Sunday, February 28, 2010

Autism on Horseback

If you've seen or read anything about Temple Grandin, you know she's an autistic adult with an incredible connection to animals.  Grandin isn't alone: many people on the spectrum connect strongly with animals.  Even so, though, I was a little nervous when I took Tom and his sister to a local stable to try horseback riding. 

That was five years ago.

Since then, while we haven't gotten into competitive horseback riding, we did send both kids to the stables little "animal farm" camp - where, for the very first time, Tom was successfully included without support.  One huge reason for this was Scoobie, the pony he got to ride and curry every day.  There were other lovable critters too: bunnies, puppies... though the sheep, with their loud baaahs, were NOT a big hit.

Other families have gone much farther than we have in connecting their autistic kids and horses.  Some families start with hippotherapy - horseback riding therapy - which helps riders work on non-verbal communication, physical strength and coordination, and self-esteem.  Other families have found that ordinary riding stables are a wonderful place for their child with autism to grow and learn.

Share your equestrian story!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Best Sports for Kids with Autism

Not every kid loves soccer.  Yes, it's true, and I'll say it again: not every kid loves soccer.  But don't let your child's difficulty with team sports turn you or your child away from sports or physical fitness!

For kids with autism, team sports like soccer, football, hockey and basketball can be excruciatingly difficult, as they combine non-verbal and verbal communication, face and "mind" reading, complex physical coordination, and a clear grasp of what it means to be a good team member. 

Unless you've found a very supportive coach or a terrific special needs league, you may be worried that your child will grow up to be a couch potato.

But the world is full of ways for your child with autism to have fun and get fit - even if he never really grasps the fine points of heading a ball or passing to a team mate.  Instead of pushing the team sports, consider expanding your horizons to consider the incredible range of sports available to people who are NOT team players.  What are some of the top options? 


  • Swimming.  This terrific whole-body sport can be enjoyed alone, with the family, or as a part of a team.
  • Bowling.  Simple, repetitive and satisfying, it's also a great sport to enjoy in a group or alone.  Leagues are great, too!
  • Track and Field.  In the US, track and field is usually reserved for older kids, but kids of any age can learn to run, jump, throw and hurdle.  Even if there's no coach or team in your area, you can always use the high school track during off hours.
  • Hiking.  Just like plain old walking, but it's considered a sport if you hike in the woods, heading for a picnic spot or cool lake.
  • Martial Arts.  Many kids with autism enjoy the repetitive discipline of martial arts; choose the particular style (judo, tae kwon do, karate) based on the quality of the instructor.

What sports does your child with autism love?  Share your thoughts!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Does Fear of Failure Keep You From Exploring with Your Child?

Over the years, I've had plenty of disappointing, even embarrassing moments with my son on the autism spectrum. 

It all started at Gymboree.  No, he wasn't the only two-year-old who wanted to keep playing on the equipment when all the other kids and moms made a big circle and started to sing.  But he WAS the only kid who flat out refused to do anything at all with other kids (except pop bubbles).

Sure, the leaders told me this happened all the time...  But I'm not dumb.  Looking around, I could see that Tom was the only one out of a dozen kids that either wouldn't, or couldn't, participate.

I didn't give up on including my son in community activities after Gymboree...  but the truth is, I was nervous.  I watched him on the playground, dribbling dirt from his fingers rather than playing tag, and I worried.  The autism diagnosis helped me understand his issues - but it didn't help me to feel more comfortable with the stares or pity I imagined I'd receive from my own peers.

It took a lot of expermenting with different settings and activities - and growing a fairly thick skin - to get past my fear of embarrassment or my anger with those who seemed to pity me and my son.  But the process has, overall, been a good one. 

Yes, he did have a tough time managing a general swim class at the YMCA - but after a few false starts, he did it!  Today, he's a solid swimmer with no fears or disabilities in the water.

Yes, it was tough finding a clarinet instructor to work with a kid who liked to stuff toys into the instrument...  but after a lot of searching - and a lot of patience on the part of a creative young instructor - we discovered that our kid has real musical talent.

Does fear of failure keep you from exploring with your child?  How did you get past it (or are you still there)?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Get Out and Explore with Your Child on the Autism Spectrum?

From the book:

Unlike therapeutic settings, in which artificial interactions are set up based on external goals, people in the real world interact over true mutual interests. Kids with autism, in the real world, can share their true interests with people who really, honestly care. Where there are real shared interests, there's real engagement… real interaction… and real learning. Where there's real learning and understanding, there's real respect. Where there's respect, there's the possibility of responsibility, leadership, and growth.

Whether your child with autism is verbal or non verbal, whether he loves dinosaurs or baseball, there are other people out there with his passions. Not every setting is ideal for every child, and it takes work to find the right place, the right people, and the right situation. But when you encourage a child with autism to explore the world outside of school and therapy - the results can be extraordinary.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Autism on the Playground

Playgrounds are often a tough venue for families with kids on the autism spectrum.  While climbing and running may not be too much of a challenge, sharing and managing social equipment like the seesaw can be very challenging indeed.  It can also be tough to explain exactly how to manage complex actions such as pumping on a swing or pushing off on a seesaw.

It turns out, though, that practice and visual tools can go a long way toward helping a child on the spectrum to develop the skills he needs to make the playground a positive experience for everyone. 

A few years ago, my husband and I (with help from our kids) spent hours on the playground creating visual teaching tools to help parents of kids with autism learn to play.  Our daughter Sara was very into it; with her help our son Tom was able to not only learn but also pose for poster photos!

If you're interested in this full-sized, full-color poster (or the "swing" and "slide" posters) let me know: they're available for a very reasonable price!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ready to Launch

What does it take to raise a child with autism?  It's no easy challenge, for parents, for families, or for kids on the autism spectrum.  It's my opinion, though, that the challenge is made far greater when parents believe that their child has no place in the wider world.

In fact, people with autism may think and act in surprising ways...  and every person on the spectrum has unique challenges.

But at the same time, every child with autism has his strengths and abilities.  And the world is slowly but surely opening itself up to welcome kids who learn, think and act differently.

What can your child with autism do?  How can you do it with him?  How can you, your partner, your kids and your child with autism get out, have fun and explore the world?  In this blog, I'll be offering answers to some of those questions - and asking for your help along the way!