Florida's First Choice for Autism Support

Father’s Day

Father’s Day is coming up and I wanted to devote this blog to all the wonderful fathers out there! Earlier this month, I got to visit with local autism dad Olando Rivera, former champion kick boxer and owner of the B.A. Warrior gym here in Tampa. If you’d like to read about my visit and get some great input from a primary source, please feel free to check out here.

It’s no real secret that compared to mothers, fathers don’t receive nearly the same amount of appreciation for what they do. To be fair, there are (mostly cultural) reasons for this. With many families in America, the dad is out working most of the day while the mom stays home and raises the kids. There is no study to support the claim that women naturally have more compassion than men do, though according to this article, women express compassion more often through “nurturing and bonding behaviors,” which is advantageous when taking care of a child with autism. Like most things, however, these are just generalizations, and not always the case. There’s a national trend lately that’s seeing more and more dads act as the primary caregivers in the household. Pew Research reported in June 2014 that at least 2 million men are stay at home dads in the US alone  and that number has surely risen since then. So the men are there, and they’re not going anywhere! And this is in no way meant to marginalize the impact or importance of moms; quite the opposite in fact. The mom is the wheel that keeps the whole family spinning, and without them we’d all be lost. This is more about giving thanks to the dads out there, who are just as important and should be respected as such!

To all the moms out there: please, encourage your husband to take a more proactive role in your child’s life. If you read what Olando had to say, follow that advice. His bond with his son is so strong because he got involved, broke down that barrier that so many kids on the spectrum erect, and both father and son are stronger for it. Ultimately though, it’s up to the dads to take that big step. Olando had a great quote: “There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, other than change your situation.” This is very true. A very similar thing happened to my own dad a few years ago. Before I got my diagnosis, my relationship with him was rocky. Not terrible, but we never really connected all that well. After the diagnosis, and after seeing a family therapist, he completely turned things around; he “changed his situation.” Now he and I have a wonderful relationship and I love him dearly. Its stories like Olando’s and hopefully even my own that we’re trying to create more of here at CARD, by raising awareness leading up to Father’s Day.

This Father’s Day, remember to give your dad a big hug, maybe get him a little gift, and most importantly, let him know how much you love and appreciate him!

  • G. Sosso

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the most prominent dads in the Tampa Bay autism community, Olando “The Warrior” Rivera. The former kickboxer, whose record boasts several championship titles, now is a successful business owner running the B.A. Warrior Gym and soon opening the Warriors for Autism Fitness & Sensory Center specifically designed for individuals with special needs. The center inspired by his own son and other children on the spectrum will have a sensory room, zip line, rock wall and various activities that are geared toward children and young adults with sensory sensitives.

As you can imagine, I was a little nervous meeting someone with his résumé, but it turns out he was a really nice guy who seemed to genuinely care about all the kids that walk into his gym. As I was listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feel like it could be the plot to a movie; star athlete who had it all, life tries to knock him down, comes out in the end happier than ever, knowing family is more important than anything else. Listed below are the questions I asked Mr. Rivera, followed by his responses. Hope you enjoy!

olando

Coach Olando helping a young boy on the Sensory Center’s rock wall

 

Q: Please describe your mission here at the B.A. Warrior Training Center. We can all read it online, but I’d like to hear it straight from your mouth.

A: “The mission here, our vision, is to have a place where the kids can come in and have fun, but at the same time, not feel like they’re overwhelmed with all the noise. I can’t have it loud and noisy in here, or have a lot of bright lights, because as you know, I have an autistic son. He’s 17 now, and I want him to know that when he comes into this room, he can have fun and not squint his eyes or cover his ears and stuff like that; I’ve been through this with him his whole life, so I understand what he needs. I basically designed this place alongside my wife with the thought of helping these kids, and my son, to not only have fun, but to get some exercise. Can’t get in shape when you’re sitting at home on the computer!”

 

Q: What sort of growth do you usually see in your disciples, from when they first walk in here to when they leave for the last time?

A: “That’s another reason why I’ve been so inspired to do this program. Since I started this back in 2000, what I’ve seen throughout the years with all the kids that have come through those doors to train with me, is that when they got here they were very shy and scared, and didn’t know what they were getting into really. I’ve seen them transform from that into saying, ‘Hey this is so fun and cool!’, and it had to do with simple things that I did to help them, which I’ve also done with my own son. I figured if it works for him, I could probably duplicate it with other kids. Why not help as many of these kids as I possibly can? The best feeling is when I see some of them go from non-verbal to verbal, and actually say, ‘Thanks coach!’, it’s magical. It shows how much they truly do care. The key, I believe, is the eye contact. Once you’ve established that, and they’ll look at you right back, you know you’ve gained their trust.”

 

Q: How did getting that initial diagnosis for your son change things for you and your family?

A: “That one’s really close to the heart. When we found out, we didn’t know what it was. Who did? He was 5 when we found out, so going on 12 years now. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I’m a champion athlete, why does my son have something like this?’, and it was hard for me, as a man, to wonder how could he have gotten this from me when I’m so healthy? It caused a lot of problems between me and my wife; shifting the blame on one another, going back and forth, it was bad. But through the grace of God, we realized fighting wouldn’t solve anything, and that he’s our son and he needs us to help him. Being completely honest, I was in denial about it, thinking he’ll be fine, or “grow out of it,” but as the years went by, nothing changed. My wife Deena stayed on top of it though, making sure he always got what he needed. They called me a warrior when I was fighting, but she was the real warrior, doing what needed to be done for her kid. When I realized that, I accepted my son for who he is, and began my mission to help out other kids in similar situations.”

 

Q: There’s an unfortunate stigma against dads of children with autism, that they “can’t be as involved as the mom.” What would you say to any dads out there to convince them to be proactive in their child’s life?

A: “It comes down to the last question I answered. I was in denial as a dad, I didn’t want to believe it even existed, let alone that my son had it. I’m sure there are a lot of dads out there who go through the same thing I did. But that’s crazy, because if you think that way, then you’re not really a dad. When you’re a parent, you take your child, and you deal with the hand you’re given, and you do what you have to do to ensure they’re the best they can be no matter what’s involved. Moms are going to do what needs to be done almost always, because they carried you! They know what’s best for you by instinct, but many dads don’t have that. What I can say though, is to just remember: it’s not about you, it’s about your kid. Just love them and take care of them, and I promise you’ll do just fine.”

 

Q: Thank you so much for doing this. Last thing, can you give any general advice to all the dads out there who may be reading?

A: “It’s no problem, glad to do it. My suggestion to the dads out there: get down on one knee, look them in the eye. MAKE that contact with them, if they look away, pull their face back to yours. Let them see you, because once they do, it breaks that barrier they put up automatically. “There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, other than change your situation.” Doing nothing will change nothing. I’ve seen it consistently ever since I opened this place up. When you work hard to make things better, the change you will see is contagious, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. That’s the reason I’m here today standing in this building with you, is my determination to make things better, and that is my advice to all the dads out there.”

olando 2

Olando and his wife, Deena.

 

  • G. Sosso

 

 

With Mother’s Day 2016 just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mother and how much I appreciate her and everything she does for me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if weren’t for her, so thank you so much; I love you! Today I want to talk about some things that “autism moms” may experience or should know about. I’ve compiled this list from various sources, including the internet, my own mom, and the moms of some of my friends from the Learning Academy last year. I included a few entries that apply for high functioning autism, and some for low functioning, so as to not discriminate against either demographic. Some of these things may seem obvious, but honestly speaking, being a parent to kid(s) on the spectrum is a challenging thing, and sometimes being reminded of these things can be a huge help in keeping us grounded. So here’s my list of the most important things you will experience as an autism mom:

  1. You will become very flexible. Kids with autism can often be unpredictable and don’t always have the same thought process as neurotypical children, so you will have to learn to adapt to their behavior. Don’t expect a “one size fits all” parenting style to work very well.
  2. At the end of the day, you will have the patience of a saint. For a while, your child will test your sanity, but you will come out stronger for it in the end. My mom used to be quicker to anger, now she can take anything that comes at her.
  3. No matter where your child falls on the spectrum, you will come to be thankful for progress of any kind, be it vocal, academic or social, so much more than the average parent. You may even feel happier than they do!
  4. Like it or not, you will learn basically all there is to know about autism itself. The moms I talked to formulating this list seemed to know more about autism than some neuroscientists, which I found humorous.
  5. This one is very important: please make sure you take care of yourself occasionally. You won’t be able to take care of your kids if you’re too fatigued to do anything. Treat yourself to a night out every now and then.
  6. You may or may not go crazy at times thinking about your child’s future. Just kidding… you will absolutely go crazy! All parents worry about this, but when you have the unpredictability autism brings like I mentioned before, it can really dominate your mind at times.
  7. Above all else, you will truly learn to appreciate what you have. Kids with autism are just as wonderful as those without it, and if you just have the determination, you can make them become a success through a loving relationship.

Make sure to show your appreciation this Mother’s Day, and to all the wonderful moms out there, thank you for all you do!

gage and mom

My mother and I

  • G. Sosso

For many families with autism, the name Temple Grandin is well known. While Dr. Grandin is truly inspiring and a beacon of hope, for me the hero in that family goes by the same nickname as me and many of you, Mom… Eustacia Cutler.  I can’t imagine facing the challenges and decisions she made at a time when she did not have support of her community and services such as CARD like we have now.

I just want to note that if you are reading this, and you are a Mom (or a Dad taking on the role of Mom), you are doing an incredible job! One thing that Eustacia did not have to contend with is the undue pressure of social media to contend with setting an unrealistic standard of motherhood. It is human nature to only want to share the positive aspects of your life, but in doing so a much altered reality is portrayed. It is in the sharing our own struggles and asking for help that we can help each other and then truly celebrate the successes, however small.

Let me share with you a recent episode of my life that, at the time, I thought was definitely a mom failure on my part. I’ve gotten quite spoiled as of late with minimal meltdowns for the past couple of years by my ten year old. I can’t quite say that about myself, but of her I can.  Of course she would correct me and say, “Uh Mom, you mean disasters”. So this particular disaster was triggered by me forgetting a cardinal parenting rule.  Don’t commit to something you don’t deliver. The day before my daughter had asked me if we could stop somewhere on the way to school and get a breakfast sandwich (and a donut) instead of her eating at home or school as is the norm. I said, yes, and added quickly as long as you are ready early. However, I did not expound on that or provide a definition of what ready and early was.  She got up very early that day, but about five minutes before I intended to leave I checked on her and she was still in her PJs!!! It seems getting up early only provided her a chance to get distracted and lose track of time. With my reminder she jumped into action but at this point I knew we wouldn’t be able to stop and I made her breakfast.

We got in the car and I gave her the breakfast to eat on the way. She ate it without complaint and was singing along with the radio. Then we got to her school. She asked why we were there. I said, so you could go to school. She asked about stopping. I explained she wasn’t ready so we weren’t able to stop today. This is normally where in my spoiled state she would take it in stride and the day would keep going. But this time….it stopped. We pulled up to the car rider line where the safety patrol was and she wasn’t budging. So I pulled up further where the ESE teachers and Aides were and she was in tears and repeating, “I am not ready; I was supposed to go to the store”. They tried; I was out of the parked car at this point trying all my tricks. It wasn’t working. I was trying very hard to stay calm as I had to present to about a hundred people an hour later. I thanked the two teachers that stayed out there with me for the twenty minutes and told them I would drive around to the front office. There was a part of me that thought if you had just taken her and been late you could have avoided this. But I was not giving in. I drove to the front of the school, tried one more distraction reset, “Should we park on the right or the left?” in an animated voice.  “Insistence” was in the backseat still wanting her original plan.

We parked. I think she realized at that point I wasn’t giving in and so she got out of the car, rushed through the office and headed up to her classroom. I followed behind with her backpack, getting a classroom pass, etc.  I caught up with her at the top of the stairs. She told her teacher, “I am having a rough morning”, and I passed the torch. It was reported back to me that she ended up recovering well and having a great day. The next morning, she was ready to go 15 minutes before we were scheduled to leave without prompting from me. Maybe it wasn’t a failure after all?

I have long since given up the “I can do it on my own” pretense. I often call up my fellow parents, CARD consultants, family and friends when facing a new twist and turn.

  • Michele Jewell, CARD Constituency Board Chair

As many of you might already know, April is Autism Awareness Month! All around the world, groups like CARD are doing their best to bring attention to the unique struggles people on the spectrum face on a daily basis. There’s even a special campaign every April 2nd called “Light it up Blue,” which, as the name implies, is a day to wear blue, the color that represents autism. As someone who realizes how generally underrepresented and unappreciated the ASD demographic is 11 months out of the year, I can at least be thankful there’s a month devoted to the cause of helping these people.

I’d like to include some pictures of some of the world’s famous landmarks that participate in Light it up Blue, it’s really a beautiful thing to see:

There are many others, from famous Buddhist Temples in Asia, to the Eye of London and the White House; I suggest you look them up as well!

Anyways, the thing I would like to talk about is the idea of an Autism Awareness Month itself. Now, while I said before that I do love the idea, I (as well as many others), feel that it’s not enough. According to the Autism Society, there are more than 3.5 million Americans alone with ASD, or roughly 1 in 68 births, and that number seems to be climbing constantly. Too many on the spectrum are directionless, unable to find help, don’t have the necessary life skills to thrive in the world, and these things aren’t their fault. They just need the proper guidance, and an awareness month dedicated to them is a great first step, but we need more.

Autism awareness is something that should take place all year long, not just in April. The fact of the matter is, while many people who normally don’t think too much about autism are more cognizant of it for 30 days, once May 1st rolls around, they’re back to forgetting for another 11 months. This is how many feel about other dedicated months, such as Black History month or Women’s History month. Until the day where individuals on the spectrum are fully integrated into society (or at least as well as we can be), let’s focus on making Autism Awareness Month “Autism Awareness Year.”

  • G. Sosso

Farewell to CARD

As I “retire” from CARD-USF to move on to a hundred other activities, I have been reflecting a lot lately on: how much I will miss everyone at CARD; how much I will miss USF, which has been part of my life since 1967; how much I will miss being a librarian, even if I’ve been kind of a “pretend” one for the last couple of decades; and how much I will miss keeping up on the latest research, publications, and news, though the osmosis effect of social media ensures that I won’t miss much.

Mostly, I am thinking about how much things have changed for families since my daughter was diagnosed in 1992:

  • Her original diagnosis of PDD-NOS no longer exists as a diagnosis
  • Asperger’s disorder no longer exists as a diagnosis
  • Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in the early 90s were very likely to be placed in programs designed for children with emotional/behavioral disorders, or intellectual disabilities, but rarely in programs designed for children with ASD diagnoses. Very often, children with ASD were placed in center-based schools. We have watched education evolve from a dearth of teacher preparation and services, through developing expertise thanks to professional development efforts of school districts and organizations like CARD, through segregated settings at neighborhood schools, to a current landscape in which many more students are fully or partially included with their peers in regular education classes and activities.
  • Interventions have gone from consequence-based, punitive “treatments” to antecedent-based, positive supports that seek to make the whole environment supportive and oriented toward increased communication and prevention of challenging behaviors.
  • Community venues such as child care sites, summer camps, restaurants, movie theaters, theme parks, resorts, zoos, orchestras and museums have gone from being fairly unwelcoming environments, to seeking out training and support from CARD to open their doors and programming to customers, visitors and employees who have ASD.

One of the most beautiful advocacy movements that has emerged over the past twenty years has been the self-advocacy movement working for acceptance of all individuals with or without diagnoses. This movement has recently been represented most visibly by the author Steve Silberman, in his book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, published by Penguin Random House in 2015. Many public libraries have this book, or can get it via inter library loan if you are interested in reading it. This movement seeks to move from “awareness” to acceptance. Once individuals who have traditionally been marginalized by society develop their own voice and presence, it becomes impossible for them to continue being ignored, and changes happen quickly.

As the parent of an adult with ASD who is very challenged by social & communication issues, I will take with me into retirement a renewed sense of my daughter as an individual with unlimited potential who deserves to be accepted fully by her community, even if she needs a bit more assistance in developing her own voice. But it should be her voice – not the voice of well-meaning people thinking they are speaking for her.

Thank you CARD staff, families and friends, thank you everyone in CBCS and USF for the gifts of your friendship, wisdom, and insight. I leave here the better for having known and worked with all of you.

– Jean

jean and anna 2

You may have heard the term “person-first language” before (that’s person-first, not to be confused with first-person, a point of view); simply put, it’s a manner of speech which aims to avoid any kind of dehumanization or marginalization amongst those with disabilities. Now, there is some controversy surrounding the usage and importance of person-first language, but we here at CARD believe its use to is of the utmost importance. I’ll go more into it in this, but if you would like to read more about what person-first language is, here’s a link to a page explaining it in great detail: https://www.thearc.org/who-we-are/media-center/people-first-language.

 
First of all, what is person-first language in the context of speech and writing? Let me give you an example: instead of saying “that autistic boy,” we prefer “that boy with autism.” Autistic is an adjective; i.e. a word that describes or defines something/someone. In our opinion, a person should not be defined by their disability, be it autism or some other condition. Autism may be a part of who they are, but it is not the main aspect of their identity. When describing others, most people will say, “that girl with the long hair,” not “that long-haired girl.” The long hair is just a part of who she is, not what defines her. While not an offensive or even particularly distasteful example, the same concept applies here. If we utilize person-first language for such mundane things as hair color, then why not do the same for autism?

 
There is one other thing I would like to add, and it’s the main reason why I personally advocate the usage of person-first language, especially in regards to autism. There is a particularly nasty trend going that’s been going around, mostly on the internet, which uses “autistic” as an insult for behavior and/or actions deemed undesirable. To use a personal example, I have played many games online where I witnessed someone make a simple in-game mistake, to which many will viciously attack that person, calling them autistic just because they didn’t fit their definition of perfect. It’s even happened to me, and it’s very upsetting. For a long time, “retarded” has unfortunately been a rather prevalent insult, but now the vocabulary is expanding to include autism specifically, and it saddens me. The thought that calling someone “autistic” carries such a negative connotation is a disheartening thought, but it’s just another reason why I believe person-first language is the way to go. Being on the spectrum is nothing to be ashamed of, and you should be proud of who you are!

  • G. Sosso

 

People First pic

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