hall. His piece is a multi-colored, textured representation of his home that he named, ‘My Neighborhood…My Community.’ His art teacher and Colin took about two months to complete the piece, which was then submitted to the Kennedy Center’s VSA (Very Special Arts) International Art Program for Children with Disabilities. Oh, did we mention that he’s autistic and blind?

Two years ago, Colin was unable to tolerate the touch and feel of paint or glue. Now, he has learned to work with these and other textures that he would have previously been uncomfortable with. Colin’s art class, which meets once or twice a week, is where he lets his artistic expression flow–with the help of the theme song from Super Mario Bros, to name one of his favorites. “I go fast when the music goes fast and slow when the music goes slow,” Colin explains.

His art teacher, Kala Koehler has had to experiment with different teaching techniques in order to help him. “When we started painting, I wanted him to know that when he was adding a medium onto the canvas that he could relate those mediums to his emotions. If he wants to paint an exciting color, we use red. He knows how that feels,” says Koehler, who was inspired by Dr. Seuss’s “My Many Colored Days,” which connects colors to specific moods. “In art, he will feel everything, and he’ll smell it, and if he doesn’t like it, he’s not having it. He can’t make eye contact with you to non-verbally say ‘we’re going to talk now,’ so he has to make sure that you’re paying attention.

Kids like Colin Abbott and Christopjer Duffley who are blind and autistic, yet have so much positive energy and artistic ability are really an inspiration for all of us. Not only do they teach us to appreciate the everyday privilege of sight, but also open our eyes to the abilities of those who are typically seen as “lesser than” or “lacking.” Far from needing pity, these two boys are busy leading happy and productive lives with the support of their loved ones.

To see Christopher Duffley’s story, click HERE
To read more about Colin Abbott’s story, click HERE

Autism and Race, are they connected?

autism and race

Since the rate of autism diagnosis has more than doubled between the year 2000 and now, many studies have pointed to the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. The idea is that, the earlier the symptoms can be detected, the better equipped family and professionals will be to provide the right treatments and therapies. Not only this, but also by helping their child sooner rather than later, they are giving their child the best chance at reaching their full potential. However, for many families, it can be challenging to receive all of the appropriate resources they need to help their child.

According to the Center for Disease Control, African American and Hispanic children do not get an autism diagnosis as promptly as their Caucasian peers. While many children tend to get diagnosed on the spectrum at the age of 4, research shows that African American children are diagnosed one year to two years later. Those two years may not seem like a huge issue, however those are years of critical brain development, where children learn many of their language skills and social skills. Research also shows that when minority children do get a referral, they are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD or other behavioral conduct problems.

This lends the question of whether autism may look different or manifest itself differently in African American or Hispanic children. So far, research has shown that regressive autism is twice as common in African American children as it is in Caucasian children. Regressive autism is when children lose social and language skills after they have developed them. Other studies hint that African American children are likely to exhibit challenging and aggressive behaviors, or that they have more severe problems with language and communication. The causes for these differences are not known, but it could still be traces back to the lack of resources and diagnosis of this specific population.

Recently Dr. Daniel Geschwind, autism scientist and researcher at UCLA, has joined with the Special Needs Network (SNN) to work on a large research project that will help identify genetic causes of autism in African American children. You can read about this project and how to get your child involved with his study here. In a topic full of uncertainty, one thing is certain, and that is the lack of scientific research to help us understand any differences in autism due to ethnicity or race. As more research is underway for underrepresented populations, we hope to be able to provide the right resources and service these children will need to thrive.

At Shema Kolainu, we serve children of all religions and backgrounds in the New York metro area and have a strong belief in giving every child their best chance.

Thinking About Playgrounds As Inclusive Classrooms

One snapshot of a We Rock the Spectrum playground (Photo: Talia Herman/Re:form)

Dina Kimmel is the mother of an autistic son who has had one too many bad experiences being kicked out of a playground because of her son’s behavioral issues. After consulting with occupational therapists and other autism professionals to test what sorts of playground equipment was most popular with all children, they were able to design indoor playgrounds that she named We Rock the Spectrum , where children of all developmental levels could be included despite their developmental struggles. Started in 2009, We Rock the Spectrum is now opening their nineteenth location. Some of the main attractions of her playground designs include: trampolines, swings, crash pads, bouncy balls, wooden ladders with oval-shaped rungs, dumbbells, and more. These playgrounds serve as another form of therapy that allows for self-calming activities and movement. Oftentimes we find that students with disabilities are isolates from their typically developing peers, but these inclusive playgrounds have something for everyone and are designed to encourage the children to play with each other. Kimmel says, “as many hours as I’ve logged on playgrounds, I rarely see children of different abilities. If the design isn’t inclusive, if families don’t feel welcome, they won’t come.”

When Dina Kimmel designs a playground she thinks of environments that spark her imagination, including features like fences, for children prone to wondering, poured rubber surfaces and ramps, which are easier to navigate and less messy than sand. John McConkey, a market insights manager at Landscape Structures explains, “The ADA [American Disabilities Act] only goes part way. It doesn’t address functionality, how the user can engage with the activity, if they find it stimulating and fun and if it facilitates social interaction. If you forgo designing for inclusion, you could end up with ‘ramps to nowhere,’ which provide access but little fun.”

Olenka Villareal, founder of Magical Bridge , a $4 million inclusive playground that is scheduled to open in December, argues, “The playground is the first real classroom kids have…prejudices from when children aren’t exposed to different kinds of kids. And if you’re a kid that can’t get onto the equipment, who can’t get across the sand, it sends the message that someone didn’t think about you when designing the park.”

At Shema Kolainu, we have our own multisensory room designed specifically for the children on the spectrum that we serve, however, it would be a huge benefit to the autism community to see more inclusive playgrounds emerge in New York City over the next few years as the need for them is also increasing.

To find out if there are any inclusive playgrounds near you, click HERE

The Importance of Autism Awareness

Many parents struggle with whether or not they should make it known that their child is autistic when in public situations. They are concerned about the idea of labeling their child with this developmental disorder and how that would effectively limit them to the misconceptions and uncertainties of strangers. Even those who have children on the higher functioning end of the spectrum find themselves in uncomfortable public situations that include lots of staring and judgements.

For one autism mom and blogger, Julie Green, says, “Although i balk at the idea of him wearing his label on his sleeve–because he’s so much more than just a label–I also wonder whether keeping mum about his disorder is somehow unfair or discourteous to strangers. One of her friends, also an autism mom, claims that wearing autism awareness shirts, pins, or signs, has made all the difference in how others perceive or judge them. Instead of having to deal with people telling her off, if people know her child has autism they are more likely to just ignore them or let them be.

Another friend who has a 9 year old non-verbal son, does not agree that labeling is the answer to it all. She explains, “It’s not like we stop teaching him to behave properly because he’s slow to learn. There are some limitations for sure, like his speech. But it doesn’t stop him functioning like other human beings. [All] kids are work in progress.”

There is no right or wrong answer to whether or not you should tell strangers that your child has autism to prevent any uncomfortable situations or keep it on a need-to-know-basis. Ms. Green says, “At times I still long for my friend’s handy card or T-shirt that spells out his difference so people can just quit staring and move on already.” Perhaps what we need to do, is continue to take these uncomfortable situations as an opportunity to spread awareness about autism and how fast its diagnosis has grown in the past few years alone. By doing this we may eventually reach a point where strangers are more knowledgeable and less inclined to judge a child’s behavior and either help if they can or continue with their day, leaving everyone in a more positive state of mind.


Council Member Mark Levine Supports Children on the Spectrum

Council Member Mark Levine visits school age classroom at Shema Kolainu - Hear Our Voices

Mark Levine, Council Member for District 7, Chair of the Committee on Parks & Recreation, and member of the education, finance, housing, and operations committees took the time to visit Shema Kolainu – Hear Our Voices to learn more about the services we offer at the school and see the work we do. Many of the special needs children we provide home-based services to are also located in the district he serves. He is a leading voice in advocating for safer streets, reliable public transportation, cleaner parks, and more affordable housing. As a strong supporter of equal opportunities and the Autism Initiative, he was interested in learning about the success we’ve had as well as the work that is still left to be done. Dr. Weinstein, CEO and founder of Shema Kolainu, explained the goals of the school and center and the daily activities we have to meet those goals. He also gave an overview of the history of our school and how we’ve grown to accommodate over 60 children at the school and over 1000 children citywide for home based services.

Councilmember Levine was particularly impressed by our teacher to student ratio and our commitment to providing each child with one-on-one therapy. While observing some of the classrooms, he was surprised but humbled by the level of engagement that the kids were showing with their teachers, Ipads, or the activity that they were doing at the moment. He remarked that, “oftentimes, disabilities are paired with extraordinary ability,” when discussing the success we’ve seen over the years at Shema Kolainu and shared in our vision of a more inclusive society. Mr. Levine was also able to interact with some of our school-age children and see some of our unique rooms; such as our Daily Living Skills Center, used to help the children develop and hone practical skills such as making their beds and setting the table, and the Snoezelen room, which is our multisensory room used to help children overcome any sensory challenges they may experience throughout the day.

He even expressed concern for the children’s safety when they visit Brizzi park, located across the street from Shema Kolainu. As someone who has worked with under-served children in his years as a teacher in the South Bronx and Director of Teach for America, we hope that Council Member Levine will continue to show his support for the autism community; especially as we strive to provide better and more far-reaching resources for our kids and their families and continue our commitment to giving children their best chance to reach their highest potential.

Tips for Helping Your Child with Social Interaction

Autism can sometimes be characterized by a person’s inability to connect with people, even their own families in a constructive and relationship-building way. The National Center for Learning Disabilities promotes that “guiding your child through various social scripts will enable him or her to navigate such situations with greater ease and less apprehension, especially when he or she is interacting with other children. Research has shown that adolescents with learning disabilities have difficulty in making and keeping friends, spend lots of free-time alone, especially watching television or on their computers.

Here are some activity ideas for helping your child prepare for certain types of social interactions they are likely to face throughout their lives:

– Read storybooks with themes on family and friendship and try to engage your child in storyline to help them understand the interactions between the characters.

– Identify specific social situations that are challenging for your child and role-play how to handle them one-on-one

– Give your child a scenario that he/she can understand and ask them to help you finish the story. Afterward, talk about their ending and other possible endings.

– While watching TV or a movie, point out social cues that may not be so obvious and talk about them with your child

– Make playdates for your child so they can get comfortable with interacting with other children. Supervision is an important part of helping your child along at first.

– If your child seems to have a particular interest, enroll them in an activity that can build on that interest and put them with other kids who have similar interests.

In helping them through these interactions, make sure to be actively listening at all times. For children who have a hard time communicating, you have to also try to understand their emotions, which can be expressed in a variety of ways including but not limited to: outbursts and repetitive behaviors. Also make sure to work with your child’s school and other professionals to make sure your child is having their needs met and that they are receiving appropriate services.

For more resources, click HERE

Making Physical Education Accessible

Daniel Hernandez (foreground, left), 16, a sophomore with autism at American Senior High School, teaches April Brown (foreground, right) the basics of kayaking in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Photo by Mike Fritz/PBS NewsHour

People with disabilities tend to be less active than other children who do not have disabilities according to recent research that says about 12% of adults with disabilities are physically active on a regular basis, which is about half as much as adults without disabilities, 22%. In the same toke, the obesity rate for children with disabilities in the U.S is 38% higher than those without disabilities and adult obesity 57% higher when compared to that for adults without disabilities. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children with Disabilities,parents and doctors oftentimes overestimate the risks or overlook the benefits of physical activities for special needs children.

Jayne Greenberg, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Director of Physical Education and Health Literacy and who also serves on the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, has worked  to share best practices on improving fitness and health for people with disabilities. Through grant funding and also partnering with community members such as the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Oleta River State Park, the Miami Yacht Club, and even the Miami Heat, at no charge to their school, she is able to develop physical education programs for students who want to learn and participate in activities that can have lifetime benefits. These programs are so popular now that all the students who would like to participate still can not.

She explains that, “There’s a lot of self-confidence and pride that the students learn because we always teach them what they can’t do: ‘don’t do this or you’re going to get hurt; don’t do this, I’m afraid to let you try it.’ We tell the kids, ‘we want you to do this,’ and for the first time they do activities and they feel so good about themselves.” One tenth grader, Daniel Hernandez, as well as some of his other autistic classmates, is an expert in kayaking. He knows how to set up the seats, put the oars together, position himself in without flipping over, and also how to steer and maneuver the kayak. He says, “It’s like peace and quiet. It makes you feel the wind inside, in your heart,” and he isn’t afraid to talk to strangers about this newfound passion, or help someone else learn how to kayak. Another classmate, Demetrius Sesler, explains how being able to help others learn how to kayak has given him a sense of pride, and even his teachers have said he has gained a lot more  confidence and leadership qualities since starting these lessons.

One teacher at South Miami Senior High says, “It’s holistic. It teaches them how to be a person…I have a golf game in my classroom, but it’s not the same as being out in a golf course where actual golfers play the game. To them, this is a big deal. It makes them feel whole. It makes them feel like they can do something that students without disabilities can do.” It is important for parents, professionals, and educators alike to realize the important for physical education programming for students with disabilities and even activities such as kayaking and golf can be on the list of sports they can participate in.

Shema Kolainu makes an effort to provide physical education programs for the students that we serve and also understand the importance of them being healthy both mentally and physically. To read about the various therapies that we offer at our school and center, click HERE.