Target Interior

Kristen Jackowski wants to make shopping easier for families with sensory sensitivities. Jackowski’s 5-year-old daughter, NavyAnna, is on the autism spectrum and is often overwhelmed by the candy displayed in checkout lanes. Now Jackowski, through a petition, is asking big retailers like Target to create sensory-friendly shopping lanes that replace sweets with sensory-friendly toys and other items.

This simple change could potentially help lots of parents whose children have either sensory processing disorders or food allergies. “Once the candy, chocolate, and other snacks are within arm’s reach, the meltdown is inevitable,” Jackowski wrote in her petition. “We have also encountered judgment from other customers and employees who are ignorant to these issues in that they lack education and sensitivity training. The stares, comments, and eye rolls of disgust I could do without because the situation is already hard enough.”

Jackowski’s petition has been signed by more than 1,000 people and has caught the eye of major retailers, including Target. According to CBS Philly, Jackowski’s petition has made it all the way to Target’s corporate headquarters. It’s also caught the attention of her local Shop Rite in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania.

While Target told Philly Mag that making the changes recommended by Jackowski would take lots of planning and design changes, Paul Kourtis, the store director at the Brookhaven ShopRite, was able to implement a sensory-friendly check-out lane in just days. “I just merchandized the aisle correctly with sensory-friendly objects. No candy whatsoever,” Kourtis told the magazine. “It was easy to do. We’re happy to do it. I have 18 checkouts at the store. If I lose one for a good cause, that’s perfectly OK.” The Brookhaven ShopRite also plans to provide sensory-friendly training to store employees.

Jackowski has met with her local Target, whose staff said they can’t make changes without the approval of Target’s corporate office. She remains optimistic. “Since I am a dog with a bone I will be pushing this further,” she wrote. “I see a very simple solution to an issue plaguing my family and other like us. Just a few simple in store changes can be monumental! Let’s make the world a little better, more inclusive and help people understand!”


Hi, guys! Welcome to 4K! You are so adorable in your Spider-Man backpacks and sparkly Elsa dresses! I just know that you are going to have an amazing year exploring your beautiful new school and expanding your brains.

This year marks the first year of 13 that you and many of your classmates will spend together at Williams Bay School. Many of you will make friendships that will last a lifetime while you’re at this school. I should know, my very best friends are people I met in grade school.

Growing up in a small town is an amazing thing. You get to know people. Like, really know them. You will come to know more about the people in your classroom than you know about some of your distant relatives. This is both a blessing and a curse.

You are too little to understand this right now, but you have so much power! Yes, you! You have the power to create a space in your 4K room that is filled with love and respect and acceptance. You have the power to embrace things that you do not understand. The power to see all of the wonderful things that make people unique and special. You have the power to expand not only your brains, but also your hearts. And then you have the power to go home and share your infinite wisdom with your family and your friends. Because even though you are only 4 years old, you have the power to love unconditionally.

This is something that gets harder as you grow up. We need brave kiddos like you to learn about unconditional love and to hold on to it. We need you to teach those in the world who have forgotten what it means to love without condition. To tolerate without reason. To believe without hesitation.

Do you see that little boy over there shaking with excitement? The one who did not answer you when you asked him his name? That is my son, Grayson. Grayson is the most wonderful little boy. He is filled with passion and love and energy. He loves space and throwing rocks and eating suckers. He may not look at you when you talk to him, but he hears you. He may not answer you when you question him, but he is screaming the answer on the inside. He may not join in your group play, but, oh boy, does he want to.

You see, my son, Grayson, is a little different from you and me. Not bad. Not better. Or worse. Not weird or naughty. Not shy or reserved. Just different. Grayson has autism spectrum disorder. I know, lots of big words! Let’s call it ASD. And sometimes, Grayson will act different from you. Sometimes, you may not understand why. And that’s OK! Grayson is just being Grayson! Silly, wonderful, loving Grayson.

Can I ask you a favor? Ask him his name again. This time a little slower. Look at Grayson’s eyes and wait for him to look in yours. Invite him to come and play with you. Understand that sometimes he will say “no.” Remember that he is not mad at you. Know that he still wants to be your friend. He probably just needs a break.

Sometimes Grayson gets wiggly. Do you know what it feels like to get wiggly? Have you ever had to sit still in the car for a very long time? And right at the end you begin to lose patience and you get really excited to get out of the car? Well, that’s how Grayson feels a lot of the time. He is wiggly and just needs a break. And sometimes when he is wiggly, he does things he doesn’t mean to do. He may knock over your toy or push you away. Grayson is so sorry when he does those things. Sometimes his wiggly body just has little bursts that cause him to be wiggly with his hands.

Can I ask another favor? (I know, I’m sure going to owe you for all of these favors!) If Grayson gets wiggly and does something you don’t like, take a big deep breath, softly tell him you are done playing and walk away. When Grayson is done being wiggly, he will come find you to say that he is sorry. I know! It’s really hard to walk about when someone makes you mad. But Grayson is different, and sometimes we can help people who are different by understanding and giving them space.

I never want you to get hurt! So if you don’t feel safe, please tell your teacher in a soft and calm voice. The teacher will make sure you are safe, and she will help Grayson with his wiggles! Sometimes when kids try to help Grayson on their own, it makes him more wiggly.

Being a kiddo is no easy task! Adults ask you to be brave and smart and courageous all of the time. Sometimes, they ask you to do things that they cannot do themselves. You are asked to share your toys and use your manners. You say “please” and “thank you.” And each day you get a little bit older. You become a little more of the grown-up you will one day be. And sometimes, as kids get older, they forget how easy it is to treat people — even people who are different — with love and respect and acceptance.

I know I have asked a lot of you today! And I promise to bring in some really yummy treats to say thank you for all of these favors! But for now I will give you the only gift I can give: my deepest thanks for accepting my son Grayson. It will be very hard for me to send him to school with you each day. I will worry about him every minute I am not with him. I will fret over the things I cannot control. I will overthink the things I can control. I will fear that my message did not reach you. I will pray that it did. I will give you the gift of my thanks. And I will give you the gift of my son.

I know in my heart that, this year, Grayson will teach you — just like he has taught me over the past four years. He will teach you about patience. He will teach you about persistence and endurance. He will teach you about being different. About accepting difference. And despite his difference, he will teach you how to love him. How to be his friend. How to embrace all of the wonderfully different things about him. And about you.

Kids, you have so much power! In all of your 4-year-old glory, you can help me with one more simple task: You can help me change the world! Let’s make this world a safer, better, more tolerant place for kiddos like my Grayson. Let’s do it together!

Grayson’s Mommy

Follow this journey on Pieces of Love. A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post.

Change is hard.

Change is hard good.

Change is good.

This is my incessant mantra this week. These past few weeks have been beautiful and tough. Our family recently moved and unknowingly crossed that magical line dividing two counties, and everything has changed. Change is hard. 

We have a different address. Different utilities. Different commute. No big deal, right? Moving is stressful, in and of itself, but this move was necessary. It’s a huge step up in the world for our family, and I am so thankful that we were able to make that step.

Different school system. That one took hold of us. Even for a typical child, changing schools is dramatic: new teachers, new friends, new routine. My son, however, has autism. The word “change,” in his world, can be like a big grizzly bear, snarling and slobbering and tearing apart the way we function.

His school is a part of what I call his “team” — the professionals, teachers, physicians and other people in our life who make his success possible. His previous teacher is a rock star who loves my son dearly and has become a good friend. His previous aides are caring and wonderful individuals. The progress he has made and the goals he has attained during the past two and a half years has been stunning. And he was supposed to be with this part of his team for one more year.

But that magical line between the counties changed everything. All of a sudden, we took on the dreaded status of “nonresident.” The process to stay in the previous school system was tedious and time consuming, which finally ended in a decision to deny his placement. And although I fought the battle all the way to the state, I was reminded that because my boy and I “do not live in the county any longer, the school division is not under any duty … to your child.”

I was devastated. His teacher and his aides also were. And for a moment, it seemed the world would crash, along with all the progress he was planning to make, again, this year. The prognosis for the new school system was uncertain at best, and I felt very uneasy.

Fast forward with me.

My boy started his first day at his new school on Monday morning. We had gone to meet his teacher and see his classroom on Friday evening, and while we were impressed, we were still anxious about the change. Would he feel comfortable here? Would he, if overwhelmed, begin to act out? To regress even? Would he be as loved and well cared for here as before?

When your child can’t verbally tell you about his challenges or even how his day went, your mind reels with questions in an unknown routine. His first day was a little rocky as was his second. But each afternoon, his teacher greeted me with a smile, a kind word and positive thoughts for the day.

Then it happened. I picked him up yesterday afternoon to find out that he had a “fabulous” day. His transitions were already improving, he worked well and he was becoming comfortable with his surroundings. I am so thankful to know that he is adjusting so well.

Change and transition are a natural part of life in this world, but they are not typically strong areas for my boy. To know that he is handling them with resilience and strength in this new chapter of our lives gives me a more positive outlook for his future, and someday, his independence. For others, these small steps may be minor, even expected. But for us, they are enormous in the joy, relief and hope they hold.

I still miss the team we leave behind, but I’m holding onto this new hope for what the future holds for my sweet boy. I write this in hopes of reaching out to those of you who may need this encouragement. Even if things aren’t going as you planned, there is hope. Our babies are more resilient and strong than we may imagine. And, like us, sometimes they have to step away from the familiar and out of their comfort zone to find that strength.

Change can be good.

Follow this journey on The Starlit Mama.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

What’s it like when an adult is diagnosed on the autism spectrum?  

If you’re like me, it was likely a difficult journey reaching this point, one filled with confusion, hurt and a pervasive sense of loneliness. Parents may be gone. Family or friends may have pushed for a diagnosis or have done their best to prevent it. Even when it’s anticipated, being told you’re autistic is a moment of truth unlike few others in life.

No one pushed me toward a diagnosis. I did it on my own. After so many years, I had finally noticed a connection between my behavior, the reaction of others and my being so different. This had always been my circle of hurt and flight: not fitting in, not understanding why and running away.

This time, I saw the pattern. You can Google why an otherwise taciturn person will launch into a pet subject and try to talk the legs off a table. You can take an online autism test every day for a month and never get anywhere near failing, no matter how hard you try. You can finally say, “Yes, this is me … and stop right there.” I could not, even when my wife asked me to.

I was lucky to find a center that specializes in autism research. It took months to arrange an assessment and still more weeks to finally hear the results. My doctor was compassionate and patient. I only wish I could go back now and tell him all the things I didn’t realize were important to the diagnosis, so we both could more easily recognize my autism.

I left the appointment with a folder containing the details of my assessment, a formal written diagnosis confirming that I had a disability, plus a contact sheet listing online resource sites, local mental health professionals and community support groups.

I fell so hard and fast. There was nothing in the folder explaining how miserable and hurt my wife would be when I told her about the diagnosis. There were no warnings that telling others wouldn’t make them believe my news, that I wouldn’t wake up the next day with a permanent hall pass for being different or that my depression and anxiety wouldn’t finally melt away.

There are no adult support groups where I live, no sympathetic friends or 100-day plans for the newly diagnosed who isn’t a child. Maybe it’s not like this for everyone. I was on my own and could no longer tell where the descriptions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) ended and I began. If I still existed at all.

I can only assume that providing a list of mental health professionals is standard operating procedure following a diagnosis. Adults wrestling with their diagnosis may need professional help putting the pieces back together. I have no doubt it’s a necessary and helpful step for many. It wasn’t for me.  

I called one of the psychiatrists on the list, in part because I was anxious and depressed. What I really wanted, however, was someone to explain “me” in words I could understand and help me begin rebuilding my life.

Instead, the psychiatrist couldn’t understand why he had been recommended, talked endlessly and interrupted anything I said, only pausing periodically to have me read a page from the DSM and asking if I thought that was me. I left his office with prescriptions for an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety drug. Perhaps he worked better with children and parents.

It took me three months to get on and finally off the drugs, during which I read everything I could find about autism. Apart from Tony Attwood’s books, the best were those by adults on the spectrum sharing their experience of life. With their help, I found my way to online blogs and websites by and about adults and organizations advocating the right to be heard and supported when needed. I connected with people like me. It was the road back.

This could have been an easier journey, certainly a less painful one. However, that might have required a diagnostic community focused less exclusively on children and the funding it generates, doctors more thoughtful about the challenges facing the newly diagnosed adults walking out their door and family and friends less frightened by the stigma of autism.  

While we wait for this dynamic to change, there are things we can do to make it easier and less painful for others like us to move toward understanding, accepting and liking themselves. We can be seen and heard as we are, not as others expect us to be. We can work to help people not like us understand the breadth of expression that comes with autism and that we aren’t “broken” or all the same. And we can reach out so that people like us feel less alone and more connected, regardless of whether or not they are formally diagnosed.

No one should feel alone on this journey.

Follow this journey on Lost Words.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Brittany Miller’s son, Granderson, loves fire alarms. The 6-year-old on the autism spectrum knows everything there is to know about fire alarms, from the model of the alarm down to the noise it makes. During a routine trip to the local supermarket in North Muskegon, Michigan, Granderson did what he does best, showing off his knowledge of the grocery store’s alarms. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm drew in some unwanted attention.

“At the supermarket that day he wasn’t being as loud as he is at home, but he was beeping consistently and flapping every time he saw a new fire alarm,” Miller said. “He would point to each one and tell me the brand, make, and model number that each fire alarm was and then he would imitate the noise it made. He would make the beeping noise until he saw another one and he did this the entire time.”

Miller considered her trip to the store a success until she found a nasty note in one of her shopping bags. Miller shared the note, which reads “Buy that kid a muzzle!!”

“He wasn’t screaming, crying, or throwing a fit, he was simply making noise to drowned out the noise around him,” Miller wrote on Facebook. “It’s a coping mechanism and it’s his “stim” (stimming is self regulating behavior most prevalent in children with autism). I’ve learned to tune it out and while I fully realize other people haven’t, by telling him NOT to do it is ripping away his safety net and stripping him of his ability to cope.”

While the note upset Miller, she said she doesn’t hate the person who left it in her bag. “After the hurt and anger subsided, I then felt sorry for that stranger that walks around every day feeling so angry and disgruntled with their own life that they feel the need to judge somebody else’s,” Miller told The Mighty.

After reading the note, she crumpled it in her hand, in case the person who left the note was watching to see her reaction. Miller then smiled at her son, who was still making fire alarm noises, and walked out of the store with her head held high.

Her advice to the person who left the note behind: if you see behavior you don’t like, ask don’t judge. “If that person would have approached me or my son and questioned his fire alarm noises, or even just made a statement about it, my son would have been the first one to greet them with a smile because he is thrilled to death when someone actually wants to talk to him about fire alarms!”

When I was a child I struggled with many things because I was unable to live up to society’s expectations. I was unable to think “inside the box.” I could only think outside of the box. When I wasn’t able to do things in a way people thought was “right” or “normal,” I was made to feel as if I was wrong, incapable or defective. I was the type of person who asked questions or searched for a reason or purpose. When I did these things, people told me I asked too many questions or they said I spent too much time looking for a meaning, reason or purpose behind things. Too many times in my life I heard the statement, “Why can’t you do this (or that) like a normal person?”

As a kid I had a great talent for art. I could draw and paint. I won art contests, got awards for my art and sold a few paintings before graduating from high school. After high school I gave up on art. I went to college and passed all my business courses without reading the book but failed my academic courses because I had a different style of learning. I dropped
out of college when I became homeless.

As an adult I wrote a couple of plays, and then I gave up on playwriting. Then I wrote poems. I won poetry contests and attended poetry readings, but then I gave up on poetry. My next venture was writing books. I published a book, and then I gave up for a while, and then I started back. I wrote another book and gave up on writing again. Now I’m
getting back into writing.

The reason I gave up so many times and on so many things was because I lacked the support I needed in my life. The people I knew assumed that because I survived abuse and overcame homelessness I was strong and I could deal with life alone because I had done it all my life. The truth was, I was not as strong as people thought. If someone had attended my art shows, plays, poetry readings and awards ceremonies then maybe I wouldn’t have been so quick to give up. It is a painful feeling to sit alone and watch other people sit there with their loved ones. It is painful to their loved ones cheer them on. It is even more painful to have strangers and acquaintances compliment you and then say, “Your parents must be so proud.” All you can do at that time is pretend to be happy and thank the person while at the same time feeling an emptiness deep inside of you.

adult making the peace sign When you have autism spectrum disorder (or any disability) it is hard for many neuro-typical people to understand your pain and struggles. Through the internet and social media I’ve met a lot of people who understand what I’m going through and why I think and feel the way I do. Through the internet and social media I’ve met a lot of people who are supportive of my talents, gifts, skills and ideas.

If you have a child with ASD (or any disability or differences), never give up on them. They might not be the child you wanted or they might have behaviors that are difficult for you to deal with, but they still need your support. If you are a family member and you notice a child’s parents are mistreating them, do something. Every child (with and without disabilities) needs to know there is someone out there they can trust. They need someone to believe in their dreams, ideas and abilities, listen to them and help them through their struggles. Every child needs someone to give them that extra push and to encourage them when they feel discouraged. No matter how “mild” or “severe” a child’s disability is or how different the child may seem, every child needs support. Not every child will grow up and do “great” things by society’s standards, but the important thing to remember is the child has a right to become as great as they can be.

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