New Study Shows What Talking About Emotion Can Be Like for Kids With Autism

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University of Vermont researchers conducted a study of how children with autism respond during different kinds of conversations, and the results may help speech therapists interact with kids on the spectrum. The study, which claims to be the first of its kind, used eye-tracking technology to show how many children on the spectrum will fixate on a speaker’s mouth, rather than their eyes, when a conversation turns emotional.

The study was published in “Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders,” and it used the Mirametrix S2 Eye Tracker system, which follows infrared light after it bounces off the retinas. The Mirametrix system combined with Skype helped researchers track the visual attention of neurotypical participants and compare them to participants on the spectrum. Participants were between the ages of 6 and 12, and they had conversations with adults about mundane topics and then topics focused more on feelings.

Tiffany Hutchins is the assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Vermont, and the lead author behind the study.

“What you talk about really matters for children with ASD,” Hutchins wrote in the study, according to an article on the UVM website. “You just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information.”

“Talking about emotions is really hard and very draining for children with ASD,” Hutchins continued. “It’s like driving in a snowstorm. Normally, when you drive around in good weather on a familiar route, you go on automatic pilot and sometimes don’t even remember how you got somewhere. But for a child with ASD, having a conversation, especially one about emotions, is more like driving in a snowstorm. In that situation, you are totally focused, every move is tense and effortful, and your executive function drains away. In fact, we found that decreased working memory correlated with decreased eye fixations.”

Hutchins and her co-author Ashley Brien only found two other studies that used eye tracking to examine social attention during conversations, but none with autism. “We were amazed that no one had done this yet,” Hutchins wrote in the study.

Hutchins told The Mighty previous research examined how children observed videos of people or how they looked at photographs of people and social scenes. “We were able to get at what children did during actual conversations,” she said in an email.

Brien was a graduate student at the time of the study, and she is now a speech pathologist. Both she and Hutchins believe their findings should be taken into consideration by speech therapists and other special education teachers.

“We are not particularly favorable to the insistence of some professionals that children with ASD be compelled to initiate and maintain and sustain eye contact during conversation,” Hutchins added in her email to The Mighty. “We think there is a potential for negative knock-on effects particularly with regard to executive function. Long story short, we want to be very wary about that recommendation…What is the child really getting out of that? Is it helping? Could it be hurting?”

h/t Medical Xpress

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10 Issues People Want to Shed a Light on for Autism Awareness Month

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For Autism Awareness Month this April, we asked members of our Mighty community: “What’s one issue you’d like to shed a light on for autism awareness? We’ve included some of their responses below.

“Just because when I was a kid I acted differently than I do now as an adult doesn’t mean I don’t have autism anymore. I’ve just learned new ways to cope and accept it.” — Arianna Lea Nyswonger

“After many meetings with all the therapists sitting around, talking about all the things wrong, all the reports in your hand and tears in your eyes, I wished, can’t you just stamp ‘awesome kid’ on the top of these papers? I said that to his doctor one day, and she said a diagnosis doesn’t take away from how awesome my child is. Parents need to know it does not take away from the awesome, beautiful child you have.” — Rachel Laso

“Every child is totally different, even children in the same family. Girls are also on the spectrum. And just because your friend of a friend’s child has autism does not mean that my child will act the same.” — Victoria Meyr Campbell

“We need to see the person and not assume if we know one person with autism, we know all people with autism.” — Donna Lankford

A quote by Donna Lankford that reads, We need to see the person and not assume if we know one person with autism, we know all people with autism.
10 Issues People Want to Shed a Light on for Autism Awareness Month

“There is a total lack of services for autistic adults ranging from job placement, independent living and healthcare.” — Nell Rus

“Before we knew we were different, we thought we were doing things ‘correctly.’ What seems like misbehavior is most likely confusion and frustration.” — Andrea Davis

“I would like people to stop trying to un-diagnose my son if they have no training or experience with autism. Please don’t try and convince me his diagnosis means nothing because he can make eye contact with you.” — Jonathan Wuori

“As an adult who has a late diagnosis of autism living in Australia, there is virtually no support. All funding, as well as most services, is aimed at kids. Those services that are aimed at adults are expensive.” — Chris Ison

“There is a wide variety of people on the spectrum. Nobody ‘looks autistic.’” — Rebecca Huff

“We are humans who still love, feel pain, achieve, fail and have dreams, desires and passions like anyone else.” — Pat Hamm

A quote by Pat Hamm that reads, We are humans who still love, feel pain, achieve, fail and have dreams, desires and passions like anyone else.

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited and shortened for brevity and clarity.

What would you add to this list? Share with us in the comment section below.

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Sesame Street Launches Part 2 of Autism Initiative

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In October, Sesame Street launched “Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children,” an online initiative providing resources for viewers on the spectrum, as well as educating the general public about autism. A big part of this was the introduction of Julia, an autistic character who Elmo met in an online storybook, “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3.”

On Thursday, Sesame Street released phase two of this initiative — premiering 13 new videos, including a new animation featuring Julia — who’s voiced by a girl on the autism spectrum, according to Frank Campagna, a producer at Sesame Street and popular autism blogger who helped launch the initiative.

Sesame Street’s videos are for kids, parents and educators alike. One series expanded in part two of this initiative features Nasaiah, a little boy with autism who’s learning life skills with the Sesame Street characters.

Sesame Street also released videos featuring parents’ recordings of their kids with autism answering questions like “What do you want kids to know about autism?” and “What are your favorite things?” Hopefully, these provide insight and understanding to people unfamiliar with autism.

“We want everyone to know that children with ASD want to play and be included; they want love, friendship, understanding, and support just like any child does,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, SVP of US Social Impact at Sesame Workshop, told The Mighty in October. “We also want people to know that there are a wide range of autism behaviors and experiences because we know that if you have seen one child with autism, you have only seen one child with autism.”

To watch all of these videos, visit Sesame Street’s website.

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Temple Grandin Shares How to Help Students on the Autism Spectrum Thrive

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Temple Grandin paid a visit to the Monarch School and Institute in Houston on March 4, where she took a tour of the facility and spent time with a number of students, both in and out of the classrooms.

The Monarch School and Institute is an “innovative, therapeutic education for individuals with neurological differences,” according to its Facebook page. The facility has a current enrollment of 134 students, ranging from ages 3 to 34, though there is no age cut off for adults.

Robin Rettie, the employability director at The Monarch School, told The Mighty she’d put on an event for Grandin through her own organization, Lighthouse Learning Resources. Rettie asked Grandin if she’d like to stop by the school for a visit, and the autism advocate was happy to oblige.

Temple Grandin Visits The Monarch School and Institute
Image courtesy of Karen LaFleur
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Image courtesy of Karen LaFleur

Grandin observed students in the school’s computer lab and art studio, and watched when some of them learned about the news crew’s camera equipment. She later played a game of kickball with the kids and posed for plenty of pictures with her young admirers. Rettie told The Mighty the energy level was “incredible” and the students were “blown away by Temple’s presence.”

Temple Grandin Visits The Monarch School and Institute
Image courtesy of Karen LaFleur

“Temple shook their hands and asked each of the students a personal question,” Rettie told The Mighty. Some of the students gave presents and art projects to their famous guest. “Even if it was a scribble, she attended to that,” Rettie said. “There was some amazing dialogue between Temple and the kids.”

Temple Grandin Visits The Monarch School and Institute
Image courtesy of Karen LaFleur
Temple Grandin Visits The Monarch School and Institute
Image courtesy of Karen LaFleur

 

Grandin also took the time to chat with Fox 26 Houston, who dubbed her an “autism hero. She explained what she thinks parents and schools can do to help children on the spectrum thrive:

I had to work extremely hard. My mother always knew just how much to push me — to stretch me just outside my comfort zone. Because if you don’t stretch these kids, they don’t develop. But then on the other hand, you don’t throw them on the deep end of the pool.

There needs to be a slow transition from the world of school to the world of work — ideally that needs to start in middle school, but it’s never too late to start. But it needs to be a gradual transition, doing more and more things for people outside the home.

All images courtesy of Karen LaFleur, Director of Communications at the Monarch School and Institute

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'Connections' App Helps Parents Find Resources for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

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After Lamarque Polvado’s daughter Ashlynn was diagnosed with autism, he wasn’t sure what he could do to provide her with the best care — both in the present and the future.

“What do I know about helping a child who has a special healthcare need be successful?” Polvado told local Texas news station, ABC KVUE, of his reaction to Ashlynn’s diagnosis. “I knew nothing about autism. I knew nothing about resources that may or may not help Ashlynn.”

Polvado switched careers and founded CareStarter, which developed the Connections app, where parents can create an account and immediately access local clinics, therapists and community resources for kids with special needs.

“I made this agreement that I would build technology that would empower patients that would help them access care, but in their own way,” Polvado said.

Polvado added that the moment he received his daughter’s diagnosis was one of the most “impersonal experiences of his life.” Polvado told KVUE the doctor entered the room, handed them a sheet of paper with information about autism and left.

“A piece of paper with a lot of grim stats saying to prepare for the worst was not helpful,” he said. “This is my daughter. There’s no eject button. She’s mine and my responsibility and I have to help her find points of care that help her achieve the best she can be.”

The Connections mobile app is currently live in Dallas, Austin, Houston, Waco and Central Texas and available on the Apple App Store for free.

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4 Things I Hope My Autism Inspires You to Do

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The last two years of my life have been a journey toward both self-discovery and self-advocacy as I have slowly stepped out of the shadows. I am continually gaining the comfort and confidence to add my voice to the valuable discussion about autism in our communities.

Venturing out has afforded me the opportunity to share my personal story of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as an adult. I was 36 when I was diagnosed. I had a family and a career, and although I continue to have my share of silent struggles, I have for the most part been able to experience some success in navigating the world of autism as an adult. As a result, one of the most common comments I receive from others is fairly common among people with disabilities. “You’re such an inspiration.”

Since officially becoming a part of the autism community, I have become more aware of the potential problem with statements such as these. It is sometimes difficult to feel inspirational for others when you’re simply living your life. Going public with my autism diagnosis shouldn’t necessarily make me a hero; after all, I’m the same guy you knew before December 2014 when I received my diagnosis.

On the other hand, I am a pastor and with that profession comes the responsibility and drive to inspire people to something greater. I often tell my congregation that a good way to be better is to not only focus on what we want to overcome, but on who we want to become. So while I have to wrestle with my new “normal” that my Aprils will be filled with well-meaning supporters who will message me about how inspired they are by my courage and transparency, I also know that my role in many ways is to inspire our society to become better. With that being said, I want to share four ways that I would like my life and my story to inspire you to not just applaud what I have seemed to overcome, but also discover who and what you can become.

1. Become more Aware

Since being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I’ve learned a lot about myself, but even more importantly, I have learned a lot about why I knew nothing about myself for so many years. Since being diagnosed, I have been confronted with stereotypes about autism, stereotypes that I believe are the reason why so many other adults, minorities, and young girls go undiagnosed.

Autism has received a lot of attention in the last decade, but there are still millions of people who don’t know nearly enough about autism and how it affects people. I should know; I was one of those people. Until I was diagnosed, most people I had a personal relationship with knew very little about autism.

Autism awareness is important, but I would like to inspire you to an awareness that doesn’t simply acknowledge the existence of autism, but instead seeks knowledge about autism. Autism is a spectrum; so many people are affected in different ways. Educate yourself about autism by asking questions from people who are really living with autism. Autism awareness should be about expanding people’s exposure to the life of autistic people. That can’t be done with statistics; it can only be done with stories.

Ask questions. Assume nothing. Aspire to become more aware.

2. Become more Accepting

My line of work makes me somewhat of a public figure. One of the primary reasons I disclosed my diagnosis to my entire church and community was my belief that my platform as a pastor should be used to help the community learn how to embrace all types of diversity. Neurodiversity is the concept that neurological differences should be recognized and respected as any other human variation. Simply put, the autistic mind works differently than a “neurotypical” mind, but the differences should not be used as an opportunity to assume any level of deficiency. If my life is to be an inspiration to you, let it inspire you to be more accepting of those who think, process, and live differently than you. Accepting autistic people includes accepting all of what makes them who they are. In a world that struggles with intolerance and indifference, my hope is that you will realize that to make a difference, you have to be willing to be different. Autistic minds are very different, but when given the right opportunity we can make a huge difference in the world — for the better.

3. Become an Advocate

I was once told to never allow my life to be defined by either the applause of my fans or the attacks of my critics. It’s one of the most profound pieces of advice I’ve ever received. As a pastor, I acknowledge those who applaud me, and I take careful consideration to those who attack me, but I am motivated most by those who advocate with me. Nothing communicates my ability to inspire you more than the creation of another voice that becomes a champion for the cause for which I myself am committed. Real inspiration happens when you move from merely being an admirer to being an advocate. Advocate not because I need a voice to speak for me, but because my voice has inspired you to join with me and so many other voices speaking on behalf of the autism community.

4. Become more Active

Autism awareness is a great start. But if you really want to be inspired by my life, be active and not reactive. Being actively involved in the autism community starts by finding meaningful ways to engage in May when Autism Awareness Month is over. From May to March, be active and stay active.

Three ways to actively engage in the issues facing the autism community are policies, programs, and platforms.

Find out which state, local, national, and insurance policy issues most affect the autism community and make your voice count as an advocate for those on the spectrum. Join or create programs at the local and national level to assist and provide support for autism spectrum individuals and families. Finally, use your platform to educate, empower, and encourage change.  Everyone has a platform that they can use to do as much as possible to make an impact. You can’t do everything, but you can do something.

If you really want to be inspired by my story of perseverance, hope, and courage, that’s OK. But don’t just be inspired by what I have overcome, be inspired to help our society focus on what it should become. Let’s do this together. Let’s change the world.

Lamar Hardwick

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone in your community went above and beyond (or did the exact opposite) for you or your loved one with special needs. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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