milestones autism resources
Adam Berebitsky, Milestones 2017 Benefit Honoree, is not a sidelines kind of person. Especially when it comes to causes he believes in. The Solon resident and father of two has been an active participant of Milestones board since 2011, serving in various roles ranging from Board Member to Vice Chair and currently as Chairman.
During his tenure, Berebitsky has seen the organization grow and increase awareness within the community, and beyond. “Looking back, we’ve come a long way and it’s very exciting where we are going,” he says.
Adam wants the community to know that Milestones provides a family atmosphere, one that is knowledgeable about the challenges families are going through. “You are not alone,” he says. “We have a small staff but a staff that really cares about you and your family member.”
Tell us about your involvement with Milestones.
I’ve known co-founder Ilana (Hoffer Skoff) for many years and was aware of the organization and what she and (co-founder) Mia were doing.
I’ve served as board president at Milestones for the past three years and was asked to continue on for a fourth year. Well, my main job is getting the awareness of what our organization provides to the community. First and foremost, this is very important. We have grown over my tenure and created diversity in the board. We have great people on the development committee and the finance committee who help the organization achieve its goals. We continue to improve on our digital platforms – driving people to our services via the website and social media outlets. This has increased the awareness of Milestones over the last few years.
Tell us about yourself. Are you from Northeast Ohio?
I’m originally from South Bend, Indiana. I moved to Cleveland in 1988 with my wife, Stacey, whom I met at Indiana University (she is originally from Beachwood). We have two children. Our daughter, Lindsey, is 24 and lives in Chicago and works as a guidance counselor. Our son, Corey, is 21 and is a senior at Indiana University, studying management information systems. I am currently National Restaurant Lead and Tax Partner at BDO Cleveland.
How have you personally been affected by your affiliation with Milestones? Do you have a personal connection to autism?
Though I don’t have a personal connection to autism, I do have co-workers, friends and acquaintances with children on the spectrum. I have seen the importance of them being connected to a resource like Milestones just when they feel they are not sure what to do next to help their child. What I love about Milestones and why I got involved is because it’s more of a grassroots organization. It’s still a small organization compared to many others out there. There’s that personal touch.
How do you think Milestones has impacted the community over the years?
We have improved awareness immensely. Many parents, especially those who are looking for resources for children on the spectrum have been able to find resources through our organization. Plus, we have an amazing staff. Our program director, Beth Thompson, is top notch for example. The leaders of the organization have personal experiences with their own children on the spectrum, they understand what parents are looking for.
Recently, our focus has been that bridge for children to teens to adulthood; we have a done a good job in helping these young adults get the resources and support they need. We are helping them to take that next step, to help them achieve and reach their potential through education and job skills training. That is where I don’t think any other organization in Northeast Ohio, and maybe even in the country, provides such service to the autism community. We are lucky to have that.
What is the most important thing you’d like a friend, relative or neighbor to know about Milestones?
Our staff has been working with people in the community who are facing situations similar to those you are dealing with. It is important that you share those issues and questions with others who have gone before you. We offer this sort of family atmosphere; we’re here for you. We’ll be responsive to your needs, and we will go to the Nth degree to find solutions to any questions, problems and needs that you have.
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.
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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Grace Blatt, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Trailblazer Award, knows from personal experience that music can be both therapeutic and stimulating for persons on the autism spectrum. Her mission is to touch the lives of others who experience challenges due to anxiety or misunderstanding, and through music therapy help them find expression for their thoughts and feelings.
Grace is currently a student at Lakeland Community College with the goal of earning a degree in Music Therapy from Cleveland State University. For the past year Grace has been employed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities as a Good Life Ambassador. In this position she enjoys paving the way – advocating for persons with autism and other special needs.
How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?
One of the most exciting ways I believe my efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community is through my work as a Good Life Ambassador for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. In this role I get to advocate for all of us in this special community by making presentations to county boards, local community collaboratives, schools, legislators, families, provider agencies, etc. I educate them about the tremendous value persons with all types of special needs bring to the greater community environments, and I provide ideas for them to embrace us with inclusion.
How has helping others shaped your life?
As a person on the autism spectrum I have experienced many challenges in trying to fit into “typical” society. By helping others, I have been able to use my experiences, both happy and difficult, to encourage and educate others. Helping others who are on this same journey is giving me a growing passion for advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves.
What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?
The statement that we are more alike than different is not just a trite saying. When you meet a person with autism or other special needs, be intentional about not noticing their differences. Instead, look closely for the person inside who is simply packaged more uniquely than most others. Once you see and value that person within, you will become excited to learn more about them and how you might be able to serve such special people!