Florida's First Choice for Autism Support

Archive for the ‘Guest Blogs’ Category

Making Tampa Bay Autism Friendly

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you either live in the greater Tampa area, close to it, or have some connection to the city. As previously mentioned, I’ve had the great honor and distinction of being a part of the City of Tampa Autism Board in an advisory role. Our mission is to, little by little, transform Tampa into a place where individuals all across the autism spectrum can feel safe, secure and welcomed. The mayor has been incredibly receptive to the initiative, as have many of the prominent institutions around the city, such as the Glazer Children’s Museum who will be hosting this year’s Fiesta by the Bay for Autism. I’d like to talk about some of the efforts being taken around the city, as well as some small things the average person can do to make Tampa a more accepting place to people of all abilities.

Besides the support from the mayor himself, we’ve received support from so many places across the city. It’s no simple task covering a major urban area, but we believe we’ll get to every business one day. The Tampa Police Department has already integrated our teachings (which I starred in!) into their officer’s training, and the paramedics will now be carrying around cards, which people with autism can use to point out what is wrong without having to speak. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have featured CARD on the big screen at their games, and the Tampa Bay Lightning just had an Autism Awareness Night at a recent, very important game (I would have gone myself, but I can’t go betraying my Penguins like that). Glazer Children’s Museum and the Florida Aquarium are among the family-friendly locations around the Tampa area who have embraced our mission, and we have meaningful connections with WEDU, the local PBS branch. As a side note, make sure to check out Sesame Street, which has autism representation in the form of Julia, a friend of Elmo. These are just some of the larger, more recognizable groups involved with Autism Friendly, we have many more and the number will continue to grow. If you’d like to know more, check out the recent article I wrote for Tampa Parenting Magazine. My article is on page 17.

Every individual can make a difference. If your place of work is within the Tampa Bay area, please feel free to contact Dr. Karen Berkman at KBerkman@usf.edu or by phone at 813-974-4033. It’s completely free and is almost guaranteed to be a boon for your business. Plus, you’re doing a great thing for an entire group of people. But there’s an even smaller scale we can all work on. If you come across someone who you believe may have autism, be it in your place of work or just out in public and they’re struggling, be there for them in a supporting role. That doesn’t necessarily mean go and do everything for them; most won’t need it anyway. Rather, just be ready to offer a helping hand, and be patient with them. Be a friend, and they will be grateful, even if they can’t fully express it.

G. Sosso

 

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Getting a Good Night’s Rest: Autism & Sleep

Ah, the joys of a good night’s sleep. When we’re lying awake in bed at night, we want nothing more than to stay up just a little bit longer. Then as soon as we wake up in the morning, prying ourselves up from bed can be the most difficult thing in the world. Sleep is part of being alive, and it’s something that comes so naturally to many, but for people on the autism spectrum, it can be a constant struggle. This problem seems to be magnified with children. Personally, I’ve had difficulties with sleep bordering on insomnia for a great deal of my life. My family is well aware of how unhealthy my sleeping habits have always been (though in the past year I have improved greatly), and I’m sure that, for many parents out there reading this, it has been a major issue they’ve had to deal with. I want to outline some shocking facts and realities about sleep-related issues when it comes to ASD.

I figured the number would be high, but I have to admit, I didn’t expect it would be this bad. According to Autism Speaks, as much as 80% of children with ASD suffer from poor sleeping. Now here’s the thing: as far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly unique about the effects of a sleep deficit on those with autism. It can result in increased aggravation, hyperactive behavior, lingering drowsiness, etc. This is consistent for all children. However, the issue is the exponentially higher rate at which these things occur for people with autism. Live Science states that in the neurotypical population, “Studies estimate that between 10 percent and 33 percent of children and 40 percent of adolescents experience sleep problems,” a far cry from the 80% with autism.

So why is this? What causes these issues to be so prevalent in the autism demographic? The truth is, we don’t know. Researchers have never been able to pinpoint an exact reason, though there are theories. These ideas range from decreased melatonin levels at night when they should be higher to aid sleep, to heightened sensitivity to various stimuli which distract from falling asleep, to the high levels of anxiety typically experienced by those with autism, which I have gone into depth with in previous blogs. No matter the root cause, there are fundamental challenges which prevent many from experiencing the proper rest they need to stay healthy.

There has to be some solutions to all this, right? Of course, though patience will most likely be required; there is no quick fix that’s effective. Autism Speaks and WebMD both have some suggestions for parents on maximizing their child’s “sleep efficiency.” These include avoiding any caffeine or sugar, providing a relaxing environment with soft music, dim lights, etc., turning off stimuli such as TV or video games, get melatonin (NOT sleeping pills), have the kid exercise during the day, early afternoon naps, and coming up with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. That last one, once I finally implemented it after 21 years on this Earth, was the one that finally worked for me. Now I sleep a consistent 7-8 hours on work nights, and 8-9.5 on weekends. Follow those tips, keep at it, and eventually sleep will come as naturally to you or your children as anyone else.

 

 

 

Video Games & ASD

In my previous blog, I wrote about some of the reasons why people on the autism spectrum might be attracted to anime, or Japanese animation. This time around, I would like to talk about something comparable: why video games are so appealing to us. Video games are not as niche of an interest as anime, and they are massively popular among plenty of demographics. However, every single person I’ve ever met with ASD, myself included, has been a huge fan of video games. Why is this? Many of the reasons are similar to those of anime, such as the presence of a wide, accepting community, but there are some unique reasons as well that make video games stand out. I will attempt to explain this appeal with a combination of research, as well as my own personal experiences and anecdotes.

Video games offer a wide variety of different ways to play, and there’s a genre for just about anyone. There’s single player, local co-op and online multiplayer, depending on what you’re looking for. As discussed in this article, video games can provide a level of escapism from the confusing real world, and into one where you, the player, control everything. You have the ultimate authority over what happens, and there’s an element of certainty and security. But security and comfort can’t last forever, and eventually you’ve got to deal with the harsh reality that sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. Video games are highly competitive and can be difficult, and if you play against other players, you’re going to lose. It may be hard to comprehend for people who have never played, but these games are high intensity and can get pretty heated. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn to not be a sore loser and accept defeat, a good lesson to learn for those with autism who always want things to go exactly according to plan.

Those are some of the main reasons that I personally agree with wholeheartedly, but there are other factors as well. One is the development of fine motor skills. It is well known that people on the spectrum often have issues in the development of motor skills (once again, I’m no exception), but video games can certainly help with that. Chief among these skills is hand-eye coordination, which video games teach you. I know that gaming helped me in that regard, as well as practicing typing. I overcame things I couldn’t do naturally through practice, and others can too.

One more important thing I’d like to mention is the element of problem solving. Games present a challenge much like that of a puzzle, where the solution is something you have to figure out on your own. As we’ve discussed before, many individuals with ASD have wonderful amounts of creativity, and can come at problems from unique angles. Video games are a perfect outlet for this, where the solution is always there, but it’s up to the player to figure it out. There is a terrific sense of accomplishment you feel when you overcome a challenge in a game; it instills you with confidence which is often lacking from those with autism, and that confidence can even carry over into real life.

For all their negative press, video games have a lot of draw to them, especially those with autism. And now, we’re discovering that they could even be an effective tool for teaching!

  • G. Sosso
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Autism & Anime Connection

For those who may not be familiar with the term “anime,” I will provide a brief overview for reference. Simply put, anime is at its core, animated material originating from Japan. Think of them as Japanese cartoons, though there are some differences such as story structure and animation style.

But that’s not the purpose of this blog post; instead, I would like to focus on something that, while mostly anecdotal in nature, is something that I’ve always noticed and hits close to home with me. I am referring to the wide appeal anime typically has to people with autism spectrum disorder. It was difficult to find hard data or research on this topic, but with what little I could find, along with my own experiences, I’ve compiled some reasons as to why anime is as popular as it is among those with autism.

First and foremost is the element of escapism. Of course, this could be said of most mediums, not just anime. However, anime has a few advantages that separate it from many of its contemporaries. In anime, many main characters are social recluses; outcasts who have yet to find their own niches in life. Suddenly, they’re thrust into a magical world full of wonder and adventure where everyone accepts them. Almost every anime in existence has a bit of the classic “power of friendship” trope where the once-timid hero saves the day through the unbreakable bonds he’s forged with the rest of the cast. Most reading this can see why such a thing would be so appealing to someone on the autism spectrum. Many of us are awkward in social situations, and dream of having tons of friends who accept us for who we are. The presence of such things in anime is very alluring.

Reading non-verbal cues and noticing subtlety is not a strong suit for those with ASD. It’s one of the few nearly universal traits in fact. Fortunately, anime’s got that covered! Japanese animation does not focus on subtle movements and gestures in the same way Western cartoons do, and in order to compensate, a character’s emotions are put on full display using extremely obvious visual cues. For example, if a character is in love, hearts will appear over them. If they’re nervous, sweat drops will envelop them. If they’re angry, they’ll start heating up and their eyes will get cross, etc. Here is a great example:

Anime storytelling does a good job of always letting the audience know what is going on and how characters are feeling, which is good for those of us who cannot always easily discern such things.

Finally, is a pretty simple reason actually. The anime community is one of the most welcoming, tolerant groups out there. People with autism are often afraid of what the general population will think of them, and the thought of socializing is terrifying. Interest in anime is generally looked down upon by those who aren’t familiar with the medium, and as a result, are very warm towards those few who do share their interests. Those on the spectrum who’d ordinarily be afraid to express themselves, can find acceptance among those who share a common passion.

> G. Sosso

Link between Autism and Genius?

 

Hollywood has an odd history when it comes to portraying autism spectrum disorder in its movies. Autism is a wide spectrum, with many different behavioral traits exhibited, but Hollywood seemingly only ever portrays the “autistic savant.” With movies such as Rain Man, Adam, Mercury Rising, etc. people whose only exposure to autism comes through movies may be inclined to believe that everyone with autism is a genius with an IQ of 120+. This is obviously not the case, but the phenomena known as the autistic savant is certainly a real thing. In fact, there may be a link between ASD and having genius-level intellect or creativity.

Some of history’s greatest composers, scientists and innovators have been suspected of being on the autism spectrum. Although impossible to verify, according to several sources, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emily Dickinson all showed strong signs of having autism during their lives. These men and women changed the world, in part due to devoting their lives to their pursuits. All were incredibly talented individuals.

One of the hallmarks of geniuses who leave their impact on the world is an utter devotion to what they do. This often requires shutting off other people completely in order to focus all your effort on your passion. As this article says, “Whether it is Edison inventing the electric light bulb, or Beethoven writing a symphony, the capacity to transcend prodigious challenges requires a keen ability to screen out distractions, whether social, or practical.” The same article goes in depth about the new film, Magnus, about the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, who denies being on the autism spectrum, but his claims are treated with skepticism. Carlsen absorbs himself in chess so much he shuns his family in the process.

While not every individual on the autism spectrum is of the savant variety, there is definitely evidence that points to a correlation between ASD and being classified as “genius.” Savant or not, people on the spectrum continue to make impacts on the world today, with several talented people like Temple Grandin being great role models in the community, and shining beacons to the rest of the world that we can do great things.

 

  • G. Sosso

Technology & Autism

It’s no secret that technology has completely changed the face of society, especially in the boom of the past 20 years or so. We have things like smart phones, tablets, notebooks, smart watches, etc. which have made things so much easier for all of us. But how does this affect those on the autism spectrum? In what ways can we utilize this new amazing technology to improve life for people with autism and their families? It can act as either a learning tool or a great source of entertainment depending on the context.

Perhaps the most prevalent use of technology in regards to people on the spectrum is that of “assistive technology.” The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 describes assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, off-the-shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities,” in this case autism. One good example I can think of is an app that one of my mom’s good friends uses with her son called “First-Then Visual Schedule.” Oftentimes visual learning is the primary method for those with autism, and this $10 app helps present a visually stimulating schedule that will help people keep better track of their lives. This is just one example, there are many more out there that do a myriad of different things; here’s a convenient list on parenting.com that features 11 apps including the aforementioned First-Then Visual Schedule.

Technology is not confined to the assistive variety, in fact many use it as a way to stave off boredom. It’s no secret that children with autism particularly love video games, as they talk about here, and with the rise of casual gaming brought about by tablets, there’s a never-ending supply of fun to be had. While tech addiction is a real thing and should be avoided, sometimes as a parent you just need some time to yourself. One of the best ways to keep your children occupied is to get your kid a video game system, or even just an iPad with Candy Crush, Crossy Road or Angry Birds, and they can keep themselves busy for hours at a time. Trust me, I speak from 21+ years of experience.

One interesting thing I would like to highlight is this little gem: Project EVO. It’s a therapeutic tablet game made specifically for kids with autism. Here’s what CBS said about Project EVO: “As they [the kids] go through the game they are supposed to skirt around certain objects while choosing others. The idea is to condition the brain to sift through and organize information in real time, requiring a player to stay focused on the task at hand.” It’s a very interesting concept. The game has not yet been released, but I look forward to tracking its progress.

 

  • G. Sosso

Autism & Navigating the Internet Safely

Ah, the internet. It is a vast place, with an almost infinite number of possibilities. Chances are, if it exists, it’s somewhere on the internet, and you can find it if you look hard enough. In fact, nowadays it’s difficult to get by without embracing the online world. However, this also comes with some great risks, and the internet can be a dangerous place if you don’t navigate it responsibly. I’m no expert, but as someone who has been using the internet my entire life, I’d like to think I’ve got a pretty good grip on the dos and dont’s of the web. I will do my best to share some of the most important ones with you, in hopes that you have a safe and enjoyable experience.

The first and most important thing is to never give out personal information, especially on a public forum site such as Facebook or Twitter. Examples include, but are not limited to: your Social Security number, home address, phone number, or bank and credit card account numbers. Many of these may seem fairly obvious, but people make the mistake every day. Additionally, never reveal any personal information which can be used to track you down in real life, so things like your school, sports team, clubs, and your place of employment should be off limits.

Remember, everything you post on the internet is there permanently. So make sure anything you post is something you’re okay with other people hearing. Basically, if you wouldn’t say it to your mother’s face, don’t say it online. You may think venting about how terrible your job and boss are, but keep in mind: that can come back to bite you. If the company you work for sees what you posted, they can and will fire you. This article is a perfect example. Just like in real life, you can never take back something you say online, so choose your words carefully!

Cyber bullying is a major issue in today’s day and age, like it or not. Cyber bullying is any form of harassment that takes place online instead of in person, and while that eliminates the possibility for any physical harm, it can make the emotional damage even worse considering the anonymity provided by the internet. According to this article, “Pupils with special educational needs are 16% more likely to be persistently cyber bullied over a prolonged period of time.” If someone starts getting nasty with you online, don’t give them the time of day. Just like regular bullies, they’re most likely just taking out their own personal problems and insecurities on those who are less likely to be able to defend themselves. It’s not worth your time to give them they attention they crave, and you’ll only be making yourself miserable in doing so.

Finally, and this one is crucial. Unless it is purely for business purposes, never agree to meet with someone you meet online in person. It’s a well-documented fact many people on the autism spectrum are naturally more trusting than the general population. While this is not always a bad thing, placing too much trust in a stranger can be dangerous, and it’s difficult for those with autism to discern that. Statistically speaking, there is a higher probability that the friend you’ve met online is a good person who means you no harm, but there’s also a lot of creeps out there who are looking to take advantage of young naïve individuals, and I don’t think I need to go into the things they’ll do. There have been so many cases of this, linking to one or two examples would be pointless; a quick google search will show you the true depravity of some people. Always keep interactions with strangers purely anonymous while online.

G.Sosso

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