Massage Therapy Beneficial for Children with Autism

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Parents of children with autism are always seeking ways to enhance the quality of life for their children and massage therapy is becoming an increasingly popular way of doing so. 

One would think that a child with autism, who is commonly averse to touch, would find massage therapy intolerable. However, a massage therapist who works with children are usually skilled at introducing touch and slowly building tolerance for it. Massage therapists know that it’s the light touch that is so aversive to these children and they actual tolerate deep massages quite well.

The health benefits of massages are well-documented to the point where they are covered by many insurance companies and prescribed as supplemental therapy by some medical doctors. Biochemically, body massages release serotonin, a neurotransmitting chemical known for giving a sense of well-being and happiness. Conversely, abnormal serotonin synthesis is said to be linked to autism.

The Touch Research Institute of Miami has conducted several studies on the effect of massage therapy for children on the autism spectrum and their results confirm what is anecdotally acknowledged – massage therapy can be of great benefit to children on the spectrum.

In one particularly interesting study, twenty children with autism ranging in age from 3 to 6 years were randomly assigned to massage therapy and reading attention control groups. Parents in the massage therapy group were trained by a massage therapist to massage their children for 15 minutes prior to bedtime every night for one month, while the parents of the attention control group read Dr. Seuss stories to their children on the same time schedule. Results showed that the children in the massage group stayed on task better at school and showed more social relatedness during playtime observations. Parents also reported that their children were more responsive to verbal cues, had an easier time with daily tasks, slept better and were generally calmer. 

Most poignantly, these children were more receptive to their parent’s touch and even initiated affection themselves. Scientists used to believe children with autism couldn’t bond with their parents. This theory has since been discarded and children with autism do indeed bond with parents, but sometimes just cannot show it. It is very encouraging to know that massages create a new avenue of expression and help bridge the worlds between a parent and child.

As always in examining alternative choices, consider them as ways to augment and enhance established medical protocols, not replace them. 

When my son with autism was finally released from the hospital after battling Crohn’s, massage therapy was instrumental in him regaining his health and vitality. Doctors were amazed at his progress at his first follow-up visit, proclaiming that he “looked and felt like a different person." I credit massage therapy with providing a boost of energy to his recovery. His cheeks were rosy, his eyes bright and his spirit was calm. Best of all, there was no risk and no gimmicks — just the ancient art of human touch.

Khan Academy Turns YouTube into Virtual Learning Tool

Sal Khan was a hedge fund manager tutoring his cousins through distance learning. He started making them instructional videos to reinforce their learning when he couldn’t be there in person and after a few lessons, his cousins told him that they liked him better on video. After absorbing the shocking statement, he realized it was a back-handed compliment. 

Through the use of video, his cousins could repeat what they didn’t understand without suffering embarrassment, while still having the benefit of their uncle’s warm, approachable demeanor. He started making them videos for a myriad of subjects and envisioned an entire public academy of free lessons delivered via YouTube.

That dream is now a reality in the form of the Khan Academy, which boasts 2,100 instructional videos on a range of topics, as well as ongoing assessments and test preparation courses. There’s no sign-up and no login requirements — users simply go to the Web site and start learning ( http://www.khanacademy.org ). 

Children with autism naturally gravitate towards computers and online learning where the social and sensory issues of a classroom are eliminated. As a result, the Khan Academy is a great resource for parents of these children to be aware of. Although much of the information is advanced, basic arithmetic is offered and affords a perfect way to augment math learning for young children with autism. Older children with autism can find many topics to reinforce classwork, or explore their special interests. 

As a mother of a high school freshman with autism, I have been forced to home schooling because his high school placement failed, so I am thrilled to discover the Khan Academy. The timing of the discovery couldn’t be more fortuitous as I was worried about the expenses associated with gathering all of the appropriate curriculum for him.

The Khan Academy even attracted the attention of Bill Gates, who sees it as the wave of the future for education. His foundation is supporting Sal Khan in his quest and is actively seeking ways of bringing his model of learning directly into the classroom.



Earthing Offers Potential Health Benefits

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Since time immemorial, man has been connected to the earth. Working in fields or gardening, walking barefoot on beaches, or sleeping under the stars are all activities that link us to the natural, electrical energy of the earth’s surface. But modern man, in his concrete world filled with monitors and machines, has become more estranged from these elemental forces. 

Earthing (aka grounding) is a term that refers to the conscious choice to re-establish that lost connection. People who subscribe to earthing report better sleep, less stress, reduced chronic pain and faster recovery from trauma. Earthing has been reported to equalize the body to the same energy level as the earth’s, resulting in the synchronization of our biological clocks, hormonal cycles and physiological rhythms. Hence, the body is suffused with healing through negatively charged electrons present on the earth’s surface.

Earthing as a scientific and medical movement began in the late 1990s when a retired cable TV executive named Clint Ober started to think about the human body in terms of electrical grounding. Mr. Ober drew parallels between the workings of cable TV and the human body’s electrical system. He realized that most people wear synthetically-soled shoes that insulate their bodies from the earth’s energy field, which stabilizes not only cable TV, but all electrical equipment throughout the world. This realization has lead people to recognize scientifically what man has always known intuitively: direct contact with the earth is beneficial to one’s health.

In fact, two separate studies on earthing/grounding were conducted in 2004 and 2010 and published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 

In the latter study, twenty-eight men and women took part and were subjected to a grounding device while sitting in a standard reclining chair for two hours. Readings were taken during all phases of "treatment" and surprisingly, they indicated changes in blood oxygenation, pulse rate, perfusion index and respiratory rate. As a result, the following was concluded by Dr. Gaetan Chevalier, who oversaw the study:

"These results warrant further research to determine how grounding affects the body. Grounding could become important for relaxation, health maintenance and disease prevention."

More details of this 2010 study can be viewed here.

Grounding as a potential treatment for autism came to my attention through my son’s physician, Dr. John Green of Oregon City. Dr. Green only works with children with autism and also specializes in environmental health and immunology. His response was, "I think earthing will prove helpful with sleep quality in some of the sleep disturbed children and may in the longer term help with oxidative stress, which is such a huge factor in most kids on the spectrum."

As alternative treatments go, grounding appears to be safe, natural and very intriguing. Earthing "blankets" can be purchased at a relatively inexpensive price and while no one method should serve as a substitute for traditional autism therapies, it’s certainly worth investigating to examine its potential benefits.

We would encourage anyone who has tried (or will try) grounding to report back on their experiences.

Autism, Divorce and Putting Children First

Recently, a study was conducted by Brian Freedman of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, dispelling the popular notion that the divorce rate among autism families was near 80%. The study found that despite high stress among families facing autism, 64 percent of children with an autism spectrum disorder had two married biological or adoptive parents, while 65 percent of children who do not have an autism spectrum disorder had two parents. 

The findings seemed to contradict previous theories about divorce and autism, offering little comfort to those within the autism community who have been impacted by divorce. For these families (including mine), their rate is 100%.

Divorce involving families of children with autism leaves millions of children in situations that will be detrimental and will certainly cause a child’s progress to be severely impacted.

So, what can be done? 

The key is to focus on the big picture. A child’s best interest must be put first and personal battles have to be let go. Years after arguments and disputes are over, a child’s growth will be obstructed because of the now-forgotten fight. Putting a child and a relationship at the helm will keep ships sailing back into smooth waters following the rough seas. 

A family’s goal after a divorce must be healing the child with autism. Anything and everything beyond that is secondary. Remember, these kids have impeccable memories and think in pictures. Mommy is mommy and daddy is daddy and the images and painful memories of a divorce will remain for many years to come.

I have personally chosen that I would rather be alone and respect my child’s relationship with his daddy then to ever try and substitute. A child does not directly cause the break up and should never have the door closed to both parents.

A marriage and family counselor of the courts once explained, "When you break up and see each other again, it’s like sitting on the curb in front of your house that has just burned down…you are so euphoric to be alive and in each other’s arms knowing that there’s still a chance." 

Many couples have tried reconciliation but cannot avoid breaking up again because a house needs to be rebuilt and if you don’t correct the things that caused it to burn down in the first place, it will burn down again. It is always wise to bring counseling in, but it is also important to remain cautious. Counseling for parents of children with autism has to be extremely specific. Ideas like having a child get used to two different homes or regularly changing his or her routines may seem like textbook fixes for the parents and the courts, but can be disastrous for children with ASD. The many years of guidelines set down for children in the court systems are based solely upon neurotypical children and not children with autism.

Our children’s best interests must become our own if they are going to have a fighting chance. When a father’s interests are purely those of his son or daughter, he too will want to come back and fight alongside with you.

The factors that contribute to a divorce in couples facing autism do not necessarily include the diagnosis itself. It can be related to many other things, including the lack of resources and support in the schools and community, the sense of worthlessness at helping a child, the severity of the ASD (which increases without resources) and knowing that there’s more that can be done, but not knowing what that is.

If at all possible, dads need to return home. Their children need them more than ever. A child’s progress and potential cannot be fully realized unless both parents are tag-teaming TOGETHER in the battle. Single mothers most likely have sacrificed everything they have and a father coming home will be like the cavalry showing up in the 23rd hour.

If a spouse never returns, they will be missing out on the many miracles that occur on a daily basis involving children with autism. 

Reconciliation may be a tall order, but children with autism need both their mommies and daddies and sometimes we must be willing to live for something greater than ourselves to ensure the best possible outcome.

Snapple Discontinues Autism Awareness Drink

Last year, Holly Robinson Peete appeared on the hit reality show, Celebrity Apprentice, where she competed against 13 other contestants in hopes of benefiting the charity founded by her and her husband. Peete eventually placed second in the competition, losing to Poison front man and "Rock of Love" star Bret Michaels. 

As part of their season finale challenge, Peete and Michaels were both assigned to create a new drink flavor for Snapple, along with a corresponding ad campaign. Michaels, who has diabetes, came up with the Trop-A-Rocka flavor, while Peete, who has a son with autism, created Compassionberry Tea. Peete’s drink benefited the HollyRod Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists those with autism and Parkinson’s disease, while Michaels’ flavor supported the American Diabetes Association. Public response to both drinks after the finale was overwhelmingly positive.

However, in a not-so-compassionate move, Snapple has apparently pulled the plug on Peete’s drink, just one month before Autism Awareness Month.

Earlier last week, she tweeted the following:

"Disappointed 2 hear that @snapple is discontinuing my #compassionberry tea flavor which is not only yummy but spreading #autism awareness…"
There were no further details as to why Snapple decided to discontinue Peete’s Compassionberry flavor, however, in a subsequent tweet, she noted that despite the move, Snapple was still continuing to carry the competing tea created by Michaels:
"@Snapple is only discontinuing my #compassionberry supporting #autism happy they r keeping Bret’s tea 4 #diabetes but room 4 both"
Presumably, this was strictly a business decision by Snapple based on sales and/or demand. However, nixing the drink so close to Autism Awareness Month, while at the same time keeping Michaels’ flavor, is the kind of move that would be worthy of a hot-seat in Trump’s board room.

Admittedly, I have not tried the drink, however, there have been many who have commented on its great taste. Compassionberry ingredients include passion fruit and strawberries, along with traditional tea flavors.

For those who would like to see the Compassionberry Tea make a comeback, a note can be sent to Snapple’s consumer affairs division here.


Autism and Education: The Struggles Continue

Those of you who’ve read my previous articles already know that I was on a quest to make my son’s high school a safe, viable place for him to be. He has Asperger’s, an anxiety disorder and Crohn’s, so he is facing multiple challenges simultaneously.

Last month, I posted an article about “Intricate Minds," a video designed to help teachers and classmates appreciate what it’s like to have Asperger’s. I thought the video would be good for those who my son encounters at school to have a heads-up about his condition. The thinking was this might cut down on the snickering when he’s having a bad day or even help modify a teacher’s approach to him. Having shared this video with my son’s principal, she thanked me and said she’d look into it. I’ve heard nothing since.

My son’s special education teacher is untrained in Asperger’s and has a habit of engaging in verbal confrontations with him. There used to be a long running skit on Saturday Night Live about a guy who goes to a restaurant, orders a fruit cocktail and an anvil comes down on the table, yet time and time again he still orders the fruit cocktail. The way my son’s teacher communicates with him is definitely a fruit cocktail-anvil scenario. 

Recently, my son became upset by having to do a math worksheet he had already done. Instead of shifting his attention or guiding him to a self-calming activity, this teacher took him out into the hall to talk about it, which only flooded him with more anxiety. Pained by the gaping strangers, he totally lost it, whereupon she chastised him for being rude to his teacher. She then called to inform me that he has had yet another “behavioral episode."

Thinking the CAT-kit might help her find a way to access my son’s emotions without inflaming him, I sent her a link about it. Once again, no response.

Increasingly exasperated, I recommended that she read up on Dr. Tony Attwood and avail herself of my considerable expertise because the school was not accommodating my son and he was being set up to fail. 

An IEP meeting that was set for six weeks ago out suddenly got moved up by five-and-a-half weeks. That meeting was this past Tuesday and I can only describe it as an invitation to my own beheading. They invoked my son as being a behavior problem, since this absolves them of all responsibility. I countered that he’s fine when he’s in the appropriate environment but the principal told me that my son needs to develop coping skills to deal with his environment as it is. I’ve been in this scenario one-too-many times, even being forced to take the district to court over their desire to put my son in a behavior program that would only turn him into a behavioral problem. I ultimately prevailed, but it took years of turmoil and instability. 

I can’t count the number of IEP meetings I’ve been to for both my sons. They range from being gratifyingly productive to an absolute horror show. This past meeting fell in the latter category. I ended up abruptly walking out and now I’m poised to sign yet another “Intent to Homeschool” form. 

It’s very disheartening that with all of the autism awareness out there, a school system can be so backwards. Improving special education would take money but they are millions of dollars in the hole. However, simple steps such as requiring special education teachers to attend educational conferences on autism would not cost that much financially. 

Undoubtedly, my story is not unique and these struggles are being played out across the country. Despite a lot of progress in the area of autism acceptance and awareness, my personal experiences are demonstrating that we still have a long way to go, particularly in our school systems.

Tito Mukhopadhyay: The Rosetta Stone of Autism

Soma and Tito Mukhopadhyay (Courtesy: CBS)

Much attention has been given to the accomplishments of individuals on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. We hear of gifted savants such as Daniel Tammet or Kim Peek who defy imagination with uncanny visual, mathematical or historical recollections and abilities.

However, in a category all his own is Tito Mukhopadhyay, a native of India who has been described as “the Rosetta stone of autism." Despite being non-verbal and in need of constant care, Tito is able to describe and illustrate thoughts about the world he lives in with incredible detail and insightfulness.

Normal brain functioning is described as the combination of numerous processes and systems seamlessly working together. While neurotypical individuals process sights and sounds immediately, current research indicates that this information is processed at different speeds in our brains, but so rapidly that they seem simultaneous to us. Mukhopadhyay has described his world as a kaleidoscopic, where he is forced to select a single sense at a time in order to keep a flood of visual and auditory senses at bay. These descriptions confirm recent theories about autism and are helping scientists grasp the inner workings of the autistic brain.

Tito’s ability to share his amazing insight is in part due to the tenacious efforts of his mother, Soma, who was undaunted by his heartbreaking diagnosis at the age of three and insisted upon teaching him to read and write. Untrained in autism, she dedicated herself to reaching her son and single-handedly developed the Rapid Prompting Method for Autism, a communication technique that she is generously sharing with others ( http://www.halo-soma.org ). 

Simply put, she trained her son to focus, point and spell using an omnipresent writing pad and later on through a keyboard. Tito has now evolved into a prolific and gifted author and poet, shocking the world with beautiful stories and poems he began writing between the ages of eight and eleven.

Now in his early twenties, Tito Mukhopadhyay has already written a book entitled “How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move? Inside My Autistic Mind,” an unparalleled look into the heart and mind of a tortured, yet joyous soul. In it, Tito describes how his mind works and the ways he views the world and its neurotypical inhabitants. He also shares his unique perception of speaking stories to a mirror and then having the mirror speak the stories back to him as if it was an entity separate from himself and non simultaneous with his own speech.

Tito once wrote, “With the help of my imagination, I can go to places that do not exist and they are like beautiful dreams. But it is a world full of improbability racing toward uncertainty.” 

The improbable accomplishments of this remarkable young man bring hope to the uncertainty of living with low-functioning autism. Everyone on the autism spectrum and their loved ones can take heart from this soulful and accomplished young man.

James Durbin Discusses Family, Adam Lambert Comparisons

Courtesy: HollywoodLife.com

We recently received a comment by someone who noticed the excessive coverage of American Idol’s James Durbin on our site. My response was that we have not covered him nearly enough. 

James Durbin is currently shattering many misconceptions and stereotypes about what individuals with special needs are capable of and is raising a tremendous amount of awareness for both Asperger’s and Tourette’s. The positive feedback we have received about Durbin has been nothing short of remarkable and he has been responsible for giving hope to many affected by autism and other related disorders. As a result, I feel it’s necessary to continue reporting on James as much as possible so people will continue to learn about his story and discover just how far he’s come to get where he is.

A few days ago at an American Idol Top 13 party in Los Angeles, James was interviewed by HollywodLife.com and opened up about his family, personal life and even addressed the many comparisons being made to Season 8 American Idol runner-up, Adam Lambert. The interview, which can be seen below, is fascinating for several reasons.

First of all, it is one of the first times we have seen James in an unscripted, unedited environment. His facial tics are overwhelmingly noticeable and while watching the interview, I couldn’t help to think about the horrible teasing he must have endured while growing up. In fact, a reader posted the following to our site yesterday:

I am from Santa Cruz, California. I know several people who know James, or who have kids who went to school with James. As the story goes, James was bullied horribly for his afflictions. I am not sure if he is on medication or what his deal is. But I know that the tourettes (sic) and Aspergers (sic) (which was not even named until 1994) were very visable (sic) in James while he was in school. I have heard stories from too many people. 

I wish James well.

And despite his talent and accomplishments, James has received some harsh criticism online, mostly because people think he’s not "autistic enough" and others who are die-hard Adam Lambert fans who claim that he’s only a knock-off version, with a narrower vocal range.

In his interview, Durbin addresses these comparisons and also mentions that he had auditioned for American Idol several years ago and did not make the cut.

With all of the obstacles and challenges James has overcome over the years, his accomplishments so far have been truly inspiring. Additionally, judging from the interview, James appears to be a very genuine and grounded individual and it’s highly likely that as he continues to advance in the competition, his fan base will only continue to grow, increasing his chances to become the next American Idol.

When Autism and Faith in God Collide

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A few weeks ago, many in the autism community observed "Autism Sunday," also known as the International Day of Prayer for Autism and Asperger Syndrome. The annual event, which takes place during the second week of February, encourages people from all denominations across the globe to pray for those affected by autism spectrum disorders. The response to this year’s event was extremely heartening, knowing that so many other people were committed to praying about something that is responsible for affecting over 67 million people.

As a person of devout faith, one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with during my Christian walk was learning of my son’s autism. When he was first diagnosed at the age of three, some of the many questions I posed to myself included why me?, am I being punished? and how could this have happened? Since that time and after many highs and lows, I’ve not only been given the answers, but I’ve also been able to encourage others who posed these difficult questions themselves.

Let me begin by saying that I believe God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and the Creator of all things. He does not make mistakes, never needs a plan B and will never be caught off-guard. As such, I am comforted in knowing that my son’s autism did not happen by accident nor did it take God by surprise.

When we first received his diagnosis, I remember initially feeling angry at God and my faith was tested in a major way. After all, it took me over two years to get pregnant and I felt as if my child was a direct answer to prayer.

The questioning and doubting that ensued is something that most parents struggle with at some point in time during their autism journeys. For those who do not share the same beliefs as me, the questions may come in different forms, but I think at some point, we all ask why we’ve been dealt such a difficult lot in life.

I did not choose autism — it chose me. It came and kicked in our door as an unwelcome guest. With that in mind, I know that God has entrusted me with my child’s autism, knowing it was something I and my family could bear. Not only has this been proven correct, but we have been able to witness and experience many miracles, joys and triumphs in the past six years. Our child is a gift and I would not change a hair on his head. His uniqueness, talents and personality were all created the way God intended.

As a believer, perhaps the best answer to the question of "why me" can be found in the ninth chapter of the book of John.

When encountering a man who was blind from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him."

Whenever my family faces challenges associated with my son’s condition, we are encouraged by knowing that despite our struggles, he is being used by God to impact other people’s lives and glorify Him in the process.

Additionally, my son’s condition is not a "curse," nor is it an affliction, but rather a gift that is being used to enrich and bless those around him, beginning with me.

Autism Documentary by Oscar-Winning Director Set for Release

There is an amazing autism documentary on the horizon that will be released just in time for Autism Awareness Month in April. Directed by Gerardine Wurzburg, “Wretches & Jabberers” follows two grown men with autism as they embark on a world quest to change attitudes and perceptions about their disorder. Tracy Thresher, 42, and Larry Bissonnette, 52, travel to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland, deliberately challenging people’s attitudes and assumptions about their intelligence and capabilities.

Thresher and Bissonnette were both presumed “retarded” as children and excluded from normal schooling. Because of their limited speech, they each faced lives of social isolation and despair in institutions. When as adults they learned to communicate by keyboarding, their lives improved dramatically. The message of their world tour is the life-altering power of communication that ushers in hope for everyone on the autism spectrum.

The film records their emotional and transformative encounters with young men and women with autism, parents and students, as well as their delightful reactions to the local sights and sounds of the cultures they are encountering for the first time.

Wurzburg, who won an Oscar in 1993 for "Educating Peter," a documentary short about Down syndrome, appears to have outdone herself as there has already been significant buzz generated about this film. Additionally, Wurzburg is no stranger to the subject of autism, directing and producing the 2004 documentary short, "Autism is a World." 

"Wretches & Jabberrers" opens for a one-week run in New York City on April 1 at the AMC Empire 25. After that, it will be sent on a forty city tour in top markets, including Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago. The Autism Society of America will receive an undisclosed portion of ticket sales and help promote the film. 

It’s rare for any documentary to receive a multiplex showing, but AMC Theatres has long been on the forefront of accommodating moviegoers with autism. In sixty-two cities, they host a program where Hollywood films are screened in theatres that cater to those with autism. Auditorium lights are brighter and the volume is lower as guests are encouraged to move about, sing or shout in reaction to the movie. 

Hats off to AMC for giving “Wretches & Jabberers” the theatrical run it deserves and for their commitment to the autism and special needs communities. Based on the trailer, it looks to be a very powerful film.

 
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