2017 NFL Pro Bowl to Be Autism-Friendly

This Sunday, the NFL’s Pro Bowl will take place in Orlando, Florida. As the location of Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and more, Orlando is one of the most family-friendly destinations in the U.S. And it’s about to get a little friendlier.

For the first time, this year’s Pro Bowl is striving to be as autism-friendly as possible. This includes sensory tools, a designated quiet room, and specially trained staff to help families. The staff will include both security personnel and Camping World employees, who will learn more about autism and the ways that they may be able to assist autistic families during the game.

Special Sensory Sacks will be available to all families, thanks to efforts by the group A-OK Autism in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which worked closely with the NFL. These sacks will contain a stress ball, noise-cancelling headphones, and a stadium wristband where the wearer’s seating information can be written down in case they get lost. The sacks will also contain a lanyard and badge that a person with autism or other developmental disability can wear to let others know, for example, if they are unable to speak. Of course, the badges can be worn or not worn at the individual’s or family’s discretion.

“Our goal is to make the game as family-friendly as possible,” Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told the Orlando Sentinel. “We want to see if this is something the fans take advantage of and, if so, whether we can extend it to the Super Bowl and perhaps share it with the rest of the league.”

The NFL got the idea of an autism-friendly game from the Seattle Seahawks, which has six players on the NFC Pro Bowl Roster. The Seahawks first teamed with A-OK Autism in October 2015. Seahawks General Manager John Schneider and his wife have a child with autism, and they helped institute the same autism-friendly amenities—including the trademarked Sensory Sacks—at Seahawks Stadium then, with much success.

The program will be announced to Pro Bowl attendees on Game Day, and they’ll get instructions on where to go to pick up the Sensory Sacks.

The idea behind this is that there isn’t always a visual way to recognize if someone has autism,” Isaacson said. “And it’s hard for people who aren’t experienced with it to recognize that certain behaviors are part of the autism spectrum. We just want to make sure we’re creating a safe and comfortable and inclusive environment.”

In addition to the Seahawks, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Indianapolis Colts have also been working to make their games and facilities autism-friendly.

Sensory Sundays Program Expands to 54 Chuck E. Cheese Locations

Back in November, we told you about a Chuck E. Cheese in Attleboro, Massachusetts, that started offering “Sensory Sundays” on the first Sunday morning of every month. We’ve just learned that the program is being expanded to include 54 total locations in New Jersey, New York and New England.

Now called  “Sensory Sensitive Sundays,” these monthly events feature dimmed lights and quieter music. Chuck E., the gaming-restaurant’s namesake mouse mascot, along with his costumed friends, won’t be walking the floor, greeting kids, like they usually do. Additionally, outside food will be allowed, to cater to kids with special dietary needs and restrictions. Specially trained staff will be on hand in case any assistance is required.

The complete list of participating restaurants is here. All host their Sensory Sensitive Sundays from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m.

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.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Tips & Tricks for Holiday Travel

Tonight, as I sit here writing a plethora of lists for our family holiday travel, I posted a poll to a parenting support group on Facebook asking for tips and tricks for surviving holiday travel with special needs kids. And boy, did they ever come through.

Even with planning, travel is stressful for everyone. When you add a special needs child who is out of their element, things can get hectic really quickly. If thinking about travel sends you to the corner in the fetal position, then check out these lists. While all kids are different and need different things, there might be something golden in here for you. Safe and happy holidays to you, road-wary (and potentially road-weary) travelers!

Pre-Travel Tips:

Some kids don’t need to be prepped beforehand, while some need a step-by-step itinerary to help them prepare for an impending trip. How best to do this is really up to you. Does your child prefer a pictorial itinerary, countdown calendar, or packing list? If you’re flying for the first time, it can be super helpful to give a detailed description of what to expect on the day and maybe even act out the adventure from the ticket counter to the landing.

Traveling by Plane:

  1. Act out the day to normalize it for your kid.
  2. Tell the desk agent at the gate that you need to pre-board due to special needs. This will help you board the plane first.
  3. Use a car seat if you can, as it can offer a bit of comfort and familiarity.
  4. If you use the car seat, ask for a seat with extra space so there is enough leg room.
  5. If you are screen-time-friendly, be sure to bring your child’s favorite device, extra chargers, batteries, power packs and noise-canceling headphones.
  6. If your kid gets motion sickness, pack a plastic bag, wet wipes, paper towels Dramamine, and motion sickness patches or bracelets. Don’t forget a change of clothes for you and your child.
  7. Snacks can be your friend.
  8. Bring something to suck on or chew, like gum, to help with ears popping. Suckers are also a great way to keep hands and mouth busy.

Traveling by Train:

  1. Budget for a little exploring time. Take your kid for a tour around the station and check out the train. If your kiddo is a train enthusiast, this could be a lot of fun.
  2. Practice the sandwich game with your kids: If you’re traveling with another adult, have the kid(s) between you and them, and have the kids come up with fun sandwich fillings that they can pretend to be.
  3. If you are screen-time-friendly, be sure to bring your child’s favorite device, extra chargers, batteries, power packs, and noise-canceling headphones. The headphones are great to reduce stimulation, as well as to be courteous to other travelers.
  4. Board games, puzzles, and paper and pencil games are also good ideas if your child enjoys them.
  5. Pack snacks and meals, especially if your kid has special dietary concerns.
  6. If your kid gets motion sickness, pack a plastic bag, wet wipes, paper towels, Dramamine, motion sickness patches or bracelets.
  7. If you’re traveling overnight, consider getting a sleeping compartment.
  8. Use a map and itinerary to countdown the station stops.
  9. Not all trains have changing tables available—especially ones for shorter trips—so bring your own changing pad and supplies. Don’t forget a change of clothes.

Traveling by Automobile:

  1. Schedule bathroom, snack and meal breaks. Know your route and where all of the rest stops are ahead of time.
  2. Use social stories beforehand to prepare your child for the trip.
  3. Leave for the trip very early or drive overnight if your kid will sleep in the car.
  4. If you are screen-time-friendly, be sure to bring your child’s favorite device, extra chargers, batteries, power packs, and noise-canceling headphones. Load up your tablets with favorite and new-to-them games and videos. If your kid loves YouTube train videos or car washes, make sure you have enough to last double the length of the trip.
  5. Bring a camera along for your child to take their own pictures and videos.
  6. Games and books and music are all very helpful:
    1. License plate game
    2. Car Bingo
    3. Mad libs
    4. Trivia cards
    5. Joke books
    6. Audio books
    7. Favorite songs
  7. If your kid gets motion sickness, pack a plastic bag, wet wipes, paper towels, Dramamine, motion sickness patches or bracelets. Don’t forget a change of clothes for you and your child.
  8. Bring a portable potty, toilet paper and plastic waste bags.
  9. Bring bag of “new to them” toys and activities. Our family picks up cheap thrift store toys and games and doles them out a little bit at a time.
  10. Take regularly scheduled breaks. You can use a visual timer to let your child see the progression of time until the next break. During breaks, have your child do big movement exercises and stretches.

Do you have any tips to share?


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.

Chuck E. Cheese Location Offers Sensory Sundays

chuck-e-cheese1Those of you who have had your child go absolutely ballistic when the Chuck E. Cheese figure came close to the table (raises hand) or the animatronic band started to play up on the stage (yup, that too) will be thrilled to learn that at least one Chuck E. Cheese location is now featuring Sensory Sundays.

The Chuck E. Cheese in Attleboro, Massachusetts, is collaborating with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) to enable children on the autism spectrum to experience the fun of Chuck E. Cheese without the sensory overload.

Sensory Sunday will take place on the first Sunday of each month, between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. This is before the game and pizza venue opens to the general public.

Breanna Tanksley, manager of Chuck E. Cheese’s in Attleboro, said: “We are excited to provide a special opportunity every month for sensory sensitive families to enjoy their favorite pizza and games in a safe and friendly environment of tolerance and understanding.”

Other Chuck E. Cheese locations have offered sensory-friendly hours, including the Warwick, Rhode Island, location. We recommend that you check with your local Chuck E. Cheese to see whether they offer something similar, or to start one yourself.

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.

The Hidden Epidemic Affecting Autism Parents

autism-depressionI had a message from a fellow autism parent this week. Two words of that message have impacted me greatly. She wrote:

“I’m struggling.”

It is so common for me to hear this. It is the centre piece of every support group, the most common theme on online autism forums, the single most heard phrase when I meet up with people.

For some of those parents, it is so bad that I encourage them to see a doctor for support.

In my years as an autism parent, I have found there is a secret epidemic affecting so many autism parents and it needs to be talked about: We need to talk about depression.

People see a mum crying and think she is having a bad day. What they don’t know about are all the other nights she cried in private and nobody knew.

My eyes are more tuned to see people struggling since I have walked that path. I know what it is like to look at my child and worry for his future. I know what it is like to feel there is no hope. I recognise that feeling of failure when you realise your child is just not developing as they should. I know the pain of taking your child to hospital when they should be outside playing with friends.

It is isolating when your child has autism or special needs, and it is OK to admit that.

Sadly, society expects us to be positive, upbeat and encouraging, and I often see parents who are so emotionally overwhelmed, so sleep deprived, so beaten down by the system, that they have little hope.

When you have a child who struggles in school every day, a child who won’t eat or has no friends, a child who is being bullied for being different, or who cannot play in a park because the equipment is unsuitable for their needs, how would you feel? If your child was denied the support they need, or could not communicate, or was living in pain every day, would you not be heartbroken?

Is it any wonder there is an epidemic of depression among parents of children with autism?

While so many are on medication, and this can be vital, we as a society also need to recognise that autism parenting is exhausting and draining. What about better support and understanding for our children, better care for those in society who are full-time carers, and better training for staff so they can better meet the needs of the most vulnerable?

What about a society that is less prone to judge and quicker to encourage?

The current epidemic of depression among autism parents is very concerning. I am even more worried that continual budget cuts and ignorance in society are breeding not only depression among the parents, but sadly also among the siblings, and even the special needs children themselves. They all struggle with the same issues.

We need to recognise this epidemic and do something about it now.

Don’t ever be afraid to tell someone you are struggling. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help. Together, we can support each other and help make a better future for the parents and our children.

A version of this first appeared on FireFly Friends.

The Smith Brothers Use Boxing to Help Spread Autism Awareness

liam-smith4Although Liam Smith suffered his first-ever defeat to Saul ‘Canelo’ Álvarez in the recent WBO light middleweight title bout AT&T Stadium in Dallas, he’s far from a loser in our eyes. Liam, along with older brothers Paul and Stephen, and younger brother Callum, is part of a dynamic professional boxing family hailing from Liverpool, England. In 2013, the family made history when three of the brothers claimed the British light-middleweight (Liam), super-featherweight (Stephen), and super-middleweight (Paul) belts at the same time. Younger brother Callum is also a boxer to be reckoned with, with many experts saying he’s the best of the foursome.

The brothers all fight with the word “Autism” featured prominently on the back of their shorts. They do it to honor their 15-year-old sister, Holly, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and to raise awareness of the condition. “People don’t really understand autism,” says Paul. “Holly is a lovely girl but she can’t speak or communicate. So in our own way we are fighting for her.”


Posted on the Smith Brother’s Facebook page

Callum told Boxing News that, while the four brothers inevitably draw inspiration from each other, Holly is a big driving force behind them. “To see her battling through life every day, but to also see her happy, is inspiring,” he says. “We wear ‘Autism’ on our shorts to raise awareness and show support for other families dealing with autism, because for my mum and dad it is like a 24/7 job looking after her. When she was first diagnosed we didn’t really know what it was. So when someone asks, I explain it. We’re doing our bit.”

And their fans are grateful. Liam told HBO, as part of the hype leading up to the Canelo match, “The four of us try and put it out there about autism and raise awareness… Every single day on social media we get messages…my kids got autism and I think it’s unbelievable what you’re doing for autism.”

We absolutely agree.

Autism Eats: A Supper Club for Autism Families


Photo from The Boston Globe

One of the hardest things for parents of a child with autism to do is go out to a restaurant as a family. Between possible anxiety over a new place, sensory issues with the environment, pickiness over the food, and the potential for a crushing meltdown present at any moment, many parents decide to just stay home. Some restaurants, such as Mary’s Pizza Shack in California, are helping by providing sensory kits to diners and looking for other ways to become “autism friendly,” but they’re not the norm. Enter Autism Eats.

Autism Eats is basically an autism-friendly supper club, started in 2014 by Leonard and Delphine Zohn. The Zohns had given up on going out to dinner as a family because their then-8-year-old son Adin was too unpredictable in restaurants. But they missed the “social aspect of dining out,” and started Autism Eats to have the best of both worlds: dine out with their family and dine out without stress.

“We knew exactly what didn’t work, so we felt if we could reverse that, we could bring a community together and allow everyone to be successful when they wanted to go out,” Leonard told the Boston Globe. “Many families feel it is not worth the effort, and they stop venturing out. It can be isolating and lonely.”

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Because the Zohns have firsthand experience on the issues associated with dining out with a child with autism, they know what to look for. They pick restaurants that can accommodate a large group, with management that’s flexible and understanding, and a setup that’s autism friendly. A variety of food is either served buffet-style or family-style, so that no child (or adult) has to wait to eat, and payment (including the tip) is taken in advance, so that nobody has to wait for the check when it’s time to leave. Additionally, potential sensory issues are addressed, with dim lights and quiet or no background music.

Families are able to eat in peace, in a nonjudgmental space. Parents may choose to interact with other parents and so may the children; but if they don’t, that’s OK too.

“I have been corresponding to [sic] hundreds of people across the country,” Leonard told The Morning Call. “The plan is to have Autism Eats clubs in every state that wants one and to offer dinners on a more regular basis.” According to the Tampa Bay Times, Autism Eats is currently in five states, with plans for 26 by the end of the year. Additionally, the group is applying for nonprofit status.

Upcoming meals include:

  • 9/24 – lunch at Filet of Soul Restaurant in Downington, PA
  • 9/27 – dinner at the Post Office Pub in North Grafton, MA
  • 9/27 – dinner at BJ’s Restaurant in Victorville, CA
  • 10/18 – dinner at Andolini’s Restaurant in Andover, MA

Please see the Autism Eats website for more information. If you’d like to start an Autism Eats program in your area, reach out to them via the website or their Facebook page.