Category Archives: Education

Artist Treats Autism as a Gift

autistic painter

Upon receiving their diagnosis, many people with autism might not know what to think about it.

But a man from Kent, Washington treats his condition not as a setback, but as a gift.

Michael Tolleson did not know he could paint until three years ago, when he picked up a brush on a whim. This came at the same time he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder.

Painting, he says, is a way to isolate himself from the chaos of the outside world. For him, it’s a “vacation…from [him]self.”

Over the past three years, he has produced more than 600 paintings, all of which are completed in less than an hour. He sells his paintings for thousands of dollars apiece across the globe.

He credits his talent to having ASD, calling himself a “Savant Artist.” After discovering his talent, he wanted to take the opportunity not just to share it, but to “give hope” and inspire other people.

And that’s exactly what Tolleson is doing. His gallery in Kent doubles as a workshop for young people along the autism spectrum. For instance, 21 year old Michael Sorenson had trouble communicating his basic needs to family, like telling them that he is hungry or has to use the bathroom.

But after immersing himself in art, his communication skills have improved dramatically. According to his mother, Linda, he is much more communicative and cheerful.

This joy is what Tolleson hopes to inspire in others. Since he started painting, Tolleson has become an international advocate for autism awareness.

“Most people are thinking about retirement at my age,” he says. “I can’t retire. I have to share this.” 

His primary mission is to show families that autism does not necessarily mean a life of limitations. He wants to show the world that their children are much more capable than they realize.

You can find Tolleson’s work here.

Written by Nina Bergold



Safety In the Summer: Autism Cards

autism summer safety

Ahhh! Summer is officially here! The sun is out, the days are longer, and school is over!

The summer months are a great time for the entire family to relax, go to the beach, or watch a ballgame. Going on vacation is another great activity where families can explore a new place and create long lasting memories.

But big events and family outings like these can cause some concerns for parents. These days, many parents are utilizing “Autism Identification” in order to help keep their children safe when out of the house. Making it clear that a child has autism can ease concerns if they are discovered by a stranger. In this scary event, it becomes easier for the child to get the help they need.

Here are three forms of Autism Identification that can help ease parents’ stress:

1. Autism ID Card: One of the most agreed upon issues is better training for first responders like police officers, firemen, medical personnel, and others. This card explains autism as a medical condition that hinders the person’s ability to communicate with others. So not answering questions or follow directions should not be perceived as refusal to cooperate. On the back, the card lists an emergency contact number.

2. Medical ID Bracelets: This includes important medical information that can be helpful during an emergency situation or if a child were to become lost. They help locate the parent, caregiver, or physician if necessary. At times accidents may leave a person unable to talk. Having this bracelet would help give medical staff the information that they need.

3. “Hand in Autism” Autism Info Card: Many parents may have experienced embarrassment when their child displays negative behavior in public. They take this opportunity to educate others about autism by passing around the info card. The card includes some information about how many people are affected and some common difficulties individuals with autism may have.

Although we focused on summer vacation safety, these forms of ID are useful all year round. Information is the key and can really make a difference during a time of urgency. It helps the assisting personnel or authority figures properly asses situations. All the cards described above can be purchased online at a low cost. The Hand in Autism Info cared is actually a free download!

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Mom Seeks Shelter For Son With Behavioral Issues

shelter for behavioral problems

Hitting, head banging, physical aggression, and self-injury are all means of communication for 17 year old Austin to send the message that “he is not OK.”

When this behavior starts, his mother Heather Ratcliffe responds quickly either by turning down the television or changing the channel. If things don’t go his way, the situation can get bad. There have been times where Heather was head butted, thrown to the ground, or had her hair pulled by her son- all in an attempt to get his point across.

At 23 months Austin was diagnosed with severe developmental delay on the autism spectrum. Over the years, like many children, he grew – taller, wider, and stronger. With the combination of frustration and strength he began to exhibit dangerous behavior to himself and his family members whenever he became upset.

This was the family’s warning sign. Austin’s behavior had changed and it became less manageable. Heather then knew she needed more help and decided to put Austin on a list for residential housing for individuals with special needs. It was a very hard day but she realized her son needed more specialized and professional care than she was able to provide for him.

As years passed the family became less and less hopeful that help would arrive. Unfortunately, Heather is not alone in this dilemma. Pat Muir, chairman of Family Advocates United, says “Those families often spend years – not days or weeks – on that list. And that is too long.”

It wasn’t until Austin’s younger brother, Brendan, wrote a letter to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. In his correspondence, he shared his personal experiences at home, expressing that something needed to be done about Austin.

On April 22, after 5 years of waiting, Austin was given a spot at the Lifetime Assistance home on Chili Avenue. Although it has only been a few months, he has really improved his behavior and has been able to experience new things. The home has passes to local museums, something Heather has difficulty offering herself.

In an earlier post we discussed 5 tips for teenagers transitioning to adulthood. We suggested to apply for residential housing early, far before the deadline approaches. There are resources available but processing can take quite some time. In the case of Austin and Heather, the family was placed on the wait list for 5 years before landing a spot. Those years are crucial and it is usually to the child’s detriment to wait years for available housing.

To read the original article please visit The Democrat & Chronicle

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Swimming Lessons for Autistic Children: Pros and Cons

autism swimming lessons

There are hundreds of articles and videos on the Internet dedicated to teaching kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) how to swim. The exercise has a great number of benefits in itself, but it can be particularly beneficial for individuals on the autism spectrum.

There are numerous physical benefits. Research indicates that children with ASD who follow hydrotherapy treatment may see an increase in overall fitness, specifically measured by improved balance, speed, flexibility, and endurance. These are areas in which autistic children are often limited. 

Swimming is a great way to get fit while avoiding the high impact that other exercises like running can have on joints. The largest muscles in the body are used for swimming, which in turn promotes the development of gross motor skills. Roughly nineteen percent of children with ASD are overweight, and just under 40% are at risk of becoming so. It is crucial for these children to stay active, for excess weight may cause an increased risk for other health issues such as bone and joint problems, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, depression is a possible consequence of being overweight. Swimming can be fun and increase strength, which is why so many people encourage that all children, not just those with ASD, learn to swim and practice often.

In addition, there are social benefits to learning to swim. It may offer children with ASD the opportunity to practice communicating and following directions. The impaired ability to communicate is common for individuals on the spectrum, so this may be one of the greatest challenges in teaching them to swim. However, when done effectively, it has been said that these children made progress in their ability to concentration on a task and also respond to others.

It is both fortunate and unfortunate that children with ASD are often attracted to bodies of water. This is fortunate because they may be enthusiastic to learn to swim, an exercise that may pertain many benefits. However, this attraction is also unfortunate because water can be dangerous, especially for autistic individuals who have a tendency to elope or wander away from safe, supervised areas. According to the National Autism Association, drowning is one of the leading causes of death for individuals with ASD. The question becomes: will teaching my child to swim encourage him/her to approach water, possibly putting him/her at greater risk of drowning? Or should I avoid teaching my child to swim in the hopes that he/she will feel too insecure to approach water?

In response to an article entitled “How to Keep Children with Autism Safe Around Water,” “Eileen,” the mother of a twenty-two year old son with severe autism, says she completely disagrees that autistic children should learn to swim. Eileen points out that autistic children are often drawn to water because it feels good and calms them. However, the danger, she says, is that these children may not distinguish a supervised body of water from an unsupervised one and, with a “false sense of security,” may jump in and drown.

In contrast, Dana Walker, the mother of a nine year old autistic boy, is glad she choose to enroll her son in swimming lessons. “I know that with additional practice, Brady will beat the odds that are so against our children that have autism and water concerns,” she says. By doing some research, Walker found a qualified and enthusiastic institution that was dedicated to teaching Brady to swim safely. Walker adds, “I will be comforted knowing that he is learning the skills that will keep him safe near and in the water.”

Each parent must think long and hard about their decision to enroll their autistic child in swimming lessons. While drowning is the leading cause of death for individuals with ASD, many of these children learn to swim, adore it, and are equipped with swimming techniques to handle these situations. It is up to you to evaluate the pros and the cons and make a decision that feels right for your family!

Written by Maude Plucker



Maine Family Moved Across State Lines For Better Autism Services

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A family from Carmel, Maine was forced to move after not being able to find services for their adult autistic child. The Levasseur’s are planning on moving to Virgina, where they hope to find help.

Michael Levasseur, who is 19 years old and has a high school diploma, has been able to hold a few jobs. He also tries to live as independently as he can but he requires supervision. Along with that, Maine’s assistance programs are having funding problems. This has led to individuals being put on waitlists for services they are eligible for but not able to receive.

The Levasseur family had to leave New Hampshire when Michael was 2 years old because there weren’t services for autistic children. Now, they are having the same problem. Michael had the option of staying in school for 2 more years but he opted out of it. He said that he wouldn’t have been able to participate in swim team and he didn’t feel like it was worthwhile.

Michael has always required supervision. His mother, Cynthia, has had to switch or quit jobs to help him. This has led to financial difficulty in the family. However, most recently, Cynthia has been working at G.E.A.R Parent Network, which is a network that offers advice and guidance for parents who have children with behavioral health needs. She says that it is a great job because it helps parents understand and figure out the government bureaucracy, something that she has experience in.

Michael is a high functioning autistic person. Because of this, he is able to cook for himself, use public transportation, and manage some of his money. However, this means that he is also unable to qualify for programs that support housing services. Michael was able to qualify for a state run program that provides job coaches, day activities, and support. But when the 19 year old brought home a pre-made frame, decorated with stickers, his family realized they wanted more for him.

In 2014, the Levasseurs were able to catch the attention of Governor Paul LePage. LePage presented their story in the State of the State address.  LePage suggested increasing spending in order to provide services for elderly and disabled residents of Maine. Gov. LePage and the Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have been working hard to convince legislators to consider increasing funding yet their priorities do not match.

Luckily for our students here at Shema Kolainu, all of their therapy services are provided in a close-knit environment. The kids have experienced enormous growth as they are prepared for adulthood. Getting capable students with autism ready for adulthood is such an important priority as more of them reach maturity every year, ready to contribute to the work force.

Cynthia Levasseur says that she worries about other families. She doesn’t want them to be forced to sell their homes or put a loved one into a nursing home. In Virginia, the Levasseur family hopes to find work for their son so he can continue to live his life.

Original coverage for this article sourced from Bandor Daily News.

Written by Sejal Sheth



Autism Parenting: High Stress, High Rewards

stressed out mother

Mothers of adolescents and adults with autism show signs of chronic stress similar to soldiers in combat and struggle with recurring fatigue and work interruptions, new studies report. These mothers also devote significantly more time caregiving than those with non-disabled children. 

Researchers kept track of a group of mothers of adolescents and adults with autism for eight days. At the end of each day, the mothers were interviewed about their experiences. On four of the days, researchers measured the subjects’ hormone levels to evaluate their stress.

They found that one of the hormones associated with stress was very low, similar to people suffering from chronic stress such as soldiers in combat, researchers say in one of two studies published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

These findings show that this is the “physiological residue of daily stress,” according to Marsha Mailick Seltzer, a researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison who organized the studies. But while it is clear that mothers of children “with high levels of behavioral problems,” we still do not know the long-term effects on their physical health.

However, such hormone levels have been connected with chronic health problems such as decreased immune functioning, glucose regulation, and mental activity.

A companion study shows that mothers of children with autism spend at least two more hours per day caregiving than mothers of children without disabilities. These moms were twice as likely to be tired and three times as likely to have experienced a stressful event, researchers report.  

Furthermore, these moms were interrupted at work far more frequently than other moms, causing tension with their employers. 

Still, raising a child with autism does not mean that all positivity will be drained from one’s life. In fact, an article by Michelle Diament from Disability Scoop says:

“Despite all of this, mothers of an individual with autism were just as likely to have positive experiences each day, volunteer or support their peers as those whose children have no developmental disabilities…”

The real issue here is how to give mothers with special needs children the support that they need. These mothers experience high levels of stress in their daily lives, so they have less time to themselves. According to Leann Smith, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who worked on the study, “we need to find better ways to be supportive of these families.

One way to improve the situation, researchers suggest, is to participate in behavioral management programs, for they can “go a long way toward improving the situation for mothers and their kids alike.”

Written by Nina Bergold



Apraxia and Autism Often Go Hand in Hand

autism and apraxia

Researchers have been examining the relationship between apraxia, a rare neurological speech disorder, and autism. In a three-year study, 64% of children with autism also had apraxia.

Cheryl Tierney, an associate professor of pediatrics at Penn State, says that children with apraxia have a hard time coordinating the movements of their tongue, lips, mouth, and jaw. Because of this, every time they say a word it comes out differently, making it hard for their parents to understand them.

The rate of childhood apraxia is between one and two for every 1,000. With awareness increasing, children are being diagnosed with apraxia and autism more often than ever before.

The Penn State Hershey Pediatric Developmental Communication Assessment Clinic found that in an initial diagnostic screening, the follow up test showed that 63.6% of children diagnosed with autism were also diagnosed with apraxia. They also found that 36.8% of children diagnosed with apraxia were later diagnosed with autism. 23.3% of children were initially diagnosed with both.

Apraxia and autism symptoms can be improved with early intervention. By detecting one of the two disorders, it is easier to pinpoint the other. However, the two diagnoses have different types of intervention protocol. This is important because knowing the distinction can prevent long-term problems.  

The CASD, or Checklist for Autism Spectrum Disorder, is used to diagnose autism and apraxia. This tool contains four different types of assessments: two for apraxia and two for autism. Tierney says that CASD can be used to diagnose or rule out autism; therefore it is also used for apraxia.

Written by Sejal Sheth 



Student with Asperger’s Finds His Calling in Theater

actor with aspergers

Daniel Perkins graduated from Bristol Community College’s theater program last month. When Perkins was a baby, his parents were told that he would never be able to read, write, or speak.

Perkins, who was later diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and attention deficit disorder, will be continuing his education at Bridgewater State College and majoring in theater with a minor in English. The actor said that he hasn’t let his autism inhibit him in any way. Instead, he has used it as a “key” to unlock his true passion: theater.  

At nine years old, Perkins found his passion when saw a production of “Beauty and the Beast.” His passion was rejuvenated two years later when he saw “Chicago.” From then on, the young man has been in a number of plays including “August: Osage County,” “Big Love,” and most recently “Robin Hood.” Perkins has also worked with Trinity Repertory Company’s Project Discovery program and as an usher at the theater. 

Perkins says that acting and theater has helped with some of his fears such as expressing himself and being in front of a large group; fears that are often associated with autism. He also says that acting has taught him how to be empathetic, understand humor, and interpret body language.

Not only has Perkins developed interpersonal skills through acting, but the craft has also helped in his other classes, such as math and science. Bristol Community College offers tools to help people in their Disability Services program. Perkins says that he takes full advantage of it and uses items like voice recorders to practice.

Before Perkins heads to Bridgewater State College, he will be working as a junior counselor at Trinity Rep’s summer theater camp.

Read the article from Herald News Here

Written By Sejal Sheth



Mom Uses Cooking To Overcome Food Aversions

autism food prep

Children are often very picky eaters. But as a baby, Chase Bailey wouldn’t even take a bottle of milk.

He rejected most foods, making exceptions for green beans, potatoes, chicken, and rice. He even disliked Jell-O and ice cream! The boy’s mother Mary can only recall 5 dishes her son would eat: Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookies, little Caesar’s pizza, Carl’s Jr. chicken stars and fries, and 5-layer dip. She became increasingly worried because it started to take a toll on his health.

After some research, Mary learned that a symptom of autism is food aversion. Chase wasn’t simply a picky eater- his autism interfered with his ability to enjoy different foods. However, nothing seemed to work. There were countless attempted therapy methods but none were successful. 

One day, at the age of 8, Chase happened to catch a show on the Food Network. Ever since, he’s been fascinated by cooking shows, even going so far as to record and watch them back to back. His mother was thrilled, since this presented a new opportunity to introduce new foods in a safe way. Soon mother and son started to cook together at home. Chase in turn became more adventurous with his food choices. He now dreams of becoming a chef, a food blogger or a cooking show host. 

Although he’s had great success with overcoming his eating habits, Chase was still struggling at school. Even with a student aid, the traditional classroom wasn’t beneficial to his education needs. Mary decided to quit her corporate job and home school her son full time. She was able to incorporate his passion for cooking into the curriculum. Food has allowed Chase to be in a positive learning environment where he can feel comfortable and really excel. There’s math in shopping for food, budgeting, measuring ingredients, weighing, and timing. He also gets a geography lesson by he learns the cultural origin of a particular dish.

Together, Chase and his mother have created their own cooking show where Chase is the host. His first guest Chef was Roy Choi, the owner of Kogi BBQ food truck in Orange County. The most recent guest was Chef Greg Daniels who can personally relate to Mary’s story. His daughter suffers from a rare condition called Treacher Collins syndrome and also has strong food aversions. It’s great to see Chase’s excitement for food though cooking and his ability to use it as a new form of feeding therapy.

Many are overwhelmed with Chase’s progress. He started off unable to speak or properly play with toys. Now he has a cooking show of his own and dreams of owning his own food truck called Burger Demon.

Info from this article was sourced from The OC Register.

Written by Raiza Belarmino



Being “Autism Friendly” from a Mother’s Perspective

autism friendly performance

Julia Hoffman Marshall is the mother of Sarah, an eleven year old with severe autism. Recently, Marshall and her daughter went to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and had an interesting experience.

Although her daughter enjoyed it, Marshall was appalled by the rudeness of the usher.  During intermission, the Marshalls were asked to move higher and further back in the audience due to her daughter’s dancing and moving.

Dance, theater, and music have a positive effect on many children with autism. Marshall says that she often hears Sarah humming melodies or playing them on the piano. However, Marshall’s main complaint is that there are few people who are “autism-friendly” which makes it harder for her child to learn about the performing arts.

Marshall states that there are many ways to be “autism-friendly”. She suggests that it would be nice if families with autistic children weren’t downgraded to the back of an audience or if others could learn to accept and celebrate their children for the individuals they are.

This past winter, the Colorado Conservatory of Dance provided an autism-friendly show of the Nutcracker. Like this, there are more programs becoming available for children with autism to incorporate music into their lives. One program, Simply Music, has come up with a gateway program in which autistic children are given free piano lessons.

Written by Sejal Sheth