Elementary Teacher Creates Sensory Chair for Students

The Raymond Ellis Elementary School in Round Lake, Illinois, recently made waves on Facebook when it posted a photo of one of its teachers with the “sensory chair” that she had created. Miss Maplethorpe teaches in the school’s Speech and Language Department, and she used tennis balls and cloth to create a chair for some of her students with sensory issues. As the school stated in its post:

Sensory seating is used for students who may have difficulty processing information from their senses and from the world around them. Tennis balls on the seat and backrest provide an alternative texture to improve sensory regulation. Students with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, sensory processing disorder, etc. may benefit from this seating option.

Notice the school’s use of the word, “may.” As many people on Facebook were quick to point out, this chair looks uncomfortable. However, those experienced with sensory conditions disagree, explaining that some people find “typical” chairs extremely hard to sit in because they require more sensory input than just a flat surface. Sensory seekers often get comfort from objects that those without sensory conditions don’t understand at all — i.e., objects such as rocks and Legos.

As we all know, every person is different, and this chair may be too stimulating for some, while not stimulating enough for others. For more information, please see the post:

Miss Maplethorpe, from our Speech and Language Department created these chairs for our students that have sensory…

Posted by Raymond Ellis Elementary School on Thursday, January 26, 2017

Teaching the Art of Conversation

Arthur was a single middle-aged man who had lived alone since the death of his mother. His greatest love in life was trains and he knew absolutely everything about them. If you ever bumped into Arthur, he would start talking about trains whether you wanted to or not.

Unbeknownst to Arthur, he was unwittingly boring people to death. Some avoided him because they couldn’t cope with having train facts downloaded to them. Some became silently frustrated as he stubbornly refused to pick up on subtle hints that they were not interested. Others tried to be more direct by saying, “Arthur stop talking to me about trains.” But even this approach was rarely successful, as his love of trains was so great he couldn’t contain himself.

We lost touch with Arthur a long time ago, but I now realise that he was probably autistic.

When he was younger, our son Edward used to interact in a similar way to Arthur; although, thankfully for us, he was interested in quite a few different topics. Conversation with Edward was pretty much a one-sided information download rather than a conventional two-way exchange.

Once I observed him and his friend Ned playing a game where Ned said the name of an animal and then poked Edwards’s shoulder (which was the imaginary computer button), and Edward proceeded to give a random fact about the named animal in a robotic voice. They played the game for a good hour with Ned trying to catch Edward out with more obscure animals; both had a lot of fun.

This type of interaction, though, is hardly fit for purpose when it comes to making and keeping friends, especially once you hit the teenage years. I realised that Edward was going to have to up his game and learn some subtle but important conversational rules to help him get on in life.

We started tackling the “art of conversation” training when he started high school. We spent a lot of time, over many years, talking about the things people do if they are interested in what you are saying:

  • They look at you.
  • They lean towards you very slightly.
  • They make little sounds to let you know they are listening (mmm, yeah, uh huh).
  • They nod their heads if they agree with you.

Non-verbal forms of communication can be very hard to notice if you have autism, but if you are made aware of these communication signals you can look out for them and learn to understand what they mean.

We also taught Edward to make a statement about a topic he wanted to talk about and pause (count to five silently). We told him that if the other person was interested in his chosen topic, they would ask him a question about it. We explained that he could answer the question but only with one or two sentences. Then he had to stop and wait to see if the person wanted to carry on talking by asking another question or making a comment about the topic, which was their way of signalling that they were still interested.

We found it helpful to give Edward a set of descriptions of what polite people might do if they are getting bored, which included:

  • Glancing at the clock, phone, or other people a lot.
  • Fidgeting more.
  • Hinting by saying things like, “I’m not really into X” or “I don’t really know much about X” or “I’m not as into this stuff as much as you.”
  • Becoming completely silent.
  • Looking at you less often.
  • Introducing a completely different topic into the conversation.

It’s much easier for Edward to know what’s going on if people ditch polite etiquette. Edward would be completely fine with someone saying, “I’m bored with this conversation. Can we talk about something else?”. But not many people are able to be this direct in their communication style, especially with a kid.

I was speaking to Edward about communication just before I wrote this and he reflected that his conversational style has changed over recent years, in that he is no longer just information-downloading at people but now has conversational turns. I asked him how he thought he had managed to make the change and he replied:

“I think very consciously about what to say to make a conversation work, just like everyone else does.”

My son was unaware that most of us never have to give much thought to talking to people—we just get on and do it. His words made me feel so proud of what he has achieved, but they also gave me greater insight into how much effort he makes just to have a chat with his friends.

With our current education system, it’s easy to get caught up with making sure our kids are making academic progress. But if you are raising or teaching an autistic child, you have the additional task of trying to help them learn these types of social communication skills.

If you are about to embark on “art of conversation” training with your own child, I wish you all the very best.

A version of this piece was first posted here.

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.

One Football Player’s Sweet Gesture Goes Viral

Bo1The feel-good photo of the week has got to be the one of Florida State University wide receiver Travis Rudolph sitting at a lunch table across from 11-year-old Bo Paske, a student at Montford Middle School in Tallahassee, Florida. The photo, and accompanying story, went viral after Bo’s mom posted it on Facebook on Tuesday, to express her gratitude to Travis.

If you remember anything about the middle school years, you likely remember it as a time of change and, possibly, confusion. Peer groups change, education becomes more intense, hormones start raging, and the lunchroom becomes a minefield. Bo, who has autism, spends some lunch periods sitting with friends, but during most of them he just eats his lunch alone. His mom said, “he didn’t seem to mind,” but it hurts her deeply.

Travis was visiting the school with some other FSU Seminoles players as part of their community outreach program. After grabbing a couple of slices of pizza, he saw Bo sitting alone and asked if he could sit down at the table. As Travis explained to the Orlando Sentinel, “He started off and was so open. He told me his name was Bo, and how much he loves Florida State, and he went from there…He was a really warm person.” Travis really didn’t think much of it.

Until later, when somebody showed him what Bo’s mom had posted on Facebook. It read, in part: “I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten… This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes. Travis Rudolph thank you so much, you made this momma exceedingly happy, and have made us fans for life!”

Travis was moved by the post, and told ESPN: “I was just a kid not too long ago and I remember what the impact was of guys that played in college and in the NFL coming back to us…. So I feel like maybe I can change someone’s life or I can make someone a better person or make someone want to be great or be like me, or even better.”

Before he left, Travis signed Bo’s lunchbox. When his mom picked him up from school, Bo told her, “Mom, I’m famous!” And that was before the Facebook post went viral. The next day, his lunch table was filled with girls.


Michigan’s Lt. Governor Calley Makes Plea for Inclusion

Over the last few years, Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, has been at the forefront of pushing for state programs to help individuals with both mental and developmental issues. As the father of a daughter with autism, he’s also just released this great public service announcement for all parents as their kids go back to school.

Lt. Governor Calley shared the following on his public Facebook page:

“Do you remember going back to school? I recall being excited, and kind of scared heading into each year. Now imagine if you had a disability that made it hard to make friends.

I have an ask… When you are talking to your children about all the things you talk about when getting ready to go back to school, would you consider asking them to go out of their way to make friends with the kids that often get left out? Its a small thing, but it could make a big difference.

On a personal note, I can tell you that there are few things in my life that can rival the stress of sending my daughter with Autism into a new classroom each year. But there is this little girl that befriended Reagan last year. That child happens to be in the same class this year. It would be difficult to describe how thankful I am for that.”

Just in Time for Back to School: Check Out the Nesel Pack

Nesel Pack1Back-to-school time often means new school gear, including a new backpack. Check out this Nesel (pronounced like “nestle”) Pack, designed by six college students at the University of Minnesota for children ages 6-12 with autism.

Last year, as part of their year-long “Entrepreneurship in Action” course, the students were required to come up with an idea for a start-up. The team thought about ways in which they could help kids with developmental disabilities and, according to the Kickstarter page, the team came up with the idea of the Nesel Pack.

To address sensitivities that many individuals with autism have, the Nesel Pack creators put widening straps on the pack that feel like a hug and give the same security as a compression vest. The straps are soft on the inside, so they won’t hurt the wearer’s skin, and they are also long enough for a caretaker to hold onto if necessary. Weights can be put in inside pockets, and the pack features several clips to hold things like toys, fidget tools, items to chew on, and more. There’s a name tag slot that can also hold a photo, and the bag has a reinforced bottom made from ballistic material for durability. With dimensions of 15” x 11″ x 5 ½”, the bag can fit both an iPad and a 14-inch laptop.

The student team initially featured their invention on Kickstarter and raised more than three times their initial financial goal of $10K in just the first week. That allowed them to start production on the backpack, which retails at $115. Because it’s built to last, as well as stand in for a weighted vest, the Nesel’s creators feel that it’s worth the price. However, the students recognize that the price tag for the bag puts it out of reach financially for many families that might benefit from it. They say that they’re actively looking both at ways to reduce the cost and ways to fundraise in order to help with donations of the bags in the future.

While no official studies have been done as to the scientific benefits of the backpacks, there has been great anecdotal feedback on the Nesel Pack from those that have tested and used it.

For more information, please check out the Nesel Pack Kickstarter page or website.

Apple Store Field Trips: Apples, Smiles, and Superman

Apple Store Visit

As an Apple Distinguished Educator and the head of Instructional Technology at Wildwood School in New York State—a comprehensive educational program for students with autism spectrum disorders, neurological impairments, and complex learning disabilities—I am thrilled with the opportunity to set up multiple trips to our local Apple store. I work closely with our educators and the store’s educational team to provide a fun and meaningful learning experience for our students with autism and developmental disabilities.

Recently, some students from every level, along with some of the adults in our Day Hab program, went to the Apple store at Crossgates Mall in Albany. We had already decided on the general topic, and students would be creating digital memory books using iPads and the app Comic Life 3. During past field trips, we used iMovie, Keynote, and several other creation tools.  To prepare for this specific trip, I had asked the staff to familiarize themselves with Comic Life 3 and have the students do some pre-planning so they could focus on the experience when they were in the Apple store.

The beauty of these trips is that all students have the opportunity to share their voice. With the support of the educational store team and our staff, students become creators, authors, communicators, and collaborators. No matter the device, students can create and share their voice by whatever means works for them. Whether they use built-in accessibility features to communicate in pictures, voice, text, or a combination of two or three, every single person creates a product that represents who they are and the memories that are meaningful to them. Every single individual has a voice and has the opportunity to share that with others.

These trips are about far more than simply creating—they’re more about the process than the product. They allow students to work on important and essential skills, and the Apple store educators understand and embrace this. For some students, it’s about walking and navigating a mall/store safely. For others, it’s about seeking out a staff person and asking for help. Some students practice waiting skills, and others practice collaboration and cooperation skills. There are endless opportunities for skills practice and generalization.

With the support of everyone involved, and a fun and engaging project as the foundation, every student finds success, shares their voice, and leaves with a smile. Thanks to the Apple store, they also leave with a t-shirt and a USB bracelet with their project on it (or something similar), so they can share it with their families, their peers, and school staff. I have witnessed students hurry back into the school after a field trip, and immediately ask to share their work with others. The ability to see their products on the large screen is amazing, but pales in comparison to the look of pride on their faces. Then to see their educational team extend these lessons, sometimes through the entire year, is really something special.

For some pictures, samples, and smiles from this specific trip, please see the pinned post on my Educational Technology for All Learners Page. I would love if you join in this community with me and share your related stories and experiences as well.

I encourage you to reach out to your local Apple Store and learn more about what they offer for field trips and other group trips. The focus is on the individual; ensuring they have a memorable and meaningful learning experience. The impact the Apple store staff has on their community is great and often goes unnoticed. They are more than a retail store: They are educators and advocates with a passion to create positive change in the lives of those around them. One of the educational creative team members at Apple Crossgates recently reminded me of a memory she cherishes from our first trip to the store years ago. “The first year you brought students to the store when I was here, there was a young man who wrote an alphabet book in Keynote,” she shared. “At the end he said, ‘I wrote a book! I’m like Superman!’ It inspires me regularly and reminds me of how important your work is and Wildwood’s work is, as well as the small contributions we can make from this store.”

Let’s give all of our students and children the opportunity to share their voice with the world, in whatever way possible. Let’s keep creating, collaborating, communicating … and proudly smiling.

In the words of Steve Jobs: “What is Apple, after all? Apple is about people who think ‘outside the box,’ people who want to use computers to help them change the world, to help them create things that make a difference, and not just to get a job done.”

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


U.S. Army to Open First Autism Therapy Center

Army Dad and KidAccording to many military parents, the U.S. Department of Defense isn’t the most progressive employer. Some parents of military dependents with autism—said to number 23,000—have been trying to find services for those dependents for years.

Others have found amazing services for their children, only to lose them when they’ve gotten reassigned to another base and country. Parents have even had their children waitlisted for multiple schools and centers, as they get on a list, get transferred, put their child’s name on another wait list, and get transferred again. In the meantime, their child is missing out on vital therapies and interventions.

In a move to help alleviate this problem, the Army has announced plans to open its first therapy center for children with autism. The JBLM Cares Center will be part of the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, and is expected to start providing care in early 2017. The Center will be overseen by Lt. Col Eric Flake, a doctor and the director of Madigan Army Medical Center’s developmental and behavioral pediatric program.

Lt. Col. Flake explained that the center will have programs to help parents whose child has just received an autism diagnosis, as well as “group after-school therapy opportunities.” Furthermore, he said, “During the work day this will also be a therapy center where kids will get direct speech therapy, will get direct occupational therapy.”

Gretchen Shea, a regional administrator for American Military Families Autism Support—an online group for parents—says that many families have mixed feelings about the announcement. But while it may be, in her words, a “drop in the bucket,” we’re big believers that small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all. Sometimes small movement is all you need for something to gain momentum, and we hope the Department of Defense considers the need and opens more autism therapy centers where possible.