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How Autism Helps Me Be Mindful

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Mindfulness is an essential skill for self-development, as it allows for the silent observation of thoughts, and the filtering of the negative from the positive. The starting point of any thought is an observation, either immediately or sometimes long before it.

So it follows that the more potent the observations, and the more aware of them we are, the easier it can be to track our thoughts, from their source as a quiet observation all the way to their emotional context when we interpret them.

At all these stages of thought, autism can lend a great gift in many ways. The senses of an autistic person can be very refined in at least some channels — sight, hearing, touch, etc. This means we can have a very different experience observing the world than neurotypical people. Observations to a heightened mind are bright and loud, and so are difficult to ignore.

Each and every person, texture and object in a place is noticed and registered at once as I enter it, and none of it escapes me. This is the first stage of mindfulness. Seeing so much, only a small portion of the information is interpreted. There is then a relatively quiet time when my mind decides how to interpret the information and apply emotion.

When it does so, my body reacts in subtle ways to the chemicals, that we associate with emotions, released. Things like the sensation in our fingertips when we feel excitement. To me, as an autistic person, even these changes are felt as potently as a bright light. If I know which emotions have stimulated which response, the second stage of mindfulness is also achieved with help from autism.

It isn’t difficult for me to trace feelings back to their source; most usually have a logical cause to them. Because both the initial observation and its associated sensation are so loud and clear, if anything is seen multiple times, then both the characteristics of what I’m looking at, and the exact emotion I first experienced, are replicated immediately as though its the first time.

As a result, any activities that lead to the same scenario (or just something in it) appearing before me many times are predictable. I know what I see each time, and how that makes me feel. It also works for the complex emotions that can be made up of many simple ones. So autism also helps me to pinpoint, in most cases, what caused me to feel a certain way, and therefore whether it is an emotion worth dwelling on, or whether it should be let go. My autism gives me awareness of my emotions, so that they do not always control me. I’m glad of this, as they are temporary, and I can always choose to let them pass.

Autism also helps me to isolate thoughts from observations. This increases awareness of them as they’re not drowned out by new information. The observations are external, whilst the interpretations are processed internally, in an inner world that much of the time remains isolated from the one we all share.

It may not always look like it, but autistic people can have just as much capacity for, and as much understanding of, emotions as anyone else. Even if it doesn’t happen in the same way as for neurotypical people.

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Thinkstock image by Design Pics

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Wendy Williams and Identity Salon to Offer Sensory-Friendly Haircuts

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Over the past year, multiple retailers – from Toys ‘R’ Us to Costco – have announced one-off sensory-friendly quiet shopping hours. While these events are certainly a step in the right direction, people on the autism spectrum and sensory sensitivities need to go shopping and get the same services everyone else does, and they need to go more than once a year. To help make personal care services more accessible to kids on the spectrum, stylist Wendy Williams will be offering sensory-sensitive haircuts every Sunday to those on the autism spectrum.

“My husband is a school social worker and we have had many conversations about the gap in services and overwhelming need to provide sensory-sensitive social experiences for kids,” Williams told The Mighty. “I just think it is important that we all do our best to be open-minded and recognize the unique talents and needs of others. I’m hopeful my little part in doing so makes life easier for a few.”

All appointments, which must be made in advance, will take place at Identity Salon in Grand Blanc, Michigan, where Williams works. Salons are not typically a sensory-friendly place; most are loud, bright and overwhelmingly fragrant. To reduce the sensory-overload of a fully operating salon, Williams will be offering services on Sundays, when the salon is typically closed, ensuring the space can be adapted to fit her clients’ needs. Williams will also provide sensory tools and social stories to help make each haircut as enjoyable as possible.

Of course, Williams is just one stylist and can’t cut everyone’s hair. Her advice to other stylists with clients on the spectrum: Prepare ahead of time. “Get to know the child and their specific needs before they arrive,” she advised. “Have the parents or child complete a sensory response inventory, create a social story specific for the child and be willing to take as much time as needed on the day of the hair service to be sure the first experience with you is a positive as possible.”

For those on the spectrum looking to get a haircut, Williams suggests letting the stylist know your needs before the appointment and visiting the salon ahead of time, so you know what to expect.

The sensory-friendly appointments will begin March 26.

Thinkstock image via -Elika-

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Bizarro Cartoon About Autism and Vaccines Sparks Outrage Among Anti-Vax Community

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For 32 years, Dan Piraro has been illustrating cartoons for Bizarro, a nationally syndicated cartoon panel appearing in over 350 daily and Sunday newspapers. On March 8, Piraro published a cartoon about autism and vaccines. The result, he said, caused more controversy than any other cartoon in his 32-year career.

The cartoon, which illustrates a meeting of mythical creatures, shows a mermaid gesturing to a vial, stating, “I’d like to welcome our newest member to the group, the vaccine that causes autism.”

“I’ve been responsible for creating a new joke and drawing to go with it 365 days a year for over 32 years, so I’m always looking for something new to write about,” Piraro told The Mighty. “Lately I’ve been disheartened by the massive move in the U.S. away from science and facts and towards myths and ‘alternative facts.’”

After searching the web, Piraro decided to illustrate the myth that vaccines cause autism. “[I] happened to come across something about the autism/vaccine myth, which I was familiar with already, of course, but the combination of that kind of myth with other known myths – mermaids, unicorns, etc. – suddenly struck me as a good way to illustrate the folly of this kind of thinking in a simple, graphic way.”

The idea that vaccines cause autism has been widely debunked a number of times over the past decade. In 1998, the Lancet published a study which claimed autism was linked to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The Lancet then retracted the study in 2010 after scientists were unable to replicate its findings, and the study’s author, Andrew Wakefield, had his medical license rescinded.

Since publishing, Piraro’s cartoon has sparked widespread criticism from anti-vaxxers as well as parents who felt he was making a joke out of autism, rather than vaccines. “ I knew it would kick up some dust, but I had no idea the backlash would be so widespread and vitriolic,” Piraro said. “I’ve done many cartoons about controversial topics in the past – legalization of marijuana, marriage equality, terrorism, Trump – and am used to getting hate mail, but this one broke all previous records.”

“As a parent of two adult daughters, it is easy for me to understand why there is so much emotion around this subject and also why this myth has been so pervasive for so many years. People worry about few things more than the health of their own children,” Piraro added.

From letters to the editor at daily newspapers to comments on Piraro’s Facebook page, people fought to have their voices heard. In having this debate, we often leave out autistic individuals who are left to feel like their existence is a disease that needs a named cause. While we understand the challenges with autism can be more significant for some individuals and their loved ones, we must be careful in the messages we send people on the spectrum when we discuss the vaccination controversy.

In a blog post addressing the controversy, Piraro wrote:

I’ve read a lot about this issue over the years and especially in the past week and one thing I’m certain of is that unless you are a trained scientist in areas that relate to this, it is very easy to be confused by what is true and what is myth. That’s why in these cases, there is no logical position to take other than to side with the majority of experts. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but it is clear that the vast majority of doctors, scientists, and medical organizations whose job it is to study, research, and know this stuff still adamantly say there is no causal relationship between vaccines and autism.

Not all of the feedback has been negative, Piraro said. “Many doctors and other people in and around the healthcare world responded very positively and asked if they could use the cartoon in their efforts to inform the public,” he added. “I always love it when my cartoons get used as teaching tools.”

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Why Sesame Street's Julia Is a Step In the Right Direction

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Yesterday morning I woke up to news about Julia — the new autistic character on “Sesame Street” — and I lapped up all the news about it, excited like a child in a candy store.

My son has no interest in the show. I’ve tried, but he walks away. Still, this news makes me happy and hopeful.

The show is an American icon. Even after half a century, it continues to be relevant. Many children grow up watching “Sesame Street,” and its characters might feel like friends. So, when a show like this decides to feature a new character who happens to be autistic, I believe it gives the cause of autism awareness a much-needed boost.

The autism community has insisted acceptance and inclusion are important. I believe this is a step in that direction. It starts during the formative years, when kids are young. Hopefully, as young kids watch the inclusion of diverse characters, they can grow up to become more compassionate and understanding adults. We could finally have a generation that celebrates uniqueness rather than ridicules it. Julia might help kids appreciate the fact that it’s OK to be different, and people with different abilities can be as much fun as anyone else if we understand them. For someone on the autism spectrum, hopefully this new character will make their interactions with peers a positive one. In my opinion this initiative from “Sesame Street” really matters.

The introductory episode will have Julia hesitating to shake hands with the crew. They will explain why she’s not being impolite and how there are other effective ways to communicate with her. Another episode shows the Muppet Abby and Julia having fun together.

I believe these are small but effective ways to teach young kids about autism.

Although autism diagnoses are almost five times more common in boys than girls, interestingly, “Sesame Street” decided to bring in Julia — a girl on the autism spectrum. This is commendable because it sheds much-wanted light on autism in girls.

Critics are already complaining about typecasting autism through Julia. However, as we all know, they could have introduced any other Muppet and chosen not to represent autism or any other disability. For now, I welcome Julia with open arms, and I hope this brings a new understanding of autism as parents sit next to their little ones and enjoy the show.

Follow this journey on Tulika’s blog.

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Photo image via Sesame Street

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Sesame Street's Newest Resident Is Julia, a Muppet on the Autism Spectrum

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For the first time in a decade, Sesame Street is adding a new muppet to the block: Julia, a young muppet on the autism spectrum.

“For years, families of children with autism have asked us to address the issue. We heard a call to use our expertise and characters to build a bridge between the autism and neurotypical communities,” Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, SVP of U.S. Social Impact, Sesame Workshop said in a press release. “So many partners, advisors, and organizations have contributed to the success of this initiative, and we are thrilled to have the benefit of this collaboration as we launch this latest chapter.”

In 2015, Sesame Workshop launched Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, an online initiative which introduced Julia as a digital character in a storybook called “We’re Amazing, 1,2,3.” Sesame Workshop has spent five years consulting with 250 organizations and experts within the autism community – including Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America.

Julia will be played by Stacey Gordon, a puppeteer whose son is on the autism spectrum. “I really wish that kids in my son’s class had grown up with a ‘Sesame Street’ that had modeling [of] the behavior of inclusion of characters with autism,” Gordon told NPR.

Julia will make her debut April 10 on PBS Kids and HBO.

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Battling My Fear of the Dentist as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

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I am really, really afraid of going to the dentist. I’ll be in a heightened state of panic weeks before, which is really bad for my body and mind and devastating for me. I’ll have panic attacks and gag reflexes, and I’ll be so tense I might harm myself accidentally (or deliberately at times) by clenching my fist so I dig my nails in, and I’ll be sore in my arms and legs the next day. And all this even if I have never had to do any real scary dentist work or had a really bad experience. I think it might have something to do with lying down in that chair and feeling like I’m losing all control. Just writing this is making me uncomfortable, and slightly nauseous.

I am thinking about this because it was a while… well, actually, way too long since I have been for a checkup. I don’t feel anything weird or wrong, but there still might be. I have horribly crooked wisdom teeth; they grow outwards, towards my cheeks, but they don’t bother me.

The last time I had to book an appointment, I could literally feel/see my eyesight get sharper and sharper as my adrenaline levels rose. But it all went well and we fixed one cavity with anesthetic, and I let the dentist remove an old amalgam filling and put in a new white one without anesthetic, which is unheard of for me.

I have found something that has been helpful for me, though, apart from the sedative I can take if I need it: educational YouTube videos for dentists! I have found a channel where a calm dentist explains what he is doing, and there are no horrible headlines, just ordinary dental problems on a varying scale. I won’t show any pictures, since I know some of you probably don’t want to see that, but here is a link to the channel. It might be surprising that someone who is scared of going to the dentist sits and willingly watches movies about dentist work. But the thing is, I like to know what they are doing and why, and this way I learn.

Follow this journey on Friday Frida.

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Thinkstock photo by Davizro

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