Autism Didn’t Stop Him From Winning Taekwondo World Title

TaekwondoEthan Fineshriber was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. As he got older, he did well academically, but not socially. “He basically had no friends,” said his mom, Mara. In order to get him to exercise, and to interact and engage with other kids, Mara enrolled Ethan in Taekwondo classes.

Ethan was interested from the first day, especially with the stuff he could learn and memorize. “He felt more confidence about himself,” said Mara, “and it helped him kind of come out of his shell.” Pretty soon, his instructors recommended that he consider competing in the sport.

Ethan started competing in national competitions and winning them. He then set his eyes on the Taekwondo World title. After three years of training, 11-year-old Ethan won the ATA World Championship with a nearly perfect score of 999. “I felt nervous that I wasn’t going to win, but I thought I had a chance.” said Ethan. “Then the judges called the number and everybody around me went insane.”

His friends, explained a tearful Mara, rushed the ring and hoisted Ethan onto their shoulders. “They hugged him and congratulated him and shut the ring down.” It was a dream reached not just for Ethan, but for Mara too: Her son had gained confidence and more friends than she could have imagined.

And Ethan’s not done yet—he plans to keep training, and keep winning Worlds.

Thankful for the Kindness of Strangers

Soccer Ball Kid

Two weeks ago, we were on one of our Sunday walks around Cosmeston Lake, heading off of the usual footpath that most people take around the lake. There were two men in their late ’20s/early ’30s kicking a ball back and forth. Ethan saw the football and said, “I want to score a goal.” With that, he bolted for the men, leaving me and my husband, Jamie, in the dust.

We are used to this sort of thing—calling his name and saying “Stop!” only works in certain situations—and this wasn’t one of them. As we’ve discovered, children with autism tend to have no awareness of danger at all. Ethan doesn’t know to look left and right before we cross a road, and he would be the first person to run flat out around a busy supermarket car park, regardless of the fast cars.

Jamie and I ran towards Ethan, picking him up just before he got caught in the crossfire of the game being played. We apologised for Ethan adding himself to the game and headed off on the path once more. As we walked away, a voice caught my attention and I saw a ball heading towards us in the corner of my eye. One of the men had taken it upon himself to kick the ball to Ethan, saying, “Here you go!” Ethan hesitated at first, but with a little encouragement, he kicked the ball back to the two men on the grass.

This activity only lasted for about three minutes, but that was long enough for Ethan. He didn’t necessarily know how to play the game; he just wanted to score a goal. In Ethan’s mind, no words were needed either—he got to kick the ball, but he wasn’t really bothered about communicating with the people around him. We told Ethan that the game was finished; otherwise, he would have spent the rest of the day kicking the ball back and forth with the men. That’s something that neither we nor the men would have wanted to do. Ethan began to wander away, so we thanked the men for including him in their game. They responded, “You’re welcome. No problem at all.”

I don’t think they truly realised what they had done. In their minds, they had just let a little boy play football with them. To me, it was much more. They didn’t hesitate to play with Ethan. They didn’t get too close to him; they simply allowed him to have fun with no questions asked. In turn, Ethan got to do something that he loved to do, usually with daddy, but this time with strangers. He wanted to include himself, and have himself seen and heard.

To the men who made Ethan feel welcome, who asked no questions, and who let him join in with their game, THANK YOU! Ethan walked away happy and so proud of himself for playing football and scoring a goal.

If there were more people around who didn’t judge, who just treated everyone in the same way, the world would be a much nicer place. We, as parents, wouldn’t feel like we are constantly being judged by those who don’t understand what we’re going through as a family. We wouldn’t feel on edge all of the time and we wouldn’t have to have our guard up constantly; feeling compelled to answer to every ‘tut’ or disapproving look that strangers give us in public. So, thank you, for turning a family walk into an even more special outing.

Teacher Tells Student With Autism, ‘These Tests Only Measure a Little Bit of You’

Ben1Gail Twist was so surprised, and gladdened, by a letter sent by her son’s teacher, that she posted it on Twitter, along with the words: In tears. A letter to my 11 yr old autistic son from his school. “These tests only measure a little bit of you.”

Her son, Ben, attends the Lansbury Bridge School and Sports College in St Helens, U.K., a school for children with “complex learning difficulties.” This was his first year at the school, after he switched from the mainstream school that he’d attended for years.

Ben was the only student at Lansbury Bridge this year who took the SATs; unfortunately, he didn’t pass them. Instead of simply sending the results to his parents though, assistant head teacher Ruth Clarkson wrote the letter below, and sent it directly to Ben. In it, she recognizes that the tests only measure a small part of Ben’s knowledge and the person he is. She goes on to list his talents that she and the other teachers clearly see, including his kindness, his musical ability, his ability to make and keep friends, his artistic talents, and so much more.

Ben’s mom, Gail, told The Guardian: “He is all of the things they wrote about him – he is an amazing person. I think their words will stay with him if we keep reminding him what they said about him. When I told him he said: ‘Wow, do they really think all those things about me?’ It’s just a beautiful thing to do.”

She went on to say, “He’s such a sensitive and loving child and he’s got an amazing sense of humour – it’s amazing that the school are able to recognise that our children have other qualities than what they are tested on.”

With the current controversy about our education systems requiring teachers to “teach to the test” instead of to the individual, it’s heartwarming to hear about teachers who go above and beyond to recognize their students’ achievements. Having educators in our lives who recognizes our abilities and talents, especially when tests can’t measure them, is simply priceless.

Making a Connection: Photographing Children With Autism

Anna1As a professional lifestyle photographer, Jessica Orlowicz of Peach and Port Photography takes stunning photos of families using nature as the backdrop. She also lends her talent to a non-profit organization called “Spectrum Inspired,” taking both color and black & white photos of children on the autism spectrum in free, individual sessions, where she strives to capture the essence and personality of each child.

“It’s sometimes rare to catch eye contact, which makes those images a little more powerful to me. The unique thing about photographing children with autism is that it requires a little more patience, but sometimes having a camera between you two takes the pressure off of them to interact directly. They can be their wonderful selves, and you’re just there to document it.”

But it’s one of her own children who serves as the inspiration for her photography. Anna, one of Jessica’s daughters is autistic, with a “complicated personality,” as explained by Jessica. “Some days the only way we connect is through the lens.” Whether sharing a quiet moment after a meltdown, or capturing a tender interaction between Anna and her sisters, it’s beautifully apparent that Jessica knows how to use her camera to connect to the very essence of kids with autism.

This unplanned shot illustrates how much my toddler loves and cares for her big sister, who is autistic and doesn't always accept touch. She was tenderly petting her and asking if she was O.K. in between strokes. ~ Jessica

This unplanned shot illustrates how much my toddler loves and cares for her big sister, who is autistic and doesn’t always accept touch. She was tenderly petting her and asking if she was O.K. in between strokes. ~ Jessica


Firefighters vs. Autism Works to Prevent Tragedies

Firefighters vs. AutismJustin Lewis is the dad of a child with autism, and a firefighter in Golder Ranch, Arizona. Because of both roles, Justin became concerned with the number of children wandering away from a safe environment (50% for children with autism), and the number of deaths of kids with autism that were attributed to drowning (91% for kids under 14, according to the National Autism Association). So, in 2013, he founded the non-profit organization, Firefighters vs. Autism, which operates out of Tucson.

The group’s mission is “to end wandering-related drownings and childhood deaths in the autism community.” They do this through education and awareness, so that the larger community—as well as parents of children with autism—learns about the threat of wandering and drowning for people on the autism spectrum. Firefighters vs. Autism also helps provides special training for firefighters and first responders, who typically aren’t trained to help children and adults with special needs.

As a firefighter, Justin knows that many emergency situations are preventable of people paid a little more attention and took a few relatively simple precautions. Therefore, the group raises money to pay for swim lessons, pool fences, autism service dogs, and equine therapy, for families that can’t afford it otherwise. They also host workshops and seminars to educate and spread the word about drowning and wandering awareness.

Firefighters vs. Autism has pioneered its own PASS alarm—Puzzle Alert Safety System—for southern Arizona, whereby members of the community can sign up to receive an alert any time somebody with autism goes missing in their specific area. The alerts are sent via email or text, and help establish an active network of people looking for the missing person.

For Justin and Firefighters vs. Autism, it’s all about preventing tragedies. And the best way to do that is through education, awareness and effort.

Sensory Friendly Kits Available to Diners at Mary’s Pizza Shack

Autism Kit2Mary’s Pizza Shack in Northern California has begun offering “sensory friendly” kits to customers. The kits, which were first announced in April, are part of a joint initiative with Anova, a local non-profit autism services organization. Anova reached out to other Sonoma-based restaurants, and Mary’s was the first chain to express interest.

Mike Clark, the manager of the Mary’s Pizza Shack in Sonoma Plaza, said, “We have a number of employees whose lives have been touched by autism or learning differences in one way or the other and so our staff was 100 percent enthusiastic about our partnership with Anova.” He wants to show sensory-sensitive people that, “they are welcome here.”

Anova co-founder Andrew Bailey noted, “Many families [choose] not to dine out or enjoy many activities because of the overwhelming challenges involved. We want to turn that around by equipping restaurants such as Mary’s Pizza Shack with tools that will help create a stress-free dining environment for those families in need.”

The tools are meant to keep sensory-sensitive individuals, no matter what their age, from feeling overwhelmed in a public place. They include a weighted lap pad, noise-reduction ear muffs, a chart with an emotional scale on it, assorted sensory toys, and one small item for the child to take home with them. They come packed in a plastic “toolbox” with instructions and the children and families are free to choose and use what they’d like. All of the items are thoroughly cleaned before being packed back into the kit for the next person. The kits are free and available to anybody upon request.

Each of Mary’s locations carry the kits, and each restaurant has a sticker on their window advertising their availability. The chain also plans to have tent cards on each table informing diners about the kits. Anova hopes that word about the sensory-friendly kits spreads through word-of-mouth, and with the help of the local radio station, and that other restaurants and businesses sign up to offer the kits. Anova’s end goal is to encourage inclusion in their community, and also enable families with special needs to go out to dine, shop, and participate in typical community activities.

Additionally, Anova has providing sensory training for all employees of every Mary’s Pizza Shack restaurant, and has developed an informational video for them. Mary’s Pizza Shacks are now the first sensory-friendly restaurants in Sonoma County.

Carly Fleischmann – Glamour Girl Video

Carly Fleischmann never ceases to inspire. She is one of the most incredible people we have yet to meet.

View the music video of “Glamour Girl” written by Carly Fleischmann and performed by Kaitlin Kozell and Lil Jaxe. Artists who both have had to overcome personal obstacles to be where they are today.

Awesome. 100% Awesome.


The Lessons I Learned From Dory


Dory - Charlie and Jenny

If you haven’t yet gone to see “Finding Dory” — Go see it. I am by no means a movie critic, but I would recommend this movie to any parent of any child. The fact that it’s geared towards children is, in my opinion, simply an added bonus.

The movie begins with an insight into some of the struggles that Dory has. Whether or not you can relate to someone that has the same struggles–in her case it was battling memory loss–you will be able to relate to the fact that Dory has special needs that you cannot see from just looking at her from the outside. This aspect was made clear through various points in the movie: For instance, when she begins to talk to strangers or tries to make a new friend, and within minutes she is getting weird looks and comments, all simply because of a disability that she didn’t chose for herself and that she doesn’t have any control over. Sound familiar?

It’s rare that I am able to read an article, watch a book, or talk to someone who is able to change my perspective or give me a sense of, “You know what? Everything really is going to be OK.” But in an hour and a half, this movie managed to do it.

I had no idea what Dory’s background or storyline would be when I took my girls to see it, so I wasn’t expecting anything overly profound. Yet, without intending to do so, suddenly I wasn’t watching a fish anymore–I was watching my daughter. I was able to step back and see her in someone else; see her struggles and how they affect her daily. I could see how people reacted to her–both positively and negatively–and how those opinions affected her (or in this case, didn’t). I watched children laugh and play with her and adults who had less patience than the kids. I saw how so much of that rolled off her back and how often.

Specific challenges can, in many ways, affect the parent so much more than the child. I watched her play, laugh, be happy and confident, and not take it personally when some of the kids preferred to play elsewhere. I saw strong new friendships form despite her struggles and, most importantly for me, I was able to see how with the patience and love of people who care, it’s totally possible for “everything to be OK.”

We really were all created differently. Dory was just as lovable and just as smart (if not more so) as any other ‘fish in the sea’ and that was pretty fun and refreshing to watch.

I found myself thinking that, as parents, because we care so much, we tend to focus on the struggles that we see, and the differences that we notice. Kids themselves don’t always read situations, circumstances and events like we do. In my experience, children learn, grow and adapt to how they’ve been made, just like we do. And, while we can be uncomfortable watching them play by themselves in a group setting, or preferring to read alone instead of going out–they’re not uncomfortable. They’re fine. They’re happy. They’re doing what they want to do, the way they want to do it. And to be honest, that’s pretty awesome.

I was reminded this week to accept our kids as they are and appreciate them for their differences. I am understanding more and more every day that just because they struggle with things that we may not, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to grow up and be just fine.

I debated writing this post at all. I know it comes across as what should just be common sense. But I did write it down because I wanted to be reminded of it myself. Because when I’m in the thralls of parenting–changing routines, introducing new people and attending new events–immediate concerns and challenges can seem overwhelming and I forget to look at the bigger picture, to take a step back and remind myself of this. Some days she is growing up faster than I can even believe it and some days I feel like we’re stuck. Regardless of any of that, she’s funny, she’s happy, she’s going to be OK. And so am I.

12 Year-Old Boy Becomes Honorary Road Crew Member

Construction1Heather Nelson, her husband Colin, and her two sons live right along a major road in Rockland, Maine, that’s currently undergoing a complete overhaul. It’s been big inconvenience for many commuters who travel the road daily, including Colin.

One day, when her husband was stuck for an hour about five minutes from home because of the construction, Heather realized that the construction company probably heard a lot of complaints about the project. But their son, Brian, was absolutely loving having the construction vehicles right outside their door. So, in an age when people seem to complain much more often than they compliment, Heather decided to thank the company for making her son so happy.

She took a short video of Brian and sent it to the Thomaston Rte 1 Project, the Facebook page for the road project, along with the caption: “I’m sorry to everyone who is completely annoyed by the cluster this construction is making….but it sure is making one autistic boy very happy that he can sit right on his doorstep and watch bulldozers and dump trucks.”

The very next day, Heather heard from a Lane Construction representative, who told her that she’d shared Heather’s post with the construction crew and they wanted to make Brian an honorary member of their crew. Before the day of Brian’s visit, one of the crew members called Heather and asked her about autism and how Brian would react to everything and what they should expect. In a blog she writes for Bangor Daily News, Heather said, “They really went out of their way to understand him.”

At the construction site, they presented Brian with his very own hard hat, along with other construction gear. They asked him if he wanted to go in various construction vehicles and, although his initial response for each was “No, thank you,” they waited patiently and didn’t rush him or force him, and he eventually wanted to take a look inside each one.

They were there for a while, and Heather wrote, “At some point, I figured we’d get some bored and tired team members. It’s hard if you’re not around autism every day to really grasp it and understand it… But we never hit that roadblock. It was clear, minutes into the evening, that this was truly about Brian. Every person there was so genuinely happy to just be there and to watch Brian. No one was on a time schedule and they bent over backwards to make sure it was all about Brian and did whatever it took to make him happy.”

While there’s no doubt that the construction crew was thankful for Heather’s original thank-you post to them, they more than returned the favor, and the honor. In Heather’s words, “Seeing Brian noticed and honored for who he is, means everything.”

A Meaningful Life, Animated

Life Animated2For many of us, Disney animated films are just entertainment. But for the Suskind family, these films are much, much more. After all, it was through these films that their son Owen learned to relate to the world around him and make sense of it after autism took him away. And it was through these films that his parents found a way back to him.

As happens with many children eventually diagnosed with autism, Owen was a “typical” developing kid until the age of 3. Then he became a shadow of his old self, no longer talking, playing, looking people in the eye—he was there physically, but had otherwise disappeared. He stayed that way for another 3 ½ years, until one day when they were all watching a Disney movie. Owen looked at Ron and Cornelia and said, out of the blue, that he didn’t “want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”

It was the first time Owen had communicated in years, and it was both a substantial thought and a substantial sentence. His parents finally realized that he hadn’t been gone all of those years; he’d simply been locked inside himself. And during that time, he’d watched and memorized and processed every single animated Disney movie they’d played for him. He’d formed his identity based on Disney characters and his understanding based on the films’ lessons.

Although doctors cautioned the Suskinds from getting their hopes up, they continued to use Disney animation and characters to reach and reconnect with their son. As Ron explained, “the goal was to do whatever worked.” Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, wrote a book about the journey to reach his son, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” and recently realized his dream of having the book made into a movie.

That movie, “Life, Animated,” presents Owen’s story in the closest way possible to relate to what he went through—using animation. The result is something amazing and precious, heartwarming and heartbreaking. “Life, Animated” is a stunning tribute to the selfless love of two parents who were willing to do whatever it took to help their child live in our world, on his own terms.

As Cornelia says, “Who decides what a meaningful life is?”