Category Archives: Education

Temple Grandin Spreads Hope and Honesty

Temple Grandin, author, inventor, animal whisperer, and autistic icon delivered a message balanced with hope and honesty last night at the University of San Diego.  More than 600 people were completely enraptured by the woman in her 60’s known best for her ability to understand animals (she was the subject of the 2006 HBO documentary, “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow”).

Grandin grew up autistic and attributes her success to a devoted mother and dedicated teachers. As a world-renowned livestock behavior expert, she is living proof of what it is possible for autistic people to achieve and serves to inspire parents to invest in their children’s futures.  

As a child, living with autism made life very difficult. She didn’t speak until three and a half, was mocked and bullied as an adolescent, and struggled to learn to navigate social interactions that were completely foreign to her. As an adult, however, she found her autism to be a great advantage. She credits her autism with her deep empathetic connection to animals and understanding of their nonverbal, sensory comprehension of the world. Her understanding of how animals receive and process sensory information enabled her to design humane cattle transportation systems that are currently used by more than half the cattle processing centers in America. 

Temple Grandin is an excellent role model for people with autism, and she is a tireless advocate.  In her talk last night, she delivered a twofold message. First, she detailed the differences between autistic and “normal” brains, using herself as an example.

“Parents must understand those differences to understand, for example, why a flickering light, a loud noise — or the click of a photographer’s camera — can be unbearable,” Grandin explained. 

The other half of her message was an honest, unsentimental instruction for parents on how to train push their children to learn the social skills necessary for them to become independent adults. She warned that children who aren’t pushed to do things they don’t want to or are afraid of will not grow. Parents and teachers must present a united front because, she says, “autistic children are masters of manipulation.”

She urged parents to take advantage of information, services, and materials that are freely available to help educate their children. With all the free information online about schools, therapy, medication, and resources, she is frustrated by parents who don’t put in the work to access this information. 

“I am appalled by the lack of resourcefulness. A parent came up to me and said, how do I find a college for my kid? Well, I got back home, I typed Ohio and colleges,” she stated unsentimentally to a laughing audience. “They had done no work.”

Temple Grandin’s honest delivery of a somewhat critical speech was met with cheers. The audience was a mix of fans of her work with autism and animals, and all gratefully accepted her message. 

“The thing I’ve appreciated about Temple Grandin for many years is her unabashed honesty,” said Mary Lau, who works at a school that has autism spectrum children. “And from that, I can glean a lot about the autistic community and the education community in general.”

Tablets Help Autistic Kids Maximize Language Skills

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that using tablets with speech generating applications in the context of blended, adaptive treatment can help minimally verbal children make significant and rapid gains in their language skills.

For the study, 61 minimally verbal children with autism aged 5to 8 years old participated in six months of therapy geared towards improving language skills, play skills, and social skills. Half of the children were given a tablet to use during the therapy sessions loaded with a speech-generating app programmed with pictures objects used during the therapy. These children were able to touch a picture of an object they were using in therapy and hear an audio file of the objects’ names.

The study found that the children with tablets were much more likely to begin using language on their own, especially when they used the tablets from the beginning of therapy. The children appeared to have retained their skills when followed up on three months later.

“It was remarkable how well the tablet worked in providing access to communication for these children,” said Connie Kasari of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Children who received the behavioral intervention along with the tablet to support their communication attempts made much faster progress in learning to communicate, and especially in using spoken language.”

Shema Kolainu Hear Our Voices School and Center for Children with Autism is launching it’s iPad program this year. We will be sure to keep you posted!

The “Little Brain” & It’s Big Influence

(Applied to autism, cerebellar injury could hinder how other areas of the brain interpret external stimuli and organize internal processes. Based on a review of existing research, the researchers found that a cerebellar injury at birth can make a person 36 times more likely to score highly on autism screening tests, and is the largest uninherited risk. Credit: Samuel Wang)

As researchers dig into the root causes for autism, they are finding that our cerebellum or “little brain” may play a bigger role in shaping our cognitive and language abilities than previously thought, especially in the prenatal phase. The cerebellum actually only makes up a total of 10 percent of our brain’s mass, but is the home of 50 percent of it’s neurons. The cerebellum is usually associated with movement and coordination, so a doctor checking for damage in the cerebellum would conduct a number of tests that check balance and motion. However, a recent study published in the journal Neuron suggests that dysfunction in the cerebellum in crucial moments during development could be one of the leading contributors to autism spectrum disorders as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Dr. Samuel Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University, and his research team, put forward the theory that the cerebellum is not only responsible for movement but also for helping developing minds process more complex sensory information that also aids in establishing social bonds. He explains, “Some of the clinical and animal-research evidence for cerebellar involvement in autism has been known for years, but this evidence doesn’t fit into the textbook wisdom that the cerebellum controls sensory processing and movement. At some level, researchers have been trapped by whatever framework they learned in college or grad school.”

In their study, Dr. Wang found that for children who experience damage to their cerebellum at birth are at an increased risk for ASD that he shows is comparable to the risk of a smoker developing lung cancer. So how is the cerebellum connected to developing “higher functioning” social and language capabilities? The study explains that a baby seeing their parent smile will eventually connect that experience to certain rewards that come along with it, for example being fed, which would overtime lead to the child’s ability to understand these social cues—a connection that is facilitated by the cerebellum. These connections that will eventually help with social behavior are especially vulnerable in the prenatal environment.

In Dr Wang’s words, “because the risk factor from cerebellar injury is bigger than any other know environmental risk, we think this provides deep insight into the basic biology of how ASD brains go off track. Problems in cerebellar function aren’t the (only) cause of autism, but they are potentially a significant cause of autism.” 

Studies like this one are important in developing best practices for treatment and therapy for those on the spectrum. Another recent clinical study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines for physicians in diagnosing specific intellectual and developmental disabilities. The report argues that it is important to know the root of the child’s disability whenever possible in order to find the most appropriate treatment plans. Moreover, a better diagnosis will help families manage expectations and advocate for their child in the best way possible.

Autistic Super Hero May Be Worth More Than Face Value

Autistic Super Hero Takes On Aliens and Emotions in "Face Value"

There’s a new super hero in town and he’s already a huge hit with the Autism Community. Just days after its release, the first issue of Face Value, the world’s first comic book series featuring an autistic hero, is sold out.  Parents of autistic children are flocking to buy (or back-order) the comic that not only shows children that their ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) can be an asset, but aims to help them better understand emotions.

The year is 2072 and the Steampunk (a futuristic world powered by steam, rather than electricity) Earth is threatened by a race of aliens who have declared humans dangerously emotional. Enter our hero, Michael, a middle school aged boy with autism who must fight through social pressures, misunderstandings, and bullying on his way emotional understanding of himself and others. He’s helped along on his journey of emotional discovery of his therapeutic robot support staff and science.

The comic books are also aided by science, employing tested teaching techniques of visually encoding emotions. In other words, the comic features exaggerated drawings of the characters’ facial expressions, linking them with specific emotions.

Founded by Dave Kot in the United Kingdom, Face Value aims to provide both education and entertainment focusing on emotional understanding in social situations. It’s based on an ideal of Comic Awareness; both the use of comic books as a means to share a message like autism awareness, and helping people with ASD to decode emotions by being made aware through comics.

“Everyone can learn more about emotions,” says Kot, “anyone with any level of autism can learn and utilize this.” The Face Value series is geared towards the middle school set and pledges to be strictly PG rated, but it may lead to comics for a more mature audience.

The first issue of the comic is sold out, but the company urges parents to ask their local comic books store to back order it – and pre-order the next issue to be released in October. The first issue is also available for digital online purchase.  Whether or not the comic unlocks emotional understanding for its autistic readers, it can only help them to see that what makes them different also makes them special. It may even help people without autism understand their autistic peers a little bit better.

The Birds, The Bees, and Autism

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that autistic adults are at greater risk of sexual victimization and indicates lower levels of sexual knowledge than their typically-developing peers.  The study revealed that 78% of the participants on the autism spectrum reported at least one instance of victimization versus less than 50% of the non-autistic control group.

The survey-based study asked participants a range of questions regarding unwanted contact, knowledge of reproductive health, contraception, and sexuality. Compared to the control group, the ASD participants were also found more likely to turn to the Internet and television for sexual information rather than their parents, teachers, or peers.

The best way to safeguard our children against sexual victimization is through education, but having “The Talk” with a child with autism can be even more difficult and awkward (especially for the parent) than what’s already an uncomfortable rite of passage for any parent. That’s why we’ve pulled together some basic tips to help you keep your autistic children safe by talking to them about sex.

It’s an awkward subject, which is why we often use euphemisms and metaphors to talk about sex, especially with children. For a child with autism who is extremely literal, however, talk about birds and bees and flowers and trees can be extremely confusing and lead to difficult misunderstandings. That’s why it’s very important to always be as clear and specific as possible. Think about how your child may interpret your words before you choose them. Preparing your son for his voice to change and get deeper like Daddy’s will probably cause less anxiety than bracing them for their voice to “break.”

Be open to any questions and ready to answer clearly. If you don’t know the answer to one of their questions, be honest – don’t make guess or make something up. Simply answer, “I’m not sure, why don’t we look that up together?” Your child may ask awkward questions at inappropriate times, so get the whole family on board with the stock answer, “That is a good question, but we’ll talk about it when we get home.” Just be sure to talk about it as soon as you get home so your child continues to go to you with their questions.

Start the dialogue as early as possible by talking with your child about their body and any questions they may have. You want them to feel comfortable talking with you, get used to coming to you with their questions, and develop an awareness of their body. This will help pave the way for the puberty talk.

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often have difficulty with transitions and need more time to adjust to changes than their non-autistic peers. That’s why it’s important to start preparing your child for puberty early. Discus the changes they will experience as clearly and calmly as possible to minimize their anxiety when it happens. Again, be prepared for questions beyond the standard, “Why?” and know how you will handle questions you don’t have answers to.

Don’t be afraid to use pictures (that you deem appropriate) if your child is a visual learner. Remember, you are doing this to protect them. You can show your child pictures of you from infancy to adulthood and notice and point out the more obvious ways that you have changed as you grew up. The idea is to introduce them to the notion of physically changing in a way that isn’t scary. You can also use basic outlines of the body to assist with more intimate lines of discussion.

Talk to your child’s teachers and school. Find out what and how they will handle sexual education every year so you can make sure that home and school explanations and terminology are consistent.  You may determine that the school’s curriculum isn’t paced appropriately for your child or that it assumes more prior knowledge than your child is prepared with. You may need to supplement the school’s lessons by helping your child understand them on a deeper, clearer level. Children with ASDs may need to understand why we have to bathe every day before they accept it. Also concepts like friendship and appropriate behaviors may need to be clarified at home.

Don’t be afraid to get your pediatrician involved in the conversation. They are already experts at not being embarrassed by awkward conversations and this will help prepare your child for future examinations and conversations about contraception and sexual health.

Building your child’s understanding of private vs. public behavior as well as appropriate behavior for both themselves and others can be a bit tricky. Set guidelines about whom your child is allowed to discuss certain subjects with and start to introduce the idea of private vs. public spaces. Let them know what behaviors are only acceptable in the bathroom or the bedroom and when it’s necessary to knock before entering a room.

It can be painful to see our children grow up, and it is a natural instinct for many parents to maintain their children’s innocence and avoid awkward conversations by keeping them in the dark about sex-related issues. For children with autism, that darkness can be a very dangerous place. Misinformation or inappropriate relationships are readily available on the Internet, so be sure to set filters and blocks to safeguard your child while online. Also monitor their computer usage and check their browser history – this may help you understand what information your child is looking for and ensure you are the one to provide it. Keep your autistic child, teen, or young adult safe by always knowing where they are and whom they are with. Always be ready to field their questions, and never be shy about asking them questions. By establishing open and clear communication with your child about their body and sex, you are paving the way for a safer future.

Back to School Tips for Parents of Autistic Children

Back to school is a stressful time for anyone, but for autistic children and their parents, the transition between sleepy summer Sundays and hectic Monday mornings can be traumatic.  That’s why we collected all the best tips to help make your back to school transition a little easier.

1: Countdown to change: The new school year brings a lot of changes all at once. The more prepared you and your child are (both practically and emotionally), the less stressful and more successful the transition will be.  Familiarize your child with everything that will be different. Arrange a visit to their new classroom and an introduction to their teacher before the new year starts. Take pictures if possible and add them to a visual calendar so your child knows what to expect and when to expect it.

2: Ease into new routines: Slowly adjust wake up times and other back to school changes in routine to mitigate the shock of that first day.  Practice leaving and coming home at the expected time and slowly introduce new after school routines.

3: Shop early and often: Buy all new clothes and supplies as early as possible and integrate them into your child’s world before school starts. It’s more important that your child feels comfortable on the first day of school than that they are seen in a brand new outfit.

4: Talk it out: Help your child be ready for unforeseen changes by talking about different scenarios ahead of time. Talk about what they will do in free times, at lunch periods, if they need the bathroom. Create stories around these scenarios so your child can visualize what to do when they need it. Also go over do’s and don’ts of school behavior, always demonstrating with a story.

5: Prepare yourself too: It’s easy to lose yourself in the endless lists of what to buy and do before that first day back to school, but you also need to prepare yourself and minimize your stress so you can be your child’s best advocate. Collect all the contact information for your child’s teachers, classmates, coaches, etc. as early as possible and keep it together so you always know who to call in any situation. Have your day mapped out as thoroughly as possible. See if you can’t find time for a walk, yoga class, or even five minutes to sit in the park. Regular scheduled time to de-stress will allow you to be a better parent and happier person.

Autism & Bullies

We consistently read news stories about children with disabilities, especially children/adolescents with ASD as victims of bullying, the most recent being Aaron Hill’s violent beating which was caught on video that later went viral on the internet. Studies in the past have shown that children on the spectrum are bullied nearly five times more often than their typically developing peers. In fact, higher functioning kids on the spectrum are three times more likely to be bullied than those who are nonverbal or have a harder time communicating. Another challenge autistics face is reporting the bullying act itself; they need to be able to understand that they are being harassed and effectively communicate how so.

Here are some signs that your child is being bullied:

-       Reluctance to attend school

-       Extra emotional, sensitive behavior and anxiety

-       Change in their daily routines, such as sleeping patterns or diet

-       Torn clothing or damaged possessions

-       A decline in academic performance

As parents there are definitely steps you can take to help your child have a more stress-free and healthy learning environment:

1)   Talk to teachers, councelors, and administrators and ask what programs they have in place to combat bullying at their school. For example, social and emotional learning (SEL)  helps kids develop skills to handle school relationships and attitudes about self and others.

2)   Address your concerns when developing an IEP. Making sure that self-advocacy skills are on the agenda in an important part of preventing bullying and helping your child handle a bully. Also consider if the school has peer programs to make sure your child has a buddy with them going to class or lunch etc.

3)   Prepare you child in your home. Talking to your child about friendship and how friends should and shouldn’t treat each other is an important way for your child to learn the skills necessary to recognize when they are in a bad situation and either need to stand up for themselves or try to get help.

For more resources on helping your child with bullying:

Creating More Equal Workplaces

Jeff Long was one of 21 men with intellectual disabilities discovered in 2009 toiling away at an Iowa turkey processing plant and living in deplorable conditions while earning just $65 per month from an employer with an expired subminimum wage certificate. (Melanie Burford/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

The National Disability Rights Network are now advocating for a nationwide effort to crackdown on employers who are paying their disabled workers unfair wages. Currently, employers can engage in a legal process where they get permission from the U.S Department of Labor to pay people with disabilities what is known as a subminimum wage, or less than the minimum wage. These special wage certificates do have strict procedures attached to them, including regularly checking on worker productivity levels among the list of requirements.

These sheltered workshops, as they are called, have recently come under extra scrutiny as there is an increased focus to create sustainable programs for people with ASD as well as other disabilities. Also as the population of working age people either on the spectrum or with other disabilities, is growing each year or creating an imperative need for revamped workforce program.

Amy Scherer, a staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, says that individuals can contact the protection and advocacy organization in their state is they are aware of any violations or potential violations. The Department of Labor welcomes these tips and investigations since they have trying to find ways to make sure employers comply with the law.

Last month alone, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act that would put significant restrictions on placement into a sheltered workshop or other work environments where people with disabilities are paid below minimum wage. For example, disabled individuals who are 24 and younger are no longer allowed to be paid less than min. wage unless they first explore their other options such as pre-employment transition services or vocational rehabilitation services. In the cases where they are in a placement earning less than min. wage, the new law requires that the state provide career counseling periodically and are informed of other work opportunities. This new law, however, won’t actually be effective until two years after its enactment.

For more information on workforce initiatives being taken by Shema-Kolainu’s affiliate organization, ICare4Autism, click HERE.

For the original article, click HERE.

Study Finds Inclusive Classrooms Boost Language Skills

Inclusive Classrooms Can Boost Language Up to 40%

A new study published in Psychologilcal Science finds that young children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD), particularly those with speech delays, improve their language development more rapidly in inclusive educational and social environments. The study found that preschoolers with disabilities who attended mainstream classes were using language on par with their highly skilled peers within just one school year. In contrast, ASD preschoolers who were surrounded solely by other children with a similar level of disability lagged far behind their typically-developing peers in the same time frame.

The study focused on 670 preschoolers in Ohio, of which slightly more than half had a language impairment, autism, or Down syndrome. Language skills of all the children were measured at the beginning and end of the school year via standardized testing.

The children with disabilities in inclusive classrooms outperformed those in exclusive classrooms for children with disabilities by 40 percent at the end of the year. Laura Justice, a professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State University and co-author of the study concludes that, “the typically-developing children act as experts who can help their classmates who have disabilities.”

It should be noted that while the children with disabilities were positively influenced by their highly-skilled peers, the children with the highest skill level were in no way negatively impacted by their exposure to their peers with disabilities.

The findings of this study certainly indicate that children can only benefit from an inclusive setting where they can learn from more advanced children and assist less advanced children. “We have to give serious thought to how we organize our classrooms to give students with disabilities the best chance to succeed,” Justice said.

Virtual Reality Programs as a Social Learning Tool for ASD

Does using technology to assist children with ASD further alienate them because social interaction is missing, or can it actually effect the opposite- by teaching them to socially interact? While some researchers say that    sitting at a computer screen reinforces isolation and brings out obsessive traits, another study done in Spain defends the use of special programs using virtual reality environments that are designed to stimulate awareness in children on the spectrum, while helping them feel safe.

As children with all forms of autism share a difficulty in attention, interpreting social cues as well as following directions, the goal of these Virtual Reality applications is to increase their understanding of body language, facial expressions, the use of imitation and environmental interactions, such as crossing the street. Avatars or characters have long been shown to help children to identify emotions, however, when they are in the protective computer generated environment, children can gain confidence by learning the rules and repeating the tasks. Verbal and gesture based interaction go hand in hand with these skills.

These applications are designed to be used not only on computers but also with more mobile technology such as phones and tablets. As a therapeutic accessory, they complement any other teaching method employed.  By helping the child build confidence through virtual reality learned interactions, we can help them adapt these skills into their every day lives.

Click Here for original study.