General

All Articles in the Category ‘General’

Why Do Kids With Autism Do That?

To date, our most popular blog is Why Do Kids with Autism Do That and most of the questions that Dr. Emily gets pertain to the often perplexing behaviors our kids are known for.

This week we bring back this favorite in a two part series. If it prompts a question or two on your child’s behavior, send them our way and we’ll put them in Dr. Emily’s queue!

When my kids were young, my son Justin was quite curious about the many odd mannerisms his sister with autism demonstrated.

We welcomed his questions as well as those from his curious neighborhood friends who we were determined to include in our friendly and oh-so-unconventional home. I did my parental best to offer up ideas as to why she does what she does, and thankfully they didn’t question me or ask to see the evidence behind my hypotheses.

We asked a panel of providers to give us their best answers as to why our kids do what they do. Shelley O’Donnell is an Occupational Therapist specializing in children with autism at Seattle Therapy Services. Jim Mancini is a Speech Language Pathologist and Emily Rastall is a Clinical Psychologist, both at Seattle Children’s Autism Center. Read full post »

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

When my daughter was diagnosed in 1999, I read every book written about autism. That wasn’t difficult to do back then but today it’s a different story. There are so many books on the subject that I don’t think I’d know where to begin if I got the diagnosis today.

 

While I don’t feel the need to read everything autism these days, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this book and wanted to share a bit of it with you.

First, the authors’ personal connection to autism: Caren Zucker’s oldest son has autism as does John Donvan’s brother-in-law. They both are award-winning news journalists who obviously did their homework in researching the history of what is now the most common developmental disability.

Their history starts in the 1930s with Donald Triplett, the man from Mississippi who was “Case Number 1”, the first diagnosed with autism by child psychiatrist, Leo Kanner. While chock-full of historical facts and figures, it is the stories used to chronicle autism’s history that grabs attention and hearts. It reads like a page-turning novel even though we know the story and that there is no surprise happily-ever-after ending.

At times it was difficult to read about the early days of institutionalization and punishment as treatment and of course, the theories that blamed “refrigerator mothers” for causing autism. Equally difficult is the realization of how glacially slow science has been in answering the same questions Mr. Triplett’s parents asked: what caused this and how do we best help our child?

The best aspect, by far, of In a Different Key is the validation of the Herculean efforts of parents to advocate for the needs and rights of their children. Theirs is a civil rights story that humbles the fiercest of advocates today, considering where they started and how much they accomplished. I turned the last page feeling a debt of gratitude to those who came before us, and a realization that, with each generation, we carry and then pass the torch.

Solar Eclipse – A Social Story and Fun Tips

In this blog post, Research Associates Kira Hamer and Emily Fox offer some suggestions on how to prepare yourself and your child for the eclipse, as well as some fun activities to do in the Seattle area while it is happening!

On August 21st, 2017 we will have an amazing opportunity to see an almost complete solar eclipse. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While we aren’t directly in the path of the eclipse (you have to go to Oregon for that), we will experience almost total darkness at 10:30 am when the moon passes in front of the sun! Many of us might find this experience and the science behind it incredibly exciting, but for some individuals, this event could be confusing, a little frightening, and disrupting to our routines.

Here is a social story to help prepare your child for the Solar Eclipse: I am going to see a solar eclipse!

Here is what the eclipse will look like in Seattle: http://bit.ly/2uC1FlT

Facts about the solar eclipse: http://bit.ly/2tm5aKK

How to Protect Your Eyes during the Eclipse

First and foremost: looking directly at the sun without special eye protection can cause serious damage, so always protect your family’s eyes with solar glasses if you want to directly observe the eclipse. According to space.com, there are four companies that meet NASA standards for solar glasses. These are Rainbow SymphonyAmerican Paper OpticsThousand Oaks Optical, and TSE 17. Your local library may also offer free eclipse glasses! It is important to note that sunglasses are not a replacement for special viewing glasses. If you are unable to find special glasses, another way to view the eclipse safely is to build a pinhole camera. A pinhole camera projects sunlight through a small hole in a box onto the other side of the box, so that you aren’t looking directly at the sun. You can find instructions for building a pinhole camera here.

How to Prepare Your Child for the Eclipse

Like any new experience or change for a child, it can be helpful to practice what you might do the day of the eclipse or to talk about what might happen. Here are some tips to help you and your child prepare:

  • Introduce your child to the solar eclipse using a social story. You can find an example attached. It may be helpful to read the social story several times a few days in advance of the eclipse.
  • Use a stopwatch or a timer to help your child know how much time is left in the eclipse. In most locations, the total eclipse will likely last 2-3 minutes.
  • If you are using solar glasses, help your child practice wearing these glasses so that they can get used to how they feel on their face.
  • Make sure you and your child are wearing sunscreen if you will be outside!
  • If you are worried that being outside during the eclipse will be frightening for your child, watch the eclipse in a different way! NASA will be live-streaming the event, and your child may be more comfortable watching the eclipse inside at home.
  • During the eclipse, the temperature will drop significantly and rapidly. If your family will be outside, plan on bringing an extra coat or a blanket.
  • The sudden darkness during the day will likely create increased traffic. It may be helpful to either plan on staying home for the duration of the eclipse or to get to your viewing spot early. If your child has to attend camp or a school program on the day of the eclipse, you may need to warn them that the drive could be longer or you might have to drive on a different route.
  • Make the experience fun! Color pictures of the sun and the moon, get a book from the library about space and the planets or take photos of your family on the day of the eclipse. Help your child understand that this is a special and exciting day in science.

Fun Eclipse Activities

Several local libraries and community centers are hosting viewing parties with eclipse activities for families (e.g., Seattle Public Library High Point Branch, South Park Community Center, Bryant Neighborhood Playground).

  • Some libraries will also show a live-stream of the eclipse from NASA.
  • The Pacific Science Center will open at 8:30 am on the day of the eclipse, and education staff will walk guests through the science of eclipses.
  • Do-It-Yourself Time Capsules are a great way to help you remember where you were during the eclipse. You can include letters to yourself, photos, drawings, and more.

The eclipse is a great opportunity to help your kids become real scientists! NASA is asking people in the viewing area to report on what they see and experience. The GLOBE (Global Learning Observations to Benefit the Environment) Observer Eclipse App can be downloaded on your phone and guides you through how to make observations. NASA is hoping to have a million eclipse viewers contribute their findings!

A Tribute to Charlie Burnett

It’s hard for me to recall where I first met my friend Charlie Burnett. It may have been in an office visit with his then young daughter Alyssa, or it may have been at a charity fundraiser. Through the years, and whatever the setting, Charlie was always kind, soft spoken and thoughtful, and never wavered from his principal mission – to do what was necessary to see his daughter Alyssa happy.

 

Alyssa is now a beautiful 30 year old woman with an infectious smile that lights up a room when she enters. Alyssa has lived with a developmental disability – in her case, a form of autism that prevents her from using words, and is associated with other medical issues including intractable epilepsy. Charlie and his wife, Barbara, have been first-hand witnesses to the challenges facing people with developmental differences – in everyday life, in school, and even in institutions such as Seattle Children’s Hospital.

A story I will always remember is recalled by Charlie and Barbara, an occasion a number of years ago (well before we launched Seattle Children’s Autism Center) when Alyssa was admitted to Seattle Children’s through the emergency department for a change in her behavior. It was clear to everyone that something was physically wrong with Alyssa, but because of her communication deficits, she expressed herself through violent behaviors. The hospital personnel were ill-equipped to deal with the situation. With Charlie and Barbara’s persistence, Alyssa ultimately received the necessary medical care, but in the process it became clear that much needed to change and improve in our system of how we were providing care and support for individuals and families impacted by autism.

Charlie was not the type of person to sit around and accept these societal failures. Recognizing his position of influence as a Senior Vice President at Costco (Charlie founded the pharmacy division for Costco), he and Barbara took aim at one of the biggest gaps of support for people with developmental disabilities. In 2004, along with a close-knit group of friends and advocates, Charlie and Barbara started the nonprofit Northwest Academy for Exceptional Children, later renamed Tessera. Tessera’s mission was to provide lifelong learning experiences for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities so that they might realize their fullest potential.

In 2008, Charlie and Barbara took charge with influential voices in the ears of Seattle Children’s leadership – supportive voices that helped us take the leap of faith necessary to see the Seattle Children’s Autism Center become a reality. This was no easy feat at the time – I can honestly say, that without the commitment of the Burnett family, the likelihood of us launching the Autism Center would have been seriously compromised.

In 2014, Charlie and Barbara again changed the face of services in our region for people with autism. The Burnetts and Tessera donated $7 million, including Tessera’s space in Bothell, to launch Seattle Children’s Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center. In collaboration with other community providers, it offers year-round classes for adults with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities, helping to fill the enormous gap in services that occurs when other programs’ enrollment ends at age 21. Charlie and Barbara’s combined philanthropic commitment, along with Tessera, now totals about $8.5 million and is nothing short of incredible. While it was not easy to plan for and launch the center, once again, the vision of Charlie and Barbara to see a better future for Alyssa and others living with developmental disabilities proved correct. We are grateful for the Burnetts’ passion and generosity – and honored to help carry out our shared vision to provide critical resources for adults with autism.

I know if Charlie were reading this, he would deflect these successes to those around him – to Barbara, to his close friends, including Ron Yutrzenka and Mike Smith, to Costco, and to the staff at Seattle Children’s. He would reflect on the driving purpose of his work and these accomplishments – to create a better world for his beautiful daughter Alyssa. Thank you Charlie – you succeeded. I will miss you, I will always remember the sacrifices you made, and I will use your love as inspiration for the work we continue to do – for Alyssa, and for all of the children and adults that need us as their voice.

When Behavior is the Disability

 It’s OK to be mad, but it’s not OK to hit.  This is often the first instruction we tell toddlers as they seek to understand the world of confusing instructions, disappointment, and being told no. My son Arthur hits, kicks, scratches, and pinches people when he’s upset. These are startling words to read and difficult for me to write. Arthur is not a toddler. Arthur is a 17-years-young man. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of two.

We’ve had many highs and lows over the years. The highs are amazing – his first 3-word sentence at age 6, fully toilet trained at age 9, noticing him read for pleasure at age 13, and his sheer joy when exploring Google Maps.  He loves his family, our friends, his teachers, and his therapists.  Arthur brings out the best in everyone. He redefines what it means to be normal. He strives to make sense of his life, just like the rest of us. He is a great guy.

Let’s talk about the lows. Aggression, property destruction, and blow-out tantrums are about as low as it gets for us.  Everyday experiences can be powerfully overwhelming, frustrating, and confusing for Arthur.  Loud sounds, nonsensical rules, and confounding instructions make him feel overloaded. And when that happens he can sometimes lash out with a quick pinch, hit, or kick.  I know the triggers and know the signs leading up to it, but I’m his mother, and I know him so well. I can anticipate his actions…most of the time. Unfortunately, not everyone interacting with my son can spot the build-up to his aggression.  When Arthur becomes aggressive or destructive, time slows down and my vision tunnels. I scan for items that can be thrown, windows that can be broken, or the direction of the busy street he might bolt toward. I become stronger – ready to deflect, duck, and protect. Sometimes Arthur is so upset that he harms himself so I physically have to protect both of us.

Everyone feels bad when Arthur strikes but no one as bad as him. After an incident, Arthur has a look of fear and regret as if he honestly cannot control it. He will cry and say repeatedly, “I don’t want to be angry.” “I don’t want to hit.”

If a stranger hit me I’d be scared and furious. But in those moments when Arthur has completely lost his ability to control himself, I feel compassion and deep sadness. It’s difficult beyond words to watch your child become so upset that he harms others, destroys property, and injures himself.

The aftermath leaves Arthur and me completely drained. Arthur likes to decompress in his room. That’s when the fear sets in for me. Will this continue into adulthood? What if he hurts someone? What happens if the police are called? Will they know he’s disabled rather than a threat?  Will he be hurt?  Will this limit his opportunities, freedom, and dignity in life?

Impulsivity, emotional control, and inflexibility are hallmark characteristics of autism. They are the main reasons for my son’s challenging behaviors. Fortunately, years of therapy to address challenging behaviors have paid off. We have a much better understanding that behaviors happen for a reason. They are learned, and they can be addressed. We better understand the triggers that set him off, effective strategies to keep him calm, and what works when he experiences a serious meltdown. Behavior is communication.  As we’ve come to understand what he is trying to tell us, we are now able to get out of the house more. Like many parents with children who experience aggression, the fear of a meltdown can drive us into isolation, making us reluctant to leave the house, send our child to school, participate in community events, or even go to the grocery store. 

Aggression, self-harm, property destruction, and other challenging behaviors are some of the most difficult aspects of autism. Fortunately there are Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) strategies that are effective at addressing challenging behaviors. In the next blog, Karen Bearss PhD, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center will focus on parent training to address problem behaviors for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She explores many of the same strategies that helped us understand and address Arthur’s problem behaviors and best of all, Arthur is happier and possesses a sense of sovereignty.

Finding comfort and camaraderie with other parents has helped and this wallet card has also come in handy for me over the years.