Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), formerly known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, is a neurological disorder causing difficulties with taking in, processing and responding to sensory information about the environment and from within an individual’s own body. The senses include visual, auditory, tactile, Olfaction (smell), gustatory (taste), vestibular (balance and spatial orientation) and proprioception (or kinesthetics, the sense of one’s own limbs in space).

While SPD is a condition separate from autism, 80% of individuals with autism also have SPD. Those who have SPD alone are sometimes mistaken for having autism so when their sensory issues are addressed, their “autism” is resolved.

A child with SPD is either going to act out or withdraw in order to manage the overwhelming stimuli of their environment. Lindsey Biel, author of “Raising a Sensory Smart Child” recommends first and foremost ruling out a physical reason for a given behavior, (i.e. if the child is hitting their ear, check for infection). From that point, take the behavior as a clue to what is bothering the child. Once that is addressed on a personal level, try to make the child’s environment more sensory friendly.

Numerous strategies and products exist to help you in this quest, and Ms. Biel’s website features many products and suggestions. For instance, in the school environment, one of the most loathsome sounds is chairs being dragged across linoleum. Taking an old tennis ball and cutting an X in it with a Xacto knife, then capping the legs of chair eliminates this problem. One school was savvy enough to do this to every chair in the lunchroom. The dreaded fire drill can be very traumatic, so you can have it written into your child’s IEP that they be told ten minutes in advance of the drill so they won’t be startled and can put on noise reducing headphones.

Addressing SPD in the classroom will help ensure your child’s success and skirt potential conflicts with educators. Self stimulating behaviors, or “stimming” are frequently punished by teachers unaware that they serve a self-calming purpose in the face of environmental stress. One of my son’s teachers sent him to the hall every time he tapped his pencil or fidgeted in his seat. Soon he was out in the hall crying all day every day. Behavior classes are often rife with children who have undiagnosed SPD – I had to fight tooth and nail to keep my son out of such a program.

My growing awareness of SPD helped unravel a mystery about my son’s condition. Diagnosed as psychotic in fourth grade and given Risperadone, I noticed more and more that the voices he reported hearing intensified with near heavy traffic or in a cacophonous locker room. When Risperadone was a miserable failure and his psychiatrist was pressing for Lithium, I postulated that SPD heightened his anxiety and if those issues were addressed, marked improvement would follow. Employing noise reducing headphones, seamless socks, chew toys, etc. confirmed my hypothesis and laid to rest his doctor’s ominous warnings of schizophrenia in my son’s future. His “voices” were actually OCD intrusive thoughts brought on by extremes of anxiety fueled by SPD. 

As a parent it’s wonderful to witness how something as small as a special cushion on a chair, or tee shirts without labels can instantly improve the quality of your child’s life. Carrying that knowledge into the field helps your child navigate his or her world. If you have unanswered questions about your child’s specific problems Ms. Biel’s book has a reference section to immediately identify solutions to any given sensory issue.

NonPareil Provides Tech Training for Adults with Autism

Parents of children with autism often experience life as a matter of making it through each day. But no matter where we are in our journey with our child’s autism, we wonder what lies ahead for them as adults. Reports of children aging out of their special education programs and support systems at school with no services to replace them tell us society can’t handle the current reality, much less what’s around the bend. 

In the midst of these disconcerting facts, there are promising programs addressing the needs of adults with autism. Community farms where adults live and work growing organic foods provide a rewarding career close to nature. In the IT sector where individuals with autism frequently excel, a Danish entrepreneur has made a commitment to employ individuals on the spectrum in the global market. 

Another exciting program is the nonPareil Institute in Plano, Texas, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to providing computer training to students on the autism spectrum. Their technology-based programs make use of artistic software, code generation, 3D animation studio tools, digital sound applications and other creativity enabling tools.

In a dedicated space at SMU (Southern Methodist University) in Plano, participants receive full-time instruction in creating new products for release to the general public, with projects targeting the PC and iPhone/iPad. The nonPareil plays to participants’ strengths, generating a sense of community, purpose and opportunity for them. A video on their website features a woman with autism who had consigned herself to a life of throwing newspapers. After finding NonPareil, she created a math app that is currently for sale on iTunes. 

In the future nonPareil wants to have its own space and double the number of participants to two-hundred. Next on their agenda is expanding their facility to accommodate the lower-functioning and higher-functioning alike who wish to learn, work, play and live on-site.

Stories such as these let me know that there are people hard at work to meet the current and future needs of adults with autism, providing them a place where they can thrive both personally and professionally while benefiting society at large. That nonPareil intends to eventually provide housing and include both higher and lower functioning individuals is icing on a quite magnificent cake.

For more info, visit

YouTube Video from Autism Father Going Viral

Courtesy: YouTube

Known for being fierce advocates, parents of children with autism have done an excellent job in recent years at tapping into social media to make their voices heard. And as the prominence and influence of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continue to grow, these sites have become a powerful tool for parents to advocate and be a voice for their children.

Case-in-point is a recently posted YouTube video from a father of a young girl with autism. Uploaded only a few weeks a ago, the video has been heavily circulated and already amassed nearly 50,000 views in that short time. It’s a simple, yet powerful presentation done to the backdrop of Coldplay’s "Fix You."

The video is particularly powerful due to its lack of spoken word and creative use of colors.

I first became aware of the video by someone who is not directly affected by autism, so it’s nice to see it reaching many others outside of the autism community. In his blog at "Lou," the video’s creator, writes the following:

"I just wanted to take some time to thank everybody that has taken the time to watch and comment on my “Fixing” Autism video. I think I have shed as many tears reading the stories that are being shared as it sounds like viewers have shed while watching the video."

Take the time to watch the video below and good luck keeping a dry eye.


Vaccines, Autism and the Squelching of the Non-Believers

autism vaccines

A couple of interesting news reports on vaccines and autism were recently juxtaposed. 

The Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Advocacy (EBCALA) has conducted extensive research on the vaccine compensation program as it relates to incidents of autism. In the face of overwhelming and concerted opposition, HDNet’s World Report and its Emmy-award winning journalist Greg Dobbs aired “Vaccines and Autism: Mixed Signals” on August 23. The show, which is available for download through iTunes, took an unbiased look at at cases in which the government has been compensating autism as a vaccine injury over the last twenty years, while still publicly denying the connection.

Dobbs requested interviews from Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, but none were granted. As a matter of fact, HHH Secretary Sebelius requested that the media stop covering parties who are critical of vaccine safety, an Orwellian turn of events in a society that is supposedly based upon free speech and freedom of the press. When pushed to confirm the quote that appeared in a Reader’s Digest interview, the HHS responded in writing that “no one here can remember or determine that this quote is factual.”

Subsequently, EBCALA calls for this response from government and media: 

1. Secretary Sebelius should disavow her censorship request. 

2. The media should report on censorship in the vaccine safety debate.

As if in call and response, the Institute of Medicine just released a new report based upon a review of 1,000+ research articles by a committee of experts that re-confirmed no causal link between vaccines and autism. In the fine print:

"However, there was convincing evidence that certain vaccines may be linked, albeit rarely, to 14 health outcomes, including seizures, inflammation of the brain and fainting. 

The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (M-M-R II, Merck) may result in fever-triggered seizures in some cases, but the seizures rarely yield long-term effects (supposedly). This same vaccine may also cause brain inflammation in severely immunocompromised patients. 

The varicella vaccine (Varivax, Merck) was linked to brain swelling

Anaphylaxis may be caused by six vaccines: MMR, varicella, influenza, hepatitis B, meningococcal and the tetanus-containing vaccines."
ESCALA found a high correlation between children who suffered these adverse effects after vaccines and onset of autism. The report concedes one, but not the other. 

Now here’s the punchline:
“The review will be key to aiding the Department of Health and Human Services administer the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, according to the authors of the IOM report."
The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is currently crushing the claims of autism with renewed vigor. This IOM report leaves them locked and loaded for the future and seems to further rule out any promise of congressional inquiry into vaccine safety.

Even Thoughtful House, whom I considered a beacon of light for investigating the synergy of vaccines given closely spaced, has seen an exodus of its founding members, a new name and a diluted, more publicly palatable purpose. Who is continuing on in search of impartial truth in the face of nearly insurmountable opposition?

I myself feel bludgeoned by reports of the definitive safety of vaccines. Trouble is, the more they say it, the less I believe it.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

Cheerleading Squad Benefits Individuals with Autism

Disability Scoop brings an uplifting story of a teenager named Sarah Cronk of Bettendorf, Iowa, who started the nation’s first school-based cheerleading squad including students both with and without disabilities. Sarah was inspired to do this after her brother with autism was befriended by the school swim team captain and she witnessed how much that helped him.

Now thirty-three schools as far flung as South Africa have followed her model of pairing students with autism and other disabilities with neurotypical teens who act as peer coaches. The students all perform together at high school athletic events. 

Sarah’s efforts evolved into an organization called The Sparkle Effect that recently won a Do Something Award, “the largest and most prestigious prize in the world for young people and social change.” She received a $100,000 check in a star-studded awards show on VH1. Cronk plans to use the funds for training, uniforms and other supports in order to expand the program to still more schools.

Mainstreaming is hailed as the most appropriate form of education for youngsters on the autism spectrum, but without proper awareness and support on the part of the school, it can be a time of intense isolation and stigmatization. Kids in autism inclusion programs are documented to suffer higher rates of bullying than their neurotypical peers. The most heartening aspect of Sarah’s integrative cheerleading squads is that members with disabilities are finding more acceptance and inclusion outside the squad. She reports that “people are more willing to talk to them at school. It puts the spotlight on their abilities rather than their disabilities.”

This story also highlights the unique role of siblings to act as ambassadors for their brothers and sisters with autism. Wise beyond their years and compassionate because of their family experience, they are often the innovators in paving the way for the developmentally disabled to more truly belong.

Study Finds Ten Percent of State Hospital Patients Have Autism

The number of diagnosed cases of autism is exploding. Children with autism will grow into adults and society is nowhere near ready to support them. In order to prepare for that eventuality, current adults on the autism spectrum need to be studied, but researchers are having a hard time finding them. 

Concerned about the lack of information on the prevalence of autism in adults, autism expert David Mandell and his team conducted a study entitled: Prevalence and Correlates of Autism in a State Psychiatric Hospital. He concluded the following:

"Ten percent of the sample had ASD. More than other patients, their onset was prior to 12 years of age, they had gait problems and intellectual disability, and were less likely to have a history of criminal involvement or substance abuse. Undiagnosed ASD may be common in psychiatric hospitals”.

One in ten people confined to state mental institutions probably have undiagnosed autism! 

For the record, I do not believe that these invisible adults on the spectrum together with children being diagnosed earlier and more effectively account entirely for the epidemic of autism. Genetic propensity is provoked by environmental triggers that have grown in number over the last twenty years, including the environment of the womb. 

The number of undiagnosed individuals languishing in institutions is disturbing and heartbreaking, bringing to mind the heroes of “Wretches & Jabberers” who toured the world after being confined to adult disability centers all their lives. With the introduction of keyboarding came expressive freedom for the non-verbal pair who galvanized the world, shattering autism myths in their wake.

Do we simply ignore the moral imperative this study represents? These people’s lives could still be improved and enhanced given proper diagnosis and treatment. They can be given tools to communicate, a path out of isolation. 

While the significance of this study is being hailed in terms of accurate counting of adults with autism, I’m wondering who will address those numbers as the individual human beings that they are and help them improve the quality of their tragic lives.

New Batman Comic Features Autism

My sons with autism have always loved comics. Now teenagers, they still gravitate towards graphic novels. Having a story broken down into small illustrated segments is inherently appealing to individuals with autism. 

A comic book writer in New Jersey named Joe Caramagna tumbled into this affinity by reading comic book message boards. Inspired by the notion that comics could make a difference in the life of a child with autism, he has written a new issue of DC’s “Batman 80-Page Giant 2011” that features a young boy with autism as its protagonist. Reasoning that comics could unlock a child’s imagination and creativity, he named his new work “One Lock, Many Keys."

“One Lock, Many Keys” focuses on a child with autism named “Lucas” immersed in the pages of his comics as his parents argue over whether or not he should be reading them. As they leave his room Lucas claps his hands and mutters to himself, a reaction recognizable as autistic.

He crawls into bed just as something rushes past his window. Climbing onto the fire escape, he gets caught in a battle between the Batman and the hulking, zombie super villain Solomon Grundy.

Caramagna leaves the ending open to interpretation as to whether the encounter was real or played out in Lucas’ imagination, but in the final panels of the comic, the boy’s parents are delighted when he has achieved a new developmental milestone.

Without knowing that cartooning is already widely used to help children on the spectrum learn about emotions, Mr. Caramagna has created a sensitive, inspiring and thrilling story involving autism. This is the first time a Batman story has dealt with autism since the inception of the series in 1939. 

May it not be the last.

Trains and Autism



Many children with autism have a well-documented interest in trains, enthralled by their motion and predictable patterns. They tend to prefer trains to planes because of their back-and-forth motion, in contrast to the variability of flight patterns. With their complex schedules and maps, trains have a great deal of information for those with autism to enthusiastically master.

In recent years, the New York Transit Museum has seen a surge of patrons on the autism spectrum and is constantly receiving field trip requests from autism classes. Riding the wave of this popularity, the museum created an after-school program for 9- and 10-year-olds called “Subway Sleuths” that concentrates on the history of New York City trains while fostering the social skills of the youngsters. Lauren Hough, an adviser to the “Subway Sleuths” program, was blown away by the participants’ command of details. When she asked how to get anywhere in the city, some of them could tell her not just which train to take, but the exact number of stair steps in each of the stations. The program has been such a hit it will be expanding in the fall. 

Britain is the leader in the movement to harness the enthusiasm children with autism have for trains. Their National Autistic Society routinely organizes Thomas the Tank Engine fund-raiser walks for autism. High school students with autism were recently invited to visit the timetabling department of The London Transport Museum and The National Railway Museum in York, England initiated a disability forum to better serve visitors with autism. At the local level one autism family support group started a train club, inviting the kids to play with trains while their parents talk.

Here in Seattle, a train runs along the beach at Carkeek park. When it approaches, children scattered throughout the woods and shore rush to see the cars pass by. On a cautionary note, children with autism can be drawn to railroad tracks in the same way they are drawn to water. At Carkeek, my son was fascinated by the warning lights and wanted to climb up to the tracks to look at them, oblivious to the danger.

It’s interesting that in the news there’s been reports on neurological reasons for children with autism having difficulty with multitasking. It stands to reason that individuals with a one track mind would find delight in trains, and it’s a wonderful trend that this enthusiasm is being constructively channeled.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

Tragic Autism Police Encounter Demands Attention

Neli Latson

A tragic situation we previously reported on involving a police encounter with a teen on the autism spectrum deserves immediate attention. On the morning of May 24, 2010, 19 year-old Reginald “Neli” Latson sat in the grass outside the local library in Stafford, Virginia waiting for it to open. Unbeknownst to him, a nearby school crossing guard had reported him to police as “a suspicious black male who may have a gun."  A deputy then approached Latson and searched him. No gun was found. The deputy asked Latson for his name and Latson refused and tried to walk away as he had committed no crime. The deputy then grabbed Latson and attempted to arrest him without calling for backup. Latson became agitated and resisted arrest, resulting in the injury of the officer. 

Arrested for assaulting a police officer, Neli was next held without bail in isolation for 11 days at the regional jail during which, his mother was allowed only one visit. He became catatonic and a judge ordered that he be transferred to a state mental hospital for 30 days of treatment and evaluation. He was later returned to jail for one year and spent eight months of that time in isolation again. After a 3-day trial, Latson was found guilty of assaulting a law enforcement officer, among other charges. His defense pleaded that the young man has Asperger’s Syndrome and presented a comprehensive, fully funded treatment plan for Neli to follow immediately upon release. The judge opted for Neli to spend another full year in jail before he could access treatment. 

Yet even if Latson wasn’t an individual with autism, this conviction should not stand. Racially profiled, he had committed no crime when he was accosted, searched and detained by the deputy. He should’ve been free to go to the library once it was established that he possessed no weapon. 

Concerned disability advocates have launched a campaign to have Neli pardoned and freed from prison, where his condition continues to rapidly decline. To voice your concern call or fax Gov. Bob McDonnell:

• Phone: (804) 786-2211
• Fax: (804) 371-6351

Here are some things to re-inforce to the individuals you will be speaking to:

1.  Reginald “Neli” Latson, No. 1441792, Greensville Correctional Center, Jarratt, Virginia, should be pardoned and released into a treatment facility appropriate for his condition after which he will return to his special education program at school.
2.  Neli Latson is NOT a criminal and his continued incarceration is reversing the gains made through his education and sports program. Each day in the penitentiary is causing irreparable harm to his ability to lead as normal a life as possible upon release.
3.  Neli Latson has a plan for release that was presented during his May 31, 2011, hearing that was agreed upon by the court, but postponed for nine months. This postponement is cruel and unusual given his housing in solitary confinement and confusing and terror-filled days and nights in a prison cell. Neli MUST be released ASAP to begin to heal from the traumatic damage he has suffered since his wrongful arrest in May 2010.

Please tell them the state and/or country you are calling from so that they are aware that this is a nationwide and worldwide issue.

Sign the petition: or visit the website: .

Improvisation for Autism

One thing I’ve learned over the last fifteen years of raising my twins with autism is the power of being oblique.

After one son bombed out of a series of social skills classes, I felt like I may as well make a little pile of money and burn it. Even worse, the experiences made him feel like a social failure. 

But then he took an improvisation class. Suddenly, he was learning the give and take of communication, how to read someone’s body language and vocal inflection and respond accordingly. Gone was his standard monologue about his special interest which had his would be conversational partner eyeing the door. He discovered how to be spontaneous and he had fun.

Improvisation is an underused tool for addressing the social deficits of individuals with autism. 

Sandy Bruce, an Atlanta grandmother of a boy on the autism spectrum, is helping to change that by founding a specialized improv program called Shenanigans. Bruce describes Shenanigans as a community-based program of applied theater that uses the techniques of improv to recognize and identify social cues through body language, facial expressions and voice. In addition to learning specific social skills children in the program often discover they have a great sense of humor as they get a chance to lose their rigidity and tap into their creativity. They use their bodies in new and expressive ways and they get to be part of a group of individuals like them, forming friendships around a shared activity.

High-functioning individuals on the spectrum are already known as great mimics with startling memories. Coupled with new found skills learned in improvisation class, they could become extraordinary actors.

Now this leads me to challenge someone to reach out to our children on the low-functioning end of the spectrum and create an non-verbal improv program for them. If the children and teachers knew sign language, I bet it could be done. Some of the most powerful and amazing improv I’ve ever seen was done by The National Theatre of the Deaf, who may be able to lend their expertise. 

Sometime the world of autism can seem bleak. But amidst all the autism stories filled with anguish, a beam of light shines through. That light is the power of creative self-expression to improve the quality of life for all children with autism.

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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