A Parent's Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorders

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 Playing with Your Child the Floortime Way

By Christine K. Dance, The Floortime Center

Floortime is “a special kind of play. In Floortime, the play excites your child’s interests, draws her to connect to you, and challenges her to be creative, curious, and spontaneous — all of which move her forward intellectually and emotionally.” (Dr. Stanley Greenspan, The Learning TreeLearning Tree 2010. Dr. Greenspan developed Floortime therapy for kids with autism and special needs.)

How exactly do you play with your child? As parents, many of us have lost our way in the games and imagination and other experiences we took part in as children. What once were moments overtaken by pirates, robbers, school or superheroes are now replaced by moments of us simply living to survive and mechanically going through the day to day tasks.

However, children, particularly those with special needs, not only survive, but thrive and develop from play. Floortime has three goals to be considered in each play session: 1) Follow your child’s lead 2) Challenge 3) Expand the interaction to use all of her senses and emotions.

The idea of playing with your child can be overwhelming, especially if you haven’t actually played in a long time. But following the three guiding goals of Floortime can allow your child to develop the play while you support her thinking of how to do so.

In following your child, you must first join her play. Floortime’s name began from the idea that in order to join your child, you must first physically join her—wherever she is—and often this involves joining her on the floor. Joining or following your child’s natural interest can be the easy part. Enticing her to want you to join becomes a bit trickier. This begins the part where parents and clinicians must make themselves more motivating than the child’s singular or self-stimulated play. This is the aspect where playtime becomes exciting and draws your child to bond with you.

Joining your child can be an emotionally beautiful moment for many parents who haven’t yet felt truly connected to their child. But the second step in this process must then be to challenge your child and expand her interests just one more step. Challenging your child requires a bit of imagination and energy from parents and clinicians, and also requires a balancing act of challenging without overtaking your child’s natural interests. How to challenge? Ask a question. Roadblock play with cars. Playfully hide a toy. Create a situation in which your child must work just one step harder.

But still, how do we actually play with a child? Joining your child’s world and letting go of your inhibitions is a start. Being silly and enthusiastic enough to entice your child to want more of you will naturally build a play scene. Being rewarded with that first moment of beautiful eye contact, laughter, or communication is often enough motivation for the parent to keep trying, playing, enticing, and being silly.

Regardless, let go of your inhibitions and take in the moments of joy you’ll receive when you’ve shared a moment of joint attention with your child. Allow your natural ability to let go and play fall into place.

Playing with these three goals in mind can be life changing to a child with special needs. It teaches the child about relationships, motivation and emotions, which, as Dr. Greenspan proposed, are the driving force in babies, that, as developed, coordinate and expand all other forms of thinking, socializing, and overall development. And playing with these three goals in mind can be life-changing for you as the parent, when you suddenly find a pathway into your child’s world.

Autism on Vacation

Summer 2012 - Who doesn't dream of the perfect summer vacation, the kind that lingers in memories long after the photos and postcards from it have faded?

Granted, nothing is perfect, and every vacation will have its disappointments or stressful moments. Those bumps can seem like craters if a family member has autism, but a little planning can go a long way toward creating a vacation all can enjoy.

If your child likes routine, struggles with transitions, or feels anxious about the unknown, start by introducing the concept of vacation before you go. Show him photos of the places he will visit and the people he will see.

Make a "Social Story" about the vacation (see Carol Gray's The New Social Story Booksocial story or website for information on how), and read it often with him or her. Involve him in packing and planning. Allow him to pick some comfort items and toys to bring.

If he's on the GFCF or other diet, pack special foods and call ahead to see if there are restaurants or markets that offer foods he can eat. Some parents bring enzymes in case there will be gluten and casein infractions.

Bring along extra social stories and activity schedules so he knows what to expect each day and where he will be going. The things many of us love about vacation -- doing new things on the spur of the moment -- may be very hard on people with autism.

Be flexible: it's OK to cut some activities short if they're stressful. Most of all, cherish the time together, however you end up spending it. Some of our unsuccessful vacation episodes are now funny memories that we look back upon fondly, with the benefit a little perspective! -- By AutismWeb.com

Summer + New Schedule = ?

Don’t get me wrong: my child with autism likes the summer vacation from school.

It’s just that, from my vantage point, the transition from the rigid routine of school, bus rides, lunch and recess, to the relative freedom of summer break, is not entirely a joyful one.

All children need routine, but kids with autism and Asperger’s seem to need it much, much more. They often have a harder time adjusting to a new routine – especially if it is not as strict as the old one!

So, when school is out, we adopt a home schedule that mimics the school day in some regards, with meals, snacks and activities at set times every day.

We also look for organized social and recreational activities – inclusive day camps, swim team practices, and other events. This is especially important if your child is not receiving much in the way of Extended School Year services.

If you are looking for materials to keep your student learning over the summer, check out our Teaching Materials page.

Our Resource Guide's Recreation and Travel section has links to camps and recreation for people with special needs. Happy Summer! -- By AutismWeb.com, Published June 2012 and updated June 2013

When it comes to autism, what does it mean to be normal?

May 2012 - A special education teacher recently said something that made me wonder: What does it mean to be “normal”?

The teacher was comparing how a “normal" student would respond to a particular social situation versus a kid with autism or Asperger's. I knew what she was trying to say, but her word choice made me pause.

Many autism advocates and parents prefer the word “neurotypical” to describe people who don’t have autism. It just means people with typical neurology, people who are wired in a typical fashion.

Why do we avoid saying “normal”? The easiest way to describe the discomfort with normal is to examine its antonyms: strange, uncommon, abnormal. Not exactly flattering words.

Temple Grandin, the accomplished scientist who has autism, has summed up how she wants the world to think of her: “I am different, not less.”

The teacher was using the word "normal" to distinguish between neurotypical behavior and autistic behavior. But what is normal behavior, really?

In the context of school, is it normal to bully kids who are different? Is it normal to lie or to cheat on tests? Is it normal to ignore kids outside your own clique? Sadly, these behaviors are relatively common.

If these are examples of “normal,” what does that say about normal? -- By AutismWeb.com

Don't dread the IEP meeting

Even veterans to the special education process can find it a little daunting to walk into their child's annual IEP meeting. Teachers who speak in educational jargon can seem intimidating, even if they don't mean to be. They may refer to special ed laws with which you are unfamiliar.

Take a deep breath and remember, you can be the best advocate for your child! All it takes is a little preparation.

First, make sure the school helps you prepare by providing any reports or drafts of information that will be used at the meeting. Provide the school with any information you want to be considered, in advance.

Look at the goals and objectives on the IEP. Do they address all the areas of concern you have? If your child is failing math, are there math goals on the IEP, for example? Are speech and communication problems addressed? If your son struggles with handwriting or catching a ball in gym, have the school district's occupational or physical therapists, respectively, evaluated him to see if he qualifies for services? If his behavior interferes with learning, does the IEP include behavior goals and/or a behavior plan?

One more question: Are the goals specific and measureable?

If you've been to a conference by attorney Pete Wright, or read one of his Wrightslaw booksspecial education law, you know that schools can't measure progress with vague and subjective goals. "Ryan will improve his attitude" is not a measurable goal. "Ryan will respond to a question without yelling on 4 out of 5 occasions" is.

Wright’s books and website also help explain U.S. special education law. It's helpful to be familiar with the law because some disagreements in IEP meetings come from a misunderstanding of the law.

What if you disagree with the IEP team?

Remain calm, state your position respectfully and ask questions. IEP meetings are not battlefields, but that doesn't mean you should agree because you're outnumbered. Ask to see the data the school is using to support its position. Does it justify their proposal or not? Ask to read the law together if team members say the law prevents them from doing something.

If you reach an impasse, agree to meet again. Consider bringing a volunteer educational advocate or mediator to help you, along with any data you have that supports your position. Many problems can be resolved, but if not, learn what your rights are for due process and other measures. The Wrightslaw website is a good place to start. -- By AutismWeb.com

It's time to think about summer already?

February 2012 - It's still winter, but if your child has an IEP, then you should be hearing about ESY soon. ESY stands for Extended School Year services, or in layman's terms, summer school.

Your school should schedule a formal meeting to consider if your child is eligible for ESY. The eligibility criteria are somewhat vague, and school team leaders may interpret them differently. The same child might be denied ESY one year and granted it the next, because of different interpretations by the special education team.

To make sure your child gets the services to which he is entitled, educate yourself about ESY. Start by visiting Wrightslaw's site to read about important ESY terms such as critical life skills, regression, and breakthrough opportunities. That way, you can be a well-informed advocate for your child. -- By AutismWeb.com

Communication Tips for Special Education Teachers

Submitted by Jeff Stimpson, author of Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family's Life With Autismalex the boy

My son Alex's former teacher Crystle Hocker, now with Somers (N.Y.) Central School District, lets teachers the world over know how to communicate with parents:

"Indicate the importance of teacher/ parent collaboration and communication for the success of the student. I’ve done this in a welcome letter to parents in the beginning of the year.

"Communication notebook – try to write in each student's notebook at least three times, even if the parents do not write back to you. They read it more often than you think and writing to parents throughout the week keeps them informed of the good (and the bad) that is happening. Being informed also makes school less intimating.

"Phone calls – A lot of parents find phone calls much more meaningful and personal (although its important to remember, that parents have jobs and often cannot be reached during school hours). I’ve also taken it a step further and have texted with a parent who is legally deaf as a means of communicating.

"Weekly Newsletter: Keep it simple! Use a template (often found in those teacher plan books) and just jot down what happened during the week: what units you are currently working on, any special events that are occurring, any students birthdays, school breaks (and when parent teacher conferences are occurring!). Again, if parents feel like they are informed they will be more likely attend events or conferences.

"Even if you don’t get responses back from parents, they’re not writing back to you or they don’t answer your phone calls, don’t stop communicating! Eventually they will communicate and when IEP meetings or Parent Teacher Conferences are scheduled, they are more likely to drop by. School (and you) is not this ominous thing! They feel like they know you.

"Remember, whether you are writing home, sending a text message, doing a newsletter or phoning home, end conversations with “it was so good to talk and how much you appreciate their time." Even if you are communicating to inform them of something “bad,” end with something good! The “your son (or daughter) has been making so much progress this year and has even learned… I’m very proud of him (or her) as you should be too!” is always a crowd pleaser and again makes school communications not necessarily a scary or bad thing.

"I don’t rely on one means of communication for all of my parents in my classroom. I use a variety of sources to stay in touch. Some of parents are never capable of talking to me on the phone so it’s vital for me to write in those students’ communication notebooks as often as possible. Likewise, I have students whose parents don’t read the notebooks, so, I call home as much as I can. The key is to find out what works best for your parents and use it!"

Back in the Groove

January 2012 - Going back to school after a long winter break can be a challenge for children with autism who love routine and dislike transitioning to something new. And who can blame them?

While I'm putting away the holiday decorations, I too have trouble getting back into the regular swing of things: supervising homework, signing permission slips, scheduling IEP meetings and sending emails to teachers. All on top of work and other activities.

Did I file that paper in the IEP folder or the classwork folder? Where is that form I'm supposed to sign? Is there anything for dinner in the freezer?

Wishing a happy new year to all of you, and may you get back into the groove faster than some of us are. -- By AutismWeb.com

Tips for preemie/special needs fathers

By Jeff Stimpson, Guest Blogger

Your feelings of helplessness, frustration and anger may be greater or more obvious than your partner's. Talk to someone about how you're feeling, or find some other way to express it.

Seek out other fathers, especially smart ones whose opinions you respect.

Your partner may blame herself. Support her and gently try to convince her that a preemie is no one's fault. Keep in mind that men and women handle the pinball game differently, just as different people do. These different coping mechanisms can pull a marriage apart. Recognize them and try to grow closer from them.

Respect how your partner chooses to go through this. She may be quiet, loud, emotional, or distant.

This is not necessarily a problem with a solution, like in math or engineering. Do what your instincts tell you is right, but realize that there may be no one correct answer.

Your place in the care of your preemie may at times involve as much a financial and insurance obligation as anything else. Give yourself full credit for this.

People may seem to pay more attention to the mother. Realize that this doesn't mean they're ignoring you.

Ask questions, no matter how stupid, until you get the answers you want, and then ask some more.

Go easy on yourself. No one expects you to be a superhero.

Jeff Stimpson is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family's Life With Autismalex the boy

Holiday Cooking

November 2011 - Wondering how to make a Thanksgiving dinner that won't spoil your child's special diet or cause an allergic reaction? If your child follows a gluten-free, casein-free diet, or has food allergies or sensitivities, help is available. There are some good GFCF and allergy-specific cookbooks that help you make pumpkin pie, stuffing and other trimmings.

You can still enjoy old family recipes if you fiind a way to replace forbidden ingredients with acceptable ones: maybe rice "milk" for cow's milk, or GF flour for wheat flour.

If you have a special GFCF or Specific Carbohydrate Diet Thanksgiving recipe, please share it in the Recipe section of our Message Board. -- By AutismWeb.com

A New Year: Now What?

September 2011 - A new school has started. You've met your child's teacher at back-to-school night and you've made sure he has the required school supplies. Is there anything else to do?

A good idea is to check in with your child's case manager, usually his special education teacher or speech therapist, to see if your school routinely schedules IEP or IFSP reviews after 30 or 60 days of school. If not, ask for one, especially if you'd like to find out how well your child is adapting and whether his special education plan is adequate for the new school year. IEPs developed last winter or spring may not address your child's needs in a new grade or class setting. -- By AutismWeb.com

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