Dallas Symphony Orchestra to Hold Free Concert for Those With Autism

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) announced that it will be performing a concert designed especially for children and adults on the autism spectrum and with developmental challenges on February 5, 2017. The concert will start at 2:30 p.m. at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, with a pre-concert event beginning at 1:30 p.m.

This is the second My DSO Concert—the first was held on April 10, 2016, and had 1,100 attendees. “The response to the first My DSO Concert was overwhelming, joyful and affirming,” said Jonathan Martin, President & CEO of the Dallas Symphony. “There was a buzz of enthusiasm from the audience as the music was performed, and gratitude from families that they could enjoy a Dallas Symphony concert without stress or worry.”

The February concert will be approximately one hour long, with no intermission. While the performance will be a traditional orchestra concert, there will be accommodations for people “with acute sensitivities.” These include “quiet rooms” for people who get overwhelmed by the noise; “fidgets, ear plugs and eye covers” to help prevent overstimulation; and TV monitors broadcasting the performance on the lower levels of the Meyerson for those who need to leave their seats.

My DSO Concert is presented in partnership with the Autism Treatment Center, Best Buddies, LaunchAbility, My Possibilities, The McDermott Scholars at the University of Texas at Dallas, UT Southwestern Medical Center and The Warren Center. The original motivation behind the concert was Music Direct Jaap van Sweden, who has a son on the autism spectrum and discovered that music helped him communicate.

Doors will open an hour early for a resource fair with the partners mentioned above. There will also be an “instrument petting zoo” for people to get familiar with orchestra instruments, as well as a participatory music-therapy experience provided by “Sing Your Way Home.” Patrons are also invited to stay after the concert to meet and mingle with other guests, as well as symphony musicians, at a casual reception.

Tickets to the concert are free, but must be reserved in advance. Tickets are available starting on January 5, 2017 by calling 214-TIX-4DSO or visiting the concert website at mydso.com.

The Spectrum Toy Store: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Last month, we let our community know about the Spectrum Toy Store, a toy store located in Chicago that catered specifically to children on the autism spectrum. While we thought it was a fantastic idea for a toy store, we never expected our article to go viral, but it did. More than 1.2 million people viewed it, leading many websites and television news stations to feature the news about the Spectrum Toy Store on their social media sites and channels.

Jamilah Rahim, the owner of the store, was a bit overwhelmed by it all, but in a good way. We reached out to her as follow-up to the first piece, to give you more background and let you know what she plans for the popular store in the near future.

AutismAwareness.com: Do you have any family members on the spectrum?

Jamilah Rahim: I do not have family members on the spectrum however, like many people I do have relatives with disabilities. My first encounter with individuals on the spectrum came during graduate school. When completing two practicums, one in a resource room and one in a life skills classroom, I then decided I wanted to focus my career on individuals with more severe disabilities.

AA: What is your greatest joy from serving the special needs community?

JR: The greatest joy has to be seeing the impact you have on not only the children but their families.  Working directly with each child and hearing the parents tell you how much change they have seen in their child developmentally and/or behaviorally.  Having parents call from all over the country thanking you for creating a place for them and their children has to be the most rewarding part.

AA: When were you first exposed to the unique needs of specials needs children?

JR: My first exposure to the special needs community was right after undergraduate school. Initially, I didn’t know what I had a true passion for. My dad then recommended getting into special education. I decided “why not give it a shot.” I then enrolled into a special education program and began working in a residential home for children with disabilities. This is where I fell in love with the field. It not only gave me purpose, but at the end of each day I felt as though I was building relationships with my clients. I used to and still do refer to the children I work with as “my kiddos” and not my clients.

AA: What is the most unique toy request you ever had?

JR: Interestingly enough, I recently had a request for a toy for a child with severe physical aggression. The request came from an educator who had a student that liked to break fingers. She wanted a sensory item or toy that would give the same effect in terms of sensory. This was the first time I had ever had a request like that and had to collaborate with other professionals on what would be the best option. More times than not, parents, educators and professionals are your best source for what works best with children.

AA: Do you work with any organizations to provide toys to families?

JR: I do not work with organizations that provide toys to families. However, I do work with organizations where toys are the primary method of teaching. This gives me better insight on toy selections.

AA: Any special events coming up for the holidays?

JR: Yes, we will have Santa in a few days before the Christmas Holiday. We begin our winter break camp December 26 – January 6, which includes yoga and Pilates. In late December, we are also offering consultations for visual supports for communication books, daily living skills and social skills.

AA: How was business before this – have you noticed an uptick in calls and visitors and online purchases after our article was published?

JR: Business was steady since our opening, however our sales have more than quadrupled since the recent media coverage. We are very thankful for these opportunities as it allows us to not only continue our services to our clients but add new services that they can benefit from as well.

AA: We saw in a recent article that people were driving pretty far to come to you. Are they looking for specific toys? Do they bring their children with them?

JR: Most parents do bring their children which makes the shopping experience a really cool one.  Our store has more of a community feel. Parents can bring their children and no one judges or stares when they see untypical behavior. Many parents come in looking for sensory items specific to their child’s needs.

AA: What has the feedback been like?

JR: The feedback has been amazing! We constantly receive phone calls and emails from people all over the world thanking us for opening a place where their child can shop and be accepted.

AA: Is any one toy in particular proving to be the most popular?

JR: Sensory items are usually the most popular and requested items. Our most popular toys would have to be puzzles.

AA: Have people approached you about opening more stores, or perhaps franchising to other cities?

JR: We have had dozens of phone calls and emails about opening stores in other cities and franchising. Our plan is to open another location on the east coast in late 2017 or early 2018.

AA: Is there really a “Try Before You Buy” policy?

JR: Yes, there is a “Try Before You Buy” policy. And for those items that aren’t open that parents would like to try, we open those items and then use them as demos.

5 Benefits of a Kindness ‘Elf on the Shelf’ for a Child With Autism

The latest Christmas tradition has seen elves taking over houses throughout the country. The story goes that Santa leaves one of his elves with a family to watch over the children and make sure they are behaving, with the theory that naughty children will get nothing for Christmas. The twist seems to be that the Elf himself gets up to mischief every night while the children sleep, much to the amusement of the children in the morning. 

Unfortunately, there was no way my autistic children would cope with this. For one, my daughter would be traumatised by the thought of anyone watching her. Second, her non-verbal brother with severe autism is too often seen as “naughty” by others, and there was no way I wanted her thinking he would be getting nothing for Christmas. Lastly, neither of my children need any extra ideas for silly things to get up to, as they are never short of ideas themselves.

BUT my autistic daughter was so desperate to be part of this craze! I hated that she felt left out, as she experiences this exclusion often enough as it is. Therefore, I decided to use the latest trend to help her instead.

We had a visit this December from a loving and giving Elf who gives my daughter acts of kindness to do every day. She is loving it, her friends are loving it, and it has helped her so much. Here are five ways our kindness Elf on the Shelf has helped her so far: 

1. Elf taught her a simple way to make a new friend.

The very first task Elf gave Naomi was to share a snack at school with someone. My daughter has huge anxiety and is selectively mute, but giving a little bar of chocolate to someone enabled her to be silently social. This helped her realise that reaching out in friendship to someone else is not as scary as she imagined it to be. 

2. Elf helped her understand what other people may wish for.

My daughter, like many children (and adults) with autism, struggles to imagine what other people are thinking and what other people may enjoy. One day, our kindness Elf gifted her a small sum of money and said she could be a Secret Santa to seven people. I took her to a pound shop (same as a dollar store in the States) to buy seven items. Out of all the things the shop sold, she was most excited to find toilet cleaner! I helped explain why, although a practical item to purchase, this may not be quite what any of her chosen people would like to unwrap on Christmas morning. We had an ideal opportunity to think about what other people like, which helped her to gradually realise that we all think differently.

 3.  Elf got her out in the community more.

One day, Elf suggested we take food to our local food bank. This enthralled my daughter, who found it difficult to imagine someone not having food in their cupboard. As a result, she became much more socially aware. She struggles to leave the house for any activities or clubs, so Elf has helped her overcome this by giving her simple and achievable tasks to get her out in the community more. This will benefit more than just us.

4.  Elf boosted her self-esteem.

One morning, Naomi woke up to find that Elf had covered a photo of her in Post-It notes! Each note was a word of affirmation and kindness about her because Elf wanted her to share words of kindness with others. She took all those notes and sat them right by her bed. I know she reads them before falling asleep. If they make a difference to her self-esteem, then I don’t care if she thinks the words came from a stuffed elf. There are days when we could all benefit from more kind words directed at us.

5. Elf helped her feel included.

Every morning at school this month, at least one child has come up to Naomi and asked her what her elf has done that day. Although she struggles to tell them, she smiles because somebody has come up and spoken to her rather than simply ignoring her. For once, she is not the “different” child, but rather “one of them,” and this is worth every effort it has taken for me to think of things for her elf to do and say.

I haven’t finished with Elf yet. I have plans for him to bring some autism awareness somehow, and more ideas that could help my daughter during a month she usually finds very stressful. Her Elf on the Shelf is bringing consistency in a month of chaos, fun in a month of stress, and love in a month so typically consumed by consumerism.  

When I started the year, one of my resolutions was to help my child any way that I could. I never thought for a moment that goal would involve a cuddly elf, but it’s working out just fine.

When Pigs Fly: Airport Introduces First Therapy Pig

Visitors to San Francisco International Airport may already be familiar with the airport’s Wag Brigade, launched in partnership with the ASPCA three years ago. The Wag Brigade consists of a variety of friendly dogs of many different breeds and sizes, all certified by the ASPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Program to serve as therapy animals. These furry friends wear designated “Pet Me” vests and roam the terminals with their handlers, helping to bring calm among the chaos of the airport.

While you may have met one or many of these comforting canines, chances are that you haven’t yet met the newest member of the Wag Brigade—LiLou—who made her debut at the airport just last week.

LiLou is a spotted Juliana pig, and is the first certified therapy pig at the airport. She’s being treated like a wandering celebrity by all who meet her. Strolling the halls with her tutu or airline pilot costume and polished toenails, LiLou is more than just an “ordinary” pig. She’s hypoallergenic and multi-talented: able to dance, play a toy piano, stand on her back hooves, and more.

Whether somebody has sensory process disorders, developmental challenges, a fear of flying, or just wants to say “Hi” to LiLou, she’s there to calm nervous flyers and interact with everybody. LiLou doesn’t yet have a schedule, so her visits are currently a surprise. But if you’re flying to or from San Francisco, chances are you’ll meet another member of the Wag Brigade, there to bring a much-appreciated calming presence. And you can follow LiLou on Instagram at @lilou_sfpig.

This Company Went Above and Beyond to Help an Autistic Child


Marc Carter’s 14 year-old son, Ben, has severe autism. Ever since he was two, Ben has insisted on drinking out of the same sippy cup. He simply won’t take his liquids out of any other cup or glass, and has been hospitalized for dehydration in the past because of this. While this rigidity is obviously a problem, the fact that the sippy cup is wearing out is an even bigger problem. So Marc decided to use social media to try to get a replacement supply of the cups to avert a future disaster.

As Marc first explained:

“Ben is 14 and has severe autism, he’s non-verbal and has very little understanding. Since the age of 2 he has drunk exclusively from a little blue Tommee Tippee two handled cup.

Fortunately about 3 years ago we managed to replace this very old and disintegrating cup with a newer one – cup part first, lid a few weeks later. He was suspicious but we survived.

No big deal right? We can just get something else! At that age he should be drinking out of a glass!

You’d think eh. Ben hasn’t drunk at school since the age of 5, he doesn’t drink outside of the house so we can’t go anywhere. People say he will drink when he’s thirsty, but two emergency trips to A&E with severe dehydration say otherwise.

These cups are not made anymore, the replacements are all new and fancy, we’ve tried them, Ben throws them at us. Maybe you have one stuck at the back of a cupboard? It can be used, that’s fine, the one he has doesn’t have long left. In all honesty we are really worried what will happen if it falls apart completely. Can you help us? Please share this far and wide, you can find me on twitter @GrumpyCarer. We will happily pay for the cup and postage, and we would love more than one if we can find them.”

His tweet, with the hashtag #CupForBen, was retweeted more than 1,200 times and his story was spread by major news networks. While many offers of replacements came in, most of them weren’t the right cup, unfortunately. And then Tommee Tippee, the manufacturer of the original sippy cup, stepped up to the plate.

Company staff in Hong Kong, France, the U.S. and Australia looking for the cup in their warehouses eventually found the original mold design. As they explain on their website, the company not only helped coordinate the delivery of cups from people all over the world, they’re also going to produce 500 new cups for Ben to ensure that he never runs out of the only cup he’ll use.

The company said, “It was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t just a cup for Ben, it was a lifeline for him.”

A Job Fair Like No Other

actors-for-autism1A first-of-its-kind job fair is set to take place today in Burbank, California.

The non-profit organization, Actors for Autism, is hosting the event, which is notable for two things. The first is that it’s a “reverse” job fair, meaning that individuals are the ones behind the tables, selling themselves and their skills, and companies are the attendees shopping for potential employees. The second, and more important, piece of information is that all of the individuals hoping to be hired are on the autism spectrum.

According to its website, Actors for Autism is “dedicated to the advancement, education, and training of people on the autistic spectrum. We fulfill this mission by providing new and innovative programs in the Arts, Film & Television, Animation, Visual Effects and Video Game Industries. We believe that people on the autistic spectrum should live as integrated members of society. Inclusion should be a reality, not a dream.”

While there’s been more news recently about companies implementing hiring programs for people with autism, most of them have been in the tech industry, including Microsoft and HP. However, while this addresses the skills, and dreams, of some individuals with autism, it still leaves out a large part of the population. Not everybody wants to develop software.

Actors for Autism offers programs in video, television and film production, animation, visual effects and video game design. It also has a MicroEnterprise Development course, where individuals learn to take a business idea from inception to development and deployment, including a business plan and marketing strategy. For people looking to develop their social skills, and not necessarily their job skills, the non-profit also has a Social Skills program that meets on Saturdays, where students are grouped according to their age and skill levels.

Los Angeles and the Burbank area is perhaps the best place to try to find a job in the entertainment industry. Anybody who has stayed to watch the credits roll in any Marvel or action movie lately knows just how many people are employed behind the scenes in a large-scale movie production. Actors for Autism is working hard to make sure that some of those names include skilled employees with autism, by giving people not just the tools and skills necessary, but also the opportunity to showcase those tools and skills to hiring personnel at the studios and recruiters in the entertainment industry. That’s a pretty big deal.

A Toy Store for Children on the Autism Spectrum

spectrum-toy-store1Illinois’ first toy store aimed at children with developmental challenges recently opened for business in Chicago. The store functions as part of the non-profit CARE Foundation and specializes in toys for children on the autism spectrum, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for parents and educators.

Spectrum Toy Store is owned by Jamilah Rahim, a home behavior therapist with a master’s degree in Special Education, who says she saw a need for this type of store. “I did in-home behavior therapy with families and I was able to see firsthand what kind of toys the kids played with, what they were into.”

She found out that most parents bought their toys online because there was nowhere local to shop for the specialized items they needed, and the idea for Spectrum Toy Store was born. The store helps take some of the guesswork out of buying the perfect toy because everything has the option to “try before you buy.” Jamilah explains, “They are able to come in here, play with the items, touch them, feel them see them and then determine what works for their child.”

In addition to selling sensory toys, specialty products and adaptive equipment, the store also offers therapeutic programming and hosts group activities. The focus is on children ages 3-13.

“We do different activity groups. We focus on different core areas, like communication skills, life skills, cognitive skills, gross fine-motor skills and sensory play. All of the classes are play-based since we are a toy store. We try to gear everything around play, so we do different activities with different toys to help support the skill deficit that children may have.”

To date, community feedback has been positive. Jamilah listens when parents tell her what works well for their children and strives to stock the items that fit the community. She also plans to launch a monthly toy subscription service this holiday season. Proceeds from the service will fund scholarships for local children to attend summer day programs planned for next year.

For more information or to make a purchase online, visit Spectrum Toy Store’s website.

Gatwick Becomes First ‘Autism-Friendly’ Airport

gatwick2Last week, without too much fanfare, Gatwick Airport became the U.K.’s first designated “Autism Friendly” airport. The National Autistic Society is responsible for the presentation of the “Autism Friendly” award to restaurants, businesses, shopping centers, and more. Gatwick received the designation from the NAS, “in recognition of the airport’s commitment to becoming an accessible and friendly environment for autistic passengers.”

In order to earn the label, “Autism Friendly,” Gatwick had to meet a range of criteria that would benefit passengers with autism, along with their families and caregivers. This includes:

  • Providing clear and accessible information about the airport to autistic passengers;
  • Ensuring assistance is available for journey planning and preparation;
  • Training staff so that they’re better equipped to properly assist autistic passengers;
  • Introducing “Autism Champions,” who are trained to further educate and train airport employees, and to provide “enhanced assistance” to passengers who need it;
  • Rolling out initiatives such as the hidden disability lanyard program.

The hidden disability lanyard was introduced this past May, and is an option available for any passenger with hidden challenges, including autism, Alzheimer’s, hearing impairment, and more. While wearing the lanyard is voluntary, those who do discreetly alert airport staff that they may (quoting from Gatwick’s press release):

  • Need more time to process information or more time to prepare themselves at security;
  • Need to remain with family at all times;
  • May react to sensory overload (i.e., be surrounded by too much information);
  • Need staff to use clear verbal language as it may be difficult to understand facial expressions and/or body language;
  • Need staff to be visual with instructions and use closed questions to assist passengers effectively through the airport;
  • Benefit from a more comprehensive briefing on what to expect as they travel through the airport.

As anybody who has travelled with a child with autism likely knows, it’s especially hard when you take a child out of their recognized routine and familiar environment and expose them to the chaos and unpredictability of an airport. Initiatives like this one and Myrtle Beach’s “sensory-friendly quiet room,” go a long way in making it easier for passengers and their families to travel. We look forward to hearing about more airports earning the “Autism Friendly” designation.

Teenage Chef Cooks Up Plan to Help Others With Autism

chase-bailey2Like other children with autism, 15-year-old Chase Bailey had some major food aversions when he was younger. According to his mom, he would only “eat five different foods.” On top of that, he had severe speech delays and developmental and physical issues that led doctors to tell his mother that he would likely never speak or be able to take care of himself.

However, that’s not what happened. To quote from Chase’s “Chase ‘N Yur Face” website, “With the help of family, friends, and some other amazing people, I have been able to beat the odds, overcome many of the challenges, and do the things that I dream about.”

When Chase was about eight years old, he discovered the Cooking Channel, and became fascinated by the chefs and the foods that they prepared. The television shows introduced him to foods without forcing him to have to taste, smell, or touch them. Soon, he began figuring out for himself how he would change a recipe, and then he began creating his own. His mother explained, “food became his world—he started overcoming his aversions and even started trying exotic foods.”

Chase decided that he wanted to become a chef, with his own cooking show. His mother encouraged him not to wait until he was older, and helped him create the “Chase ‘N Yur Face” cooking show, which appears on YouTube. The program gained a wider audience as Chase invited chefs and foodies to share their recipes and teach him their cooking skills on the show. He also added his own sense of humor to the episodes.

In 2015, he was invited to speak (and cook) at the Autism Speaks Los Angeles Celebrity Chef Gala. He then appeared on The Chew with Mario Batali. That led to the chance to develop his own cookbook, which contains his recipes and jokes, and an endorsement by Batali.

Chase wanted to use his newfound fame to help other people like him achieve their dreams, so he started the Chase Yur Dreams Foundation. The purpose of the non-profit is to assist people with autism who are working toward their goal of living independently. It will be funded by sales of The Official Chase ‘N Yur Face Cookbook.

Chase is not even close to stopping there. He’s got big plans for the future, including owning his own restaurants and hosting “a comedy cooking show on television.” We have no doubt that he’ll make all of his dreams reality.

When Friendship Means So Much

school-of-the-road-best-friends2Our friends over at School of the Road may have finished their cycling journey across the U.S., but they’ve still got lots of great news to share. We couldn’t help but smile when dad extraordinaire, Travis Saunders, posted this on their Facebook page a few days back, and we’re sure you will too:

“My awesome seven year old son Patch (on the right in the photo) was diagnosed with autism at 21 months of age and is minimally verbal and has severe repetitive and restricted behavioural patterns and sensory needs. Making friends is really hard with limited language and even more difficult when others find it difficult to interpret your behaviour. And this is what makes this story so beautiful.

Everyone meet Nicholas; the 13 year old boy who lives around the corner. He is the boy on the left in the photos.

Tonight Nicholas came to visit Patch.

The boys kicked the soccer ball together. Nicholas then showed Patch his awesome uni-cycle skills and then the unbelievable happened. Nicholas sat down at the piano and started playing a song that Patch had heard before. Patch then sat down next to Nicholas at the piano for over two minutes. (Now, to understand the significance of this you need to know the back story. Patch generally runs away after a short time frame after hitting one of the keys and has high sensory needs)

But tonight was different. Nicholas had Patch’s attention. Nicholas made Patch feel calm and comfortable.

Patch then moved closer and closer and eventually placed his arm around Nicholas. Now most 13 year old boys would find this situation confronting. Not Nicholas. He realised the significance of the moment as he had known Patch for several years and so he placed his arm around him. Patch melted and then cuddled Nicholas. It was absolutely gorgeous.

Thank you Nicholas. This was such a significant moment in Patch’s life and I want the world to know just how brilliant you are.”