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How a GPS Game Helps Me as Someone on the Autism Spectrum


I never really had many friends growing up. I’d struggle with social and communication skills at times. I didn’t “fit in” anywhere. And learning to drive was a challenge due to being overwhelmed on the roads. (I would typically stay on small roads within a mile or two of my home.) In 2005, when I was in 10th grade, I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

A year later, I was walking my dog at my local park and discovered a little container hidden in the woods. It was a tube made of clear plastic with a green top, and no bigger than a film canister. A sticker on the outside of it read “A19,” and there was a piece of paper tucked inside. Curiously (and without really thinking), I grabbed it and brought it home for a better look.

When I was home and no one was around, I took out the container and opened it up. The piece of paper said “GEOCACHING GAMEPIECE.” As I read further, my heart sank. It said, “Please don’t move the container.” I found a website address at the bottom, and quickly logged on to contact the owner of the tube.

The response I received was so kind. They explained how geocaching is a GPS-based treasure hunting game. The object of the game is to find the hidden containers at posted coordinates, sign a piece of paper inside to log the find, and then replace the container for others to look for it. They also told me to feel free to keep the container I’d found, as it had been part of a small one-day event that had ended. (Had it been a regular geocache, I would have needed to put it back.) I was instantly hooked and wanted to join the game myself!

After a little while of attempting to play on my own, I attended an event and found some with other members. What I didn’t even notice at the time was how accepting the community was. They would give me hints when I was struggling and cheered on my successful finds. I had found a group where I felt free to be myself.

The other benefit I slowly came to realize was that I was driving further and further. After finding all of the geocaches in my neighborhood, I had to extend my search. So I’d look for the next closest one on the map, and then figure out some back roads I could take to get to it. The geocache was like a prize for my accomplishment. This driving process has continued over the years, and more recently I’ve found myself driving to another state entirely!

When I was a child, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Through activities such as geocaching, I finally feel a connection to the community. And while I may not be traveling the world, I’m driving further than I thought I could because of the containers waiting for me just outside of my comfort zone. With geocaching, I’m not just playing around. I’m finding ways to grow. And that’s the best hidden treasure I could ask for!

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To the Teacher Who Will Be Working With My Son on the Autism Spectrum


Dear Teacher,

I realize you’re busy getting ready for the upcoming school year. You are probably spending many unpaid hours unpacking and organizing your classroom with little help. I know you’re spending your own hard earned money buying school supplies and your nights might consist of preparing lesson plans and schedules. As a parent, I see and appreciate all that you do and the extra challenges you face while just trying to do the job you dreamed of having.

I understand sometimes it may feel like a thankless job and at times you may feel stressed and frustrated beyond words, yet you mask it with a smile because so many people are watching and counting on you. I wonder if when it comes to dealing with administration and co-workers you feel your ideas and opinions fall on deaf ears; I understand how invisible that could make you feel. I relate to how frustrating it is when you feel like you have lost your voice. Your struggles and plight to be the best educator you can be does not go unnoticed by everybody, especially parents like me.

No, I am not a teacher, a paraprofessional, an aide, secretary or even a student. I’m not even a janitor, lunch lady or librarian. Nor do I have a teaching degree or credentials. In fact, when it comes to how the inner workings of a school are maintained, my knowledge of it stems from reruns of, “Saved by the Bell.” So how could a regular parent like myself relate to some of your feelings? How could I have any clue about the daily struggles you might face? It’s because I am not just a regular parent. I am the proud parent of a child with a disability.

Just like I do not know much about being a teacher, unless you are the parent of a child with disabilities, a special education teacher, have taken special education courses (which most general education teachers are not required to take), or have friends and/or family members you routinely visit who have children with disabilities, then I hope you hear me. I want you to understand me.

For us, there is no summer vacation or spring break where we can just relax and toss our worries and fears aside until school starts back up again. When it comes to parenting there are no vacations and our breaks might consist of taking five sips of coffee instead of chugging down the entire mug in a single gulp! But it doesn’t have to be this way all the time, and you as a teacher can help. Which is why I have compiled a list of ways we can not only help, but also listen, accept and respect each other’s feelings and struggles along the way.

1.  Details.

I need details! When I ask you how my child’s day was at school (my child has limited verbal skills) please don’t tell me, “Good!” Good? What does good mean? Does good mean he spoke and interacted with other children? Does good mean he made it the entire day without a meltdown? Does good mean he got glue on his hands and didn’t react as if it were battery acid? Because my definition of “good” and your definition of “good” are probably not the same. My child communicating with other children without being prompted to do so, isn’t just good, it’s absolutely amazing! My child getting his hands dirty while doing arts and crafts without asking to have his hands washed, or just quitting altogether isn’t just good, its a major accomplishment! My child going eight hours without feeling too overwhelmed and letting the effects of a sensory overload get the better of him isn’t just good, it’s a freakin milestone! “Good” is something a parent like me associates with you getting front row seats at witnessing a major developmental milestone in my child’s life! So I need more than “good.” If my child conquered a life-long fear or achieved something he has worked hard at for years I hope you want to celebrate it, too. But, I can’t celebrate something I know nothing about. This is why I ask. So please, take an extra minute and an extra breath (or two) and elaborate on what made my child’s day so “good.”

 

2.  Believe me.

Please don’t look at me as just another parent when I rattle on about what my child likes and doesn’t like. Because I am not just rattling. I am providing you with insight, tips and experienced tools of the trade that will not only make my child’s day run smoother, but yours, too. I’ve already learned if my child’s clothing gets a little bit wet from rain, food, paint or a water fountain, he will immediately strip them off no matter where he is at or who is around. I have already learned when he starts picking at the skin on his lips it’s a sign he is feeling overwhelmed and anxious and is on the verge of a meltdown. I have already learned he has a higher pain tolerance (which is not an uncommon trait for children with autism), and if he falls down on the playground and actual tears leave his eyes, there is a good chance he may have broken a bone. These are things I tell you because you need to know them. And don’t just listen to me, but believe me. My expertise may not come with college credits, but it comes from experiencing and learning all of these things the hard way so that you don’t have to.

3.  Ask! Ask! Ask!

Call, text, Facebook message, e-mail, Instagram, tweet or send a carrier pigeon. I don’t care, but please ask me for help if you need it. Don’t make it harder on yourself or my child for months about something I may have a solution to. I know it’s hard to ask for help, especially when it involves something you think as a teacher you should be able to solve on your own, but if your regular teaching methods aren’t working or you have tried every trick up your sleeve with no avail, I may be able to help you both. Asking me questions about my child is not a sign of weakness, it is the sign of a great teacher who cares about my child’s education. Just like you, I want my child to learn and grow while he’s at school. Please do not wait until both of you are frustrated with each other. Do not be the least bit hesitant in reaching out to me. It’s about how we can help my son together.

Just like you have a degree in teaching, I have a degree in my child. While my degree may not come rolled up in a scroll tied with a ribbon, it’s held together by a bond with my child I can only trust others will believe. It doesn’t contain a typed out script, its wording can only be said aloud if you take the time to listen. The degree I have in my child cannot be placed in a frame and hung on the wall, but it is on display every single day if you take the time to look. And it wasn’t placed in my hand by a school official, but rather given to me by someone much higher up who believed I would cherish him and nurture him beyond measure. So please trust in me, listen to me and hear me while I share the knowledge of my child with you because he is my greatest accomplishment. I hope by the end of the school year he will be yours, too.

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Target Adds Low-Cost Sensory-Friendly Clothing to Its Kids Line


Target’s line of kids’ clothing Cat and Jack is releasing a limited edition collection of sensory-friendly clothes designed by Stacey Monsen.

Read the full version of Target’s Cat & Jack Line Adds Sensory-Friendly Clothing.

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Target Adds Low-cost Sensory-friendly Clothing to Its Kids Line.

The line was designed in part by Stacey Monsen, a design director whose daughter is on the autism spectrum.

Items in the collection include shirts for girls and boys, and girls’ leggings.

All items feature heat-transferred labels in place of tags and flat seams.

Graphic tees have no embellishments and have one-dimensional designs to reduce irritation.

And leggings are easy to pull on with a higher rise to fit with diapers.

Sizes range from XS to XL and 2T to 5T, with prices from $4.50 To $7.

But before you run to the store, the collection is only available online.

While the collection is limited, target said it plans on adding adaptive clothing for kids with disabilities this fall.

 

“The Target team has immense passion and collective knowledge, and I love that we’re using it to develop products and solutions that will change people’s lives. My goal is to keep being an advocate, for my daughter and for others.” – Stacey Monsen

Woman in the grass wearing headphones.

Realizing My Sensory Issues Have Improved as Someone on the Autism Spectrum


As someone on the autism spectrum, I’ve had (and may always continue to have) sensory issues. The problem has always been present in some way, whether it be trying to find clothing that is comfortable enough to wear, or worrying that the bus passing by will be too loud and painful for me to hear.

Yet, I truly believe that as I’ve gotten older, my sensory issues have gotten a tiny bit better. This, along with increasing my ability to cope with the issues has shown that I’m able to handle a lot more than I used to!

For example, when I was a kid, I couldn’t wear a really popular brand of bathing suit because it was so tight and dug into my shoulders so much (even when it fit properly otherwise) that it bothered me. Not too long ago, I was trying on another one for the summer. It fit pretty well, and my old one was falling apart so I settled. I put it on again later, and noticed it was the same brand I couldn’t wear when I was younger! It was only after I noticed the brand name that I realized it was a little tight, but totally bearable.

The same thing has applied to some foods (I still have a lot of sensory issues, and this area has proven to be much more difficult), as well as things like noises and smells. I’m trying more and more foods that I never would have touched when I was younger, and I don’t always need to plug my ears when I hear a bus passing by. I still have many issues, but I’m dealing with them better and more appropriately the older I get.

My biggest tip is to be patient, and help the person to find these ways to cope. (It’s hard to find the strategies alone.) But don’t force the sensory discomfort! (This may make it too negative of an experience to try again in the future.) Allow the person to slowly experience it on their own. It has taken years, but it is getting better for me!

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Thinkstock photo by Anya Berkut.

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A Day in My Life on the Autism Spectrum


Whenever I divulge my autism diagnosis to someone, it is usually replied with a puzzled look and the person exclaiming, “Really?” At first I was annoyed by it and a little offended, but now I laugh. I laugh because I feel free and I feel like my freedom is used to educate others. I’ve also educated myself on autism. It has helped me become self-aware.

No one has asked me what it is like being on the spectrum. I don’t mind the question and I’m not sure why no one has asked me. Maybe because I talk about it all the time that I already answer the questions. So, I have asked myself “Self, what is it like being on the spectrum, now you know that is what it is?”

For me, being on the spectrum is like being on a computer. I look nice, and presentable, just like any other computer. No one knows I’m any different. It isn’t until you start interacting with me that you notice I’m a bit slower than the other computers. All the other computers can handle several tasks at a fast pace, without freezing. My program takes a while to load, can only handle one task at a time, and if you attempt to make me multitask, I will freeze up, shut down, and will need to be restarted.

I have a few tips on how to avoid a meltdown that work for me. But I am also learning what exactly triggers me and sometimes meltdowns can’t be avoided. So, I will also give you some tips on what helps me calm down from a meltdown.

I should probably explain what a meltdown looks like for me. Just like autism itself, my meltdowns have a spectrum. Sometimes they are subtle and sometimes they are extreme. Usually in a subtle meltdown, I’m aware that I’m in a meltdown and can talk through it. When it is subtle, I just look like I’m in a bad mood. If needed, I can fake a smile but it looks forced. Body language will be off. If it’s too loud, I may cover my ears. A medium meltdown usually has some tears and snot. I’m not a pretty crier so it’s always snotty tears and loud sobs. Often times there will be yelling as well. A major/extreme meltdown, luckily, doesn’t happen often for me. I don’t really want to explain it because it’s embarrassing, but I’m trying to be honest. An extreme meltdown will have screaming, crying, rocking back and forth, and sometimes I end up under the bed or in a closet or something. Let’s not dwell on the bad times!

OK, so to avoid a meltdown, I have a few items on hand.

1. Ear plugs.

Life on the spectrum is loud. I have songs, conversations, and a plethora of other things going on in my head. So, my head is already loud enough as it is. I haven’t figured out why, but I’m also more sensitive to sounds. Environmental sounds are louder to me than they probably are to you. For instance, when I am at the grocery store, the radio is loud and it feels like it’s screaming in my ear, I can hear every single cash register beeping even if I’m across the store, the employees have radios on and talk to each other, people are being paged over the intercom, there’s a screaming child the next aisle over… you get the picture. I get physically exhausted by the time it is over. With ear plugs, I still hear everything but it is so much quieter and I can pay attention to my shopping list.

2. Fidget Tangle.

This toy is way more subtle than those fidget spinners. I use this tool mostly when I’m at church. Sacrament meeting is a quiet and gentle service and sometimes my mind wanders. I have a hard time keeping still and this tool allows me to get my wiggles out without being a distraction. It also helps me think more clearly and stay focused. You can find a fidget tangle here.

3. Walking.

My mind is always filled with thoughts and songs and conversations and I need to “walk it out.” Whenever I get information overload or am in a loud environment, I have to walk around. It helps clear my mind.

4. Say something.

Even if it’s just as simple as “I’m stressed out,” no one will know I need help unless I say something. Sometimes it’s easier to say something to someone I really trust, such as my husband. The reason being because I feel embarrassed by how little of a situation can make such a big complication for me.

5. Reusable grocery bags.

Yes, this silly thing has helped me avoid a meltdown. I cannot stand clutter. I will easily get stressed out and feel guilty after grocery shopping if I come home with a million plastic sacks or paper bags. Reusable bags don’t make that crunchy sound, and they are pretty stiff so I can look directly into the bag. Believe me, this subtle change in my life has become a tremendous miracle.

I’m still working on my list; it’s ever-changing and ever-growing. Some things need to be tweaked. Also, it’s important to note that no matter what tools you have on hand, sometimes the situation placed before you is a bigger issue than any reusable grocery bag can handle! Sometimes I have to face those meltdowns.

Right now I have found that routine is best when it comes to settling down.

1. I notice that the one thing that overwhelms me is clothing, accessories, and hair. I need to change into comfy clothes, take my jewelry out, and put my hair down or at least out of my face.

2. If I have time to shower or take a bath, I will do that. A lot of autistics say water physically hurts them and they can’t stand to take a bath or shower. That idea is totally foreign to me and I have an opposite experience. Water always takes the pain away, helps me focus, and is just nice.

3. Next, I go into a cool, dark room. If I’m at home I lay in bed. I also make sure to have some DoTerra Lavender Essential Oil in my diffuser. This stuff is amazing for a meltdown. I do straight lavender. I’ve noticed that using blends, such as Serenity, are too much of a sensory overload for me; I need to use just one, simple scent.

4. I love to utilize my library’s OverDrive app where I can either listen to audiobooks or read eBooks. Usually I listen to an audiobook when it comes to winding down. I also listen to something simple. Right now my go-to is anything by Janette Oke. Her books are conservative and a little cheesy but I find that simple and conservative help me when I’m dealing with a complicated issue.

5. I know that medication can be a good thing, and I am on it myself, but sometimes I like to go a more natural route sometimes. If I need a little more help to settle down, I use Calm. It is a magnesium supplement drink. It comes in different flavors or you can purchase it unflavored. My mom and I found a variety package at our local health food store so we could try all of the flavors offered. The flavor I like best is Raspberry-Lemon. It almost tastes like Crystal Lite. This drink settles me down and also makes me a bit sleepy.

6. Lastly, it’s important for me to get a lot of rest in recovering from a meltdown. I try to listen to my own body to determine how much rest I need. Sometimes it’s minutes, hours, or days. It can be super annoying, especially if I have things scheduled to do. But I know it is important to listen to my body and what it needs.

Before I was diagnosed, I was extremely embarrassed and ashamed of myself because I became overwhelmed easily and would shut down from the outside world. In the past, I shut out a whole sorority of girls when I was in college because I didn’t know how to handle the social aspect of being part of a sorority and the general drama of being around a huge bunch of girls. I wish I would have known then what I knew now about myself — I wouldn’t have closed off some good friendships I had going for me. However, I now know which signs to look for, and I mostly know how to handle myself before I go into meltdown mode.

Looking back, I wish I could fix mistakes I made, and in true Aspie fashion my mistakes give me anxiety today. But I now know myself, I laugh at myself, I learn from myself, and I try to move on to a bigger, better, brighter future.

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Thinkstock photo by Dragon Images.

10 Tips for Teachers Who Work With Kids on the Autism Spectrum


Little does my 7-year-old son know, but I look upon back-to-school with a lot of anxiety. I talk to him over summer about the upcoming year. I’m trying to prepare us both for the impending change. We go through the dreaded back-to-school shoe shopping (which is an event in itself). I try my best to prepare us emotionally and stock up on school supplies. The backpack is carefully selected. We look ready. But how do I know if the teacher will be ready for him?

As a former middle school teacher and a parent of an autistic child for the past seven years, I have a unique perspective on back-to-school. If I have the opportunity and ability to teach again, these are the things I’d keep in mind going into a new school year with an autistic student in my class:

1. Read those Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and look for kids who need proximity control or cues and prompts. You will want to make your first seating chart works for all of you. Don’t set your classroom up with kids who need extra support from you in the back only to have to move them in a few days. These students are already adjusting to new teachers, new classmates and sometimes even a new school. Changing their seat a few days into school should be avoided if possible.

2. Be understanding and do not take meltdowns or outburst personally. Remind yourself to be patient and that the new routine can cause a lot of anxiety for a student.

3. Teach specific social rules and classroom procedures. Remind all your kids about personal space and taking turns.

4. As school begins, many young autistic kids need their parents to smooth the transition. Gradually decrease this parent involvement to help get students used to coming to class independently. For example, let the parent help them to their seat and organize their items the first couple of days, but then remind the parents to have their child unpack the next day. Then have the parent drop them off at the door the following day.

5. If you ask an autistic child a question and get only a blank stare, try rewording your question and/or give options for answers. Sometimes they just need help and time processing your questions.

 

6. Avoid sarcasm and idioms. This is a reminder to parents, too. The child is likely to take your sarcasm seriously or think you literally want them to cut something if you tell the class to, “cut it out.”

7. Provide the class with a clear daily schedule and remind them of impending changes in the routine. Placing a visual or written schedule on the board is helpful but teachers will still want to remind and warn students when an activity is going to end and when transitions are about to occur.

8. Repeat instructions for students and be concise with directions. Chunk long activities to help kids that have trouble processing multi-step classwork.

9. Avoid overstimulation in the classroom environment and try to provide a quiet space for the student to go to if they become overwhelmed.

10. If students have trouble with group activities and games, gradually increase their involvement in them. Have them watch the other kids at first and then have them participate. If they still resist, try to find out what the student’s interests are and create a game that includes their interests. Cooperative activities and games help kids practice and learn social skills. For instance, my son might balk at the intimidating idea of playing kickball but would be thrilled to play any game that included Legos.

Best wishes to all the teachers and kids during this back-to-school time. It can be truly tough, but keeping these things in mind will definitely smooth the transition and help the students succeed!

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