mother and young son sitting by pond

Taking my grandson Noah to our local park is always one of my daughter Sara’s favorite things to do, but there are differences about him that some might find “unusual.” For instance, he doesn’t really like the fenced in yard where all the playground equipment is. As much as he likes his own slide in our nice, little, quiet backyard, he usually doesn’t want to go down the brightly-colored slides at the playground, or stomp across the loud bridges that shake with every step, or go through the stinky, sticky tunnels that connect everything together. I think he actually likes all those things very much, but there are so many other kids there, and they all move so fast, running and laughing and screaming. He seems to prefer sitting close to the outside of the perimeter and watching all the action from there.

What he does like to do, though, is hunt for small piles of leaves. Or mulch. Or gravel. Or sand. Basically, any object with an interesting texture that will fit in his little hands. Once he has found a little gold mine like that — which, if you think about it, is every five steps in a park — it’s really hard to distract him with anything else. He grabs two big handfuls of whatever treasure he’s found in that five-foot vicinity and holds his little arms as high as he can. And then he crinkles his little fingers together, as if he’s trying to feel every different texture between each one of his fingers, making each pebble or grain of sand fall separately. And as it falls, he watches the wind take all the smaller particles away in different directions and all the larger rocks and sticks fall to the ground. Every texture and weight has a different effect, and he explores each one with every sense he has.

There’s a duck pond at this park as well, and he always, very slowly, makes his way there. But usually, the ducks are pretty bored with all the people and their pity bread, and they stay in the middle of the pond, which doesn’t interest Noah much at all. If they’re not right in front of him, he doesn’t take notice of them. We point and ask him to look at the pretty ducks, but he’s there for a completely different reason. He’s on a mission, and he knows exactly where to go to find his next little miracle in plain sight. Right at the edge of the pond, there are these little gray rocks that are just the right size for his little hands, and he loves throwing them in the water. This is where Noah loves to sit. He always seems to have a wonderful time there, just throwing those perfect little rocks into the pond, listening to the plopping sound, watching the splash and then the ripple effect that happens afterward, magically finding its way, in perfect circles getting bigger and bigger, all the way to the edge of the pond.

He showed me. It really is beautiful.

You see, it doesn’t matter that we think Noah should be fascinated with the ducks. Or the slides or the rocking bridge or the laughing, screaming children, or any of it for that matter. Noah finds all these little magical observations in things many of us may not normally see.

He thinks the ripples in the water are the most beautiful thing at the park.

He’s fascinated by the way the wind carries some things way up into the sky and others just fall to the ground.

He likes to stop and rub his hands on the bark of the rough trees, or stop to feel the soft leaves of a bush we just passed, or a patch of bright green clovers way in the corner by the fence.

He sees everything.

And he often wants to touch and feel and experience every texture, smell and taste of every new object he sees.

Every. Single. One.

I think he’s trying to show us that we should be seeing and touching and smelling it, too. And we do! And it’s wonderful! Although, the tasting thing is not recommended. For him or you.

The point I’m trying make is this: A trip to the park with Noah may not be your “typical” trip. I feel it’s actually a lot more fun, but you have to know how to do it.

You have to let him take the lead.

And you have to appreciate what he’s showing you.

Noah reminds us how easy it is to find the beauty in the things we can so easily overlook in our everyday lives. You just have to know how to “be” with him. This is something our family knows. We’re used to it. It’s our normal.

Recently, Sara and a friend were going to the park, and she was bringing Noah with them. This friend knows Noah is on the autism spectrum, and he said he thought it would be fun to hang out with him, but Sara had some reservations. She understands what many people think a trip to the park is “supposed” to be like, and she knew this trip likely wouldn’t be like that.

What would this friend of hers think? Would he think it was strange? I could tell when she left, she was more than a little nervous about how this little outing would turn out.

I was nervous for her.

To be honest, she was gone a lot longer than I thought she would be. I kept thinking that had to be a good thing, right? I was right, of course. When she finally got home, she told me they had a great time! The very first thing she told me was that as she was taking Noah out of the car, she was asking her friend what he might like to do first.

Maybe the playground? (Please not the playground.)

The ducks, maybe? (We won’t need any bread.)

She nervously waited for his answer and was already thinking about how she would explain Noah’s behavior with whatever activity he picked, but then he said something that was just about the most perfect thing he could have ever said:

“Let’s just follow Noah.”

Those four words took all the pressure off Sara. She put Noah down, along with the weight of the worries she had about the rest of the day, and they did exactly that. They followed him to every corner of the park. He would walk off in different directions when anything new or interesting caught his eye, leading them to far corners of the park where I doubt very many people spend much time. When he stopped at a pile of leaves to figure out the wind direction at that moment in time (because, trust me, he will check that again in about five minutes with a different pile of leaves), her friend didn’t ask questions about why he does that; they just sat and watched and talked and laughed about the cute things he did. Then they would follow him to some other corner where he found a yellow leaf or an interesting stick or some other jewel just laying on the ground, and they would just sit to watch him again. He was never offended when Noah wouldn’t respond to his questions, and it didn’t stop him from trying to interact again.

When they eventually came to the duck pond, Sara was ready for him to start finding those perfect little rocks and start throwing them in the pond, but the ducks were actually paying attention to the humans that day and had come up onto the grass. When Noah caught sight of them, Sara told me he was beyond excited. He ran as fast as his little legs could carry him. He just had to touch them. When all the ducks started to scatter, Sara said she tried to stop him because she thought it might aggravate the other families that were feeding them. Her friend gently held her back and very kindly said, “Let him go. It’s OK. He wants to chase the ducks. Let him. It’s a public park.” Again, I don’t think Sara could have heard anything better. So for the second time that day, she let Noah, and everything else, go. His little feet hit the ground running. He headed straight for the ducks and, of course, they all flew away and landed in the water. Imagine the ripples! To Noah, that was just about the greatest thing ever! And when he turned to look at Sara, she said the smile on his face was from ear to ear. Sara’s smile, I can only imagine, must have been just as big.

I only wish I could have been there to see it.

After a long day of following a 2-and-a-half-year-old around a very large park (with many long stops in odd places), they eventually made it to the water fountain that Noah loves very much. Sara said they stayed there a while and watched him play in the water until she knew he was just too exhausted to go on anymore and came home. Happy.

I’ve had a couple of days to think about that day — about the way Sara felt before she left.

She was nervous about so many things. Things like acceptance of her son. The ignorance of strangers with their sideways glances. The confusion her friend might have about his odd-seeming behaviors. The questions she might have to answer. Will he get it? It felt like so many things she had to worry about.

But when she got home that day, all that worry, all that nervousness and tension, every confusing emotion she was feeling when she was getting Noah out of the car seemed to melt away with four simple little words:

“Let’s just follow Noah.”

It’s what Noah has been telling us for two years.

“Follow me.”

“Look how pretty the ripples in the water are.”

“Look at the cool way some of this stuff falls and some of it flies.”

“Feel this tree! Isn’t it cool?”

“Follow me! I’ll show you!”

We figured this out a long time ago — how to follow Noah. But to hear it from a friend? A friend without a lot of experience with children on the autism spectrum? Well, let’s just say it doesn’t happen often. It meant a lot to Sara to be able to relax and enjoy the day, because he accepted our normal.

No questions asked.

I’ve recently read a lot of articles about how to help friends with children who have special needs, and there are a lot of good ones. The problem is that every family has different needs, which require different solutions.

What I figured out this past weekend is that for our family, you don’t need to be a hero. The best thing you can do is, first of all, just show up, and after that say, “Let’s just follow Noah.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Following Noah is sometimes not an easy task. Sometimes you have to follow him up mountains. But if you choose to accept the challenge:

He’s going to take you to the corners of the park you’ve never noticed before.

He’s going to show you the beauty of a ripple in the water.

He’s going to show you the world like you’ve never seen it before.

And I know you’ll be grateful for it.

All you have to do is follow him.

He somehow already seems to know the way.

But be careful, because he’s going to steal your heart in the process, and after that, you’ll never be the same.

Image via Contributor.

View the full, original version of this post on G-Maw and Noah.

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If your child is anything like mine, you know the stress of shopping for toys and gifts for them. Over the years, I’ve seen my son lose interest in almost any toy that’s out there. There was a time when he loved trains, and every time we entered a Toys “R” Us, he would run to the spot where they had a train table for kids to play with. He would spend several minutes there. We finally decided to get a train table in the small condo we rented. Having no place to keep it, we had it smack in the middle of our living room where the coffee table should have been. It only made sense to have the center of our lives’ center of life at the center of our house.

But soon enough, the trains lost their charm, just like toys often do for all kids. But he did not graduate to other “big boy” toys — he just stopped playing with any. That was four years back. He was around 3 then. The only one he has not given up on is his kiddie laptop, which has a few geometrically-shaped buttons that light up some images on the “screen” and plays music. He still likes to play with it, but we’ve tried several musical toys since then without any success.

So, going to a regular toy store is not just stressful, it’s actually sometimes upsetting, because I feel lost among the cars, remote-controlled helicopters, board games, action figures, video games and the like. So many toys, but seemingly none for my child! I feel guilty for not finding something for him. However, over time I have been able to think outside of the box and come up with some things to gift him, thanks to various forums and Facebook groups that have such a wealth of information. So, I decided to pay it forward and come up with my own list, which by no means is complete — let alone comprehensive — but it’s a start, and I hope someone might get some ideas from this list.

Let me tell you a bit about my son. He is on the autism spectrum, and he is nonverbal and has fine motor skills challenges, which can make playing with a toy more of a chore than fun. Mobile games don’t hold his attention for long. He struggles with language and reading, so books are not often something he is excited about, nor does he have any favorite superhero or comic book character he obsesses over. Keeping these challenges in mind, most of my suggestions will be geared towards sensory toys that don’t require too much input from the player but can still excite them. Here we go:

For kids who like movement:

1. Rope ladder — You can hang this from the ceiling of your child’s room, and it swings freely while your child climbs up. It can be challenging and still exciting.

2. Hammock — Yup, I can say from my personal experience this hammock has saved the day on several occasions. It swings, gives my son the deep pressure he likes, and he can have his own sanctuary, looking up at the sky, clouds, stars, birds. It appears to calm him down. He uses it as a swing, too. In winter, we bring the whole thing inside as well so he can continue to enjoy it.

3. Kids’ pod swing chair — He is outgrowing this, but he really enjoyed it. The best part about this is it can swing in any direction. On top of that, you can twist the whole thing around and release it for a fun spin for your child.

4. Trampoline — Well, the benefits of this toy are probably known to everyone. It’s a must-have for those days when their energy seems to be infinite and unending. This trampoline can be the best tool to release some of it.

5. Spinning/rocking chair — This could be a simple rocking chair, or an office chair, or a fancier one found in IKEA that looks like a capsule. The spinning and rocking are some of my son’s favorite movements, and these could be something they would love to spend their time on.

6. Exercise ball — We stumbled onto the advantage of this by chance. I found my son bouncing on my exercise ball while watching his rhymes. The combination of music and movement can keep him engaged for a long time (and can give me a much-needed break). A win-win situation for both of us.

For kids who love visual stimulation:

7. Lava lamps or bubble tower lamps — These are so soothing to look at. Even I could spend hours just looking at these. Watching the bubbles move around keeps the kiddos hooked.

8. Liquid motion toys — These come in different sizes, shapes and prices — take your pick. I can bet your child will love to sit and watch the colored bubbles drip and float and do their magic.

9. Newton’s cradle — The set of balls swinging and hitting and swinging back again can be a fun thing to look at. My son loved to watch it, but I had to keep doing it for him, which can get tiring. If your child is able to lift and release the ball, it can be endless hours of fun, and it also teaches them cause and effect.

10. Fiber optic lamp — These generally come with a clear base with color-changing crystals inside and can be mesmerizing to watch as the long, optical fibers glow in different colors. It can also work as a soothing night light for your child’s room.

11. Plasma ball lamp — Another great visual toy for the kids and, if I might add, the adults, too. Kids often love to interact with it, as the globe responds to their touch and has a wonderful display of light inside it.

12. Gears set — This is like a board with gears of all shapes and sizes interlocked on it. Kids can have fun spinning one and watching the entire board spin. This can very visually stimulating.

For kids with strong tactile sensory needs:

13. Microwavable plush toys — Though these say microwavable, apart from warming them, you can also place them in the freezer for kids who seek cold (like my son). Most are filled with an aromatic filling, like lavender, that can be soothing for the kids, too.

14. Kinetic Sand — This is another one I could gift to myself. I have caught myself digging my hands into it so many times. It’s fun to watch it move when you drop it slowly or just fidget with it. It comes with different molds and now even has glitters in it. There is a whole array to choose from. I’m sure this is a gift that will be a hit with your child.

15. Play-Doh — Who doesn’t like Play-Doh? If your child loves to touch and knead and squeeze, this is a good option. If they can, help them make their favorite object out of the doh, and that should be an activity both of you can enjoy.

16. Massager or vibrating toys — My kid loves things that vibrate. He likes to press them on his cheeks or feel them with his hands. Many kids with sensory needs might also love this. Just make sure you have enough batteries on hand.

17. Fidget cube — If you are part of any autism community on Facebook, you’ve probably seen this on your feed. I’ve not tried this, only because I think my son’s limited fine motor skills might not allow him to enjoy this as much, but if your child can use the knobs and switches on this cube, I believe it’s a gift they would thank you for.

For kids who seek oral sensory input:

18. Chewy tubes — Gone are the days when chewy tubes were big, knobby tubes in conspicuous shapes that, when hung around your kid’s neck, looked almost ridiculous. Now, they have all jazzy and snappy shapes that look like nice necklaces. They look hip and serve the purpose, too.

19. Vibrating oral tools — My son’s brushing struggles finally found a breakthrough when we started using a vibrating toothbrush. He would sit still if I let the brush stay at a spot inside his cheek. He enjoyed the vibration, until his sound sensitivity took over and the sound of the vibrations started bothering him. But for those kids who seek oral inputs, a vibrating oral toy can be a great gift. Vibrating toothbrushes like the Z-Vibe or Nuk massaging brush are some of the options.

Apart from these, other sensory gifts like a weighted blanket/lap scroll or vest can be wonderful additions to their treasure troves. These can help kids be more aware of their bodies in space and keep them calm.

For kids who have auditory processing issues, noise-canceling headphones are also something you can invest in. My son hates anything on his head or face: caps, hats, glasses, headphones — everything gets thrown off, so we’ve not been very successful with it. But I’ve personally known people who swear by how helpful noise-canceling headphones have been.

Although my son is not big on toys, we’ve had limited success with the Discovery Kids magnetic building blocks set. He enjoys how the pieces attract or repel each other. I’m also planning to get a wooden tree marble run toy. We’ve had a marble run toy in the past that my son loved, but it’s setup was elaborate and very unstable, so I’m hoping the tree marble run would be something he might enjoy. Another interesting toy set is the LED light-up building blocks. It might be fun for kids to watch the blocks light up the moment they are put together.

Another gift that could be fun and useful is the wearable GPS tracker for kids. This can help keep them safe and keep you sane.

For kids who like their iPad and apps, Autism Speaks has a very nice list of apps that can be filtered down based on various criteria, like age, category, platform, etc. so that you can find the best ones for your child. I would especially like to recommend Speakaboos, an interactive story app that I really liked. And for parents like me who can manage to code a few lines, maybe you could build your very own custom app for your kid to make them feel extra special.

Though there are tons of gifts out there, I believe the best ones cost nothing — hugs, lots of love, and the belief that your child is no less.

Image via Contributor.

A version of this post originally appeared on Brain Droplets.

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Good news, Target fans. Holiday shopping at Target is about to get a lot less stressful thanks to a quiet shopping event designed for families on the autism spectrum.

The two-hour event will be held at the Target in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (on 2385 Covered Bridge Drive) on December 10 from 6 a.m to 8 a.m. As part of the event, lights will be dimmed, music will be turned off and store staff will be reduced, a Lancaster Target employee told The Mighty. Free Starbucks Coffee will be also available for any parents shopping that morning. The event will be held in partnership with Wellspan Philhaven, which provides behavioral healthcare for adults and children in central Pennsylvania.

Target is known for its commitment to people of all abilities. Earlier this year the store added Caroline’s Carts – shopping carts designed to seat older children and adults with disabilities – in the majority of its locations. Target has also featured people with disabilities in its advertising for the past 25 years.

Target is one of a handful of companies to offer quiet events for people on the autism spectrum. Last month, both Toys “R” Us and Chuck E. Cheese’s unveiled sensory-friendly events for those with autism.

Update: A spokesperson for Target told The Mighty, “[W]e are committed to creating an environment where our team members and guests feel welcome, valued and respected. As part of that commitment, we empower our store leaders to make decisions that help meet the needs of the guests they serve. The store leader of our Lancaster East store worked with his team and local community partners to create a welcoming shopping event for his guests on the autism spectrum and we applaud his efforts. We don’t have plans to roll these events out company-wide, but are always looking for new ways to further enhance our guests’ shopping experience.”

Photo credit: Mike Mozart

Shopping for someone on the autism spectrum can be a challenge. To make your holiday shopping a little less stressful, we’ve complied a list of gifts that anyone on the autism spectrum, from younger kids to adults, might love to receive. Of course, to truly know what someone could use this year — ask them! Surprises are fun, but don’t feel guilty if you’d rather ensure the person you love will enjoy what you buy them.

Photo of a sensory theraplay box

1. Sensory Theraplay Subscription

Feeling extra generous? Give a gift that keeps on giving all year long. Sensory Theraplay subscription boxes were designed by a pediatric occupational therapist, and feature sensory-friendly toys designed to help develop sensory motor skills. Boxes are meant for kids between the ages of 4 and 8, and feature toys meant for therapeutic play such as putty, textured tactile toys, fidgets, light up toys and craft activities.

Our pick: A Sensory Theraplay monthly subscription ($39.95/month or $113.85 for three months) Boxes ship throughout the U.S. and Canada. 


Photos of a nesel bag

2. A Nesel Pack

Some of the best holiday gifts are the more practical ones. The Nesel Pack is a sensory-friendly backpack which functions like a weighted vest. In addition to being autism-approved, the backpack has lots of handy features such as a clear ID card pocket, clips for sensory tools and multiple chest straps provide extra security and comfort. It’s a functional gift that’s sure to be appreciated.

Our pick: The Nesel Pack ($99.00). Nesel Packs ship throughout the U.S. and to limited countries internationally.

The Emotions Bundle, Children's Color & Shape Wallet Cards, Children's Public Transit Wallet Cards

3. SO Awesome Wallet Cards

Looking for a gift that’s sensory-friendly and educational? Try SO Awesome. Mom Marie-Claire Camp created SO Awesome, a line of chewable wallet-sized cards similar to flashcards, to help her sons with their sensory overload. Each card is made from is made from a non-toxic plastic manufactured in the U.S., making them safe for children of all ages. Plus, 10 percent of proceeds are donated to literacy-based nonprofit organizations.

Our picks: The Emotions Bundle ($25.00), Children’s Color & Shape Wallet Cards ($10.00), Children’s Public Transit Wallet Cards ($8.00) All items ship internationally.

Learning Resources Gears Building Set and Magna Tiles

4. A Gift From Spectrum Toy Store

Spectrum Toy Store is the first sensory-friendly toy store in Illinois, and one of only a handful in the U.S., designed for children with developmental disabilities. The store is owned and operated by Jamilah Rahim, a behavioral therapist, who makes sure every toy is appropriate for children on the spectrum. Spectrum Toy Store also offers Care Boxes, a monthly subscription box of sensory toys, products and educational activities. Plus, each subscription gives back to the autism community, with a portion of the proceeds providing scholarships for out-of-school programming.

Our picks: Care Box subscription ($25.95 per month), Learning Resources Gears Building Set ($28.00), Magna Tiles ($40.00). All items ship nationwide throughout the U.S. 

Images of Seenseez Pillows

5. A Senseez Pillow

A fun and functional gift, Senseez Pillows were created by Stephanie Mitelman, as a way for her son – who has sensory issues – to travel around with his favorite vibrating mat. Each pillow is designed to be lightweight, portable and visually appealing for children and teens. In addition to vibration-only pillows, Senseez Pillows has a line of “3-in-1 Adaptables,” pillows that include a weighted pad, hot and cold pack and a vibration device.

Our picks: Plushy Jelly ($29.99), Flannel ($39.99), Flowers ($59.99)  Pillows ship throughout the U.S. and Canada as well as internationally.

Starry Night Spinner Ring, Chewable Frosted Donut Pendant Necklace Weighted Bunny Lap Pad

6. Stimtastic Jewelry or Toys

Knowing that most products for people on the autism spectrum are geared towards children or their parents, Cynthia Kim, who was diagnosed with autism when she was 42, created Stimtastic – an affordable line of jewelry and toys for autistic adults and teens. Stimtastic offers stim toys, chewable jewelry and fidgets. And, to make your purchase more meaningful, Stimtastic donates 10 percent of all proceeds back to the greater autism community.

Our picks: Starry Night Spinner Ring ($9.50), Chewable Frosted Donut Pendant Necklace ($8.50), Weighted Bunny Lap Pad ($17.50).  All orders ship throughout the U.S. and to most countries internationally. 

Members of Aspergers Are Us dressed in costumes walking along a railroad track

7. A Copy of “Aspergers Are Us”

Spread some holiday cheer with a copy of “Aspergers Are Us,” a documentary about a comedy troupe comprised entirely of men on the autism spectrum. The film follows comedians and friends Jack Hanke, New Michael Ingemi, Ethan Finlan and Noah Britton as they prepare for their last comedy show.

Our pick: A digital download of “Aspergers Are Us” on iTunes or Amazon ($9.99).

Related: The 2014 Top 10 Best Gifts for Kids With Autism 

When I was a kid, I would spend hours on my homework. I wanted everything to be right. I wanted it to be my best work. After all, people always told me to do my best. Basically, I wanted it to be perfect. But it wasn’t just about my homework. My parents would tell me to look both ways before crossing the street. I remember standing at the side of the road one day, looking one way, then the other. Then I looked again. How many times was enough? What if a car came after I had stopped looking?

This may seem like perfectionism. And perhaps it started out that way. But as I grew older, I still found myself putting all of my time and energy into doing things well. And I didn’t want it to be perfect anymore. I just wanted it to be done well enough.

As someone on the autism spectrum, I can have very “black and white” thinking. I have a difficult time seeing the “gray” area. So most of the time, all I know how to do things is either “perfect” or “fail.” Until someone else says to me, “That’s good enough,” I’m stuck. I personally try to do these things so I am not failing. (Although, there have been times when I get so overwhelmed, I freeze up and don’t even try or don’t know where to start.) But I don’t see the middle ground.

I want to do well. But I’m tired of being a perfectionist. However, it’s really hard for me not to be one. I need limits. I need a task with a clear beginning and end. I need specific instructions on what to do and what not to do. Otherwise, I’m going to struggle. Not because I want to do things perfectly, but because I don’t know how to see that gray area.

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