James Durbin Overcome with Emotion on American Idol

In what could be one of the most emotional performances in recent memory on American Idol, James Durbin performed "Without You, a powerful ballad by Harry Nilsson from the 1970′s. It was the second performance of the night for Durbin, who also sang "Closer to the Edge," a song that he used to open the show. Durbin’s second performance, however, is what American Idol fans will undoubtedly be talking about at the water cooler tomorrow morning.

Durbin became emotional and nearly broke down, both during and after his performance. He was also emotional during rehearsals and noted that the song reminded him of his wife, Heidi and young son, Hunter. Additionally, after his performance, Durbin pointed to the sky, presumably acknowledging his father who died when he was only nine-years-old.

From a technical standpoint, it was one of Durbin’s weakest performances of the season. However, his raw emotion and emotionally moving performance didn’t leave many dry eyes in the audience.

On Twitter and in message forums, people are already commenting how James needs to do a better job of keeping his emotions in check. What many may not realize, however, is that James has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and a characteristic of the disorder for some (not all) is the tendency to become overly-emotional in certain situations. Coupled with the many months away from his family and his long journey to get where he’s at, it’s understandable why James was so moved this evening.

While it wasn’t his best performance, James Durbin once again proved that he is a well-rounded artist who has much to offer and should be performing in the American Idol finals later this month.

Art Therapy for Autism

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Individuals with autism have innate visual prowess, as I discussed in a previous article. Given that children with autism are so visually oriented, it makes perfect sense to engage them in art activities, be it formally with an art therapist, casually in other classes or at home. 

Because children on the autism spectrum struggle with communication, traditional psychotherapy is not a viable option for them, but art therapy is. Art therapists report that children with autism who engage in one-on-one sessions show an improved ability to imagine and think symbolically, enhanced ability to recognize and respond to facial expressions, new ability to manage sensory issues such as a range of texture and greater fine motor skills.

I used to teach art to preschoolers at community centers. The classes were educational in nature and centered around a theme such as dinosaurs. I had them make things to illustrate what they were learning, like paper mache giant eggs and clay replicas of foot-long pointed teeth. The comment I heard from most parents was that they couldn’t believe their child’s focus and intensity while in my class. They marveled that their child was capable of such intentionality and that they could sustain it for a whole hour. 

Several of the students came with diagnoses such as ADD or autism, another had been too frenetic and kicked out ballet class, but you wouldn’t know it – all of them coalesced as a group of dedicated youngsters excited by their art projects. The group became close and the children often went to the playground together after class. 

Art demands a level of organization. Children must set up their supplies and clean up afterwards. The many textures are a sensory feast, and for kids with autism, innately therapeutic. I fondly remember how much my sons loved making homemade clay, the feeling of kneading the warm dough, then folding in the colors. I kept easels set up on the porch and they painted nearly everyday. Doing art fostered pride in themselves and their creations.

As individuals who struggle with communication, art gives children on the autism spectrum a powerful means to channel their inner life and experience. At home, you could have your child make his or her own guide to feelings by having them draw pictures of “Happy," “Sad," “Scared," “Mad" or “Frustrated” faces. Laminate or otherwise protect the pictures and have them on hand for your child to identify how he or she is feeling when words cannot. Buy them a sketch book and encourage them to keep a daily art journal. Creative self expression in all its myriad forms is going to be a key to enhancing your child’s well-being. 

“Drawing Autism” is a collection of artwork by individuals with autism coupled with interviews of the artists, with a forward by Temple Grandin. It’s a powerful book and in reading it one comes away with an even deeper appreciation of that superior autistic visual ability we’ve been hearing about. More information on the book can be found here:  http://markbattypublisher.com/books/drawing-autism/ 

Additionally, an organization that focuses exclusively on art therapy for autism is Philadelphia-based HeARTS for Autism. They are a grass-roots, volunteer organization and can be found at http://www.heartsforautism.org .

Yoga Beneficial for Children with Autism

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The ancient art of yoga is proving to have great benefits for children on the autism spectrum. Yoga comprehensively addresses their heightened anxiety, poor motor coordination and weak self-regulation, something that otherwise is very difficult to do. 

Yoga is particularly instrumental in helping kids with autism learn self-regulation. By becoming aware of their bodies and aware of their breathing, yoga provides them with the ability to cope when they start to feel anxious or upset. 

Many yoga for autism classes teach yoga poses or breathing techniques specifically intended to help children contend with their escalating emotions. Since these children are visually oriented, savvy instructors add a visual element so that the child has a colored picture of each pose near his or her mat. Parents are also given pictures of the poses so that they can do them at home with their child. 

Often, classes incorporate other experiences known to benefit a child on the autism spectrum, such as massage, music, dance, rhymes and stories. Music engages the brain and promotes communication. Massage aids in relaxation and facilitates the giving and receiving of affection. Being able to dance about in contrast to the stationary poses of yoga and the addition of the language element of rhymes and stories complete what amounts to amazing and fun intervention.

Some schools go so far as to offer their students with autism yoga in the classroom, which is very smart on their part and helps create a successful classroom experience for autism spectrum students. My son had a teacher in middle school who let him lead the class in yoga and it bolstered his self-esteem and helped him go the last half of the school year with nary a meltdown. 

Early on, I realized that managing my sons’ autism was energetic rather than disciplinary. Good teachers know this as well. Parents find that the quality of their child’s life improves through practicing yoga, that they become more communicative, calmer and sleep through the night. Teachers greet children who demonstrate more focus and less volatility and the child experiences the pride and self confidence that comes with gaining new skills.

Autism Law Set to Expire Later this Year

In the closing days of Autism Awareness Month, the White House sponsored an Autism Awareness Conference. Senior Adviser to the President, Valerie Jarrett and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, spoke to an audience of parents, advocates and experts at an Autism Awareness Month Conference at the White House. The speakers touted the fact that because of Obama’s healthcare reform, children can stay on their parent’s insurance until age twenty-six, an advantage for young adults on the autism spectrum. They also committed themselves to the re-authorization of the Combatting Autism Act (CAA), which is set to expire in September of 2011.

The original legislation was signed by President Bush back in 2006. With its emphasis being research, with some funding for outreach and awareness education, it established the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) to advise the Secretary of HHS on all matters relating to autism and develop and update an annual strategic plan for autism-related research. 

Now, the old structures must be transformed into a new National Institute for Autism Research, with the grant making process streamlined to get the most value for today’s dollars. The CAA law provided for research relating to services and support but was not designed to actually fund them. Several bills have been introduced during recent sessions relating to these services, such as training, restraints and seclusion issues, wandering disorder and infrastructure, but none of these has passed. 

Comprehensive national legislation is urgently needed to fund these and other vital issues, particularly as Medicare is under attack and our children with autism will age out of the few resources there are. 

And while insurance reform for autism has passed in over 20 states, there is strong popular support for “repeal and replacement,” so CAA 2011 must provide for parity of coverage with other medical conditions and ban all forms of insurance discrimination arising from an autism diagnosis.

In this current political climate where every program is fair game for elimination, passage of CAA 2011 will require a strong grassroots effort. In order to lend your voice to the movement go to:  http://capwiz.com/aucd/issues/alert/?alertid=29067511

Safe Chemicals Act Takes Aim at Environmental Toxins

Very recently, the “Safe Chemicals Act” was introduced by senators Frank Lautenberg, Barbara Boxer, Amy Klobuchar, Charles Schumer and others to upgrade America’s antiquated system for managing chemical safety. This is in response to increasingly forceful warnings from the scientific and medical communities that common chemicals in household products are linked to diseases such as cancer, learning disabilities and infertility.

From an autism standpoint, Lee Grossman, Autism Society President and CEO states that, “Thousands of unchecked toxins in the American marketplace are highly detrimental to the 1.5 million Americans living with autism today because many have immune deficiencies that, when exposed to certain substances, complicate already existing health issues.” 

The Senate’s Safe Chemicals Act builds on momentum from 18 states that have already passed laws to address health hazards from chemicals and numerous corporate policies of major American companies restricting toxic chemicals, including Staples, SC Johnson, Wal-Mart and Kaiser Permanente. Those states are Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana. 

The Safe Chemicals Act would overhaul the failing 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Enacted in 1976, TSCA presumed that chemicals should be considered innocent until proven guilty, a sharp departure from the approach taken with pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Since then, that presumption has been proven faulty and dangerous, as numerous scientific studies have proven that many common chemicals can cause or exacerbate chronic diseases and can be toxic even at low doses.

Specifically, the new Safe Chemicals Act would:
 
• Require EPA to identify and restrict the “worst of the worst” chemicals, those that persist and build up in the food chain;
• Require basic health and safety information for all chemicals as a condition for entering or remaining on the market;
• Reduce the burden of toxic chemical exposures on people of color and low-income and indigenous communities;
• Upgrade scientific methods for testing and evaluating chemicals to reflect best practices called for by the National Academy of Sciences; and
• Generally provide EPA with the tools and resources it needs to identify and address chemicals posing health and environmental concerns.

If you want to “go green” in buying cleaners, be aware that specific claims such as chlorine-free, fragrance free, and phosphate-free are more meaningful than general claims such as “organic” and “natural."  Look for certification from credible third parties such as Cradle to Cradle, the EPA’s Design for the Environment Program, or Green Seal.

To make your own safe and economical cleaners consult a website such as: http://www.natural-healthy-home-cleaning-tips.com/index.htm 

Here is a great guide to less toxic products: http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/ 

And if you want to extend that safety zone into your yard, go to: http://www.safegardening.co.uk/GardeningWithoutPesticides.html

It’s about time this issue is addressed legislatively, but we don’t have to wait to act as individuals. Ridding toxic chemicals from our homes and yards is an empowering way to make our world safer for our children with autism.

New Screening Test Helps Identify Autism in Infants

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The Journal of Pediatrics has just released the results of a study that implemented a screening questionnaire for over 10,000 infants and reportedly was able to identify early signs of autism and other developmental disorders in children as young as 12-months old. The CSBS DP Infant-Toddler questionnaire, which takes only 5 minutes to complete, asks parents a range of questions that help identify key risk factors. In the study, thirteen percent of the children who took the test fell into the abnormal range.

The 24-question test is said to be around 75% accurate, offering an efficient and easy way for parents, doctors and caregivers to detect autism at an early age. According to the CDC, most children with autism are not diagnosed until the age of 5, so this test represents a significant advancement in early screening methodologies. Originally developed in 2002, the test was not geared specifically for autism, but since the test covers many of its core characteristics, it is considered a new and effective way of identifying the disorder in younger children.

Some of the questions include:

  • Does your child smile or laugh while looking at you?

  • Does your child point to objects?

  • Does your child use sounds or words to get attention or help?

  • When you call your child’s name, does he/she respond by looking or turning toward you?

While an abnormal test result will not necessarily indicate a definitive autism diagnosis, it will help parents and doctors better monitor a child’s progress and get a head-start on early intervention programs should a full-fledge autism diagnosis eventually emerge.

This is very important because although there are many unknowns about autism, the one thing therapists, researchers and doctors all agree on is that the earlier the intervention and therapy, the better chance a child will have later in life. 

To access the CSBC DP IT questionnaire, visit: http://firstwords.fsu.edu/pdf/checklist.pdf

James Durbin Running Away with American Idol Competition

In what may have been the best performance of the season from any American Idol contestant, James Durbin performed "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," from Carole King and once again stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition. Durbin clearly outshined the other 5 remaining Idol contestants, prompting Judge Randy Jackson to proclaim, "This guy just might win the whole thing!” Jackson then proceeded to go on stage and hug James in appreciation of his performance.

Durbin, who has both Tourette’s and Asperger’s, has been a fan favorite since the start of Season 10 for his diverse vocal range, as well as his rock and metal "edge" that he has brought to the competition. With consistent performances each week, Durbin has never been in the bottom 3 on any of the Thursday result shows. He has significantly matured as a singer since his initial audition and appears to be separating himself from the other contestants in a major way.

We have covered James quite extensively on this site since his first appearance on the show in early February. Much like Jason McElwain, Temple Grandin and others, Durbin has been able to shatter many of the common stereotypes that exist with those who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. 

Regardless of where he places in the competition, Durbin is going to have a very successful music career and as a result, will have a tremendous platform to represent those with autism and other special needs. And based on Wednesday’s performance, James appears to be on his way to winning the entire competition.

New Technology May Alter Autism-Vaccine Debate

After six years of effort, a Tufts University team of scientists, doctors and researchers led by Abraham Sonenshein and Saul Tzipori, have created a needleless vaccine that does not require refrigeration. This represents a huge advancement as most vaccines require refrigeration, making their transport complicated, expensive and nearly impossible to deliver to remote parts of the world.

This breakthrough is no small feat. Scientists had to enclose parts of the bacteria, allowing the vaccine to still be viable after extreme conditions.

In order to test the vaccine’s resistance to temperatures, researchers submerged the substance in 80 degree Fahrenheit water for 17 months. At the end of that time period, the vaccine was found to still be viable. Development of a vaccine using a rotavirus produced an equally promising outcome.

The other objective of the team was to devise a needleless delivery system in order to counter children’s aversion to injections and avoid the high cost of sterilizing needles. Creating oral vaccines was unsuccessful, but nasal drops worked and drops under the tongue were also successful. This is advantageous because putting drugs under the tongue allows them to be absorbed into the body very quickly.

While these experiments were conducted on mice and pigs, the team is currently seeking sponsorships to create doses of the vaccines for human use. When that happens, third-world countries could be immunized more easily and inexpensively and the chemicals and preservatives found in vaccines administered by needles would potentially be totally eliminated.

This may represent a profound turning point in the contentious vaccine debate since substances added to vaccines are the primary source of worry for many parents. In concert with The Thoughtful House’s investigation into the synergistic influence of multiple vaccines on young immune systems, this could chart a path towards that missing middle ground between the pro- and anti-vaccine camps, particularly within the autism community.

While many people think that parents wary of vaccinations just don’t like having their children get stuck with needles, I don’t think this is true. Of course, drops under the tongue would make vaccines less traumatic for children and thus easier on their parents, but the method of delivery has never taken precedence over what is actually being delivered.

It’s heartening to learn of these advances in the field of vaccines that could ultimately render happier and healthier children worldwide.

Asperger Syndrome in Girls More Common than Once Thought

Asperger’s Syndrome (or Asperger Syndrome or AS) is a form of high functioning autism, characterized by obsessive interests and a difficulty in making friends. While commonly characterized as a “mild” form of autism, it is devastating in its own right. 

Starting in the 1960s, scientists theorized that boys inherited only one male X chromosome from their mothers, but girls inherited two (one from each parent). Thus, girls do not develop AS because the extra X chromosome from their fathers somehow “protects” them from it. This premise was never successfully proven.

Today, experts are realizing that the frequency of AS in girls is much higher than previously believed. The male-to-female ratio of Asperger’s is thought to be 3-to-1, but Dr. Tony Attwood, the world’s foremost authority on Asperger’s Syndrome, maintains that there is actually much more parity between the sexes in incidence. 

"Aspie" boys often appear like “little professors” who are experts in one subject, but Aspie girls are more like “little philosophers.” They often appear odd or aloof or seem to live in fantasy worlds. Typically in elementary school, they cling to a single best friend and the loss of that friend is very traumatic. 

All Aspie children have problems navigating the social world. However, when boys get frustrated, they tend to act out in aggressive ways that garner adult attention. Aspie girls tend to internalize their suffering, appearing shy and passive. 

Aspie girls have a facility to camouflage their social confusion and successfully mimic social behaviors. Since they do not understand how to process and express emotions in a normal way, their faces often develop a “mask-like” quality. With a permanent smile on their faces, they constantly attempt to please others. 

Tragically, these “good girls” rarely get the help they need and this results in low self-esteem, depression (often clinical), vulnerability to relationship predators or living in abusive relationships, excessive weight loss or gain or selective mutism, among other things.

Girls can be identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome through their special interests and unique behaviors. The diagnosis is a point of liberation for them to understand why they experience the world as they do and discover they are not alone.

I have to admit, this description of Asperger’s in girls rang like bell in my own life, right down to my best friend moving in fourth grade being as traumatic as a death. Having high functioning sons, I see a lot of myself in them and it inspired me to take the autism test for adults featured on our website. I scored a “35," the typical score for someone with Asperger’s. 

While it’s too late to undo all the hardships I bore as an undiagnosed girl with Asperger’s, it does bring me new clarity and peace of mind in looking back on my life. Hopefully, with new information, more girls will receive the help they need and avoid the perils of camouflaging their pain all too well.

To access the Autism Spectrum Quotient Quiz for adults, visit http://www.autismkey.com/autism-spectrum-quotient.php

Autism Awareness Month Still a Work in Progress

Leading up to this year’s Autism Awareness Month, I began with real hope in my heart. I knew that a trailer would be released on April 1st for a new documentary film entitled "The United States of Autism" ( http://usofautism.com ) that my family and I were featured in and we were also celebrating World Autism Awareness Day again on April 2nd. I truly thought this was a year of action and even took it upon myself to personally call 250 social service and corporate entities to find out if any of them had plans for the month. My hope quickly turned to disappointment.

Of those 250 organizations, not one had plans to do anything for the public, their employees or those dealing with autism. No education, activities or action plans were in place. In fairness, the feedback was a little skewed because I omitted a few companies that have been visible supporters of Autism Speaks for a few years ( Toys R US and Lindt Chocolate, to name a few). Additionally, The White House had refused to join in on the light it up blue campaign and we were able to bring attention to the administration’s lack of follow through on promises to appoint an Autism Czar this term.

One bright spot this year was the daily messaging and replication of news on social media sites. Countless tweets have been sent this month on the topic of autism awareness and action by myself and others, but I wish more would get involved. The world is watching. 

A mother has taken it upon herself to personally tweet every celebrity, asking them to retweet basic statistics and facts about autism. In about a two week period, about 25 have responded. However, a retweet alone is not enough and more celebrities need to do more by stepping up and getting involved.

I have to commend Autism Speaks for turning up the spotlight on a few television shows. I also admire the series Holly Robinson Peete has done for The Talk CBS, as well as Robert MacNeil for coming out of retirement to bring attention to his grandson and family. Overall though, the voices of parents and those in need are still not loud enough and awareness without movement to action only highlights the negligence on our part.

In an ideal world, the walls between the "have" and "have-nots" get knocked down. The unfortunate reality is that there are dramatic differences in availability of services for families based on higher incomes and demographics. I think this is socially, morally and legally wrong. This must change. We have seen enough buildings lit up blue, walks, runs, safety fairs, statistics and stock market bell ringings. It’s now time that we cross the street and ask our neighbors what they need. 

Recently, I heard and tweeted the following quote: “One person cannot help everyone, but everyone can help one.”

I initially heard this on a local Christian radio station broadcast in the Chicago area while introducing a missions trip to help desperate children in Peru this summer. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of Autism Awareness Month, I was frustrated that very little had been said about autism. 

Many times, autism is so complex and so overwhelming, it paralyzes people to the point of inaction. It is our job to simplify it so people respond. 

A good Samaritan recently mowed my yard and others have helped with buying and cooking my son Tanner’s special GFCF diet food. Simple moves and acts of kindness such as these could save a life. Respite is only a dream for many families. There is much more need than there are those willing to help.

This year, do your best to get involved and turn the awareness of April into action all year round. 

God Bless. 

 
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  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
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