Category Archives: General

Autism and Pop Culture

Not too many years ago, autism and all autism spectrum disorders were fairly taboo to speak of, especially on television shows and in movies geared toward children and teens.  Thankfully, in the past few years, prime time shows have begun to de-stigmatize autism by portraying main characters who has varying degrees of the disorder. Several shows including Parenthood, The Big Bang Theory and, most recently, Sesame Street have introduced characters who either have autism or have characteristics that highlight the disorder. For millions of viewers, parents, therapists and even those who have autism, this means that more and more people have begun to be more open, accepting and tolerant of differences.

The Big Bang Theory‘s main character Sheldon Cooper shows many signs of Aspergers Syndrome. For example, Sheldon plays a scientific genius who works at a local university and shows several characteristics typical to those who have Aspergers, such as extreme attention to detail, repetitive actions and a lack of social skills. Directors and producers claim he is not autistic but he does seem to portray many characteristics common in Aspergers. Regardless of whether Sheldon is meant to be “on the spectrum” in the show his character has brought the discussion to a national level. This awareness and openness will hopefully lead to understanding and tolerance. It may also help students who have ASD relate to a character they see on the screen.

Sesame Street has just introduced a new muppet, named Julia, a friend of Abby Cadabby and Elmo who is bullied as a result of being different. Even viewers this young  can learn that a child with differences is not worse or bad or somehow “less.” The goal of Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” initiative is to is to reduce the stigma associated with autism.The initiative also aims to educate kids as well as their parents on how to have successful interactions with kids on the spectrum.

To read more about the Sesame Street initiative follow this link to Autism Speaks.

Changing Schools with a Child with Autism

With summer quickly drawing to a close many families are focusing on stocking up on needed school supplies or possibly a new outfit or two. Still others may be trying to fit in one last get-away before the school year begins. For parents and children who are transitioning to a new school,  however, there is a whole different type of preparation going on. Adjusting to the start of another school year can be a difficult one for any student but, if you are a parent of a child on the spectrum, you know that there are transition issues you will need to prepare for long before the end of summer. Here are some suggestions from experts at Child Mind Institute and Children’s Hospital to make your family’s transition to a new school an easier one.

  • Visit the New School – Parents with children on  the spectrum know that stress from the unknown can be unbearable for their child. Find time to visit the school and meet key players in your child’s education experience. Find the bathrooms, lunch room and the area that your child will spend the most time. Take pictures (or videos) when possible to review later.
  • Talk about the New Schedule – Change, especially unexpected change, can be extremely stressful for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with ASD often prefer to have a sense of structure and to know what to expect during the day and what activity they will be doing and when. Find out from teachers and administrators what the course of the day will look like and use story boards, charts or whatever works for your child so he/she can start to learn the new schedule of the day.
  • Use a Count Down – For many children who are transitioning to a new school knowing how much time before the big change is important. Start some sort of countdown either on a calendar or on a device they use often such as a laptop or iPad.
  • Explain Why – For many children on the spectrum they want to understand why they are leaving the comfort of their old school and changing to a new one.  Whether the change is to a program that can assist your child or from a special education school to a mainstream school – explain your thinking and how the new school will benefit your child.
  • Be Positive – While you as a parent may have just as many nerves and anxiety about the change, you will want to be positive about the transition. Talk up the great things about the school.  Remember to be genuine. No need to overboard but merely accentuate the positive.
  • Brief Teachers and Therapists – While this may seem like a no-brainer, make sure you meet with your child’s team and each teacher that he/she will have throughout the course of the day.  Your child’s special education teacher can help you communicate the needs of your child clearly.

What is ABA?

ABA is the acronym for Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the use of  techniques and principles such as to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior. Let’s take a closer look at what this is and how it may impact your child in a positive manner.

What is ABA? Applied behavior analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991).

How can ABA help your child? ABA methods are used to support persons with autism in at least six ways:

  • to increase behaviors (reinforcement procedures increase on-task behavior, or social interactions);
  • to teach new skills (systematic instruction and reinforcement procedures teach functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills);
  • to maintain behaviors (teaching self control and self-monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills);
  • to generalize or to transfer behavior from one situation or response to another (from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom);
  • to restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur
  • to reduce interfering behaviors (self injury)

What does Research say about ABA? A number of completed studies have demonstrated that ABA techniques can produce improvements in communication, social relationships, play, self care, school and employment. These studies involved age groups ranging from preschoolers to adults. Results for all age groups showed that ABA increased participation in family and community activities. (Read More)

What kind of Improvement or Progress can you expect to see with ABA? While children and parents can see meaningful changes over the course of many years, keep in mind that this therapy does not work overnight. Some learners do acquire skills quickly. But typically, this rapid progress happens in just one or two particular skill areas such as reading, while much more instruction and practice is needed to master another skill area such as interacting with peers.

What is “the spectrum”?

The word autism can sometimes be confusing.  Since autism is a spectrum disorder it means there is a wide variation of how  it impacts each person. Every child on the autism spectrum has unique abilities, symptoms, and challenges. The disorders that are considered “on the spectrum” are , however, closely related and do share a core group of symptoms.  For example almost every child on the spectrum has problems to some degree with social skills, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior.  Let’s look at the terms and descriptions of each major part of the “spectrum” of autism.

The autism spectrum disorders belong to an “umbrella” category of five childhood-onset conditions known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD).  The three we most commonly hear about are:

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

(Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder are also in this spectrum.)


Autism (sometimes called classic autism) is what most people think of when hearing the word “autism”. People with autistic disorder usually have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many people with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability.

Asperger’s Syndrome usually encompasses higher functioning children who have similar social problems and limited scope of interests as children with autistic disorder. People with Asperger syndrome usually have milder symptoms of autistic disorder. They might have social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests. However, they typically do not have problems with language or intellectual disability. (Department of Public Health)

Pervasive Developmental Disorder or PDD is also known as atypical autism. This is a kind of catch-all category for children who have some autistic behaviors but who don’t fit into other categories. People who meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome, but not all, may be diagnosed with atypical autism. These people usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder. The symptoms might cause only social and communication challenges.

Williams Syndrome

Williams Syndrome, also known as Williams-Beuren syndrome, is a rare genetic disorder that is present at birth and can affect both males and females across all cultural lines.  While our Milestones Website has links to sites that can explain the behavior and clinical characteristics that are associated with this disorder, we thought you may find it helpful for a reference-at-a-glace of the major points of this disorder that is so rare the numbers indicate that it affects 1 in 10,000 people worldwide.

General Characteristics – Attributes of Williams Syndrome include: medical problems such as  cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, and learning disabilities.  These often occur side by side with striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities and an affinity for music. While many behavior disorders cause difficulty connecting with a child, this disorder seems to have the opposite effect – often children are social, friendly and endearing.

Medical Struggles – Children with Williams Syndrome often struggle with life threatening medical problems including:

  • Cardiovascular problems – Heart or blood vessel problems are common in WS. Typically there is narrowing in the aorta or narrowing in the pulmonary arteries.
  • Hypercalcemia Elevated Calcium Levels – When hypercalcemia is present, it can cause extreme irritability or “colic-like” symptoms. Usually a child outgrows the irritability or colic symptoms.  Often dietary changes can solve some of the problem but lifetime monitoring of calcium is necessary.
  • Weight Issues – Low birth weight and slow weight gain in infancy can be a problem for children with WS.  These problems have been linked to low muscle tone, severe gag reflex, poor suck/swallow, tactile defensiveness etc.
  • Kidney Problems – There is a slightly increased frequency of problems with kidney structure and/or function.
  • Dental Issues – Widely spaced teeth and dental occlusions are fairly common with WS. Orthodontic correction usually solves this problem.
  • Musculosketelal Problems – Children with Williams syndrome often have low muscle tone and joint laxity.  Physical therapy is usually helpful to improve muscle tone and strength.
  • Other disorders linked to WS – Many findings have reported a link between WS and Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorders.


To read more about WS

Williams Syndrome Association

Genetics Home Reference

National Library of Medicine


Toys for Special Needs

Birthdays, holidays, special treats.  Who doesn’t like a reason to buy a child a toy? Unfortunately, many of the common toys available hold no interest or are not suitable for children with Autism and other special needs. For families with children who have special needs, finding good toys can be difficult.  Here are a list of resources for toys for sensory, auditory, and motor skills to name a few.

Toy Stores – There are some really great toy stores that cater to different types of special needs. Here are 15 stores that provide great toys and educational products for babies, children and teens with special needs. Special Needs Toy Stores

Toys for kids who don’t like to play with toys.  If you’re looking for gifts for a child who doesn’t play with toys, then here’s a list of  possible “toys” for your child. Toys for kids who don’t like toys.

Fidgets – Fidget toys are great self-regulation tools to help with focus, attention, calming, and active listening.  Here are 21 great fidget toys. Fidget Toys

Toys for Teens and older children – If you are looking for great sensory toys for your older child but don’t know where to start here is a great resource. National Autism Resources

All human beings learn through play.  A delay in play skills means a delay in other skills.  Toys are not necessary for play, of course, but these lists will help you with your shopping lists.  Have fun playing.

Speech Therapy for Autism

Speech-language pathologists are amazingly creative and patient therapists who specialize in treating language problems and speech disorders. They are a key part of the autism treatment team.  Children struggling with autism have a wide range of developmental disabilities.  These can include speech and communication problems starting from early childhood.  Let’s look at some of the problems and solutions that speech therapists work on with autistic students on a daily basis.

Speech Behaviors –

Parents may first notice speech delays in a child who has been diagnosed with autism or one of the disorders on the autism spectrum at a very early age.  Toddlers may not speak at all or may only grunt, shriek, cry, hum or babble nonsensically. As a child develops they may begin parrot talk also called echolalia (repeating back what was said to them only) or speak in an unexpressive tone of voice (robot speak().  Still other young children may speak but not make eye contact or even have trouble understanding the meaning and purpose behind the words.  These are all challenges that face a speech and language pathologist when designing a therapy program specific to each child.

Treatment and goals for Speech Therapy

Because speech challenges for autistic children can range widely on the communication spectrum, speech therapists must find a way to not only teach a child to speak but also how to use the language effectively enough to hold a conversation and communicate with not only words but tone, eye contact, expression and body language.  This is no easy feat. Here are some of the ways that specialists attempt to improve communication and thus the quality of life for many children with this disorder.

Speech therapy techniques might include:

  • Electronic “talkers”
  • Signing or typing
  • Using picture boards with words, known as picture exchange communication systems that start out using pictures instead of words to help a child learn to communicate
  • Using sounds to which a person is over- or under-sensitive to expand and compress speech sounds
  • Improving articulation of speech by massaging or exercising lips or facial muscles
  • Having individuals sing songs composed to match the rhythm, stress, and flow of sentences