Friday, April 2, 2010

Autistic Kids At The Movies Where Shhhh Is'nt Allowed

On April 10, thousands of children with autism will be able to do something that for many of them was impossible until recently: go to the movies. They'll see How to Train Your Dragon at one of 93 "sensory-friendly" screenings in 47 cities across 30 states. The lights will dim but remain on, the volume will be lowered, the movie will start promptly at 10 a.m. with no previews, families with special dietary needs will be allowed to bring snacks from home, and if the kids yell or even stroll around the theater, no one will complain.

April Autism Awareness Month marks the first anniversary of the Sensory Friendly Films program, a joint venture of AMC Entertainment and the Autism Society. Screenings of the G- or PG-rated movies, all newly released, are held once a month on a Saturday morning. Expansion to other cities is planned.

A regular at the screenings is Marianna Pollock of Virginia Beach, Va., and her 6-year-old son Xander. "We attempted a regular movie a few times," says Pollock. "We always ended up having to leave within the first 15 minutes because Xander gets so excited that he flaps and makes noise. It was very stressful."

Xander's behavior at the movies is typical for many people with autism, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates affects 1 in 110 children. "One of the challenges for people with an autism spectrum disorder is coping with strong sensory stimulation," says psychologist Sandra Harris, who runs the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "They may be overwhelmed by loud sounds, bright lights, crowds of people. A person of any age with an ASD may flap his or her hands, twist her fingers, call out or rock when she is excited by an event such as a movie."

Silvia Townsend of San Diego took her 12-year-old son Bailey to a regular movie. Once. "It was horrible," says Townsend. "He was terrified when the lights turned off. And when the loud music started, he was covering his ears and started screaming in obvious pain." Now Bailey loves attending sensory-friendly films.

So does 18-year-old Matthew Kay, who has severe autism and attends the films with other young adults and the staff of the group home he lives in near San Diego. The last time Matthew was able to attend a regular movie, he was 4.

The idea for the films first came about in 2007 when Marianne Ross, of Elkridge, Md., took her then 7-year-old daughter Meaghan, who has autism, to see Hairspray. Ross purposely picked an early matinee, when there would be fewer people. "Meaghan loves Zac Efron, so when he came onscreen, she just danced, twirled, flapped her hands and jumped up and down." Several patrons complained, and the manager asked the Rosses to leave. "I was so frustrated, angry and upset," recalls Ross, "because Meaghan had been so happy. I thought, There's got to be a lot of children in the same situation."

The next day, Ross called her local AMC movie theater in Columbia, Md., and spoke to manager Dan Harris. She asked if he'd be willing to set up a special screening. Harris, who had never known anyone with autism, met with Ross, heard her suggestions and came up with some adaptations to make the screening more sensory-friendly to kids with the disorder.

Ross put the word out about the upcoming screening through her local Autism Society chapter. "We didn't know if we'd have an empty auditorium," says Harris. "We had 300 seats, and we had to turn people away. I knew we were on to something."

Harris held three more monthly screenings, then contacted AMC's national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., where he spoke with community-relations manager Cindy Huffstickler. She thought it was a great idea and was surprised no one had thought of it before. Huffstickler then contacted the Autism Society's national headquarters, which got its chapters behind a few national test screenings that proved just as successful.

"Attending a film where you know everyone in the theater is either in the same situation as you or is at least informed that the 'Silence is golden' policy doesn't apply today takes the tension away," says Angela Vandersteen of Greenwood, Ind., who takes her 5-year-old son Ray to the screenings. When Marianne Ross takes Meaghan to the movies, she also takes along her 8-year-old son Gavin, who does not have autism; he has developed a network of friends who are siblings of autistic kids at the screenings.

Even families of children without autism but with other special needs, like those with physical disabilities, have started attending the screenings, citing the sense of acceptance they feel there.

"Our children are constantly under scrutiny," says Xander's mother Marianna. "They look normal, so people often think they're just misbehaving. It becomes exhausting trying to validate their right to be themselves. At a sensory-friendly movie, we as a family finally get to go to a movie and relax. Boy, does that feel wonderful."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

SM, ASP celebrate National Autism Week

MANILA, Philippines - The SM Committee on Disability Affairs, under the CSR umbrella of SM Cares, together with the Autism Society Philippines (ASP), is celebrating the 14th National Autism Week with the theme “Giant Leaps...Transcending Boundaries” simultaneously in all SM malls nationwide until Jan. 24.

Engineer Bien Mateo, chairman of the SM Committee on Disability Affairs, was made by the ASP as this year’s honorary chairman of the 14th National Autism Week Working Committee.

The celebration took off on Jan. 17 at the SM North Edsa Skydome with a Holy Mass and Family Fun Day. It will culminate with “Angels Walk for Autism” on Jan. 24 at the SM Mall of Asia.

The National Autism Week, which is celebrated every year, aims to raise public awareness on the need to provide a supportive environment among communities to enable children and adults with autism to live with dignity and enable them to function independently and contribute productively to society.

Autism is a lifelong disability and getting people to understand and support ASP activities can make a real difference to the lives of those affected with autism and their families.

SM, through its Committee on Disability Affairs, has been very supportive of the causes of the ASP.

It has offered SM Malls as a venue for all their activities and hosted last September the first-ever sensory film showing of the Disney animated movie “Up,” which was attended by some 100 kids with autism and their families.

Because of its success, the sensory film program will be rolled out nationwide in SM Cinemas and will be scheduled in close coordination with ASP.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Autism Treatment Crisis: Insufficient Number Of Providers To Meet Alarming Increase In Need

According to a study recently released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, it is estimated that approximately 673,000 children aged 3 - 21 have been diagnosed with autism nationwide.

Leading researchers and autism treatment providers agree that children with autism need increased access to evidence-based interventions, including applied behavior analysis (ABA). Endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics, ABA is the only treatment for autism that has been consistently validated by independent scientific research.

However, the CDC Study implies a huge gap between the number of children who need autism treatment and the availability of evidence-based autism treatment. Gina Green, PhD., executive director of the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts, estimates that there are only approximately 4,900 Board Certified Behavior Analysts and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (who must be supervised by BCBAs) "worldwide" who work with individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Rethink Autism hopes to address that gap. "As the prevalence rates of autism are now estimated to be one in 110, we must identify innovative ways to address this National Health Crisis so that children with autism will receive the intervention they so desperately need. Rethink Autism's groundbreaking web-based curriculum empowers parents of children with autism to begin intervention today," said Dr. Bridget Taylor, Senior Clinical Advisor and Board Chair of the Rethink Autism Scientific Advisory Board.

"The alarming autism incident rates just published by the CDC coupled with the staggeringly low likelihood of families gaining access to ABA interventions should be an immediate call to action," said Jamie Pagliaro, executive vice president of Rethink Autism. "The need for new technologies and scalable solutions to deliver best practice treatment has never been greater than now. Developed by some of the nation's leaders in the field of autism, Rethink Autism offers cost-effective research-based intervention tools to anyone with an Internet connection."

About Rethink Autism:

Rethink Autism, Inc. seeks to ensure that every child on the autism spectrum has access to effective and affordable research-based treatment options by providing professionals, parents, and family members with the tools and information necessary to teach children with autism in a way that is easy to understand and apply. Rethink Autism was founded in 2007 and has its headquarters at 19 West 21st Street in New York City.

Children With Autism Use Alternative Keyboard To Communicate With Their Families And Their World

Autism can build a wall of poor communication between those struggling with the condition and their families. While a personal computer can help bridge the divide, the distraction and complexity of a keyboard can be an insurmountable obstacle.

Using a unique keyboard with only two "keys" and a novel curriculum, teachers with Project Blue Skies are giving children with autism the ability to both communicate and to explore the online world.

At the heart of the project is a device called the OrbiTouch. Human-factors engineer Pete McAlindon of BlueOrb in Maitland, Fl., conceived of the concept behind the OrbiTouch more than a decade ago as a way to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome and provide computer access to people with limited or no use of their fingers.

Developed with the support of two National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research awards (9661259 and 9801506), the concept of representing keyboard strokes with paired movements was critical to the design from the start.

"If you are unable to use a keyboard and mouse effectively or at all because of a physical disability, what chance do you have of using a computer?," asked McAlindon. "The OrbiTouch is designed to keep people with physical or developmental disabilities connected to their computers."

The Project Blue Skies curriculum is based on the functions of the OrbiTouch, which allows a user to input letters, symbols and any other command by independently manipulating two computer-mouse shaped grips forward, back, diagonally and to the sides.

For people with carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as other hand and finger ailments, the motions driving the OrbiTouch are far kinder than those for a keyboard.

With Project Blue Skies, the hardware is matched to lesson plans, training aids such as games, and assessment tools. The two-grip device is ideal for people with autism because it is less distracting than a keyboard and does not require finger motion.

In addition, the various letter and number combinations are created by matching color schemes indicated on the two grips, so the training curriculum matches well to a game-like environment.

Get Active For Autism, UK

If your New Year resolutions are already fading fast, The National Autistic Society (NAS) may have the perfect opportunity to get back on track.

The UK's leading charity for people affected by autism is inviting people to join its 2010 active challenge team and raise vital funds to help and support people affected by autism. Whatever your ability there really is something for everyone, from 5k fun runs to 500k cycles.

Ella Moffat, NAS Fundraising Events Manager, said: "Lots of people make New Year resolutions to get fit and what better way to do it and do something really worthwhile at the same time? Last year we had over 970 supporters who raised an amazing £750k for the NAS. This year with your help, we could raise even more!"

Walk, jog, run or cycle in any organised event and as a valued member of the NAS team you'll receive training and fundraising support every step of the way.

Emily Beet, who completed the Royal Parks Half Marathon for the NAS in 2009, said: "When I originally signed up I wasn't known for my running talents or sporting prowess! But I'm proud to say that with a bit of hard work and determination I jogged the entire distance and raised over £2,000 for the NAS. I wasn't the quickest of runners, but wanted to do what I could to help make a difference to people affected by autism and support the work the National Autistic Society does for people like my son. I would urge anyone thinking of setting themselves a challenge for the New Year to go for it and choose the National Autistic Society!"

All funds raised through active challenges will be used to support NAS services including Advocacy for Education service, Befriending scheme, Parent to Parent support service and help! programme.

- £20 - will mean we can provide specialist one-to-one befriending support for one person with autism or a member of their family for a month

- £50 - will mean ten more people getting the understanding and help they need through our telephone support

- £100 - will help pay for a full diagnosis of a child at our internationally respected and renowned NAS diagnostic and assessment centre

- £200 - will mean one more adult meeting others, doing things, going places and feeling less isolated for a year at a NAS social group

For information on NAS active challenge events call the events team on 08450 509 001 or visit

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How do I talk to a kid with autism?

From Tina Cruz, a Fullerton writer who has two children on the spectrum:

1. Ask questions about things you are interested in. Get him to talk about what you want… lead the conversation. If he starts in on Indiana Jones, change the subject…make it something related. “Yes, Indy was a really cool movie, but what did you think of Wall-E?” “Really? What did you like about it?” If you steer the conversation, it will go more smoothly.
2. Bring someone else into the conversation, and throw my son a bone…er, rather, a thread of conversation that he and the other person has in common. Once he is talking to the other person, escape! Yes, I am mostly kidding with this one! Besides, he would just catch you…
3. Be HONEST. Just tell him you can’t talk about that right now. That you are busy, maybe later you can discuss it. He probably won’t be hurt by it, he will appreciate your candor. But if you tell him this, know he has the memory of an elephant and long after you have forgotten? He will find you.
4. Play a game. I Spy, “I’m Thinking of a Word…” “When I Go To the Moon I’m Bringing…” these are all good choices. But don’t be surprised if he kicks your butt. The kid has an amazing attention to detail and his memory will blow you away.
5. Engage in an activity you both enjoy. Go to a ball game. Do a craft. Find time for one-on-one. Just know we are working on good sportsmanship to board games and video games…win or lose, he will shake your hand and say, “Good game!” Be prepared.
6. If all else fails, shoot me a look. I will rescue you both. Under no circumstances be unkind to him…he will remember it. You may not get a second chance.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Virtual world teaches real-world skills

Game helps people with Asperger's practice socializing

If home is where the heart is, then home for a dozen people with Asperger Syndrome could be a 16-acre island blessed with lush gardens and rolling green hills.

The island is called "Brigadoon," but unlike its literary namesake, this place is real — or real enough in a 21st century way. "Brigadoon" belongs to a public virtual world called "Second Life," a popular online 3-D environment frequented by tens of thousands of users.

If home is where the heart is, then home for a dozen people with Asperger Syndrome could be a 16-acre island blessed with lush gardens and rolling green hills.

The island is called "Brigadoon," but unlike its literary namesake, this place is real — or real enough in a 21st century way. "Brigadoon" belongs to a public virtual world called "Second Life," a popular online 3-D environment frequented by tens of thousands of users.
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"Brigadoon" is a real-world experiment in social skills made virtual, a private enclave limited to a select mixture of caregivers and individuals with Asperger Syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism. The inhabitants, or "Dooners" as they call themselves, enjoy the same privileges as those in the more public arenas of "Second Life." They are free to create their own digital representations of themselves, called "avatars," build virtual houses and seek out friends. And, most importantly, they are free to create a "second life" with a level of social interaction that, for reasons of their condition, has been hard to come by in their real lives.

Is gaming a good thing?
Talk of video gaming can set off feelings of unease among parents — no one wants a kid to be glued to a screen for hours on end. But the stakes for children with Asperger's and other autism spectrum disorders — who have difficulties with social interaction — tend to be higher.

At issue is the importance of developing enriching personal relationships and becoming a part of society. While video games can be educational and entertaining, their reputation as a solitary activity can present an impediment to progress for people with autistic disorders by limiting their exposure to social situations.

Researchers are also concerned that playing video games could simply become one of the many repetitive activities that an affected child engages in.

"One feature that highlights the risk of video games is that the behavior of children with autism can be repetitive. They like sameness and routine," says Sally Ozonoff, an associate professor of psychiatry at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. This preference for repetition and familiarity often limits their experiences and prevents them from learning how to adapt to new situations.

But if used correctly, video game technology could be beneficial. "Children with autism have a natural inclination to video games and television," Ozonoff adds. "The goal is to try to exploit that inclination therapeutically."

New technology in the works
Researchers around the world are now attempting to do just that. At the University of Victoria in British Columbia, cognitive psychologist James Tanaka is using a custom-built game called "Let's Face It!" to teach facial recognition. Actually a suite of mini-games, the program uses photos, sounds and positive feedback as part of a scoring system to encourage kids with autism to learn.

"You can have kids do an exercise, but they usually don't have the richness or the continuity [of the video game]," says Tanaka.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Glasgow Caledonian University are creating video games to study cognitive skills in children with autism using a revolutionary interface: gesture recognition software that registers the players' movements and transfers them to the screen.

"From my work, I know that a lot of children [with autism] have production skills we never would expect," says Maggie McGonigle, leader of the project and an expert on non-verbal communication. "So I'm hoping that language-like skills are locked up in their brain even if they can't speak."

But in the small world of video games with real-life applications for people with autistic disorders, "Brigadoon" stands out.

When "Brigadoon" founder John Lester, an information systems director at Massachusetts General Hospital and research associate at Harvard Medical School, discovered the virtual world "Second Life," one of the first things that came to mind was how he could share the experience.

A decade earlier, Lester had founded Braintalk Communities, a self-help support site dedicated to neurological conditions. "I'm big on creating spaces where patients and caregivers can share experiences and emotional support and essentially help themselves," he says.

"Second Life" was different. Although not exactly a game, it was rooted in 21st century game technology. In gaming parlance, "Second Life" was "immersive," a world that's both three-dimensional (think "Halo 2") and "persistent," meaning the world is always up and running.

"A lot of what's happening in 'Second Life' is social," says Lester. "And I thought that this could be a fantastic place for people dealing with Asperger Syndrome. Give them a simulated environment and let them practice social skills in a three-dimensional space."

Individuals with Asperger's usually aren't comfortable in social situations, but many display an innate understanding of computer technology. These two factors — social deficiencies and computer knowledge — made them perfect candidates to test "Brigadoon."

Last year Lester purchased a virtual island in "Second Life," invited participants from Braintalk Communities to establish a claim, and in July 2004, "Brigadoon" was launched.

Although virtual, it's possible to explore "Brigadoon" like a real-world island. On a recent personal tour, Lester and "Brigadoon" resident Jamison Read, a mother of a son with Asperger's, showed off the sights.

The tour began inside the Temple of Zeus, a meeting place positioned at the top of "Brigadoon's" highest hill. There are meeting places throughout the island — precisely the type of spaces that individuals with Asperger's would avoid in the real world.

"That's what most of the spaces around "Brigadoon" are focused on," says Lester.

The tour led to a valley and past an aquarium inhabited by a jumping shark created by an individual with Asperger's who goes by the online name of Coos Yellowknife. Nearby, a virtual screen mixed snapshots of past "Brigadoon" social events, like a virtual lobster dinner, with photos from the real-world.

"People with Asperger Syndrome get pretty 'beat up' by society," says Read. "Here they can go at their own pace and move into the mainstream."

Read originally joined "Brigadoon" to discover if the game would help her son who has Asperger's. He is still figuring out if he wants to join, but for Read there was something about "Brigadoon" — its whimsy, the ability to be creative with colorful virtual gardens and homes, and its reputation as a safe haven — that compelled her to stay.

"I have learned a lot about [Asperger Syndrome] from the adults here, so I am trying to help my son counter some of the problems he will have as an adult," she says.

"Brigadoon" is still an experiment. It is small in size — just 16-acres if the island existed in the real world — as well as in population. The world may be rich in color, but communication is limited to instant text messaging. When compared to the $10 billion video game industry, "Brigadoon" and its host world "Second Life" register as a mere blip on the radar.

But in a field where the quest to lead an enriching and "normal" life is measured by even the smallest steps, "Brigadoon" may be a sign of how video game technology can be used for good.

Lester is already convinced. "[The inhabitants] have learned a lot about themselves in how they socialize and they've gained confidence," he says.

And, as the "Dooner" named Coos wrote in a "Brigadoon" blog, "We are aliens in this RL [real world]. SL ['Second Life'] has showed me it is OK to be an alien in a strange new world!"