Meditation and Autism

Meditation is as old as the hills. Now, some researchers are conducting new studies into its benefits. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has used high-tech imaging tools to examine the brains of Buddhist monks as they practice meditation. He has discovered that meditation stimulates the parts of the brain associated with empathy, attention and mind-body interaction. His colleague, professor of psychology Barbara Fredrickson, discovered that even novice meditators reported increased feelings of love and connection with others, the same benefits attributed to ingesting oxytocin. Further, the vagal tone, a heart rhythm associated with the “calm-and-connect” response is strengthened as well. 

During the the Second World Congress on Positive Psychology, which meets July 23-26 in Philadelphia, Davidson will talk about meditation and neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience and the environment, thus positivity can be learned. He contends that meditation not only benefits people psychologically, but it actually improves their immune system. In a recent study, he took two groups of adults, one that meditated and the control group that did not. After eight weeks, both groups were given flu shots. Those who meditated produced more antibodies, suggesting a connection between meditation and immune function. 

Empathy, attention, “calm-and-connect”, immune strengthening — all sound great for autism. Indeed, Davidson has been inspired to study preschoolers and fifth graders, including those with autism and attention deficit disorders, in an effort to understand the effect of practicing meditation in the classroom. Researchers will see if meditation can affect bullying, classroom attention, memory and anti-social behavior.

Scientifically, the results are not in but anecdotally, we know that when meditation is practiced in schools, it benefits children on the autism spectrum by promoting self awareness, the first step to self-regulation. Under stress, the child who meditates is more apt to remember to breathe. And because children with autism are so sensitive to the vibrations of others, having a whole group practicing meditation together goes a long way towards reducing classroom anxiety. I once witnessed my son’s social skills class meditating at the start of their session. A twangy gaggle of teens transformed to a calm, cohesive group after ten minutes of guided imagery and breathing. 

Renowned filmmaker David Lynch established a foundation to promote meditation in many arenas, one of them being school. He cites traumatic stress as the silent epidemic of our young people today, pointing out some grim statistics:

• Ten million students take antidepressant medication.
• Four million children suffer from ADHD and other learning disorders.
• Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teenagers.
• Seventy percent of students with mental health problems are not getting the help they need.

Scientific research confirms decreased absenteeism, suspensions and rule infractions when students meditate. Meditation also assists in developing a state of learning readiness. Teachers and students report great benefits from school sponsored meditation. And in this era of budget hacking, no one can say it isn’t cost effective.

Advocacy Group Boosts Autism Employment Prospects

Autism Jobs

Founded by National Council on Disability (NCD) appointee Ari Ne’eman, The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) was approached last May by several large American corporations who wanted to hire individuals with autism for internships and paid positions. These companies wanted to create diversity in the workplace and no doubt have been influenced by the rise in public awareness of the many assets individuals with autism bring to the table. ASAN already had been frequently sent openings for jobs in government, non-profit, advocacy and public policy and is dedicated to promoting employment for all individuals on the autism spectrum.

ASAN’s Web site states:

"While Autistic adults from all backgrounds are invited to send their resumes, ASAN is especially but not exclusively interested in resumes from Autistic adults in the Washington, D.C. Metro area with college educations and/or backgrounds in information technology, computer science, biology, finance, economics, political science, marketing, and other professional fields. ASAN is considering various possibilities for enhancing employment opportunities for Autistic people who do not have a college education as well as for those working in non-professional fields. We hope to offer additional calls for resumes towards those ends later in the year."

ASAN holds these resumes on file and releases them to prospective employers upon request. They also maintain a private database of job seekers. This is a service and not an employment agency so individual job seekers are encouraged continue their job search after submission. Direct follow-up inquiries are discouraged.

The fact that ASAN is so actively engaged in ensuring employment for individuals with autism is very heartening. If you have a young son or daughter with autism, keep this information in mind for the future. By the time your child is of employable age, ASAN will likely have considerably expanded their job placement resources. 

Adults currently seeking work can submit their resumes as attachments to with the expectation that your autism will be disclosed.

You should include contact information, educational and employment experience (including internships), volunteer experience, types and areas of work you seek as well as any other information you wish made available to an employer. 

Good luck!

Back to School Preparation for Children with Autism

Back to School

July is drawing to a close and for parents of children with autism, it’s a good time to start preparing for a child’s return to school. The more time a child has to adjust to impending changes in his or her routine, the better.

Naturally, re-establishing bedtime and waking hours are of the utmost importance if they flew out the window with summer. If started now and done gradually, it won’t be such a jarring experience. 

To accustom a child to future homework, introduce quiet activities for them like reading silently, reviewing what they learned last year, journaling, etc. at the same hour you’ll be having them do their mandated school assignments. As a cautionary note — don’t let a child solely do preferred activities or it won’t prepare them for homework.

If a child must wear a uniform or otherwise dress differently than they normally would at home, have them get accustomed to it well in advance. Stock up on seamless socks and tag-free items to avoid sensory meltdowns. And be sure to label all those clothes and other items with a laundry fast marker. 

Get a jump on acquiring school supplies and let your child gather them with you. A great idea is a simple, laminated bag tag that visually shows everything that belongs in your child’s backpack. Practice packing and unpacking the backpack at home — a great exercise in spatial awareness as well as an anxiety reducer. Leave the backpack in plain view in the weeks before school starts. 

Social stories are very helpful in preparing your child for a new school year.

If your younger child is taking his or her lunch to school, don’t forget to add a note, picture or other surprise for them to discover with their meal. Some parents suggest having them practice eating from their lunchbox at home prior to the first day of school.

The more you can familiarize your child with the school, the better. Visiting a new classroom and meeting the teacher, seeing where they are going to sit, practicing routes to the bathroom and the water fountain and trial runs for the those changing classes all ease anxiety and smooth the daunting transition.

Of course as a parent, you’ll be working behind the scenes opening lines of communication with your child’s teacher to give them the heads-up about your child’s needs. Now is the time to negotiate such things as a quiet alternative to the cacophonous lunch room, a playground buddy or a comfy corner of the room for them when they need to decompress. 

If your child is older, you can establish that they need to change classes five minutes earlier to avoid the sensory overload of the crowded and chaotic halls. Of course, your child’s school situation will be a work in progress, but it’s good to be as proactive as possible about foreseeable triggers.

Enjoy the remaining weeks of summer and good luck as your child embarks on a new school year.

The Literal Mind of Autism

Unintentional Humor

Page 124 of "Unintentional Humor"

A common characteristic of those on the autism spectrum is the difficulty in grasping abstract concepts, meaning non-tangible ideas, objects or things are often difficult to understand. Thus, the majority of those with autism are concrete thinkers and tend to focus on the "here and now" and have difficulty in generalizations. Included in the concrete thought process is the propensity to take words or phrases literally. With the English language full of slangs, puns and paradoxes, this can pose a daunting challenge for the autistic mind.

While at the Autism Society of America’s 42nd annual conference in Orlando several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Gund Anderson, a mother of a young man with autism who decided to tackle this topic in a humorous and entertaining book entitled, "Unintentional Humor: Celebrating the Literal Mind of Autism." Anderson’s work is a 160-page illustrative account of the often misunderstood phrases that her son Brent encountered while growing up. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Brent was the co-author and inspiration for the book, which Anderson says was twenty years in the making.

Phrases such as "frog in my throat," "your in the dog house" and "give me a ring" took on an entirely different meaning for Brent, who had the habit of understanding phrases and statements quite literally. Working alongside an artist, Brent ensured that each illustrative account was captured exactly as he envisioned it in his mind at the time. Linda also shares stories alongside many of the pictures, offering lighthearted accounts that occurred over the years with her son, as well as others.

I immediately related with this book, as my nine-year-old used to have the habit of taking phrases literally as well. One that clearly stands out is when I was sick a few years ago with a stomach virus and announced that I had a "stomach bug." My son looked visibly worried, presumably envisioning an alien-like creature crawling around my large intestine.

"Unintentional Humor" explores these common misunderstandings, which many parents of verbal children with autism will also relate to.

Ultimately, when it comes to this topic, the irony is that neurotypicals are actually the ones who are “different” and the ones with autism are the "normal" ones. Over the many years, we have managed to alter and twist the English language nearly beyond recognition, all-the-while our children are only trying to understand phrases exactly as they are stated, and in many cases, originally intended.

For more info on Anderson’s book, you can visit A portion of the book proceeds and product sales will be donated to autism organizations around the country.

David Byrne: Another Talented Individual with Autism

David Byrne

Courtesy: Fred von Lohmann

One of my favorite bands of all time is Talking Heads, the American New Wave band formed in 1974 in New York City and active until 1991. David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison comprised the band that fused elements of punk, art rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, world music and Americana. Frontman and songwriter David Byrne contributed singular style to the group with his cerebral, yet whimsical lyrics and performances that were multimedia experiences, not to mention his signature oversized suit.

Renowned New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once described him in this manner:

"…Byrne himself is the parodist, and he commands the stage by his hollow-eyed, frosty verve. Byrne’s voice isn’t a singer’s voice—it doesn’t have the resonance. It’s more like a shouter’s or chanter’s voice, with an emotional carryover—a faintly metallic wail—and you might expect it to get strained or tired. But his voice never seems to crack or weaken, and he’s always in motion—jiggling, aerobic walking, jumping, dancing. (They shade into each other.) Byrne has a withdrawn, disembodied, sci-fi quality, and though there’s something unknowable and almost autistic about him, he makes autism fun."
Pauline Kael was on to something. Seven years later, in 2003, Tina Weymouth told the world that David Byrne had Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Tina and David had a testy relationship and the announcement actually came in the form of an accusation. In 2009, David himself acknowledged that he in fact had Asperger’s and somewhat misguidedly believed that he was able to work it out through his music and as a result, subsequently no longer has it. 

Dr. Tony Attwood, the world’s authority on Asperger’s Syndrome, has referenced that functionality can improve in an individual with AS to the point where it becomes a personality trait rather than a disorder, but there is still no cure. Obviously, David is on the best case end of the autism spectrum. 

After Talking Head’s 2002 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, speculation of at least a reunion tour was rampant, but it never materialized. The enduring influence of the group has lead to recent calls for them to re-unite. This very month, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (now of the Tom Tom Club) unhappily conceded that this just isn’t going to happen because David refuses, a fact they seem to blame on his autism. 

I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment. A visit to David’s website reveals that he is still active musically and is wildly creative in a variety of media. He even seems to have a special interest in bicycles. 

David Byrne is yet another example of the gifts that autism bestows upon individuals. The world is blessed when these people are given the chance to share their unique gifts with us.

This is my favorite Talking Heads piece, and one of my favorite songs of all-time:

Nine-Year-Old with Autism Still Being Kept from Father

Derek Hoare

Courtesy: John Van Putten

I’m sorry to have to provide an upsetting update from my previous article, The State vs. Autism Families. Nine-year-old Ayn Van Dyk, who was taken from her home after being safely recovered after a wandering incident, is still in the hands of Canadian authorities. The tragedy began in Abbotsford, British Columbia on June 16th, when the Ministry of Children and Family Development came calling after Ayn was found safely playing in a neighbor’s pool.

Her single father, Derek Hoare, recently stated the following in an interview with

"After 18 days of no contact from the ministry as per Ayn’s well being or whereabouts, I received a call from a worker at the MCFD on Monday July 4, who informed me that Ayn had been crying for the 18 days and would I please bring in a picture of myself to help calm here down. I agreed and went in to the ministry office where I spoke with the worker, to express my concerns over Ayn’s well being, her being medicated, access to Ayn, and receiving written reports as frequently as possible. I was informed at that time that Ayn was now out of the hospital and in a foster home. Our next meeting was on Wednesday July 6, where I was informed that Ayn was to be returned to the hospital for a much longer 6 week psych evaluation, there is a wait list and it could take anywhere from 2-8 weeks for her to get that evaluation. She has been drugged against my explicit, reasoned and repeated wishes, with Risperdal, a drug with many known side effects, some of which are fatal."

Derek is a single father to Ayn and her two older brothers. He has totally devoted himself to her to well being, engaging himself in every aspect of parenting a child with autism. This whole ordeal was brought on by a moment’s inattention during which she disappeared from their backyard enclosed with a six foot high fence and is every parent’s worst nightmare. 

By logical extension, every time a wandering incident ends in a child’s death, parents should be charged with negligent homicide. And every time it ends well, the child should be removed from the home. The fact that this poor little girl can’t see her daddy and is being drugged with anti-psychotics is outrageous and an abomination.

If you’d like to lend your voice to the campaign to bring Ayn home, there are several options, including signing an online petition posted here.

Addressing the Autism Education Crisis


A recent article decrying the fact that Mississippi requires no autism training for its special education teachers struck me as hardly newsworthy. The reality is that special education teacher requirements vary drastically from state-to-state and when it comes to autism, they are abysmal. As far as I could tell from my research (and I would love to be wrong), only six states in the entire country require teachers who are responsible for educating children with autism to know anything about it. Michigan led the way in the early 80′s, followed by Delaware, West Virginia, Nevada, Florida and California. Florida and California’s autism endorsement requirements will be fully effective in 2011.

Stated benefits of requiring an autism endorsement for those who teach children with autism are many and obvious:

  • Most states reported having a more qualified, better prepared workforce for meeting the academic and social needs of students with autism.
  • Coursework leading to the autism endorsement has exposed teachers to a wide range of strategies for working with students with autism.
  • The endorsement has led to a heightened level of awareness among educators regarding the unique characteristics associated with autism.
  • IHE programs’ focus on behavior analysis and functional communication has benefited all students with disabilities, not just students with autism.
  • Some speculate that personnel preparation associated with the autism endorsement may result in keeping more students with autism in general education classrooms.
  • Working with children with autism spectrum disorders is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Their parents are often very well informed about autism and may know more than the professionals working with their children, who may have had only general training. Parental expectations add an additional layer of stress. These factors can lead to staff turnover and shortages.

The one drawback noted is that the autism endorsement can oversimplify the complex needs of educating students on the autism spectrum, yet it is universally agreed that the advantages far outweigh this concern. It seems that the endorsement, coupled with continuing education in autism, would be the best of all possible scenarios. Exemplary statewide programs do exist to provide training in autism for their teachers. These include Division TEACCH (North Carolina), Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA), Pennsylvania Training & Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) and the Minnesota Autism Project.

In Seattle, there’s no dearth of special trainings for autism, but teachers aren’t asked to attend them. Fed up by the state of special education in the Seattle School District, I once called a member of the school board to share with him my many ideas for improvement, such as having special education teachers that actually know something about autism. I’ll never forget the shock in his voice when he exclaimed, "But that takes money!!" I replied that they could at least supply teachers with a list of books and other resources that are available online and in the library. Cutting me off, he served up a closing platitude that he "cares about special education," which only let me know that he actually doesn’t.

Around here, education is a numbers game. With the spiraling numbers of children on the autism spectrum, states are going to rue their neglect of the issue and discover that being on the cutting edge of autism best practices is in the best interest of everyone involved.

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Autism

Oxygen Symbol

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is a form of therapy that involves breathing pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber. While originally designed to treat “the bends” in divers, its applications have expanded to include carbon monoxide poisoning, gangrene, osteomyelitis (acute bone pain) and now, autism. HBOT enhances blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation and oxidative stress and mobilizes stem cells from the bone marrow. Deficits in all these areas have been identified in the onset of autism.

Each session in the chamber costs in the neighborhood of $100 and is not covered by insurance. The typical protocol for autism calls for breathing pure oxygen for sixty minutes at 1.3 to 1.5 ATA, which corresponds to a depth of ten to seventeen feet of seawater (FSW).

Reported benefits from the treatment include improvements in language, eye contact, socialization, appetite and digestion. Reduction in intestinal inflammation involving parasites and bacteria was also cited. Because many children with autism enjoy small, enclosed spaces, claustrophobia is rarely a problem for the child (although it could be for an accompanying adult).

Drawbacks may include initial earaches during the first session. And a freak accident occurred in Florida in 2009 in which a grandmother and her grandson died when their hyperbaric chamber exploded, shocking the nation and doing the reputation of HBOT for autism no favors. 

Science is still lagging in their conclusions about HBOT for autism. A promising study of HBOT is somewhat marred by the fact that it was undertaken at the behest of business interests and fellow scientists found the structure of the investigation somewhat weak. Some doctors question whether the quality time spent in close quarters between accompanying adult and child is providing the real benefit and new studies must somehow take this factor into account. 

More scientific testing is currently in the works to verify the glowing recommendations of parents of children with autism who have tried hyperbaric therapy and a growing list of medicos who also affirm its value.

The Path to Autism Self-Advocacy

As parents of children with autism, we are their best advocate and indeed, advocating for them becomes a full-time job in itself. In the best of all possible outcomes, our children will one day be able to advocate for themselves. 

In a recent interview with Autism Hangout, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Sarita Freedman has identified three steps to achieving self-advocacy for those with autism.

The first is awareness. The child with autism becomes aware of their feelings and the feelings of others. They become adept at identifying sources of personal stress and developing strategies of self-regulation. Past experiences are able to be retrieved and utilized. 

After this comes acceptance. They know and assimilate that they have autism. They don’t have to like it, but they do have to recognize it as a part of who they are. 

Out of this grows self-advocacy as they feel empowered to disclose their autism and seek accommodations in school and the workplace that assist them in their daily lives.

In delineating this progression, Dr. Freeman has also identified a spectrum within the autism spectrum. Still, it’s not completely linear. My own sons with high-functioning autism have both accepted their autism. But one of them still struggles with self-regulation if his environment is not carefully crafted to be free of stress. He certainly shares with others that he has autism, but has not yet articulated what that means in terms of understanding him personally nor the accommodations he requires. 

My other son’s progress is more of a straight line. He has by-and-large achieved awareness and acceptance, yet has never disclosed his condition to anyone. And at age 15, has never taken the initiative to approach his teachers for homework accommodations, despite being encouraged to do so for years. An extremely shy and private person, I don’t know that he ever will. While very bright, he is constantly besieged by his homework and never makes grades that mirror his true abilities. For him, technical school seems the best option so that he can pursue his special interest in electronics and jettison the stress of studying subjects that don’t pertain to his passion. 

A book exists to help young adults on the autism spectrum explain their personal qualities, strengths, and difficulties to friends, teachers, employers and colleagues. Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum by Stephen Shore provides great advice that can help individuals with autism achieve their personal and employment goals. Even though my sons are fifteen, I’m going to buy a copy for them in hopes that it sparks something in them. Their level of independence as adults remains to be seen.

Of course, self-advocacy isn’t an achievable goal for every individual with autism. Not everyone can be the next Temple Grandin. Progress in awareness will be the life journey of some. 

And what a noble journey that is.

Short Film by Autism Advocate Sheds Light on Condition

Courtesy: Alex Plank

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a number of different people within the autism community at the Autism Society’s 42nd annual conference in Orlando, Florida. We attended as exhibitors to introduce a new line of autism jewelry that will help benefit autism awareness, with a portion of proceeds going towards various autism-related programs and services.

On the last day of the conference, I briefly met and spoke with Alex Plank, a 24-year-old advocate with Asperger’s Syndrome. Alex is the founder of Wrong Planet, a widely popular Web site for parents and individuals with Asperger’s, autism spectrum disorders and other neurological differences. He is also a filmmaker and in late 2009, released a short documentary piece entitled "autism reality."

I had not seen the film, but our meeting in Orlando prompted me to check it out and after viewing it, I came away impressed.

The 10-minute, interview-based film shows various segments of individuals talking about autism and their perceptions of it. Among those interviewed are Dr. Temple Grandin and Alex’s parents, who talk about his growing up as a child on the autism spectrum and the struggles that accompanied his condition.

Part of Plank’s goal in directing and producing the film was to inject a new perspective into the autism debate and dispel the many misconceptions that are associated with the disorder.

This is an important film in which an autism spectrum disorder can be seen through the eyes of someone who actually has it, as opposed to parents, Hollywood actors, researchers or educators. This first-person perspective on autism is a refreshing way to better understand the mind of an autistic and the struggles they endure on a daily basis.

"autism reality" can be viewed in its entirety below.

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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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