Ask the Expert

Monthly Milestones | October 2017

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Ask the Expert: Practicing Mindfulness with Children on the Spectrum

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:

Websites

American Mindful Research Association

The Center for Mindfulness

Books

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

Videos

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.

 

Ask the Expert: The Importance of Mindfulness

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.

Ask the Expert: Tips on Getting Your Child Ready for School

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

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.

 

 

Ask the Expert: Sex Ed During Early Childhood and the Teenage Years

 

Q: As a parent, I want to help my child to have a healthy understanding of his sexuality. What is the best way to approach the subject during early childhood and later during the teenage years?

A: Most parents are concerned about teaching sex education to their child, but find resources are lacking to help them do it. First, it is never too young to start addressing sexuality. Schools don’t start teaching sex education until 5th grade, but it is recommended to start age appropriate education earlier, especially for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). First, educate your child about gender differences early on (e.g., toddler and school age) through use of pictures, Social Stories™ and game playing. Remember to use different types of body sizes, hair style and clothing for both males and females. Use life-size posters, anatomically correct dolls and other hands-on visuals while teaching. Teach the similarities and differences between genders, while still encouraging non-gender stereotyped play and activities.

Next, teach about body parts using anatomically correct words such as penis, vagina, breasts, pubic hair and so forth as it is developmentally appropriate. They also need education on body fluids such as tears, mucus, saliva, sweat, blood, urine, semen and menstrual blood – explaining what body parts excrete what fluids. Again, use of pictures, Social Stories™ and other hands-on learning tools that are age appropriate will be the most helpful.

When teaching about puberty, it is extremely important to use pictures of males and females that represent body change and growth (e.g., muscle, hair, vagina, penis, etc.) throughout the lifespan (e.g., at ages 8, 12, 15 and 18). Have the child recognize what age they are in the pictures during those discussions. Many individuals report still feeling socially like an eight-year-old, even though they are in the body of a 12 or 15-year-old. Recognize that those feelings are normal for individuals with ASD.

Once the basics are taught, then you can start to teach about sexual intimacy. Sexual intimacy is very different for an individual with ASD as they typically experience a gap between “knowledge” and “experience” given their difficulties with social interactions. As they continue to grow, I’d recommend using sex education and sexual intimacy books to help with your discussions. One of my favorite resources is Davida Hartman’s book, Sexuality and Relationship Education for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders which was created for professionals but can be extremely useful to parents who are proactive in teaching.

It is also important to address challenging topics (e.g., masturbation, stalking behaviors, sexting, child pornography, indecent exposure, etc.) throughout their preteen and teenage years.  Many times, these topics are being addressed after the problem has already occurred, which is why we are seeing an increase in inappropriate sexual behaviors in our schools and in the juvenile detention centers. Many of these problems can be prevented by teaching your preteen or teenager about these topics with pictures, Social Stories™ and books before the behavior occurs.

-Cara Daily, PhD, BCBA

Dr. Cara Marker Daily is a licensed pediatric psychologist and board certified behavior analyst with over 20 years of clinical, research and teaching experience with autism in the home, school, hospital and community settings. Dr. Daily is the President and Training Director of Daily Behavioral Health and the Founder and Executive Director of the Building Behaviors Autism Center.

[Opening photo: http://bit.ly/2pPJrN0]

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