Tips for Reducing Back to School Anxiety

Getting ready for the new school year can be a hectic and exciting time. Transitioning from the extra playtime and novelty of summer back to the routine of the school year can be challenging. For children with autism (and their parents), all this change can feel overwhelming.

Here are some suggestions for how to help ease your child’s back-to-school anxieties:

Get a Sneak Peak
Scope out the school and classroom in advance. If your child is going into a new classroom, ask to visit it at least once before the first day of school. If transition has been a struggle in the past, consider taking as much time as your child needs to explore the classroom. Make it as much fun as possible, playing in each of the new areas.

Check Out Seat Assignments
For older children, ask the teacher if a seat assignment has been made. Do some enjoyable activities in that seat. If familiar classmates will be in the room, show where they will be sitting, too.

Rehearse New Activities
Find out from the teacher what new activities are planned. Then, prepare your child by performing, practicing, and talking about them. This rehearsal will reduce anxiety when the new activities come up in the first week of school.

Anticipate Sensory Overload
The noise and chaos of a typical classroom can sometimes be a bit much to handle. Establish a plan for what to do in this situation – perhaps there is a quiet room where your child can “take a break” for a short time.

Volunteer in the Classroom
Many teachers welcome assistance from parents. If your child’s teacher welcomes volunteers (and your schedule permits), your presence may be a source of comfort to your child during those challenging first weeks.

Going to school can pose many challenges for children with autism, as well as offer countless opportunities for building crucial social, language, and academic skills. Be positive and encouraging, and your child will be off to a great year!

Looking for more school-related tips for your child with autism? Check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends” and “This School Year, Build a Trusting Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher.”

Neurodiversity – Origins and Impact

By Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Judy Singer is an autistic Australian social scientist. In the 1990’s, seeing echoes of her mother’s struggles in herself and her own daughter, it occurred to Singer that this common thread pointed to the possibility that their differences were actually neurological traits. They were having a first-hand experience of that part of biodiversity that is the natural range of variations in brain functioning: she coined it neurodiversity

The neurodiversity paradigm considers all brains to be normal; brain differences are simply the neurological counterpart to genetic variations in height, eye color, or hair color. Scientists consider such variation in biological traits to be essential to the health of individual populations and entire ecosystems.  When viewing autism through the lens of neurodiversity, it comes to light that some of the individual differences that have been assumed to need remediation in the past, may actually be important in helping society as a whole make progress through new and different ways of thinking. 

The concept of neurodiversity has been enthusiastically embraced by that portion of the autistic community who are able to speak, as it promises to alleviate some of the bias and discrimination they have experienced. Their common message? Specific words and types of support can have unintended negative effects, causing them to feel inferior, powerless, misunderstood.  

Arising from these negative experiences is a more widespread understanding of how words and actions affect the private events (thoughts and feelings) of people on the spectrum. ABA practitioners are charged by the BACB Ethical Code to “treat others with compassion, dignity, and respect,” and the voices of the neurodivergent convey essential information about ways to do this. 

LEARN’s Response

LEARN’s neurodiversity initiative is a direct result of listening to the insights of autistic folks who are able to express their experiences of living in a society that was built for neurotypical people. 

  • Development of a Person-Centered ABA workgroup – Learn Leadership charged a workgroup of clinical leaders with the task of supporting clinicians in reaching our vision for a neurodiversity-informed, Person-Centered ABA approach. The workgroup includes clinicians, supervisors, and clinical development individuals. 

  • Forming of a Neurodivergent Advisory Committee – The first action of the Person-Centered ABA workgroup was to formalize a process for getting input from the neurodivergent community.  The committee is made up of neurodivergent clinicians and non-clinicians who work at LEARN; they meet regularly to review and give feedback on articles, trainings, and other materials, and are compensated for their role on the committee.      

  • Co-creation of the Values Statement – The Person-Centered Workgroup and the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee co-created a values statement, entitled “LEARN Values Neurodiversity.” The statement was written in order to express our position to our clinicians and also guide subsequent actions by the Person-Centered ABA Workgroup. It was presented at an internal training and is available on our website. 
  • Communication – Shifting the mindset of a large organization doesn’t happen overnight. In order to connect regularly with our clinicians on person-centered topics, a portion of our monthly video message to clinicians includes information about subjects related to neurodiversity, such as ableism, assent, and including client input in treatment planning. It’s important that staff are not only hearing this information but also discussing it, so each month, clinical teams engage in discussions with their colleagues on these topics. 

  • Assent Leadership Workgroup – With the addition of “assent” to the BACB ethical code and the subject’s importance to treating our clients with compassion, dignity, and respect, LEARN is offering “guided exploration” groups in assent that meet regularly for four months. The intention is to create local leaders in Assent-Based Programming throughout our network.   

  • Treatment Plan Evaluations – Our Treatment Plan Evaluation team works hard to review clinicians’ clinical work through the permanent product of their treatment plans. These reviewers have been given resources to help them identify Person-Centered practices to promote in their feedback.

  • New Hire Training – In the 2022 revision of our New Hire Training for behavior technicians, we are explicitly teaching them about neurodiversity and assent, as well as ensuring that language throughout is respectful, and that programming examples fit Learn’s conception of Person-Centered ABA.
     
  • Autistic Voices – Throughout this process, we are having an increasing number of autistic guests on our podcast and making it a regular practice to interview autistic folks for guest blog posts.  These are ways that we can listen to autistic voices ourselves and also use our resources to center those voices in the ongoing cultural conversation.

As ABA practitioners, we have always cared about our clients – helping and supporting others is our entire reason for being. In the initial years of our still-young field, that care was expressed by taking a singular approach: teaching skills to help them function in our society. As autistic self-advocates find more channels by which to make their voices heard, the themes that are emerging tell us that there is more to supporting this community than just teaching skills. For instance, using words that validate our clients’ identities and sense of self is important. We can create a positive emotional experience for the people we support during the learning process – by listening to them and giving them agency. And most importantly: where success measures are concerned, our clients’ quality of life should be central.

LEARN is listening. 

To learn more about neurodiversity, check out our other blogs “Voices for All: Ash Franks” and “Neurodiversity: What It Means, Why It Matters.”

Building Social Skills During Summer

School is out! Let summer break be a great opportunity to continue your child’s learning and growth.

While summer can bring parents a welcome relief from making lunches and school drop-off and pick-up, it also offers time for kids to build valuable skills. Social skills programs are offered in several cities by different service providers and can offer a structured, play-based environment for children to build essential social, communication, cognitive, and sensory skills. Kids have fun and make friends as they learn while maintaining a helpful routine for themselves and their parents.

Many skill-boosting summer programs take place in group settings that are similar to the school environment, while still providing one-to-one support. These specialized programs promote collaboration and inclusion of peers and some welcome siblings, too.

Make Friends

Social skills programs provide activities that encourage and reward the building of social relationships rather than individual play. Children are grouped with other kids of the same age group and skill level, enabling them to share in age-appropriate games, activities, and communication. Groups are led by highly-trained staff, known as behavior technicians (BTs), who are overseen by behavior analysts. BTs encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone and try new things.

Stay Mentally and Physically Active

School breaks can impact children academically. The “summer slide” as it is called, refers to a loss of learning that students experience during the summer months. Social skills programs can help children stay mentally and physically active. While promoting positive behaviors and peer interaction, physical activity is suggested to improve self-esteem and general levels of happiness.

Improve Motor Skills

Engaging in physical play and teamwork exercises can also support overall motor skills, which support many everyday activities. This can help children feel more confident and capable.

Behavior Management

By consistently promoting positive behaviors and language, a child can learn what they can do rather than what they cannot do. Social skills programs offer valuable learning opportunities for kids to communicate their needs and engage in behaviors that help them in daily activities and in different environments.

Click here for other summer-themed blogs to support your family this season.


An Honest Look at the Full Experience of Autism with Russell Lehmann

Motivational Speaker and Poet Russell Lehmann joins us to share his perspectives on autism and the human condition. Having spent most of his life in isolation, Russell has found his voice and independence in recent years. His passion for erasing stigma and stereotypes about autism is shared through his moving, spoken-word poetry. As Russell shares, “I like to say you hold up a mirror to anybody, and that’s what autism looks like. I don’t expect anyone to be able to tell that I have autism just by looking at me. But hopefully, someday they won’t be as shocked to find out.”

All Autism Talk (https://www.allautismtalk.com/) is sponsored by LEARN Behavioral (https://learnbehavioral.com).

Voices for All: Ash Franks Talks about Supporting Autistic People While Being Autistic and Her Role on LEARN’s New Neurodiversity Advisory Committee

In September 2020, LEARN convened a group of neurodivergent staff to form our Neurodivergent Advisory Committee. The committee reviews and gives feedback on matters relating to neurodiversity and other person-centered ABA topics and was instrumental in the content, messaging, and visual design of LEARN’s Neurodiversity Values Statement. We asked Ash Franks, a member of the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee, to share her thoughts with us.   

 

HI, ASH! FIRST, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO BE AN AUTISTIC PERSON SUPPORTING OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE? 

Supporting other autistic people while being autistic means listening to what they have to say, however they communicate it, whether it be through an AAC device, sign language, PECS, or verbal language. It also means giving them breaks if they need it, and allowing them to use tools to cope (e.g. stuffed animals, headphones, weighted blankets, etc.). Looking back on my experiences as an autistic child has been very helpful in trying to help children who are at AST.

HOW DOES BEING AUTISTIC INSPIRE YOUR WORK IN ABA? 

Being autistic allows me to see different perspectives and ideas compared to neurotypical people, as they tend to think differently than I do.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE AND HOW IT WORKS. 

Basically, we are trying to re-vamp ABA materials through a more neurodivergent-friendly lens, so we can make our treatment as effective as possible. Having autistic people and other neurodivergent people look at ABA therapy through their eyes allows them to explain what works and what doesn’t work. This way, we can work to have treatment be as effective, safe, and as fun as possible for everyone involved. Having BCBAs see the autistic perspective is important because we have direct experience with what worked for us growing up versus what didn’t and might be able to help streamline the treatment to be as effective as possible.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF SOME FEEDBACK YOU HAVE GIVEN IN YOUR ROLE ON THE COMMITTEE? 

I tend to give feedback on the more artistic and creative side of things, as I am very geared towards having an eye for creative things in the world.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVES IN OUR FIELD? 

Including autistic people in ABA is super important because we need to account for neurodivergent perspectives to make treatment as effective as possible. Since I am autistic, I can give a firsthand account of what has personally worked for me throughout my life, and what hasn’t. I myself was never in ABA therapy growing up, but I did other types of therapies that I also have found helpful from time to time.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER PLACES IN OUR SOCIETY THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO LISTEN TO THE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVE?

I think listening to autistic perspectives in the workplace would be very helpful. I think having a quiet room for staff that has sensory toys specific for staff would be very helpful, also maybe including a comfy place to sit with a weighted blanket would be good too. Another place it would be helpful to listen to autistic people is when it comes to shopping at malls, since malls can be overwhelming for most autistic people. I know some stores have “quiet” shopping hours where they reduce the lighting and turn off the music, and I really wish more places would do this.

ASH, THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS AND FOR THE EXCELLENT WORK YOU’RE DOING ON THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE!

Ash Franks is a Behavior Technician for Learn Behavioral. Ash works in AST’s Hillsboro, Oregon location. Outside of work, she enjoys photography, cooking, video games, and spending time with family and friends. 

Understanding the IEP Process and How to Best Advocate for Your Child

Mo Buti, an advocate and instructional expert for people with autism joins us to take a deep dive into the IEP process. She shares details about all the people that make up the team and how parents can best prepare and advocate for their child. As Mo shared, “It’s so important that communicate well and build relationships with your team. Even if you disagree, it makes the process so much more successful.”

For More Information:
https://www.aiepautism.com/

 

Myth: People with Autism Don’t Feel Love

by Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

 “One of the most Googled questions neurotypicals ask about dating on the autism spectrum is, ‘Can autistic people fall in love?’” says Tasha Oswald, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, on her blog series Dating on the Autism Spectrum. “To be honest, this question always catches me off guard,” she says. “Of course, they can.”

For those of us who know and love people on the spectrum, the question may be: how is this myth still around? For one thing, widespread abelism in our culture means that media often depicts love as happening only between people who match some arbitrary standard of ability, beauty, intelligence, or “cool” that the majority of us don’t meet. This perception is compounded by the communication differences that are a defining feature of autism: autistic people either have difficulty communicating or communicate differently than neurotypicals, including expressions of love and attraction. Additionally, sensory differences can make physical expressions of love a little more complicated, requiring explicit communication that, again, may be a challenge. And of course, it shouldn’t be missed that in general, love can be an overwhelming and confusing part of the human condition, including, but not limited to, autistic humans.

Expressions of love

The fact that autistic people experience the full range of human emotions, including love, is indisputable.

A recent article in the journal Autism examined the lived experience of autistic mothers with children ages 5-15. Answering open-ended questions in a semi-structured interview, mothers spoke of their connections with their children using the words “love,” “bond,” and “complete adoration.” Reading their accounts highlights that in spite of the barriers many of them face, their emotional experiences are quite familiar. For instance, one expressed that she felt worried that her love for her second child wouldn’t be as strong as it was for her first – a nearly universal experience of parents of multiple children (Of course, in the end she was “pleasantly surprised” that this wasn’t the case.).

Austin John Smith is an autistic blogger who has shared his experience moving in with a girlfriend and getting used to living together before getting married. As he writes lovingly about their day-to-day lives, he describes the things they have in common, their differences, how they share their emotions, and how they support each other. Smith says, “I love her more than anything in this whole world, and I am 1000% willing to go through anything with her…”

But these are stories of autistic folks who can speak and express their feelings. What about those who are unable to communicate verbally?  Laura Cunningham has first-hand experience. The Pueblo, Colorado, woman adopted her son, Spencer, when he was 11. He’s 19 now. He’s on the spectrum and is non-verbal. But “he feels love,” his mom says. Not only does he hug her and hold her hand, but he also has his own way of expressing emotion, one example of which chokes her up. It was the beginning of the school year, and she was talking to him about school. Spencer was excited and did something he had never done before: he picked up his phone and found certain sections of songs that he wanted to play for her over and over. The meaningful lyrics were his way of expressing what he was feeling.

Barriers

Although difficulty in love has been the subject of countless songs, stories, and myths since the beginning of time, autistic folks may have additional strains on their emotional connections. Sensory differences mean that the types of physical expressions of love that our society views as “typical” may not serve the same function for autistic people. For instance, the sensation of kissing may not spark the same warm feelings in an autistic partner that a neurotypical person would expect. Reading social cues, being flexible to accommodate a partner’s needs, and expressing their own emotional needs can all be challenging for autistics. For non-verbal autistic people, expressions of affection can be tragically misunderstood; one mother of a non-verbal autistic teenager named Sam related that “if a 17-year-old boy in his high school puts his arm around somebody, that’s considered fine. My son puts his arm around somebody, he gets an incident report.”

Support: Translating to the other side.

Autism expert Peter Gerhardt repeated a question posed to him by a friend on the spectrum: “if you neurotypicals have all the skills, why don’t you adapt for a while, damn it?”

So, what is society doing to support autistic people in their human quest for love? There are certainly more resources today than there were a decade ago, with support groups devoted to neurodiverse couples, books and resources for autistic people, online communities where neurodivergent people can support each other in their relationship challenges, and even a television show devoted to the topic, Love on the Spectrum.

Even so, more mechanisms for support are needed. Gerhardt says, “When I talk to professionals about the issue of sexuality and relationships on the autism spectrum, they often say, well, parents don’t want to deal with this, parents are afraid to deal with this. And then when I talk to parents about the issue, they say, well, professionals don’t want to deal with it. So, what ends up happening, is nobody deals with it, and it becomes, sort of this, you know, elephant in the living room that nobody is really dealing with.”

Debunking the myth

Society often sends the message that there is a “right way” to express love. People who love someone with autism and are loved by them know that affection can be expressed in a wide variety of ways. Still, that societal standard of what is “right” can lead autistic people to try to be someone they are not.  Anyone who has tried to be a “better version” of themselves for a partner knows how much energy it takes and that the relationships often fail. Masking is stressful and harmful. We can all help to destigmatize love among people with neurological differences and work to find more ways to support our autistic brothers and sisters in this integral part of the human experience.

Thankfully, there are a lot of beautiful success stories out there. Austin John Smith writes of his wife, “Despite all the good times we have had, there have been times where being on the spectrum has made things difficult for Annie and me. What can I say? I’m not perfect. I never will be. I just am who I am. But what I do each and every day with her is what I consider trying to do my best.” We should all be so lucky to have a partner with his perspective.

Brain Plasticity & Early Intervention: “Neurons that fire together, wire together”

The following is based on a conversation Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Dr. Evian Gordon, Chairman and CEO of Brain Resource.

The development of the brain is a fascinating and essential aspect of child development. The science behind the brain provides parents and practitioners valuable insight as to why early intervention is important for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

At birth, a child’s brain is a work in progress. It develops as they experience the world through seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling the environment. The natural, simple, loving encounters with adults that occur throughout the day, such as a caregiver singing, smiling, talking, and rocking their baby, are essential to this process. All of these encounters with the outside world affect the child’s emotional development and shape how their brain becomes wired and how it will work.

The experiences of babies have long-lasting effects on their ability to learn and regulate their emotions. When there is an absence of appropriate teaching and learning opportunities in the baby’s environment, the brain’s development can be affected and there are more likely to be sustained negative effects. Conversely, if we can provide ample learning opportunities, we can facilitate brain development. Let’s understand how and why.

Learning is about connection. A baby is born with more than 85 billion neurons in its brain, the major nerve cell of the brain. Neurons transmit information between each other through chemical and electrical signals via synapses thereby forming neural networks, a series of interconnected neurons. This is what is meant by “the wiring of the brain” and “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Neurons and synapses grow exponentially in the first years of life, even before a baby can walk and talk. Between birth and about 3 years of age, the number of synapses in the brain increases from about 2,500 to 15,000 per neuron.

As an infant experiences something or learns something for the first time, a strong neural connection is made. If this experience is repeated, the connection is reactivated and becomes strengthened. If the experience is not repeated, connections are removed. In this way, the brain “prunes” what is not necessary and consolidates the connections that are necessary. During infancy and the first years of childhood, there is significant loss of neural pathways as the brain starts to prune away what it doesn’t believe it will need to function. By the time your child reaches adulthood, the number of synaptic connections is reduced by half. Therefore, the earlier in a child’s development that we create that first, correct learning experience, the stronger those behaviors and skills are secured in the brain.

Children with developmental delays often experience the wiring of neurons together in a manner that is “unhelpful”, causing them to struggle with communication, social skills and other activities. These “unhelpful” connections need to be changed, which adds to the challenge and takes time. Technically, learning cannot be undone in the brain, but amazingly, with stimulation, the brain has the ability to re-process new pathways and build circuits that are helpful and functional. The brain has a remarkable capacity for change and adaptation, but timing is crucial. The earlier we create the correct connections in a child’s brain, the stronger those behaviors and skills are secured in the brain.

Intervention is best during early childhood when there are 50 percent more connections between neurons than exist in the adult brain. When a child reaches adolescence, another period of pruning begins where the brain starts to cut back on these important brain connections, and neurons that have not been used much. For children with all types of learning difficulties and developmental disorders, this understanding of the brain’s plasticity is particularly relevant, because it emphasizes why the correct type and intensity of early intervention is so critical. If we correctly understand a child’s skill deficits and design a program that appropriately stimulates the neurons in the targeted weakened areas of the brain, we can exercise and strengthen those areas of the brain to develop language, social skills etc.

While there is much evidence to support that early intervention is the preferred course of action because it capitalizes on this rapid early brain development, this wisdom often leaves parents or caretakers of teenage children with ASD feeling discouraged and concerned. Many children don’t have the opportunity to start therapy when they’re younger, and many others aren’t diagnosed until they’re teenagers. It may be easier and faster for children to learn new skills when they are younger, however, neuroscience tells us that the brain is still capable of learning during adolescent years, and this time period should not be forsaken.

So how do you train your child’s brain? In order to change the brain’s wiring and make new neural connections, a new skill needs to be practiced many times. Dr. Gordon recommends starting with one, simple task and practicing it at least 10 times per day. Measure how long it takes for your child’s behavior to change. This will help you determine your child’s rate of learning.

An example of a simple task is teaching your child to follow a simple instruction using a preferred item such as asking him to eat his favorite food. You can then move onto a more complex activity such as requesting eye contact by saying “Look at me” and then something more complex such as “touch the car” when playing with a toy car, for example. There are many opportunities throughout the day during normal daily parenting activities (bathing, feeding, diapering, reading, etc.) during which you can support your child’s development and train their brain to respond to people and their environment.

One common question is, “What is possible with the brain after childhood?” For many years, science has told us that brain plasticity is at its peak during childhood. However, experts now believe that under the correct circumstances, practicing a new skill can change hundreds of millions, if not billions, of connections between nerve cells in the brain even into adulthood. It is never too late to start. The most important thing to remember is that learning is what changes the brain and learning takes practice. Every opportunity to teach your child is an opportunity to shape their brain and change their future.

For more information, visit Developmental Milestones from the Child Mind Institute http://www.childmind.org/en/developmental-milestones/ 

Learn more about the work and resources of Dr. Evian Gordon at
https://www.mybrainsolutions.com/index.html 

Harvard’s “Serve & Return” concept of parent engagement
http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/serve_and_return/

The September 26th Project: Safety Preparedness for Families with Autism

The September 26th was created to honor the lives of a family that was tragically lost in a home fire. By providing safety awareness and preparedness resources for families the mission of this initiative is to review their safety plans every year on September 26th and use their checklists to be prepared. Kelly also commented on the importance of caregivers to support safety preparedness and awareness. As she said, “If a child can’t get out of the house in the event of a fire, were the other goals addressed important?”  

For More Information: 

Visit their website: https://www.september26.org/ 

Download the Fire safety check-list 

Download the Natural disaster checklist 

Download the Wondering prevention checklist  

Download American Red Cross Emergency apps here  

All Autism Talk (allautismtalk.com) is sponsored by LEARN Behavioral (learnbehavioral.com). 

TSC: A Rare Genetic Disease with a 50% Autism Diagnosis

Kari Luther Rosbeck, President & CEO, TSC Alliance, and Steven L. Roberds, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, TSC Alliance join us for a discussion about Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSCA) a rare genetic disorder. This is an incredibly educational conversation on how this disease is identified and treated.  About 50% of those diagnosed with TSC, will also have a diagnosis of autism. Even if your child is not at risk for TSC, the thoughtful approach to treatment and resources can be valuable for all parents. As Kari shared, “When people are ready, they need to know; what are the  right questions to ask, what about genetic testing, what about medication, and how does that whole system work?”

 

Learn more about TSC Alliance by visiting tscalliance.org

Interested in ABA therapy for your child? Contact us https://lrnbvr.com/contact

All Autism Talk (allautismtalk.com) is sponsored by LEARN Behavioral (learnbehavioral.com)