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The following is a simple story I wrote for a 6 year old girl who is having some processing-related challenges in school. This girl often will give a “deer in the headlights” look when asked to perform a simple request, such as “come over to the reading carpet for story time”. To help her understand this experience, and to help her teachers find language and interventions to address it, I created this social story. In the process of reading this to the girl, I had her draw Dee, Dee’s teacher, the reading carpet, the brain fairies, and the message being sent from the brain to the legs. We did this all on a blackboard, but it could have easily been done with a dry erase board or piece of paper.

Here it is:

There once was a girl named Dee. Dee was an older sister, a daughter, a grand daughter, a student, a playmate and a friend.
Sometimes Dee’s brain and body had a hard time talking to each other.
Sometimes in school when Dee’s teacher would call her over to the reading carpet, Dee would freeze – her body not moving at all. It was like her brain couldn’t send the message to tell her body to move. When this happened, the teacher would usually say again “Come on over to the reading carpet Dee”. Dee’s brain would then finally tell her body to start moving. Dee didnt know why this sometimes happened. I think it’s because sometimes Dee’s brain fairies are sleepy and it takes them awhile to wake up, get on their shoes, and go down to her legs to tell them to move. What do you think? (I always give the child a chance to add their thoughts).
What do you think we can do to help Dee’s brain fairies shake off their sleepy dust and run down to her legs quicker? Ooooh. I have an idea. How about Dee and the teacher make a picture card that the teacher can hold up or place on Dee’s work surface that shows a brain sending a message to the legs that says “start walking”?

Maybe the card would look something like this (please excuse the lame drawing:):

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This is a fantastic video that explains current nueroscience on emotion regulation and brain plasticity. It states in a very sciency way, how social-emotional intervention literally changes the way the brain functions/responds to the environment. It’s fascinating and provides great hope for our kids. I look forward to talking about this with parents and practitioners in the weeks to come.

Please watch and discuss with others:
http://www.edutopia.org/richard-davidson-sel-brain-video

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I use this rank system with a young boy I work with whose working on controlling his outbursts at the end of our sessions/all transitions away from desirable activity (he hates to be done/to transition and as a result often throws a tantrum when it’s time to go).

I begin my session by prepping with this simple visual, telling him that in 50 minutes he’s going to be faced with a a choice (priming):

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I tell him that right now he’s calm and pleased with what lies ahead but there’s going to be a voice in his head that wants to “tear things up” (his words), when it’s time to go. I tell him that he’s going to have to make the choice now as to what he will do. I tell him it is in his control but it’s not going to be easy. I tell him that I know he can do it. We review our “choice” visual a few minutes before leaving. We walk out of the room without a tantrum. We complete the pinning ceremony (on a sleeve patch or karate style belt). He’s one pin closer to earning his Trust rank (let’s say for this child it takes 5 pins to complete the trust rank). Next is the Responsibility rank. After that the leadership and finally the independence. All of these ranks have meaning in what he is able to do/choose in my room (or at home if you were to implement it there). I’ll write about how to communicate when a child does NOT earn their pin at a later date.
MATERIALS YOU’LL NEED:
*cloth belt, hat, or sleeve patch to pin onto (think scouts).
*4 distinct sets of pins that represent each rank (make them cool).
*whiteboard and dry erase markers (as always).
*Enthusiasm and clear, concise language to explain.

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The Power of Shared Experience

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There’s a teen, now young adult, who started a site called http://www.anxietyinteens.org. She suffers with anxiety herself and felt that a teen-specific resource where people could share their stories and read about others experiences was of particular importance. She and many others share their feelings of being alone in dealing with anxiety (worries about “what if…”, how she’s being perceived, etc).
Yesterday I had a teen I work with read a true story aloud (from anxietyinteens.org) as I asked her to identify negative automatic thoughts the writer was sharing, beliefs about self that were not based in fact, and actions/behaviors that resulted from these thoughts and beliefs (ex: Thought-I’ll throw up if I go to school. Belief- I can’t go to school. Action/behavior- cry and feel paralyzed with fear. stay home from school. REPEAT – fear has now grown). As we did this exercise (showing her how to identify the anxiety cycle in action), we spoke candidly about similar feelings my client has to those of the girl in the story. When I ask her at the end why she thought I had her read this, she said “so I know I’m not the only one”. She was exactly right.
Never underestimate the power of connecting your child’s experience with others. Blogs thrive on the very idea of shared experience. We feel empowered and normal when we know our struggle is not just our own. It gives us hope that we can make change. It validates that what we’re going through is hard but that it’s not our fault.

If you’re interested, here’s the story we chose:
“So I want to share with you my story of anxiety starting from the very beginning of my life. I’m an open book when it comes to sharing my struggles because I hope that it helps at least one person out. So I’m sitting at home, staying home from school because, you guessed it, my anxiety. But I think to make it more meaningful I will start from when I was born. When I was about a year old I had to go see a therapist because I was afraid to go to the bathroom. I had to get so many medical tests done to see if something was wrong physically, but of course, everything came back normal. This went on until I was 4 years old when I finally learned how to go to the bathroom like a big girl. That story is a little embarrassing, but this is when all my anxiety started to show, and yes, I was that young. I’m 16 now, but before I was 16, my anxiety would come in phases. It was never constant and there always was a trigger to it. I was afraid to go to the doctor or the dentist, which is probably normal for a young child, but the fear was so intense that it didn’t seem “normal.” To this day, I still hate going to the doctors or the dentist or whatever it may be. I also would fear going on vacation. Not so bad to the point I wouldn’t go, but I would cry constantly the whole trip. I even cried when me and my family went to Disney World. When I look back, it would make sense that I have the fear of the unknown. If I didn’t know what the ride did or how fast or high it was I would FREAK out. I also started to have signs of emetophobia, which is the fear of throwing up or being around someone who was sick. There was a time in my life where for two weeks, I would hardly eat anything because I knew there was a virus going around the school and I was so worried about catching it. I always worried that I would get sick in public and that’s still a huge fear today. I also showed signs of extreme shyness. I never thought anything of it, I just thought that was my personality. But now, it would make more sense that I have Social Anxiety. Every year at school, I would stick to having one friend in each grade level. I wasn’t good at making friends and I also still am not today. So to jump into more recent years, things just didn’t seem to be getting better. In the late spring of 2013, I had my first major panic attack. It hit me so fast, I wasn’t ready for it at all. It happened at random and I was trying so hard to figure out what triggered it, but I just couldn’t seem to find it. I was just sitting in church minding my own business then, bam! Out of nowhere came a panic attack. It also happened at school when I was just sitting in class. I ended up having to leave class and talk to the school psychologist. I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack or anything since I knew I had some sort of anxiety problem, but I still didn’t know what was going on. From then on, the whole summer of 2013, I became a recluse. I didn’t want to leave the house in fear of having another panic attack. I begged my parents to let me see a therapist, but they thought I could deal with it on my own. I just sat in bed crying, feeling like I was wasting my life. Finally, my parents took me to a therapist, who I still go to today. Unfortunately, school was coming around the corner and I could only fit in two therapy sessions, which hadn’t really benefited me at all for what was about to come. Sure enough the first day of school came and I was up all night crying because I was so afraid to go. I juts started dealing with panic that I didn’t know how to deal with it at school. All I could think of is how the kids would feel about me and what the teachers would do and how they would react. Luckily, most of my teachers this year ended up being very understanding. I ended up staying home and we had to make an emergency therapy session. I was still so afraid to go to school that I ended up missing 11 days first quarter. Its second quarter right now and things have been getting a little better, but I’m still missing a lot of school. Considering that therapy really doesn’t help with anxiety instantly (it still helps a lot so I do recommend it don’t get me wrong) I needed a quicker way to find relief from this mess so I went to see a psychiatrist. I’m currently on anti-anxiety medication, which makes it a little easier. Now, I don’t want to send the wrong message by saying medication will solve the problem because it all comes down to you. I’m still having a tough time with anxiety but I’m hoping I will soon get out of this cage and be able to fly free from this intense challenge. What I want readers to take from this is that don’t be ashamed to get help. As much as I know most kids don’t want to, it does help a significant amount. And if you do end up getting medication, don’t be ashamed to take it. I’m not trying to endorse the idea of taking meds, but sometimes you need that little extra boost to get going. It’s your decision to take it and when to stop it so you wont have to take it your whole life if you don’t want to. I just know that I was afraid and ashamed to take them but you have to do what you gotta do. Another thing I want to mention is that you should know that nothing is your fault and I want to make that clear. I’ve blamed myself for a lot of things these past few months but what I’ve realized is I was born with this. I didn’t ask to be born with it and I’m sure you did not either. You should never blame yourself for something that’s totally out of control. Things will fall into place and get better, I’m sure of it. And lastly I just want to reach out to any parent that might be reading this. Please be patient with your child through this difficult time. I know you might be frustrated and stressed out during this difficult time, but I’m sure your child is having those same feelings as you are. Just try to stay calm as best as you can because it just adds to the stress and I know that because, trust me, I’ve been there. Be encouraging at all times, that’s what will help with this horrible illness. Just remember, this isn’t something that just happens over time. It takes time, courage, and support to get through it, which I hope you all realize. Well I think this is long enough so I will end this by saying; I hope this helped anyone who is going through the same thing I am and please, stay strong and never lose hope. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”

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Dear Readers,

I found this resource from the University of Missouri recently and was enamored by its description of the challenges individuals with autism face. This manual, which is written for vocational rehabilitation specialists, not parents, describes autism in the most clear and comprehensive manner I have ever read. Please read pages 2-8 (follow the page numbers on the bottom right of the document) and you will see what I mean.
The rest is worth reading as well as it gives interesting statistics on integrating individuals with ASD into the workforce.

Best,

Anthony

Manual link: http://www.dps.missouri.edu/Autism/Adult%20Autism%20&%20Employment.pdf

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Many children struggle with anxiety. In my work, I assist many kids whose thoughts often drift to the dark side more often than not. Especially when trying something new. Negative thoughts enter the brain automatically, not by choice. Thoughts like, “they’re all looking at me and laughing in their heads”, or “I’m going to blow this”, or “they don’t want me here…they don’t like me”, are thoughts that play regularly in the heads of children I meet. These negative automatic thoughts spur the body to respond with certain physiological responses – tightening in the chest, light-headedness, dry mouth, short and shallow breathing, tearfulness, stomach pain, and an overwhelming need to flee. This often results in the child leaving before they’ve even tried, refusing to get out of the car to go in, hiding, freezing, or running away. Inevitably, this causes the child to feel shame later on and worse, a feeling that their thoughts were “right”. This is what is commonly referred to as the anxiety cycle. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that defeats children and adults with anxiety every day.
Cognitive behavioral therapy works to address this cycle by making clients aware of negative automatic thoughts (“I can’t do this”) and how the brain responds to such thoughts with negative beliefs about self (“if I try I’ll fail in front of everyone”/”I’m not good enough”). This is then followed by a reinforcing action (leaving before you try/throwing the ball away in a game because you don’t want to “mess things up”/because your so anxious you can’t focus).
Below I have created a simple visual that helps illustrate this concept to children that struggle with self-defeating anxious thoughts. Superman represents the positive voice that we can all choose to access when we feel anxious, nervous, or overwhelmed with doubt. He reminds us that we are brave, that we’ve overcome greater obstacles before, that we have the skills/knowledge to do it, and that we have support all around us. On the other side is the Joker (I know I’m mixing comic books). The Joker is louder, bigger, more present. We don’t choose to have him in our brain. He’s there automatically and his job is to knock us down. I once had a child call this voice his “Simon Cowell”, the mean American Idol critic who tells vulnerable new singers all the things they’ve done wrong. The Joker replays your past failures, he shines a bright light on all the things that could and will go wrong. He tells you to go home, give up, hide, and save face. He tells you that you will fail.
I tell my clients that they have a choice who they listen to but that one voice will be much louder than the other. I tell them that simply being aware of the Joker helps you fight him off. I tell them that their anxious brains will try hard to block Superman out in the moment, so they must summon him and all his encouraging words of support. We work on this by creating a positive self statement ahead of time and practicing what it might feel like in the moment of stress (coming up with as many negative words Joker might throw our way as possible). I ask my families to review this visual before big, anxiety producing events.
Remember that being aware of our automatic thoughts and the way our brain and body processes them is half the battle…probably more.

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This is a very necessary and helpful resource for parents of children with autism. This may come into play when parents are creating a crisis plan for there child during group outings or other activities in the community. This is particularly helpful if your child is non-verbal and/or prone to physical aggression/self-injurious behavior when escalated. Remember that this is to help first responders who may not understand autism.

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In this article, the author speaks of her early experience as a person with (undiagnosed) Aspergers. She gives some very pointed advice and insight into her experience and how she wishes she had been diagnosed as a child – “If I had received the diagnosis, I might have at least understood that there were other people like me, that it wasn’t my fault”.
I think it’s worth reading, regardless of where you stand on pursuing diagnosis or not.

View at Medium.com

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The Trials of Jacob Mach

On the New York Times homepage today, there is a short documentary titled, “Trials of Jacob Mach”. It is a wonderful peice on a Sudanese Lost Boy who is now a man trying to make it into the Atlanta police force. This short film documents his trials in pursuit of this goal.
The reason I write about this documentary is that there is a scene in the film (AT ABOUT 9 minutes 50 seconds) where Jacob is testing to pass the shooting portion of the training. He is visibly nervous (shaking) during this scene and performing rather poorly. He is instructed by two drill sergeants. One approaches Jacob’s nervousness with a very harsh voice, sarcastic tone, and firm disposition. The other with a patient voice and an encouraging, supportive disposition.
As parents and practitioners, we are daily teachers to our children. We put them through a long and grueling “Grow Up Academy”: helping them with homework, teaching them life skills, athletic skills, social skills, etc.
Sometimes the difference between a successful learning sequence and an unsuccessful one is the way we communicate with them when they are anxious, vulnerable, and riddled with self-doubt – like Jacob in this scene.
I couldn’t help but think of what a wonderful example the female drill sergeant set in helping Jacob meet his target shooting goal. Please watch and think about how this might apply to you and your child.

http://www.nytimes.com/video/magazine/100000002567769/the-trials-of-jacob-mach.html

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