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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April is Autism Awareness Month, but just two years ago all April 1 meant to me was April Fools’ day. 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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'Life Animated' Documentary Tells Story of Man With Autism Who Used Disney to Connect

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While there has been plenty of controversy surrounding the Tribeca Film Festival this year, one film about autism is garnering praise.

Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who wrote “Life Animated: a Story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism,” worked with acclaimed director Roger Ross Williams and producer Amy Goldman to make a documentary based on his book. The story follows Suskind’s son, Owen, who has autism, and has been able to connect with the world through Disney movies.

Owen Suskind, now 24, didn’t speak for years, but he memorized dozens of Disney movies and “turned them into a language to express love and loss, kinship, brotherhood,” according to the film’s website.

In a clip from the film, Ron Suskind reveals the first conversation he ever had with his son.

“I see Owen on the bed, flipping through a Disney book,” he said in the video below. “I see Iago, the puppet [the parrot from Aladdin]. I grab the puppet; I pull it up to my elbow. … And Owen turns to the puppet. … and I say to him, ‘Owen, Owen, how does it feel to be you?’”

His replied stunned Suskind: “Not good because I don’t have any friends.” Though emotional, Suskind was determined to carry on the conversation with his then 6-year-old, so he stayed in character and kept asking questions. At the end of the conversation, Owen Suskind got into character as Jafar.

 

The Suskind family, who now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, appeared on The Meredith Vieira Show in Jan. 2015 to promote the book, and where Ron Suskind recalled his reaction. “He’s speaking a Disney dialogue!” he’d exclaimed. “That was the breakthrough.”

The parents continued to use animated films as a way to communicate with their son, and they even coined the term “affinity therapy” to describe the method, according to a 2014 article Suskind published on Autism Speaks’ blog.

Owen Suskind currently works at a local movie theater and has his own apartment, according to ABC 7 WKBW Buffalo. Michelle Garcia Winner, a speech language pathologist who worked with the young man to help prepare him for living independently, said animated films were an integral part of his therapy. “A way to get Owen to learn is really by focusing a lot of learning around the thing he’s going to pay attention to and actually seeking to learn on his own, which is Disney,” she told the local news site.

The film will be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23 and released later this year.

 

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The Moment I Felt I Chose the Right Therapy for My Son With Autism

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I never imagined we would find a second home at an applied behavior analysis clinic. From the outside it looks like any other office. But inside it’s filled with so much love and laughter.

There are no superheroes or miracle workers, but inside you will find good people with good intentions.

Some are still in college, and others have a little more experience under their belts. One with the insight and love only a sister could understand. A boss who flies to the other side of the word to help open clinics, while still helping every parent who walks through his doors.

They share in the victories, the tears. They shorten holidays with their own families to be with my child and countless others.

The clinic becomes like a second home. 

A place where a little boy learns to ride a bike with no training wheels.

Or tie his shoes “all by myself, Mommy!”

Support that my son relies on — that I rely on. They help him navigate a world that looks different through his eyes and isn’t always kind to people like him.

There’s so much hope in those few rooms. Landon turns 6 tomorrow! I can’t begin to tell you the gains he’s made! Like every kid, he wanted that special cake.

A “Henry Hugglemonster” cake was nowhere to be found, so in steps Landon’s therapist to ensure his special day is a little more special. She not only found someone to make the cake, but insisted on paying for it!

“It’s my birthday present to him and you. I can’t wait to see his reaction,” she said.

cake decorated to look like henry hugglemonster cartoon
Landon’s Henry Hugglemonster cake.

I know it’s just a cake and the world wouldn’t end without it. It warms my heart and reconfirms we’ve made the right choice for our son. As a parent of a child with autism, my days and nights can be filled with worry.

Am I doing enough? Am I doing the right thing?

Did I make the right choice by going this route?

What does the future hold? Will others see him as I do?

But tomorrow those thoughts are pushed aside and replaced with a little boy’s birthday party!

With a very special cake.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone went out of his or her way to make you and/or your child feel included or not included. 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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To Those Who Give My Parents and Sister With Autism 'That Look'

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I know you are out there. And don’t fear: you’re not alone. I see the looks you give my parents as they let one of my sister’s “rude” comments slide. I see the way you purse your lips when my slightly overweight sister orders the cheese fries instead of the salad with dressing on the side. I can sense the internal swell of pride you feel as you pity us for our ignorance because, surely, if you were her parent, Kate* would wipe that scowl off her face. If you were her parent, surely those inappropriate comments would have stopped long ago. If you were her parent, surely today Kate would be a beacon of health and kale-fed wellness. 

It’s hard for me to find the courage to tell you these things, since you’ve been such a constant presence in my life. You were there on our family trips to the zoo, as my parents were forced to use a leash and harness for my sister’s safety. You were there on our trips to the toy store many years ago, silently cocking your eyebrows as my sister screamed and pounded the floor while my mother helplessly watched from the sidelines. 

But there were also times you weren’t there. 

You weren’t there when my mother, a retired special-education teacher, learned my sister has autism.

You weren’t there before Kate discovered French fries, when the doctors almost had to put a feeding tube in because she would throw up everything we tried to feed her. 

You weren’t there when, for the first five years of her life, my parents faithfully brought Kate to American Sign Language classes because they were told she would never learn to speak; and you weren’t there when she defied the odds. 

You weren’t there on the cramped middle school bus, when every single person put their hand on the empty seat next to them and told my sister that no, she couldn’t sit with them. You weren’t there when my sister realized she didn’t have friends.

I realize there is nothing I can do to make you leave. You probably don’t even realize who you are. But recently, it’s hit me that one day I will be the likely subject of your critical stares. I’ve always known one day, caring for my sister would be part of my job description. I will most likely be her caretaker. And honestly, I worry that I won’t do it well. Selfishly, I often worry about my future and how I will juggle a career, children and my sister’s needs.

But then I remember that, without Kate, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. She taught me to be patient, tolerant and understanding. For every minute of stress we’ve faced, there have been 10 of laughter and joy. 

So, wherever you are, I ask that you sit back for a moment and ask yourself if, really, you would “handle things differently.” Yes, Kate, like all of us, has her flaws, but, for all those moments you weren’t there, she was. The remarkable thing about human nature is that, despite overwhelming belief to the contrary, we have the power take what the universe dishes out, and we become stronger for it. 

Sincerely,

Caroline

*Name changed for privacy

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. 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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