Molly Mack was at a crossroads.
As a parent of a child on the spectrum, she felt like her family had successfully navigated Daniel’s early childhood years thanks to support and local resources. But Daniel’s teenage years and his looming transition to adulthood presented a whole other set of challenges.
“With this new season of life, I felt like didn’t have someone to turn to,” Molly remembers of that desperate time two years ago. “It was the first time I truly felt alone.”
Had a friend not told her about Milestones, Molly says she would not have found such life-changing resources for her son – and empowerment as a parent. “They have helped me be a better mom to Daniel,” she says. “They are right there, helping me every step of the way.”
How did you first get connected to Milestones?
My husband Tom and I moved our family from a smaller town in Ohio to a western suburb of Cleveland when our son, Daniel, was three. We believed there would be more resources and a greater level of services for him in a bigger city. This was back in 2005. But more recently, with this transition piece to adulthood, I felt at a loss.
I shared how I was feeling with a friend of mine, Sarah, who founded Connecting for Kids. I asked her, “What am I supposed to be doing? I have no clue where to turn.” And that’s when Sarah told me, “You have to call Beth at Milestones.”
How has the Milestones staff helped you?
I called Beth (Thompson) that very day! Beth has been my lifeline. Ever since that first phone call, she has been my coach, navigator and sounding board. This was two years ago, when Daniel was 14.
What kinds of resources and services has your family benefited from because of your affiliation with Milestones?
Beth asked me all about Daniel and our journey. She then made a game plan for steps I needed to take to get Daniel connected with agencies and programs that would likely be part of his future. Milestones had step-by-step checklists and timelines for what we should be doing for Daniel as he progresses through high school and into adulthood. I felt an immediate sense of relief at that very first meeting with her.
Tell us about your son, Daniel.
When diagnosed with ASD as a preschooler, our Daniel lagged behind his peers verbally and socially. He was easily overwhelmed with the world around him – it was exhausting to stay two steps ahead of his sensory sensitivities. Then, he literally stopped napping at age two the very week his first baby brother came home. Those were very long days!
As someone once explained to us, autism is like Swiss cheese: a child can have so many strengths yet there are pockets of weaknesses in random areas. Daniel’s strengths have always amazed us. He taught himself to read and can spell like a spelling bee champ. He has always loved math, historical facts and music. Yet, learning can be difficult for him due to reading comprehension and problem solving weaknesses.
Thanks to the positive approach of our school teams over the years, Daniel enjoys attending school despite these challenges. He is motivated to head off to school every day. That is huge! His teachers consistently report that Daniel wants to learn, rarely complains, works hard and is seen as a positive, can-do guy.
The biggest thing you need to know about our Daniel is his one, overarching, glowing strength: he is an extremely social guy who leaves a positive impression most everywhere he goes. He knows nearly everyone, never forgets a name or face and is genuinely interested in the details of their lives. He has been called The Ambassador of his school and The Mayor of our town. He also has a fun sense of humor. Despite having a social/communication disability, Daniel thrives from his connections with others. We are excited to see where this social gift will take him career wise.
How was Daniel’s transition to high school?
Daniel goes to the mainstream high school in our town. We were intentional about wanting him to be a student at Bay Village City Schools to be integrated with neuro-typical kids. We chose Bay Village because it is an older, more established suburb that is not sprawling and constantly changing. He is a sophomore now at Bay High School and he has absolutely benefitted from the stability and continuity of our school system and town. Some of his most special friends today were neuro-typical peers way back in his mainstream elementary classes. We are grateful for the strong sense of community and inclusion within Bay Village as a whole. Daniel is loved and accepted for who he is by his classmates, parents, teachers and neighbors. We really could not ask for more than that!
Tell us about your hopes for Daniel’s future.
The biggest thing for us is making sure that we help Daniel find a future path – whether school or career — that really capitalizes on his strengths. He’s extremely social and motivated by his connection with people. Ultimately we want Daniel to be safe, happy and self-supporting. We believe strongly that happiness, for everyone, is found when you are able to use the gifts you’ve been given.
Milestones strives to help every individual with ASD reach his/her potential. How do you feel the organization has helped Daniel reach his potential?
This past summer, Daniel got his first real job. He was a busboy at a restaurant. He absolutely loved it. And he’s still working there. The restaurant staff is so supportive – the staff and managers love him and embrace him. It’s so wonderful to see that he can be successful in a competitive work environment. And that is the goal, for him to be successful in a real world environment.
Why is the Annual Fund important?
I will never forget feeling totally lost as I entered this current phase of parenting. Milestones was there for me, and continues to be there for me today. I do not take that support for granted — help is literally a phone call away. The annual fund supports all the amazing work Milestones is doing in the community. It is also nice to know that parents, who may not be able to afford their services, still have an opportunity to access resources thanks to the annual fund.
Why would you encourage someone to give to the Annual Fund?
I support Milestones because the personal coaching I have received from Beth Thompson has truly been priceless! Cleveland is so lucky to have this resource within our community. It is vital that we all help support its efforts at assisting families on this “special journey.”
Q: How can mindfulness benefit children with autism?
A: Children are more susceptible to their environment through their senses, due to lack of practicing healthy coping skills to help self-regulate and manage their environment. Mindfulness can help to alleviate some of those stressors. Children diagnosed with autism are very sensitive to energy and are attuned to energy that others may not even be aware existed. This sensitivity can make coping with the excessive stimuli/energy of things such as: technology, chemicals/additives in food, fluorescent lighting, ambient noise, perfume/laundry detergent/deodorant, etc., which can be over-stimulating. This can contribute to feelings of anxiety, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. When teaching a child mindfulness practices, we are teaching them how to reduce stress, feel more connected, and how to relax, in order to navigate this intense world in which they perceive.
An example of a mindfulness practice that can be incredibly beneficial to individuals with autism is meditation. However, prior to being able to teach meditative practice, the basic skill that needs to be taught (as ultimately any meditative practice focuses on this) is how to breathe deeply. Some various techniques in teaching deep breathing can include using items such as: bubbles, pinwheels, straws and pom-poms to blow, placing a stuffed animal on their stomach to watch it move up and down, etc. At our center, we have also utilized the phrase (with visual supports) “smell, blow”. We have our students “smell” (flower, lotion, etc.) and “blow” (bubbles, candle, etc.). This assists in slowing down the breath. The use of the breath in a tactile, mindful way, is an excellent way to help these young people have a focus.
Movement is also incredibly important and beneficial to children diagnosed with autism, especially in regards to self-regulation. One can become emotionally balanced through flexibility and a good example of this is through practice of yoga. Practicing yoga not only exercises ones’ physical body, but also assists in processing emotions and thoughts.
Yoga has been suggested to be utilized, especially among individuals with attention issues, that may not be able to sit still to meditate. Studies demonstrated that yoga helped to settle their energy, thereby helping them to be able to meditate more peacefully following this practice. For some children with additional support needs, issues with balance, movement, and sensory processing has built up a state of chronic stress. Yoga and meditation helps to reduce this. Working with the body and helping them to relax is the best way to focus the breath in to the body and help it de-stress through relaxation. When children are relaxed, children are ready to learn.
Mindfulness is all about asking children to pay attention to how they feel, what they are feeling, and how their body feels in the moment. Using their five senses (what you see, smell, taste, touch, and hear) assists in helping to bring them into the “here and now”, the present moment. One of the beautiful things about mindfulness practice is that you can adapt and modify it to be as individualized as each individual child. However, it is important to note that in order to teach mindfulness practice, you must be able to teach from your own practice, and through repetition.
If you want to learn more about practicing mindfulness, here are some recommended websites, books and videos:
American Mindful Research Association
The Center for Mindfulness
Picture Books That Introduce Mindfulness and Meditation to Kids
Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens, and Families
Asanas for Autism and Special Needs: Yoga to Help Children with their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness
Connected Kids: Help Kids with Special Needs (and Autism) SHINE with mindful, heartfelt activities
Yoga for Autism Education Program
Teaching Yoga to Children with Autism
Adaptive Yoga for Kids
-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.
“It is often said that if you have met one person with autism you have met one person with autism,” says Tim Mikes, Canfield, Ohio resident and recent Kent State University graduate. “But it’s imperative to appreciate the unique experiences that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder have.”
As an individual on the spectrum, Tim understands the importance of knowing and meeting other people with ASD. “It’s empowering because it reminds me that I am not alone in my struggles and success,” he says. “This humbling experience also allows me to share my insights that could possibly be of help to others.”
He is passionate about helping young adults, like himself, transition into adulthood and engage with the “real world.” Whether it is through his work with the Kent State Autism Taskforce or as a presenter at Milestones Annual Autism Conference, Tim says helping others through awareness, education and empathy is key to building bridges in the autism community and beyond.
How has Milestones helped you?
Milestones has helped me by teaching me the importance of knowing how to advocate for oneself, specifically being able to understand the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it relates to higher education. Milestones conferences held in June have been extremely helpful for myself and my family because it is one of the few times where medical and educational professionals, individuals with ASD, and family members of those with ASD are able to collaboratively discuss effective approaches to addressing areas of concern and display the success of individuals with ASD. The synergistic environment that Milestones produces at its conferences allows productive learning for all parties involved.
Tell us about yourself – where you work, where you live, where you attended college, places you volunteer, etc.
I currently live in Canfield, Ohio with my parents. I attended three different colleges: Ohio Northern University, Ohio University and Kent State University. While I learned a great deal at Ohio Northern University I transferred to Ohio University because of loneliness. Unfortunately, I had to take a medical leave from Ohio University after a year and was diagnosed with ASD. After several adverse medication reactions, I met medical professionals in Cleveland who expertly assisted me and I returned to my pursuit of a college degree.
I graduated this past May with a degree in Public Health with Cum Laude status from Kent State University. While at Kent State, I helped educate staff about ASD and gave a presentation to the University Police about how to approach students who may be experiencing a sensory integration issue. I helped create a student organization and I remain a member of the Kent State Autism Taskforce which is made up of students, staff and faculty who would like to improve the retention of students with ASD and improve their college experience.
How do you think Milestones impacts the young adult community?
I can, without a shadow of a doubt, say that Milestones positively affects the young adult community. Milestones connects these individuals with resources and others who can help guide them through their journey in life. They also are respectful and understanding of all different types of people who are on the autism spectrum. They teach a valuable lesson on “owning” your disability. This can be thought of as not using it as an excuse but rather taking responsibility in being assertive about getting help when you need it, and also to not become discouraged with yourself when you face difficulties.
How have you personally been affected by your affiliation with Milestones?
I was a presenter for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 conferences. The most recent presentation I gave in 2017 was about writing, which is a common area of difficulty for many with ASD for various reasons (for example, continuity of ideas and maintaining chronological order of events, succinctness or need for giving more detail). I have also been able to volunteer at one of the autism walks which was held in Cleveland. The most recent event that I was able to assist with was a presentation to first-year medical students and explaining what they needed to know about patients with ASD.
What is the most important thing you’d like a friend, relative, or neighbor to know about Milestones?
I would implore friends, relatives and neighbors to go to Milestones if they have a family member with ASD and are not sure how to best assist them. While autism is sadly often shown as a terrible debilitating condition, when one starts to realize that people with ASD are still people, that they request the same things as anyone else – which is respect and understanding – one will start to see that this condition is not as debilitating as initially thought.
I would leave with this thought – Diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder; Treatment: Respect and understanding with necessary assistive supports in place. Prognosis: Dependent on continuity of treatment plan. In essence it is the willingness of the individuals with ASD and their families’ support and commitment to helping address difficulties, along with being able to connect with resources such as Milestones, that makes all the difference.
We’re able to do what we do because of you.
Each year, Milestones serves more than 2,400 parents and professionals throughout the region. We strive to support and enrich the local autism community through our annual conference, workshops, trainings, coaching services and referrals, as well as providing thousands of resources on our website, milestones.org. Since our founding in 2003, the mission is simple yet significant: to help individuals with autism reach their potential.
We believe there is a spectrum of possibility within every individual with ASD.
Your generous support has enabled us to become the preeminent autism resource in Northeast Ohio. Families with children on the spectrum come to us for information about an individual’s social, emotional, educational, recreational, therapeutic, vocational and housing needs from birth through adulthood. World-renowned author and speaker Temple Grandin kicked off our 15th Annual Autism Conference, which attracted over 1,500 attendees this year. We expanded our workshops to include such panels as “How ASD Impacts Children of Color and their Families,” “In Love and On the Spectrum” featuring couples where one partner is on the spectrum, and “Working with Individuals with ASD Who Identify as Transgender,” all highlighting the need for more awareness and understanding from social service, medical and other providers of care.
“The need for autism-related services and education is overwhelming,” says Milestones co-founder Mia Buchwald Gelles. “The autism population is growing and aging year after year. We are here to meet those needs. We are working to make a brighter future.”
Consider donating to our organization to help us continue to provide life-changing resources for local families impacted by autism.
Learn about the many ways you can designate your gift.
Thank you for your support.
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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!