Archive for 2016

Free Autism 101 class this Thursday

Please join us this Thursday, July 28, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Seattle Children’s Hospital for our free quarterly lecture, Autism 101. Autism 101 is intended for parents and families of children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In this free lecture, participants will learn about:

  • Up-to-date, evidence-based information regarding the core deficits of ASD
  • Variability and presentation of behaviors associated with autism
  • Prevalence and etiology (study of the cause of the disorder)
  • Treatments available
  • Resources for families

Read full post »

Ask Dr. Emily- Ritualized Patterns of Non-Verbal Behavior and Sensory Seeking

Welcome to the July edition of Ask Dr. Emily! This month we celebrate the one year anniversary of our Ask Dr. Emily series! Thanks to Dr. Emily for her helpful advice and to our readers for sending questions we can all learn from. Here’s to another great year! 

We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights  in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to


Q: My son always turns his stuffed animals to face the wall when he’s playing. I’m curious about whether other kids do this and, if so, why?

A: One of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is something called “ritualized patterns of non-verbal behavior.” Often, children with autism dislike when these rituals are disrupted. Your son’s insistence on turning his toys a certain way may be one of these rituals. We don’t know why children with autism choose the rituals they do. It might also be difficult for us adults to understand what purpose these rituals may serve. We might guess that these behaviors bring order to an otherwise chaotic world, and thus, may serve to soothe an underlying unsettledness.

Q: My son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in August of 2015. He is almost four years old. He rubs his head across the floor when he is upset or even just randomly sometimes. Why does he do that? Is there a term for that? Also, he can be aggressive when upset. Are there ways to slow his aggression?

A: Often, repetitive behaviors (like the rubbing you described) can be the result of what is called “sensory seeking.” Sensory seeking is one of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. Children who are under-sensitive to tactile (skin) sensations, may seek it out for the purpose of calming, or simply for pleasure. It’s a little like the pleasure we might get from a back scratch or a foot rub; but their bodies want more of it more of the time.

With regard to your question about aggression, it is not uncommon for children, autism or not, to hit, kick, throw, and/or push, when upset. First, the reasoning part of the brain (frontal lobe) that helps us humans think through consequences and resist the urge to lash out (and we all feel it sometimes, right?) is very under-developed in young children. In fact, the frontal lobe is not fully developed in typically developing individuals until they reach 25 years old! In addition, when upset, stress hormones in the brain cause the frontal lobe to stop working as well. Children with autism spectrum disorder commonly have frontal lobes that are even less developed than their same-age peers. They also tend to feel things (like emotions) more intensely than their typically developing peers (or feel things equally, but understand them less, making the experience overwhelming and confusing). Time for brain development to occur, in addition to behavioral interventions (like applied behavioral analysis) can promote the development of self control in children with autism.

Join QFC in Helping Kids at Seattle Children’s Autism Center

Join QFC in Helping Kids at Seattle Children’s Autism Center

QFC 1QFC stores in Washington will be raising funds for Seattle Children’s Autism Center during a check stand promotion from July 17-August 13 this summer.  Funds raised will go directly to uncompensated care services at the Autism Center including Family Resources, Nursing, & support classes.


Transition to Adulthood-Connecting to Vocational, Educational, Social and Wellness Resources- This Month’s Autism 200 Class


This month’s Autism 200 Series class “Transition to Adulthood-Connecting to Vocational, Educational, Social and Wellness Resources” will be held Thursday, July 21, 2016, at Seattle Children’s Hospital in Wright Auditorium from 7 to 8:30 p.m. These classes are designed for parents, teachers and caregivers. The topics associated with the majority of classes are applicable to all age ranges and for a wide variety of children diagnosed with autism. This class will be led by Ben Wahl, MSW, Aspiring Youth & Therese Vafaeezadeh, ARNP.

Autism and Coping Tools for Parents Part 3: Humor

 Humor In Darkness

 I grew up surrounded by laughter.  My family has always been a sarcastic and snarky group who would routinely laugh when one of us would trip or fall off our bikes, usually holding up the correct amount of fingers in order to judge the event.  Nine fingers was a success, three fingers would require us to try to fall harder the next time.  But nothing really seemed serious when you were laughing—my father in particular—would always make tongue-in-cheek remarks about things we saw on TV, witnessed at the park, or overheard at family holiday parties.  No doubt this helped form our future ability to find humor in almost anything, making difficult situations somehow easier to digest and helped us absorb the full situation before reacting.  I am always looking for the humor.  But I learned later in life, not everything is funny.

My son was diagnosed with autism in 2011, shortly after his second birthday.  My husband and I noticed that the happy and joyful child we had was introverting into his own world.  He would stare blankly out the window for hours, taking in the view while having his fingers spread wide open directly in front of his face.  He would move his hand closer to him, turn it, and then quickly stretch it back out, taking his time moving it closer again, a behavior we later coined “finger puppets.”  His ability to communicate with us seemed to come to an abrupt end and any time we tried to touch him, he would shudder as if our hands felt like broken glass against his sensitive skin.  We were at a loss and for the first time, I failed to find the humor in what was taking over my son’s life. 

When we received the diagnosis, we both felt immediate dread and a sense of loss. While not life threatening, autism is nonetheless crushing.  All we understood of autism was from movies and a few stories on the nightly news, but our personal knowledge was very narrow and naïve.  We attempted to find ways to deal with the new reality that was now our family’s forever.  Autism found a way to become the fourth member of our family, an unwanted guest in our lives.  My husband dove into reading books and articles on autism, trying to find answers and solutions.  I decided to stick my head in the sand and wait it out.  You can only imagine how well that went.

MilesIn the years since the diagnosis, our family has established an amazing team of doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, parents and friends that have become an extension of our family, providing support, guidance and direction during difficult times and has greatly improved the quality of our lives.  We have been able to slowly reemerge, as a new family with our son, who is a little left-of-center, but always a joy to be around.  I was able to start seeing him for the person he was, and not the shell of who we thought he would be.  As he started to find words again and would venture out in public without covering his ears or having a meltdown, I started to witness some of the humor in autism.  Yes, it’s not funny as it’s written in the DSM-5 or discussed in the press, but it does have moments of hilarity and when it shows, it’s amazing.  I never appreciated the word “literal” until one day when I was singing “Five Little Monkeys” with my son.  As I began to sing, “Momma calls the doctor and the doctor says….” I pointed to my son to finish the verse and he looked at me and said, straight-faced, “HELMET!”  Can’t argue with that.  It was a moment that made me laugh and understand how he views the world, the literal boundaries and structure that is autism. 

I’ve found that through humor, I can also disengage socially awkward situations when they arise, and there are plenty—believe me!  One of my son’s favorite things to do is to explore the world using his mouth.  It took me a while to accept this as one of the sensory processing ways his mind adapts, and I’ve also developed a strong gag reflex as well.  While riding the subway home back in New York, my husband and I positioned our son’s stroller against one of the rails while we stood on either side of it.  We were having a conversation when we suddenly heard a woman scream, “Oh no!!  He is NOT licking that pole!” Sure enough, our son had stretched his little head out far enough to reach the pole and started to lick it up and down to gain the sensory input his mind craved. 

Initially horrified and worried about what he was ingesting, the gentleman across the aisle said, in a thick New York accent, “Well now, if we have nuclear fallout, your son and the cockroaches will be the only survivors.”  We all started to laugh, because honestly, what else can you do?  It was probably true and it was already done; the laughter defused the need to explain to a train full of strangers why our son did this.  We started to accept that he had a different way of exploring and gaining knowledge than we did.  Instead of trying to stop it, we allowed him to explore on his terms.  And we started to laugh again.  Our son has taught us that being different can be fun, it offers another way to view the world and we have released that constant worry about the things he can’t do, can’t say and can’t be.

Navigating this new world of autism with my son, I realized that my childhood full of laughter and not taking ourselves too seriously has probably served me better than if we had a dramatic or reactive family dynamic.  Flexibility in autism is difficult to find, but if you mentally keep yourself focused on what’s most important, it’s easy to laugh at the silly situations that we often find ourselves in.  Now when we see our son licking the neighbor’s dog, singing the latest pop song at full volume while at the library, or jumping and flapping his hands wildly while waiting in line at the airport, we just look at one another, shrug our shoulders and judge with the appropriate amount of fingers.  Sometimes, even on the three-finger day, autism can be funny.