To My Autistic Son's New Teacher, Before the First Day of School

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Dear teacher,

You are going to be my son’s teacher for this upcoming school year. He is an amazing little boy who has grown by leaps and bounds. He is funny, he loves to dance and he has a passion for music.

My son wants to be accepted by his peers. This can be a challenge at times, because my son does has difficulty with personal space. Children may think he is being mean when really he is just trying to get their attention. You see, my son is on the autism spectrum and also has ADHD. My son has difficulties with transition, self-regulation and impulsiveness. With all of this being said, you would be absolutely amazed if you saw where my son was a couple of years ago and where he is today.

The author's son in a classroom

Two years ago my son barely spoke. This caused him to have meltdowns because he had difficulty expressing himself. He also could not stay on task for longer than two minutes at a time. Today, my son’s speech is in the average range, and he can often stay engaged for the entirety of a school lesson. As his mother, it makes me want to cry to think about how far my son has come.

Please be aware that when my son enters your classroom on the first day of school, he works so hard on a daily basis to do his best. Do not let it shock you if he experiences a day where he struggles with transition, or if he invades one of his peer’s personal space. He will need you to be his champion during these times. He will need you to tell him everything is going to be OK. He needs to be aware that you will support him when he experiences a difficult moment. He does so much better when he feels supported rather than feeling as if he is being ridiculed.

My son’s personal best may look different than his peer’s personal best. It will be important for you to realize that my son may need some additional supports to be successful, but that it’s still important for him to be held to a high standard. That high standard may look a bit differently than one of his counterparts. This is dependent upon the type of tasks that are asked of him. If you seem him trying to avoid a task, this is most likely occurring because the activity you are asking him to complete is difficult. This doesn’t mean he can’t complete the activity, but it may mean that he didn’t quite understand your instructions, or he may need a visual, or he may just need some additional waiting time so he can process the assignment.

I am completely confident that you will do everything in your power to support my son. I know how hard it is to be a teacher. You see, I am also a teacher. I know you may have limited support and resources. I know you work long days and are often uncompensated for your time. My purpose in writing this letter is really for you to have a better glimpse of who my son is. I am hoping you will be his advocate and champion during this school year. I will do everything in my power to support you. I am looking forward to building a strong partnership with you this school year.

Best Regards,
A Loving Mom

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I Was Nervous to Take My Son With Autism to Sesame Place, but I Didn't Have to Be

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Oh, how close I came to rethinking the whole Sesame Place trip idea…

Fourth of July weekend…

The crowds…

The noise…

Elements that tend to create an intensely stressful environment for my son, Leo, and others on the autism spectrum.

Much like his mommy, Leo gravitated towards the long-running program from an early age. As an adult, I can appreciate “Sesame Street” for so much more than the entertainment it provided me as a child.

Decades of teachable moments; at its core, Sesame Street’s message is one of acceptance, inclusion, and love. Their recent autism initiative gave a platform to so many children with autism — to a community whose voices needed to be heard and whose stories needed to be told.

But the worry leading up to this trip consumed me…

Surely, it would all be too much.

I shutter at the thought of all the incredible moments that would have been lost had I given in to my own fears and anxiety.

Leo strolling through the streets of Sesame Place, happy, and confident as can be.

Witnessing the love my boy has for the Sesame Street characters we have watched on the screen for years fully expressed, as he gazed up at each one in wonderment.

pictures of little boy with autism at sesame place

I saw my baby morph into a ride warrior right before my eyes, braving a roller coaster that made my own heart leap out of chest; Leo, laughing with glee as we whipped through the sky.

This weekend, the boy who lives and breathes Sesame Street soaked up every second surrounded by the characters that help him to make sense of the world around him, and through his own perseverance, did not allow any of his challenges to detour him from experiencing each beautiful, magical moment.

I have always been fiercely protective of Leo. But I know that there are times when I need to allow him to spread his wings and fly.

Thank you, Sesame Place, for letting my boy fly.

Follow our journey on Life with Leo.

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What It’s Like to Be a Guitarist With Autism

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My name is Tom Bak and I am a musician and songwriter, and I have autism.

I was diagnosed with autism when I was 3 years old, and I have been playing guitar since I was 7. Music has always been a part of my life. My mom once said music was the only therapy I ever responded to.

I started performing in rock bands when I was 11 years old. I don’t try to hide my autism from my band, from the audience or from anyone. But having autism means I interpret, write and perform music in a unique way.

When it comes to performing sometimes I have to stand perfectly still to keep my concentration. If I move around while performing that can break my focus, and I’ll lose my place in the song. Standing still while I perform helps me maintain my concentration. The audience may think I am emotionless and stiff when I play, but this is just what I need to do to stay focused.

Sometimes when I’m performing it’s hard for me not to look at the audience.  Autism makes me sensitive to sensory input such as noise, people moving around and talking with each other. I try to just play through the noise and look at my bandmates to help keep me on track. But sometimes it’s really hard for me to redirect my attention away from the audience when I’m performing. One thing I can do that helps me avoid getting distracted by audience noise during a show is to focus on my guitar while I’m playing.

I started writing songs when I was 15. I’m lucky because my sister, Evee, and my best friend, Harrison, are a part of my band, and we work together to write new songs.

Tom Bak's band Bak Pak
Tom Bak with his band Bak Pak in Philadelphia

I’ll start a new song by putting together notes. I don’t really think about what the song is about. I just start by playing out notes and creating melodies. Before the song is complete, we have to take the melodies and lyrics and arrange them into the final song. Coming up with an arrangement for a song is hard for me. I’m good at thinking about the details but not the big picture of the song. I tend to think about details, such as how notes come together, rather than patterns when arranging melodies. However, songwriting is good for me because it helps me think about the meaning of the song rather than just the details.  his summer, my band and I recorded two new original songs.

Tom Bak performing at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2016
Tom Bak performing at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2016

I’m grateful for my band and the opportunities we have had to play in live venues throughout Philadelphia. I’m also grateful for the friendships I’ve made through music. Music has been an important part of my life, and I’ve learned so much from writing songs and playing live music with my friends.

I got started in music because there were people who were willing to give me a
chance. Any child with a disability who loves music should be given the same chances that I had.

The world needs more understanding of people in the autism community. People need to see that having autism doesn’t hold you back from pursuing your talents and following your dreams.

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Mom Creates Inclusive Birthday Party Venue, Pixie Dust, for Kids With Special Needs

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All Raquel Noriega wanted was to throw her daughter, Ava, a birthday party the 2-year-old would enjoy. What she didn’t realize was how challenging it would be to find a venue that could accommodate a child on the autism spectrum.

Most venues host multiple parties at once, have bright lights and music blasting and are generally overwhelming, especially for someone with sensory sensitivities.

“In my search, I did not come across venues that suited her needs,” Noriega told The Mighty. “Like every other mom, I wanted to be able to go do fun things with my child and have a birthday party for her.”

Noriega eventually found a venue in Bayshore, New York, – Pixie Dust – which allowed her to tailor the party to her daughter’s needs. But she decided to take things a step further — to help other parents throw parties their kids with special needs could enjoy, Noriega bought Pixie Dust and began overhauling it as a special-needs-friendly party location.

“Our parties are customizable to each child’s needs and likes,” Noriega told The Mighty. “Every detail is thought and talked about with the parent during the planning process to prevent any meltdowns.”

Pixie Dust also allows parents to customize the party’s menu to fit their child’s dietary needs. “Most party places just offer pizza as an option,” she said. “We can customize the food menu for those with sensitivities to texture.”

 

The venue caters to all ages and offers gender-neutral parties as well. Some party themes include “Pixies & Pirates,” “Buggy Birthday Buzz,” “Butterfly Garden” and “Barnyard Picnic.” It only hosts one party at a time to make each child’s experience as peaceful as possible.

Pixie Dust also offers periods of “sensory play,” where parents can take their kids for an hour of play designed for sensory sensitivities. “Sensory Play focuses on stimulating children’s senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, balance and movement,” Noriega said. “We use a variety of fun and messy ways to make that happen.”

Sensory play periods are managed by a Pixie Dust staffer who is also a special education teacher and development therapist. To better serve her clients, Noriega is working on becoming a certified autism specialist and is hoping to start a support group for special needs parents on Long Island.

“We are definitely not a cookie cutter party venue,” Noriega said of Pixie Dust. “[We] are a judgment-free zone. We get it.”

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When My Employer Realized I Have Autism

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To disclose or not to disclose my autism to an employer has been one of the more challenging questions I’ve faced during my young adult years. For many on the spectrum, it can be a daunting task due to society’s general lack of acceptance of disabilities and differences.

The question of disclosure first came up for me during one of my first part-time positions working in New York City. I had accepted a research position with the responsibility of looking up different analytics for professional athletes and teams. Technology and numbers had become an asset for me. My job responsibilities, mainly plugging names and numbers into an excel spreadsheet, were clear and I didn’t feel overwhelmed.

I didn’t need any accommodations, and my first few weeks were going by very well. I had already made several friends and was feeling like a part of the team. Than one day my employer was listening to me talking about my volunteer work in the autism community. He than asked me a question that froze me completely…

“Why did you get involved in the autism cause?”

I blurted out, “I have autism myself, so I got involved to help people like me.”

My employer responded with a smile and said, “That’s awesome that you are volunteering towards the cause.”

His response left me ecstatic. I felt confident about disclosing to him after his positive reaction. Two years earlier, I came out to my peers in college for the first time about being on the autism spectrum, so I could become a disability advocate. Since then, whenever someone would find out that I have autism, their usual response would be, “I would never have known!” But I’ll never forget that day when my employer decided to appreciate my volunteer work.

My advice for those on the spectrum who are joining the workforce is to self-reflect on your strengths and weaknesses every single time you go into a new employment situation. As a motivational speaker, I share this message when I talk to employers about hiring and retaining employees with disabilities. It has given me the opportunity to talk to organizations such as American Express, JP Morgan Chase and Wyndham Destination Network.

When accepting a job, carefully read the job guidelines and see what accommodations if any you may need to succeed in that position. After that, figure out whether disclosing is the right thing for you. Whether you talk to your employer about receiving accommodations is an individual decision. If you believe you need them though, go in with confidence, because those accommodations will maximize your potential at your
workplace.

I hope you find something you love to do every day. People with autism tend to thrive when we are working with our key interests — but that is true of anyone. I’m doing something I enjoy, something I hope to keep doing my entire life, and I hope you can do the same.

A version of this post appeared on Kerrymagro.com.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share a conversation you’ve had that changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The Internet Is Loving This 8-Year-Old’s Illustration Explaining Autism

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Cadence is on the autism spectrum, but autism is just one of the ingredients that makes her who she is, the 8-year-old from Queensland, Australia, explained in a drawing posted by her mother on Facebook.

In it, Cadence asks, “Why do people call Autism a label?… I don’t think that’s right. My label is Cadence. One of my ingredients is Autism.”

To further prove her point, Cadence compares her “ingredients” to those in a can of tomatoes.

According to Cadence’s drawing, a can of tomatoes isn’t just tomatoes; it’s tomatoes, basil, oregano and an acid regulator. Like a can of tomatoes isn’t just one ingredient, Cadence isn’t just autism. Cadence describes herself as a number of things “Autism, Organs, Bones, Blood, Clever cells, Caring cells.”

This isn’t the first time Cadence has had something profound to say about life on the autism spectrum. On her website, “I am Cadence,” Cadence’s mother shares drawings and stories written by the 8-year-old Past stories include “Autism Doesn’t mean I’m bad” and “Autism doesn’t make me special. It just makes me different,” in which she explains:

I don’t like it when people say I’m special. Special is an adjective. It means better or greater. I’m not better than other people. I’m not more important than my friends. Autism doesn’t make me special. It just makes me different. I’m good at some things. I’m not good at other things, just like everyone else.

Cadence’s drawing has been shared over 5,000 times since it was posted on Facebook. You can see Cadence’s drawing below.

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