Crafting homemade Valentine's Day greeting cards

What Every Teacher Needs to Hear on Valentine's Day

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I didn’t get diagnosed with autism until I was 50. I went all through my school years simply as “the weird kid” who never fit in, and no other children wanted anything to do with me.

Valentine’s Day was about three weeks away. My mom was very artistic, and my fifth grade teacher asked her to decorate a big box for the class to put their Valentine cards in it. On February 14, the box would be opened, and all the cards distributed to all the students. My mom got a huge box and covered it with red wrapping paper.  Then she cut out pink and white hearts and carefully placed them all over the box. The final touches were the beautiful delicate lace she’d trimmed and the cut-out slot on top when the cards would be inserted. She brought it to my teacher, who placed the beautiful box right on the corner of the desk. I was extremely proud my mom created it, and all my classmates were very excited to see it.

As the days went on and Valentine’s Day grew closer, the realization began to set in: I knew there would be no cards placed into that box for me. It made me feel sickened inside. A loneliness, a sadness of knowing none of my classmates would give me a card. Making matters worse, my mom had given me a package of Valentine’s cards to write out for my classmates. There were 30 cards in the package, more than enough for my class of 26.

I came up with a scheme to write out all the cards to myself, using different handwriting on each card to make it appear each one was from a different student.  Once I had all the cards written out, I put them in a bag and brought them to my classroom. I arrived extra early before anyone else was there. Cautiously looking around to be sure no one was looking, I took the cards out of the bag and quickly slid them into the opening on top of the box. I was very relieved to get them in there.

Finally, Valentine’s Day arrived. The teacher brought in pretty cupcakes for us all, pink icing with little red hearts sprinkled all over them to be exact! She then asked for two volunteers to help distribute the cards. She opened the box, and the two students began bringing around the cards to everyone. As I sat there and watched, the feeling of rejection grew larger and larger. Oh yes, the cards were piling up on my desk, but they were only the ones I had written out to myself. Once the last card was handed out, there was not one from anyone else. On one hand, I was relieved to have the big pile of cards on my desk so no one would see an empty desk, yet I knew inside what the reality was. I knew I was different and did not fit in, but I couldn’t understand why, nor could I understand why none of my classmates would accept me.

I took all of my cards home to show my mom. She didn’t let on to me that she had figured out what I’d done. It wasn’t until years later when she told me how she’d cried herself to sleep.

My message to all teachers is to have each student write out a card for all students in the class, and check to be sure. No child should ever have to go through that feeling of ultimate rejection. It lasts a lifetime. Whether it’s Valentine’s Day or any other class activity, be sure each student will be involved and feel accepted.

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People in the Autism Community Say Asda's 'I'm Having a Meltdown' Sweater Is Offensive

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People in the autism community are not happy with a new winter-themed sweater from U.K.-based retailer Asda. Many say the children’s sweater, which reads “I’m having A MELTDOWN” trivializes the meltdowns children on the autism spectrum face.

Photo of sweater that says "I'm having a meltdown" and features a snowman

On Monday, a Change.org petition was started asking Asda to remove the sweater from its store and website. “Anyone… with [autism spectrum disorder] and similar spectrum disorders or mental health conditions that involve having melt downs as a symptom deserve understanding and acceptance,” Jennifer Dunston, who started the petition, wrote on Change.org. “They/we do NOT deserve to be made fun of.”

So far the petition has been signed by over 60 people, many of whom echo Dunston’s sentiments. “This is not funny at all. I know how difficult meltdowns can be to deal with. Very disappointed with Asda over this,” one petition signer commented.

“Bad enough having people out there who makes it difficult for people with autism let alone a shopping brand,” another wrote.

Not everyone finds the sweater offensive. “I have a child with autism, [sensory processing disorder], anxiety and panic disorder,” Stacey Rushing, a contributor to The Mighty, said. “That said, nothing about this sweater is offensive. It’s a snowman melting, a play of words. The word ‘meltdown’ is no specific to one’s disability. It can be used in any context by any person.”

“I have autism, I had many meltdowns as a child, however have less now,” Lottie Harland, a contributor, said. “I don’t find this offensive as many people have meltdowns, it’s a turn of phrase for I feel like things are out of control and this happens to us all. It’s a funny shirt making light of the feeling of being out of control. And honestly I think it’d get more people talking so they’re less afraid to say I’m having a meltdown I’m not in control, and isn’t that good?”

This isn’t the first time people have petitioned an item sold by Asda. In 2013, a “mental patient fancy dress costume” was removed from the store after people protested the Halloween costume as being offensive.

Despite controversies surrounding its clothing, the company has made strides in making its stores more disability-friendly. The retailer was praised earlier this year for creating disabled bathroom signs that point out “not every disability is visible.” The store also made headlines in April for offering a “quiet hour” so customers on the spectrum could shop without extra sensory stimuli.

Update: A spokesperson for Asda told The Mighty, “We take mental health issues extremely seriously and supported World Mental Health Awareness Day this month. Our snowman t-shirt is intended to be light-hearted and we’ve received great feedback from customers. We’re sorry if anyone is offended by it – that is never our intention.”

Do you think this shirt is insensitive? Let us know in the comments below. 

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Helping My Daughter on the Autism Spectrum Sleep More at Night

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Understanding, expressing and processing emotion seem to be the biggest difficulties in my house at the moment. We are at the preteen stage of development, which can be a challenge for many children. And with the added challenges that can come with autism, emotion regulation can be more difficult.

Out of all the regulation strategies we are adopting, establishing a bedtime routine seems to have the biggest impact on my daughter’s ability to regulate emotions, as well as my ability to be a fully functioning mum. It has also in turn been one of our biggest difficulties to manage.

For my daughter, nighttime is the time that her mind comes alive with thought and worry. It is the most likely time of day for her to melt down, and it is the time of day when I am not at my best. She is 11 now, and this has been a forever challenge. From a baby she would cling to me and not let me go. As a toddler I would put her to sleep in a buggy so she didn’t wake her sister. I eventually established something that resembled a bedtime at around 5 years old, only for it to be disrupted again at 7 by the increase of anxiety from day-to-day demands.

I knew this was a cycle perpetuating her anxiety and leaving us all feeling exhausted, but I had also lost sight as to where to start to make a change. We needed some help. Fortunately, after months of being on a waiting list to receive some support, we were able to see a psychologist.

The psychologist taught us a lot about sleep and routine, from sleep triggers (this is something that happens every night that helps our brain know when bedtime is coming) to understanding why our bodies need sleep and why worry creeps in at night. We were even challenged to write a story to read every night to reinforce the learning.

People often think of bedtime as something automatic by the time you have a preteen child. But establishing a change with my daughter takes months of work and effort for everyone involved.

We now mostly have a routine established. I say mostly because my daughter sometimes pushes boundaries, and we occasionally go a couple of steps backwards before we move forward again, but I have learned this is OK.

Tackling sleep has been a momentous task for us all, but I’m happy to say it has been worth it! It’s amazing how much sleep impacts our ability to cope and regulate. I am happy to say that with the new routine in place, we are all managing our emotions a little easier and enjoying our day with a little more energy.

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Image via Thinkstock Images

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A Letter to Teachers of Students on the Autism Spectrum, From a Mom

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When my son was in school 21 years ago, we didn’t know he was on the autism spectrum. What we did know was that he had some learning disabilities that made it difficult for him to function in a traditional classroom without extra support.

My son loved to learn! But at one school, he struggled with teachers who practiced “old school” teaching methods, teachers who wouldn’t acknowledge that he had a different way of learning. I’ll never forget the time he came home after school so sad and upset. When I asked him what happened, he told me that his lab partner in science class complained he wasn’t doing his fair share of the work. The lab partner he was assigned was the same boy who taunted and teased him on the playground. Instead of teaching his lab partner about patience and compassion for my son’s challenges, the teacher told my son he had to work alone. When I went to speak with this teacher, the teacher was unwilling to budge — but the next day, my son was given two new lab partners (two boys who were always kind and friendly to him).

We took my son out of that school and found a school with teachers who embraced his learning style and accepted him for who he was. No, that’s not quite right. They adored and admired him for who he was. They didn’t punish him for the way his brain worked. They nurtured and believed in him. They proved to him that he was smart and talented. And guess what? He became student of the year and went on to graduate from college with honors.

He may not remember his experience at the other school, but I’ll never forget. I use the memory as motivation to do whatever I can to make sure no other child with autism is labeled or misunderstood.

Dear teachers of students on the autism spectrum:

It’s been years since my son was in elementary school, and I hope that there is more awareness out there. I think it varies from school to school, so here are some words of advice I hope you’ll consider:

Delve deeper. If a student doesn’t fit a “typical” profile, don’t automatically assume they are “lazy” and don’t want to do the work. I wish my son’s teacher had called me to discuss the issue before acting.

Create partnerships, not adversaries. The teachers at my son’s second school were nurturing and made me a part of their team. Instead of feeling at odds, we worked in tandem creating a supportive environment for my son. He thrived.

Give a child with learning challenges other ways to do their work and take tests. It isn’t “unfair” or cheating. It’ll give that student a chance to show you that they have indeed learned what you’ve taught them.

Don’t wait until parent conferences. Set up regular check-ins and communication with your autistic student’s parents. If I had known that the science teacher was going to be assigning lab partners, I could have let the teacher know this would be a challenge for my son.

Your actions have impact. Be the teacher who makes the positive impact your student (and his family) will remember with gratitude forever. Your words and your actions matter.

Note for parents and teachers: On my Geek Club Books autism nonprofit blog, I asked two of our autistic writers with experience in early education to write “What Your Autistic Students Want You to Know.” Read what they have to say and get the free guide with more of their advice and tips. Geek Club Books for Autism is part of The Mighty Partner Program.

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Image via Thinkstock Images

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What I Realized When Anxiety Changed Our Trip Plans

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I had done all the research. I had planned and picked out the agenda. Found the perfect hotel. I had even made an awesome Social Story with the cool app I have. I used actual pictures of the inside of the hotel because I knew he would ask. He would need to know every last detail. I had pictures of the pool, the outside of the hotel and the lobby. Yes, I had lists of all the stores and restaurants. I had pictures and maps to show the geographical location of everything we planned to do.

Yet after all the work and planning, I couldn’t get Jack to leave his yellow house.

I had thought it a brilliant plan. I was going to take my daughter and son to Boston overnight last year and then a quick drive up to New Hampshire for my daughter to look at a college and then drive home.

The thing is Jack is on the autism spectrum and has an anxiety disorder. Life is not always easy for Jack. Going new places can cause anxiety.

He has many anxiety triggers. Certain foods, stores (especially if they are crowded) and if there is a stranger in the same aisle as us, going anywhere new, going places we know, certain coats, not being able to sleep, going to the movies, making decisions, leaving the house, and going to school.

In my day dream the three of us would wake up Thursday morning and pack our bags. The beauty of driving is we could bring a lot. If Jack wanted to bring his weighted blanket, stuff animals, pillow, iPad, iPhone, headphones, books, Legos, thinking putty, fidget toys, we could bring it all. We would load up the car. Jack in the backseat with his headphones on, my daughter sitting shotgun helping with navigation. The rest of the family at work and we would be off on an adventure!

I imagined a sunny day and us walking from the hotel to the aquarium. We would be looking at the fish, seals and turtles. We’d be smiling, holding hands and laughing down the street as we went to Quincy Market. We would enjoy a nice dinner and shopping and go back to the hotel and take a swim in the hotel pool.

On Wednesday, the “I’m not sure if I want to go to Boston” statements started. He worried about what to bring and what he couldn’t (the PC and the toaster). He didn’t want to leave his yellow house. Out came the Social Story again, the websites, the lists, the pictures. The reassuring that it would be fun! Nonetheless we still had the refusing to go. The other members of my family telling me it was probably best to just not go. In the end, I knew they were right, and I cancelled the trip.

That is when I started to feel sorry for myself. I had just wanted for a day and a night, to have fun, to have smiles, to hear laughter surrounded by hugs.

When I woke up the next morning and Boston wasn’t happening, I had a pity party for myself. I had done all the right things. Damn it I wanted rainbows and unicorns! No, I just wanted to spend a day and a night away with two of my children.

After a few hours of acting immature and feeling like a crappy mom, I got what I really wanted. Not the trip to Boston, but I had smiles on two of my children’s faces. The smiles came from making sugar cookies together. The cookies took little planning (preheat oven), no packing, just unpacking the bag of cookie cutters, no Social Story on my cool app. No looking at a map, just following a recipe. No getting in the car, just walking to the kitchen.

So maybe Jack had it right the entire time. We didn’t need Boston and the hotel to have smiles… they were here in the yellow house all along.

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Photo by Sean Pavone

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Why I Didn't Need a Crystal Ball as My Son With Autism Built His Future

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Don’t you sometimes wish you had the crystal ball, an assurance that the future will be OK?

I know I sure did. When my son Alex was diagnosed with autism at age 2, I wanted to know that when he was an adult, everything would be OK. I thought I’d be able to get through whatever was necessary if I could peek at the ending.

But the truth is, I was better off not knowing. I could not have appreciated the outcome if I hadn’t been on the journey.

Alex is an adult now, and I think his life is pretty awesome. But to put it bluntly, it’s not the kind of awesome I would have imagined when he was 2 or 4 or 6. He hasn’t yet found fluent language, and he didn’t go to college, and he doesn’t live on his own. He is on the autism spectrum, and that comes with challenges that can make his life hard. He requires around-the-clock supervision. He has complex communication needs.

Alex has a part time job, friends, family, and lives away from his family home. It seems everywhere he goes in our community, he runs into people he knows. I measure success as doing your best, overcoming obstacles, having strength of character, and building your own life. Alex is successful.

I’ve read articles from so many parents dreading to say they put their child in a group home. I look at it differently. I want my child to fulfill his potential and become as independent as possible. His neurotypical sister moved out, so why shouldn’t he?

Alex’s path to independence isn’t the same as his sister’s, and may not be the same as many of his peers, but it is a path nonetheless.

We worked really hard to find a good fit for Alex when it was time to move out. It took a lot of time and effort. He lives with three other roommates, all young men with different needs. They have around-the-clock staff. They eat meals together, do chores to take care of their home, and are involved in their community. They all have part-time jobs. They act like brothers and have created their own family. Alex has become more independent and had experiences he might not have had if he stayed home with us.

He has created bonds and relationships that he might not have had. Alex transitions smoothly between Mom and Dad’s house and his own house. We visit frequently, and he has overnight visits regularly. We thought going back and forth would be hard for him, but he does really well.

He had, and our whole family had, an additional support system when he was diagnosed with cancer 20 months ago. They helped us all through so much of the cancer treatment, and helped Alex retain as much normalcy in his life as possible. He is currently in remission, but it’s been a really long haul, and he’s not out of the woods yet. His caregivers and his group home were not only emotional and psychological support, they were practical and physical support in caring for him throughout his illness.

When Alex was 2, I didn’t know a family like ours. I didn’t know someone like Alex. If I had, I might have been less scared. I’m here to tell you that this outcome is OK — actually, it’s much more than OK. It may not look like the life I imagined when he was 2, but he has a rich life. And I’m really thankful I didn’t have that crystal ball.

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