Courtesy: Pete Markham
At a time when the heartbreak of wandering is ever present in the news, the battle for having autism service dogs in school rages on. Service dogs are known to calm anxious children, disrupt their tantrums, aid in making transitions and keep them safe from traffic and the hazards of wandering. Yet despite the existence of the national Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is no federal law permitting autism service dogs in schools and courts are being flooded with cases of parents fighting for their child’s right to have their canine helper in class.
Opposing schools contend that other children may be scared of the service dogs or be allergic to them. But ADA law states that fears and allergies are not valid reasons for refusing an assistance or service dog. Nor can schools demand information about the dog, though they can certainly request it.
For the schools part, they cannot be required to oversee the dog and child during the school day. A child must take a public access test to prove he or she is ready to be fully responsible for a dog in public. Until such time, schools should be aware that the dog must be allowed in the school when the dog is working with the child under the supervision of the parent. Schools need to make appropriate accommodations for the child/canine team such as creating accessible space in the classroom and having outdoor trash receptacles for a child to attend to the dog’s needs.
Perhaps the worst argument made against autism therapy dogs is that they are merely pets or not truly service animals and that the school is capable of meeting the child’s needs already. A federal judge recently overruled the barring of a service dog from a Florida school, a clear vindication of the rights of children with severe autism under ADA law. And as for the school already meeting the child’s needs, there are very few schools following best practices for autism and none that walk the child safely to and from school each day.
In a very recent breakthrough on this issue, the Alabama state legislature has passed a bill allowing all types of service dogs, including autism therapy dogs, in schools across the state. Furthermore, aides assisting students with autism can now be trained to work with the child and the service dog as a team.
Hopefully, other states will follow suit or an inspired lawmaker will take up this issue nationally. At a time when schools are seeing devastating budget cuts and the autism cases are spiraling upward, it only makes sense. As more schools allow autism service dogs, their fears will be allayed and the honoring of the rights of children with autism will prove beneficial to all
For individuals with autism, the world of interpersonal relationships can be strange and harrowing.
Uncomfortable on teams, the camaraderie of sports often eludes them. A simple thing such as recess at school is fraught with peril. Because it’s difficult for them to find solace in the company of others, children on the
autism spectrum often turn to creating collections as a source of emotional comfort. The collections are often centered around their special
interests and each item holds a memory dear to them of when and where they got it. While their obsessive attachment to objects can create a disharmonious environment, Dr. Tony Attwood points out that it is not the classical, rampant hoarding of often worthless items that can lead to hazardous living circumstances.
If your home is being overwhelmed by your child’s things, Dr. Attwood suggests a tender, restrained approach. Think of asking your child to get rid of his stuff like someone asking you to burn your family photo album. The best strategy is to cull out what you
can and keep a specific area for collected items. You might convince your child to rotate his or her collections in the spirit of maintaining their own personal museum, thereby cataloguing and retiring what could be stress-inducing clutter.
Hoarding is another interesting case in which individuals with autism engage in an activity for slightly different reasons than their neurotypical counterparts do. It calls to mind autism eating disorders that arise out of sensory issues or the embracing of the science of diet as a special interest.
Behavior problems in the classroom are more-often-than-not an expression of overwhelming anxiety as opposed to conduct disorder.
It’s important to view these problems through the prism of autism, because it always reveals deeper truths and sounder solutions.
In less-than-earth shattering news, a recent study done by the University of Cambridge, with The Science of Evil author, Simon Baron-Cohen as one of the researchers, finds that areas heavily involved with the information technology industry have a higher incidence of school children with autism. The authors conclude that autism-related genes express themselves as a talent for system-oriented thinking and may persist in the gene pool because they are linked to “adaptive, advantageous traits."
How much time and money were spent on this study to confirm the obvious? Anyone in touch with the world of autism knows that children on the spectrum gravitate towards technology, as evidenced by the iPad revolution and the multitude of apps available for those with special needs.
Pardon my impatience, but I live in Seattle, land of Microsoft. The suburban area around Microsoft has an extraordinarily high concentration of children with autism, a correlation around here that people take for granted.
Of course, individuals with autism tend to systematize. Even people with autism who aren’t overtly involved with technology see the overarching order in their world. Talk to Temple Grandin about her radical vision of slaughterhouse systems, or talk to one of my sons about where heavy metal fits into the schemata of all known music.
Six years ago, I heard Dr. Tony Attwood postulate that people with high functioning autism are on the cutting edge of a new evolution and it is incumbent upon the world to to appreciate them in that light.
I just wish researchers would not devote precious time and resources to scientifically proving things that are already common knowledge, then presenting their findings with a global drum roll.
Why don’t we investigate the issues that will actually make a meaningful impact and help improve the quality of life for our children with autism?
A new book, The Science of Evil, is certainly not doing any favors for the autism community. Written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center,
the book has a central premise that evil can be scientifically defined as a lack of empathy. Lack of empathy or a “Theory of Mind” is also described as a core feature of autism. Baron-Cohen writes:
"A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human (Whiten, 1993). By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds."
Now my hackles are already up because if a theory of mind makes us human and individuals with autism are said to lack it, then that makes people with autism less-than-human.
Baron-Cohen goes on to propose that evil is an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component. When these three exist simultaneously, they result in what he terms a Zero-Negative personality. Zero-Negative takes at least three forms: Zero Type P (psychopathology), Zero Type B (borderline disorder) and Zero Type N (narcissism).
Whereas psychiatry groups these three loosely under the term “personality disorders,” Baron-Cohen views them in terms of empathy, resulting in “very different treatment
implications." Psychopaths aside, people with low degrees of empathy can be taught empathy and treated with standard psychiatric approaches.
In addressing his theories in relation to Asperger’s Syndrome, he draws the
conclusions that people with Asperger’s syndrome also fall on the zero end of the scale, but they are Zero Positive. Zero Positive is almost always accompanied by high scores on the systemizing scale (and can lead to genius). In addition, the way “their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral.”
Baron-Cohen’s assertions that the compensatory faculty of systemizing the world results in a rational supermorality rather than an immorality in individuals with autism neglects some vital truths and does people on the autism spectrum a grave disservice, forever conflating their lack of classical empathy with his new definition of evil.
While those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) lack cognitive empathy or the ability to predict how people will behave in response to their emotions, there is overwhelming evidence that they are hypersensitive in feeling the emotions of others, or affective empathy.
Numerous studies draw these conclusions:
* High-functioning autistic children display more emotion than typical children in response to empathy-inducing scenes.
* The faces of autistic adults demonstrate heightened electromyographic responsiveness to expressions of fear and happiness on the faces of other people.
* When looking at images of people suffering distress, autistic children have normal electrodermal responses.
* Adults with Asperger’s syndrome suffer personal distress in response to the suffering of others.
Those who work with, live with and care for individuals on the autism spectrum report that they are exceptionally sensitive to other people’s emotions.
Individuals with ASDs may learn to suppress or avoid their empathic responses as a means of self-protection, leading theorists to believe that they lack emotional empathy. Their insensitive statements or actions, often stem from an inability to predict the impact such statements or actions will have on others, rather than a desire to be cruel. When they discover they have hurt someone’s feelings, they can be overwhelmed by regret.
Often, individuals with autism avoid distressed individuals because their empathetic response is so strong that they themselves may be too traumatized or confused to be emotionally presence for the other person. They may socially withdraw, behave
inappropriately or obsessively attend to details in emotionally charged situations to protect themselves against extreme emotional arousal. Mistaken to be uncaring, they actually care too much and experience difficulty separating their feelings from those of others. ASD individuals absorb and reflect back the energy of their environment, making it essential for those that live and work with them to keep as positive a vibration as possible.
In my son’s last school debacle his teacher would tell him that he was upsetting the entire class with his emotional outbursts. She believed he didn’t know or care and that he would control himself if it was brought to his attention. In point of fact, my son was excruciatingly aware of his impact on others already and when publicly castigated for upsetting his classmates he would run screaming down the halls and out of the building.
Imagine the disastrous outcome if this teacher reads the latest book from
Baren-Cohen and draws the conclusion that her next Asperger’s student is actually evil as well as unmanageable.
Continuing our exploration of color and
autism, Scottish optometrist Ian Jordan has developed the very first treatment for face blindness. Face blindness,
also known as prosopagnosia, impairs the ability of people to recognize faces and facial expressions. Common in autism, it feeds into
the difficulties of reading facial expressions and social cues.
Experts believe the condition is a result of the ability to process visual information being damaged or not fully developed. In other words, some of the information that the brain requires to make sense of what the eyes are seeing is missing or distorted.
Mr. Jordan has developed a method of creating individualized lenses, which he happened upon while treating a patient with sensory processing disorder. With a specialized lighting system consisting of a range of 16 million colors, he is able to alter the patient’s ability to process what they see. By filtering out some colors and enhancing others, a normally distorted face suddenly becomes recognizable. Once the right balance of colors is struck, relatively inexpensive colored lenses can be made for that individual.
The implications of his discovery are profound. As he himself relates, “Some people are able to piece together a person’s identity by recognizing the way they walk, or the sound of their voice, but the prospect of meeting and having to identify new people, either socially, at work or at school, can be very distressing – particularly so for those on the autistic spectrum.”
Mr. Jordan is presenting his findings at an upcoming Treating Autism conference in London. People with prosopagnosia are flocking to his office for evaluations and those that have received lenses report an enormous improvement in the quality of their
A bizarre and tragic story has emerged out of Houston this week, where a 7-year-old child with autism accidentally shot and killed his 5-year-old brother after they were left alone in a motel room.
The boys’ father, Vincent Del Sol, was said to be paying the room’s bill when the older child shot his younger brother in the torso with a shotgun. The dad returned to the room to the horrifying scene and paramedics arrived shortly thereafter, but it was too late.
The family had been living in the Houston-area Motel 6 for a year after a move from California, due to the father’s ongoing search for employment. Del Sol told police he was planning to pawn his gun and some power tools to help make ends meet.
In another twist to this story, Child Protective Services (CPS) on Wednesday was granted temporary custody of the 7-year-old after a hearing was held in which the father did not show up for. The boy’s mother is currently in jail after being arrested last month on a probation violation charge stemming from a child endangerment incident several years ago, when the boy was found wandering alone near an interstate highway.
Investigators said the shooting was an accident, but the district attorney’s office is still deciding on whether or not the father will face any charges.
This story is very fluid and there are conflicting versions of events being reported. One thing is for certain: this family needed help. CPS was said to be previously involved in their lives, but it’s unclear how they managed to fall through the cracks.
Raising a child with autism is difficult enough with an intact, functional family unit. When other factors are involved, such as irresponsible parenting or unstable environments, the results can often lead to tragic and disastrous consequences.
Respite care for families of children with autism has been a growing need and such services would go a long way in preventing these types of tragedies in the future. More to come on this important issue.
Parents of children with autism are painfully aware that recess time can be the worst part of their child’s school day. The piercing sound of the bell signals a time of loud, chaotic activity that is in and of itself difficult, but the inability to interact and play with their peers makes it a time of isolation and desolation for children on the spectrum. At a loss for how to help their child while away from them, parents often feel helpless upon hearing that their child cries or acts out at a time enshrined as a happy break from the rigors of the classroom.
When my twins were in elementary school, I would get reports about one of them crying the whole time at recess and the other getting in trouble with other boys, as if the onus was upon me to rectify the situation from afar. Eventually,
one of my sons started retreating to the library instead of going outside, while the other sat in a corner of the playground alone under a tree.
Now, the Playground Partners program of Arizona founded by Touchstone Behavioral Health is bringing therapists to the playground to assist children on the autism spectrum with initiating play, teamwork and conversations during school hours at recess. Trained aides encourage these children to start their own favorite game or activity on the playground and like iron filings drawn to a magnet, their classmates start to join in, much to the joy of the child. The mentors are ever present to help them navigate and mediate their surroundings, coaching them about maintaining appropriate personal space and other issues that may arise.
The program is an unqualified success at helping vulnerable kids form friendships and helping to inoculate them from the staggering statistic that over 40% of children with autism experience bullying at school. Teachers appreciate the reduction in playground incidents and the time needed to resolve such disputes.
So what’s the downside of this? Parents of children with autism have to pay for the service which may or may not be covered by insurance. While doing a Google search, I found very few schools that have in-house recess facilitators for children with autism. One program in Seattle has a recess club for special needs kids, but that is a separate program where neurotypical children are welcome to join as well.
If autism inclusion programs are to be genuinely inclusive, more attention must be paid to recess, so that what is supposed to be a release from the tension and cares of the day isn’t the most dreaded part of it.
John Burton, Jr.
In what has seemingly become an epidemic within the autism community, another child with autism has tragically drowned as a result of a wandering-related episode. Seven-year-old John Burton, Jr., from southeast Indiana, had just moved into a new neighborhood and disappeared while playing with the family dog. Burton’s mother noted that her son was unfamiliar with his new environment as they had just moved into their home the day earlier.
Search teams began looking for John soon after he disappeared and became increasingly alarmed when the boy’s dog returned home later in the afternoon, wet and alone. Burton’s body was discovered on Sunday in a nearby creek, one day
after he went missing.
We have reported extensively on this site about the recent cases of autism-related deaths associated with wandering. With tragic incidents like these happening at a
near-monthly rate, much more awareness and attention are needed for this out-of-control problem.
Some of the nation’s largest autism organizations have taken notice, and recently teamed up to form The Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response and Education (AWAARE) Collaboration. The group’s mission is to prevent wandering incidents and wandering-related deaths within the autism community through education, resources and awareness. They currently provide a free PDF wandering brochure, which can be downloaded at http://www.awaare.org/docs/wanderingbrochure.pdf.
Drowning has been cited as the leading cause of death for children and adults with autism, with a large majority of these incidents occurring during wandering episodes. Exposure deaths due to wandering have also been very problematic in recent
years, most notably in the winter months. Here are a few recent cases that underscore just how serious this problem has become:
James Delorey – December, 2009. A seven-year-old boy with autism from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, went missing after following his dog into a wooded area. He was later found huddled in the fetal position in thick brush and
snow less than a mile from his home. He was rushed to the hospital, but eventually passed away from severe hypothermia and exposure.
Mason Medlam – July, 2010. Five-year-old with autism who died of his injuries after being pulled from a small pond in a town outside of Witchita, Kansas. Medlam wandered from his home out of a partially opened window and had
been missing for more than a half-hour before being discovered.
Zachary Clark – August, 2010. A five-year-old boy with autism from Tucson, Arizona who was pulled from a golf course pond located less than a half-mile from his home. Despite efforts at CPR, Clark was pronounced dead shortly after being airlifted to a nearby hospital.
Nathan Kinderdine - August, 2010. A seven-year-old with autism from Ohio, wandered away from his class during a summer enrichment program at school. Kinderline was found by a custodian at the bottom of the school’s indoor
swimming pool and although school nurses tried to revive him, he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival to the hospital.
Skyler Wayne – October, 2010. An eight-year-old boy with autism who was found in an Idaho river three houses away from his home. Wayne was in the care of a babysitter at the time of the incident and was found in less than two
feet of water.
Savannah Martin – February, 2011. A seven-year-old girl from Oklahoma who was found face-down in a chilly pond about 50 yards from her home. Her two-year-old brother was also found with her in the water, but was face-up
and buoyed by the Styrofoam in a bicycle helmet he had been wearing. Despite the efforts by the girl’s mother to revive her, Savannah was later pronounced dead.
Jackson Kastner – March, 2011. Four-year-old who drowned in a Michigan river after wandering from his home. The river was located 300 yards from Kastner’s home and swept him away — he was later found a mile-and-a-half downstream. The boy was airlifted to a hospital but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Adam Benhamama– April, 2011. A three-year-old boy who is both non-verbal and deaf, disappeared during a game of hide-and-seek while his father briefly went inside the house they were visiting. Adam’s body was recovered
almost one month later over one mile downstream from where he initially disappeared.
Blake Murrell – April, 2011. A four-year-old youngster from Oklahoma that was found deceased in a duck pond a short distance from his home. Despite an investigation for potential negligence, Murrell’s family was exonerated in
what police describe as "an unfortunate accident."
John Burton, Jr. – June, 2011. Seven-year-old John had just moved into a new Indiana neighborhood and disappeared while playing with the family dog. A search was initiated when the dog returned home without John. Despite an intensive search, he was found the next day in a nearby creek.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the Burton family during this difficult time and hopefully, this will be our last story on this topic for the foreseeable future.
In our modern society filled with stress, getting “back to the garden” is a good idea for everyone. According to a 2010 report released by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), teaching gardening to special needs children and young people is especially conducive to their development. Gardening is practical and process-orientated, suiting the visual and learning-through-doing needs of this group perfectly.
Ninety-five students with various developmental disorders, including autism, participated in a year-long study of teaching gardening in school. Over the course of the study, the avid gardeners grew in confidence and became more engaged in the activities, embracing a new level of responsibility for their own learning and progress. Interactions with one another and with adults improved as participants who once only wanted to work alone developed as members of a team. The students themselves reported that gardening calmed them down and made them happy.
Gardening can also be a gateway to meaningful future employment for young adults with autism. The first farm model for adults with autism was established at Somerset Court in England in 1974.
BitterSweet Farms in Ohio is the first of its kind in the United States and currently has three campuses providing comprehensive services to individuals with autism. In North Carolina, Carolina Living and Learning Center is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. New Hampshire-based Farmsteads of New England was established in 2000, and now Full Spectrum Farms in North Carolina has enjoyed huge success in its first year of operation, providing fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers to local restaurants and meaningful work to its residents with autism.
The quiet, simple life and meaningful work of farming is conducive to the well-being of individuals with autism. Whether you garden with your child on acreage, in your yard or with pots on your apartment balcony, the benefits are great. Here are some tips for gardening with your special needs child, courtesy of Gardening-Guides.com:
* Paint your gardening tool handles a bright color so you can easily spot them when you’ve set them down.
* Improve your grip. Use colorful electrician’s or bicycle tape to add foam padding to hard-to-hold gardening tool handles.
* Go for the lightweight. Tools don’t have to be heavy to be sturdy. Aluminum handled and fiberglass reinforced nylon tools are both strong and lightweight.
* Consider handle extenders for short tools.
* Replace old and broken garden tools and tool handles with ergonomically correct models.
A recent post by one of our authors demonstrating what it’s like to have autism inspired me to research the effect of color on children with autism, with the intention of offering suggestions for
creating peaceful physical environments for them.
Color is a major issue in the design of spaces for children with autism and researchers have even found anomalies in the eye components of these individuals. Their rods and cones appear to have changed due to chemical imbalances or neural deficiencies.
In a test of children with autism, 85% saw colors with greater intensity than neurotypical children, with red appearing nearly fluorescent, and vibrating with intensity. Only 10% saw the color as neurotypical children do and only 5% of the children with autism saw muted colors. This small percentage of children would be alone in seeking out primary and other vibrant colors because they perceive everything as gray.
Muted colors have a calming effect upon children with autism. Pale pink has been demonstrated through tests to be their favorite color overall. Cool colors such as blue and green are also soothing. A monochromatic color scheme is
preferable, designs in fabric and wall hangings should be non-linear and non-obtrusive. Primary colors should be limited to lightweight toys that can be put away.
Simplifying and reducing the amount of stimuli is of paramount importance. Keeping toys and books out of sight reduces clutter and stimulates verbal requests from the child. However, items such as coat and hat racks should remain in clear view to help the child learn the skills of independence.
Shades, with their multitude of lines, as well as drapes can be distracting. Inside mount blinds are optimal, with the window frame painted the same color to create a uniform effect.
While carpeting is recommended for its noise reduction and safety features, a pre-finished hardwood floor overlaid with a 100% wool carpet, along with a jute back is best for its low toxicity and minimal chance of provoking allergies.
Lighting is also an important consideration as glare, noise and flickering can create sensory havoc. Uplighting or diffused lighting is suggested to reduce glare. Florescent lights are to be avoided.
Furniture should be heavy or bolted to the wall or floor. Bean bag chairs are touted for autism, but the suffocation risk is
very real. Chairs are now made on the same principle, but stuffed with foam.
I recently bought a papasan chair and my sons with autism adore it!
Yard sale season is upon us — good luck in clearing the clutter and creating a soothing home environment for your child with autism.