Milestones 2017 Benefit Honoree Rochelle Nyer has devoted three decades of her professional career and personal life serving families with children on the autism spectrum. She traces her involvement with Milestones Autism Resources back to its early years, when she attended the organization’s very first conference in 2003. Impressed with its impact on local families, Rochelle knew she wanted to participate and help make a difference.
“You can’t learn from a textbook as much as you can learn from people who live it every day,” Rochelle says. “That’s why I have such admiration for this organization. They have helped so many people who live it every day.”
Fifteen years after attending that first conference, Rochelle continues to make integral contributions to Milestones, serving on the board, being a part of the planning committee and serving as co-chair of the annual conference.
“Being a part of Milestones has made me so appreciative of what it does to help advocate for children and families,” she says. “I am more than humbled to be a part of and recognized by this great organization.”
Tell us about your involvement with Milestones.
I have been involved with Milestones since I went to the very first conference, 15 years ago. I was so impressed that it was one of the more organized conferences. I said to (co-founder) Ilana that I wanted to be more involved. I helped to distribute posters, I was on the conference planning committee. I remember those early days when we went to (co-founder) Mia’s house – and her kids were sitting on her lap in the living room!
It was an organization that started with very little and has grown exponentially over the years. In the beginning it was just Ilana and Mia, essentially “volunteering” countless hours and making Milestones what it is today – with an exceptional staff that impacts the community in a tremendous way.
Tell us about yourself. Do you have a personal connection to autism?
Though I don’t have a personal connection to autism, I have been working with families with children on the spectrum for close to 30 years. I’m a Speech-Language Pathologist at Akron Children’s Hospital and have been there for 28 years. I do assessments for children on the spectrum as well as school-age children with speech and language disorders.
I’m from Cleveland – born and bred. I’ve been married for almost 47 years to my husband Mark, also a native Clevelander, and we have two daughters, Shoshanna Nyer, who is a Rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning at Suburban Temple Kol-Ami; and Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, who is a preschool teacher, playwright and has taught improv to children on the spectrum. She is also a mental health activist. We have two grandchildren – Emily, who is 8, and Rafi, who is 11.
Both of our daughters have been involved with Milestones; Shoshanna has also been a speaker. We’ve volunteered with Strike It Big, Milestones’ annual bowling fundraiser. Our grandchildren have been involved in peer groups. We are a Milestones family!
Thinking back, why did you agree to be on Milestones board?
I was so impressed by how the whole organization is run and I have always had a desire to work with families on the autism spectrum, so it was an honor to be asked to be on the board. I have learned so much from other professionals and parents, and it has been awesome to watch the organization grow so much. For example, our conference gets larger and larger every year, with our most recent one being the largest one yet. It attracts people all over the world!
How do you think Milestones impacted the community at that time? And today?
In the beginning Milestones was focused on younger children on the spectrum and early intervention. Today, we are looking to help get services for young adults who age out of school services. What happens when school-age children are now out in the world? We are addressing issues like housing, employment, independent living and how to cultivate a vibrant social life.
What do you enjoy about your work with Milestones?
I’ve made lifelong relationships and I enjoy learning from other professionals, as well as from families. Also, the board meetings are atypical in the fact that they begin and end on time! And at every meeting there is a story about a family or a personal perspective about autism. We have recently become more involved with Cleveland Public Schools; it’s good to find out what other communities are doing and to help serve families across the socio-economic spectrum, too – whether they are from urban areas, small towns or affluent suburbs.
How have you personally been affected by your affiliation with Milestones?
Personally, I’m watching a generation of my grandchildren being so much more compassionate and inclusive. Our daughter, Shoshanna, has started an inclusion program at her temple. There is one particular story that I love: there was a mother at the temple who was concerned because her daughter, who is on the spectrum, was often excluded from social events. My granddaughter, Emily, wanted to invite this little girl to her 7th birthday party. Her mother said to her, “You know, you really made the girl’s parents happy that you included her.” To which Emily replied, “Mom, just because she doesn’t talk like the other kids doesn’t mean someone should ignore her like she’s a rock.”
It’s wonderful how children have become empathetic. They become sensitized. I think families have fought so hard. I grew up during a time when there was no inclusion at all. I think it is so wonderful to see that we are raising a generation that is inclusive.
What is the most important thing you’d like a friend, relative, or neighbor to know about Milestones?
Milestones, although we don’t provide direct services, we can help connect you with resources and connect you with other parents. We look for the needs and we help meet them. We do it in the local community. It truly is a parent-professional collaboration. The staff is extremely devoted and committed to what goes on. The most important thing to realize is you’re not alone.
Q: What is mindfulness and why is it so important?
A: Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, and is used as a therapeutic technique. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, has defined mindfulness as “paying attention to our lives, moment by moment, on purpose, in a certain way, and without judgment.”
In other words, mindfulness is staying focused on being in the now, the moment you are currently in, and not perseverating over the past (it’s finished) or the anticipation of the future (it has not occurred yet). It is the process of practicing paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, sensations, environment/atmosphere around you and learning to be significantly present.
Research has shown many benefits to engaging in mindfulness practices that promote awareness. Some of these benefits include: focus, stress reduction, rumination/perseverative decrease, improved working memory, less emotionally reactive, increase cognitive flexibility, more satisfaction in relationships, etc. In addition to cognitive and emotional benefits, there are also many physiological and physical benefits as a result of mindfulness based practices that can include: decrease in tension, increase in endurance/energy levels, treating heart disease, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, pain decrease, balance, posture and strengthen immune, autonomic, nervous and endocrine systems.
Some symptoms that can be alleviated through mindfulness practices include mind wandering, rumination/perseveration, multitasking, distractibility, predisposition to emotionally react/lack of impulse control, unhappiness, feeling overwhelmed/stressed, self-focused, lack of time management and being unorganized. Mindfulness helps one to self-regulate. As a society, we have become accustomed to always thinking and keeping our minds busy, whereas we now need to learn to not think so much and learn to be present in our lives that we are currently living. Mindfulness is the perfect tool to help us achieve that goal, especially since practice is individualized.
There has been quite a bit of research that has demonstrated the negative effects of chronic stress. Stress impacts one’s mind, body, emotions and behavior. There is a significant role that perception has in stress levels; stress is associated with that which we aspire to and value. Being a caregiver, professional, and/or an individual on the autism spectrum, can directly impact levels of stress. Whether it be anxiety, burnout, depression, chronic stress, chronic fatigue, etc., these can negatively impact one’s physical and emotional health. One cannot do their best unless they are at their best, which is why mindfulness-based practices and self-care is so important.
More on this important topic to appear next month including how mindfulness specifically benefits children with autism.
-Stacy Blecher and Natalie Copleand
Stacy Blecher, MA, ATR, CMP, is an Art Therapist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She received her Master of Art Therapy from Ursuline College and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism for the past 13 years.
Natalie Copeland, ASISC, is a Behavior Support Specialist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She is currently completing her Master of Science in Social Administration at Case Western Reserve University and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism and their families for the past 12 years.
Stacy and Natalie jointly presented a workshop titled, “Train Your Brain: Keep Calm and Practice Mindfulness” at Milestones 15th Annual Conference this past June.
Q: Just a few more weeks until school is back in session! What are your tips for helping parents to get their children ready?
A: You purchased new school clothes and got every item on the supply list. All set? Almost! Parents with children who have autism know that a few more preparations help the transition from summer to the classroom. Let’s review our back-to-school checklist for the child with autism:
Confirm the child’s placement
-What building, what room, what teacher?
-Have any of the arrangements changed over the summer? If so, you may have to do some footwork to make certain your child is receiving all necessary accommodations. Better done before school begins instead of everyone dealing with a surprise.
Visit the school and teacher before the first day
-Often, teachers are in their classrooms a week or two before school begins. Ask if you and your child can visit before the chaos of the first day.
-Visit even if the teacher is not available. Think of it as a visual support for your child.
-Take pictures of the school (playground, cafeteria, gym, classroom, etc.) and review them with your child daily before school begins.
Slowly transition when your child goes to bed and arises
-Two weeks prior to the first day of school, adjust your child’s bedtime and the time he/she gets up by 15-minute increments until you are on a school schedule.
-Yes, I know this is challenging for many children, and you may not experience full success. But try, it will help.
Plan to communicate
-Take this one seriously—parent/teacher communication can make or break a school year.
-Use the Parent/Teacher Communication Checklist and the Individualized Communication Plan to begin the conversation with your child’s teacher and to agree upon the best method of communication for both of you.
-The sooner the better. The best plan is to have a plan!
Now that you’ve got the details handled, you can enjoy the excitement of the new school year, the smells of freshly waxed school floors and sharpened pencils, and the opportunity to see your child grow.
Margaret Oliver is a special educator for Akron Public Schools, a guest lecturer for The University of Akron, and a published columnist and author. She advocates for special needs students, their parents, and their educators to promote the best possible experience for the child.
Often we are inclined to hiding the most honest parts of ourselves – but author, animal science professor & autism advocate Temple Grandin is refreshingly unrestrained with sharing hers.
It’s what the 69-year-old scientist, TIME 100 Most Influential People and TED Global Speaker has been doing for more than 40 years. As a high-functioning person with autism, Grandin, who will kick-off our 15th Annual Autism Conference at Playhouse Square on June 14 with A Special Evening with Temple Grandin, has been able to articulate her extraordinary life experiences with exceptional insight.
As someone who “lives in both worlds” – the autistic and the neurotypical – she has spent almost her entire life raising awareness and promoting acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum. Thanks to Grandin’s efforts, we are breaking down barriers to embrace, and celebrate, neurodiversity.
“Different kinds of minds are good at different kinds of things,” she said during a recent phone interview from Florida, where she was invited to speak to top corporate executives. “That’s why we need all kinds of minds working together to solve problems.”
Grandin is known for taking strong positions on autism and the education of children with autism. She advocates for early intervention, including the training of teachers to direct specific fixations of the child. What’s new on the autism front and what Grandin is currently advocating is helping children transition into adulthood.
“We’ve made much progress in the early intervention part, but now I want to see kids go out and be successful as adults,” she says. “We need to get young people interested in hands-on skills. I’m very concerned about how the schools have taken out these hands-on classes – like home economics and wood shop, auto shop, art and theater and music.”
Kids need job skills training before they go out into the world, Grandin says. Give them a trade so they can enter the workforce and get a job that won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence.
“They are not learning how to work; they need to start as early as middle school,” she recommends. “Volunteer at their church, work in a clothing store or an ice cream shop. Expose them to something they might find an interest in. My goal for young people: get two real summer jobs before graduation.”
Another issue of great concern, says Grandin, is too much screen time.
“Kids today are totally addicted to video games,” she says. “We need to wean them off slowly. And then give them choices. I see too many smart kids getting addicted to video games. They need to get outside. Start working. Get them involved in things. Get them out with other kids.”
Sometimes, part of the problem can lie with parents, she says.
“There are certain parents who are afraid to let go,” Grandin says. “There’s a tendency to do too much for their children. But kids need to be stretched. Not thrown into the deep end of the pool, but stretched and given choices. My mother was always pushing me to do different things. When I was 13 I started working for a seamstress. At 15, I was cleaning horse stalls.”
Born on August 29, 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts, Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism (considered a form of brain damage at the time) at age 2. Grandin’s mother, Eustacia Cutler (the actress, singer and granddaughter of the co-inventor for the autopilot aviation system, John Coleman Purves), worked tirelessly to find the best care and instruction for her daughter. Having the financial means to hire the world’s leading specialists, Eustacia held on to the hope of finding an alternative to institutionalization.
“I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk – I couldn’t get my words out,” Grandin has said about her early childhood. “My speech came in gradually. Words at a time. When I was a little kid I was very autistic. Non-verbal. Screaming. Rocking. That’s the kind of kid they just put away in an institution.”
Grandin’s treatments included extensive speech therapy and an emphasis on turn taking and playing games, which helped to draw out and reinforce her communicative abilities. As a result, she began to speak at the age of 4. “I had good mentors like my mother and my science teacher,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have had supportive mentors from elementary school and onward. It’s why I can’t emphasize enough the importance of young children getting early intervention.”
High school, on the other hand, was a whole other story. “Absolute worst part of my life,” she says. Social interactions remained difficult during adolescence. Peers regularly teased Grandin for her verbal tics like repetitive speech. Having had enough, she once threw a book at a fellow classmate who taunted her, resulting in Grandin’s expulsion from school.
Despite these challenges, she was able to make considerable accomplishments in academia. Grandin received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University and went on to earn a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Today, she serves as Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.
“People ask me, ‘How did you end up working in the cattle industry?'” she says. “It’s because I was exposed to it as a teenager. When I was 15, I was cleaning horse stalls every single day. I was proud of the fact that I ran a horse barn.”
That exposure to horses eventually unlocked a lifelong passion for animals. For more than four decades, Grandin has dedicated her life to animal science and animal welfare. In fact, her extensive research is credited with transforming the beef industry. Over half the cattle in North America are handled in humane livestock systems Grandin created, including the development of a center track conveyor restrainer system for holding cattle. Globally, Grandin’s designs are used by the largest beef producers and processors. She is also the author or co-author of more than 60 peer reviewed scientific papers on a variety of other animal behavior subjects.
In addition to her contributions to animal science, Grandin was one of the first individuals on the spectrum to publicly share insights from her personal experience. She became well-known beyond the autistic community following an appearance in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars, the title of which is derived from Grandin’s description of how she feels in social settings (including hypersensitivity to noise and an extreme sensitivity to detail and environmental change).
“Read Thinking in Pictures if you want to understand my mind,” Grandin says, referring to her critically-acclaimed 1995 book which explains how autism shapes her daily life. “Everything in my mind works like Google – set for the image function.”
Grandin details three types of minds in her book, The Autistic Brain.
“The Pattern Thinker would be a mathematician, for example,” she says. “The Word Thinker might be the kid who likes history. And then you’ve got Visual Thinkers, like me.”
She credits her visual search engine-type of mind with helping her understand animals and design livestock systems. She compares her memory to full-length movies that play in her head, which she has the ability to replay at will, allowing her to notice small details. Grandin argues that her contributions to the field of animal science would not have been possible without the insights attributed to her autism.
“I get most excited when things that I do work,” Grandin says of her contributions. “Like when a mother of an autistic child tells me her child went to college because of me, or when I see that a meat packing plant has really improved. Or a rancher tells me that one of my systems works really well. When I’m making real change in the real world, that makes me happy.”
[Opening photos: Rosalie Winard]
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Tabatha Devine, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Outstanding Educator Award, says that working with individuals on the autism spectrum has helped her become a more compassionate, caring and understanding person.
“To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs,” Tabatha says. She also strives for “more” for her students: more opportunities, more experiences, more adventure. “I always wanted my students to participate in prom, sporting events, graduation, mainstream classes and become competitively employed.”
For the past 15 years, Tabatha has served as a Transition Coordinator for the Westlake City School System, working with students with disabilities. For Tabatha, going above and beyond meant becoming a class advisor so her students could attend prom for the first time. It meant becoming a coach so her students wouldn’t feel intimidated by others and be given a fair chance. She made sure her students attended graduation ceremonies with the rest of the student body while providing all support necessary to make this happen. She approached area businesses to promote her students’ abilities and to help create positions and provide support to individuals who may never have thought to hire a person with special needs.
Prior to working at Westlake City Schools, Tabatha served extensively in the region as an Intervention Specialist, including at St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School in Akron (where she introduced inclusion and helped integrate students with special needs into traditional classrooms); at Coventry High School, also in Akron (where she founded the school’s first classroom for students with developmental disabilities), and at Lakewood High School (where she helped bring special needs students together with mainstream students in a literacy program).
Tabatha has worked for multiple group homes, activity centers and has attended meetings and court hearings to advocate for students and their rights. She spends her summers working for the Cuyahoga Employment Partnership (CEP) as a Job Developer and has served on the Milestones Strike It Big committee for the Westside for the past three years raising funds to help local families impacted by autism.
How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?
Over time, I’ve come across many people who are judgmental and prejudiced without knowing anything about the person who stands before them. The belief that the disability comes before the person is one of the biggest obstacles I think this population deals with on a daily basis. To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs.
So when asked how do I feel my efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community? I say through reaching out to others to show them how to become friends with, to participate with, to work with and/or alongside, to employ and to advocate for people with special needs to provide a person with a sense of belonging, pride, empowerment and hope.
How has helping others shaped your life?
Because I have worked with, alongside and for people who have autism or special needs, it has helped me to become a more compassionate, caring and understanding individual. My experiences have helped me to look at things differently because I try and view our world through their eyes. It helps me to stand stronger because I chose to be a part of their world. A parent once wrote that their child would make a difference in this world and he knew this because he felt just by knowing his child with autism, it had changed his own life for the better.
What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?
If you take part in making positive changes in the life of a person with autism or someone with special needs, know that your life too, will change forever. You will try harder, care more and live your life better because they will inspire you!