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Holiday Tips for Special Needs Kids

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With a little behind-the-scenes planning, we can ensure everyone enjoys the holidays.

I recently read an article on this subject, and this was actually one of the suggestions:  Plan for your child’s inevitable melt-down.

Wow. Talk about a downer attitude.

Now I’m all for planning, but here’s what I propose: Plan to have . . .  a great time.

So, here are some suggestions to ensure a wonderful holiday.

1. Role play positive behavior for situations we anticipate may trigger a negative response.

For example, our child can practice simply saying, “No thank you,” if offered food he does not like.

2. Allow our child to wear something that doesn’t skyrocket her sensory issues.

Who cares if Aunt Sue (who we only see once a year) thinks our child’s outfit is inappropriate? Why add more sensory overload by requiring our daughter to wear a cute outfit (that feels horrible to her)?

3. Be prepared to respond to family members who criticize our child and our parenting.

A ready-to-go response for any criticism may be: I’m actually very thankful to have my child in my life. And then, we just smile and walk away.

4. Initiate escape breaks.

We take our child outside to “get something we forgot from the car” or to see (whatever) that’s in the backyard, and so on.  Little breaks from all the party noise prevent sensory overload and help keep our child calm.

5.  Have consistent expectations.

If we know our child is a picky eater–and we don’t require him to try new foods at our own dinner table—then we don’t suddenly demand our son branches out and try new foods (just because Granny made the dish).

6. Strategize where our child sits at the table.

Usually, sitting at an end is a lot better than being squished in the middle. (This spot also makes it easier to get up . . . see next suggestion.)  We also assess the chairs. Will our kids’ feet dangle? If so, we can put something under them. Is there a choice between a chair or a stool? If so, the former provides more support. Are some family members more tolerant than others? If so, that’s who sits closest to our child.

7. Strategize ways to avoid long periods of sitting at the table.

We may ask our child to get up and pass the rolls to family members or to go to the kitchen to get something we (intentionally) forgot to put on the table. Also, there’s no law that says kids have to sit through the entire meal. So why should we make them suffer through endless adult chatter that has no meaning to them?

8. Leave early.

We don’t wait until our child is tired and over-stimulated before we realize it’s time to go.  But not everyone has to leave while the party is still happening. We can take two cars, and already know which parent makes the early exit with our child (and in some cases, that parent may even welcome the chance to cut out early).

No, we can’t anticipate everything that might happen. But here’s a general guideline for any unexpected situation: We vow to keep the bigger picture in mind.

In other words, it’s not relevant whether extended family members “get” why we may be going outside for breaks or leaving early or doing whatever to ensure our child enjoys his time with the family.

We stay focused on doing holidays just like everything else—our actions are dictated by what’s in our child’s best interest. Period.

The irony is . . . such actions then also ensure those critical relatives enjoy the party, too. :-)

Why Kids Avoid Eye Contact

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We may not realize that incomplete lower brain development affects our ability to make and sustain eye contact.

Adults have told kids like a zillion times: “Look at me while I’m talking to you.”  And when they still don’t do this, people assume such kids must be shy, unfocused, disrespectful, defiant, and more.

Or, avoiding eye contact is often part of a subjective list of red flags that support a myriad of diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Yet, there are physiological reasons that explain why kids don’t make eye contact, and those are far more likely to be the reason than any negative spin.

To start, we need good peripheral vision to sustain natural eye contact. Why’s that?

Well, our peripheral vision acts sort of like “anchors.” When we make eye contact with a person, our peripheral vision keeps our eyes relaxed as it takes in what’s to the side of us.  In contrast, if we don’t have good peripheral vision, making eye contact becomes more like staring—and that gets old quickly.

Try it. Put your hands up to the side of your eyes to block your peripheral vision. Now see if it feels comfortable to engage in nice, easy eye contact. How long before you feel your eyes either staring or wanting to drift away?

Our two eyes also need to work together as a team to make good eye contact. Here the eyes converge to see one image (i.e. the face). However, if those two eyes are not in sync, then we see a distorted image. In fact, when kids’ eyes do not team well, they may be seeing multiple faces if forced to look at the speaker. If so, what would all of us naturally do? Look away.

Okay, if that’s so, then why don’t these kids tell people they’re seeing double or triple or more? Well, that might happen if they were actually aware that they “see” differently than everyone else.

But how would they know that? It’s not like we can “borrow” someone else’s brain and eyes for bit to discover that we see differently from the rest. (Note that some kids with poor eye teaming can make eye contact. They do so by slightly tilting their head when they look at the speaker. This allows just one eye to engage with the person, thereby, eliminating the distortion caused by two eyes that don’t team well.)

The truth is . . . we really can’t take any credit if we can make and sustain good eye contact. It’s not like we studied this in school or worked extra hard at home on the weekends.

No, natural peripheral vision and eye teaming are part of natural brain development—and some kids just did not finish this development when they were young.

At Brain Highways, we observe, again and again, that peripheral vision and eye teaming evolve naturally after certain primitive reflexes are integrated and the pons and midbrain develops.

And yes, that’s no different for kids with diagnoses such as autism, reactive detachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s, and ADD.

Interestingly, a brain imaging study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain that reacts to perceived threats—lights up to an abnormal extent when kids with autism gaze at a person’s face.  The researchers concluded that kids with autism shy away from eye contact because they have an over-aroused amygdala.  Such kids, they concluded, see faces as a “threat.”

But guess what? An over-aroused amygdala is also present when the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped. Add to that . . . maybe seeing double or triple or being asked to stare (if there’s not good peripheral vision) is enough, in itself, to trigger the amygdala (especially since so many adults are relentless about requiring eye contact).

So, how about re-thinking our demands for eye contact? For example, if what we really want is for our child to listen to us, we may actually have a better chance of that happening if we don’t require them to look at us. After all, most of us can probably concentrate a whole lot better if we’re not seeing multiple faces or if our eyes aren’t hurting like they do when we stare.

We can also decide to toss any negative interpretations (e.g. he’s being disrespectful) if our child isn’t making eye contact.

In truth, it comes down to this. As adults, we put a lot of energy into requiring eye contact from kids. While I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults say, “Look at me while I’m talking to you,” I’m trying to recall if I’ve ever heard a child say that to anyone. I’m coming up with no examples.

Maybe this is one of those times where kids—and not adults—have a better sense of what’s important and what’s not.

Apps for Autism: Helpful or Not?

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Wonder if Steve Jobs knew the iPad would be a hot topic in the autism community.

Knowing that I work with lots of families with autism, many people were interested in what I thought about the recent 60 Minutes segment, “Apps for Autism.”

That’s because at Brain Highways, we experience again and again how nonverbal kids (including those with autism) do speak and communicate their ideas after they’ve integrated retained primitive reflexes and developed their lower centers of the brain.

How’s that possible? Well, since it takes way, way, more highways to speak than to walk, speech (which takes place in the cortex) is going to be a luxury and inaccessible until the cortex is no longer preoccupied with compensating for underdeveloped lower parts of the brain. However, once that development is complete, the cortex is now “available” and, therefore, can focus on developing speech.

But the 60 Minutes story wasn’t about nonverbal kids learning to speak. Rather, it highlighted how some kids with autism were now able to communicate their thoughts by using an app on an iPad. So people were curious about my reaction to this.

I think many were surprised by my answer.  I thought it was great.

Do I believe everyone would prefer if a child actually spoke his thoughts? Yes.  But not everyone knows about brain organization or is willing to do the work.

So if something, in this case the iPad, proves what we’ve always known at Brain Highways— then it’s a great plus for everyone who interacts with nonverbal kids.  Namely, just because a child cannot articulate his thoughts does not mean that he also doesn’t understand what’s being said. Yet, too often, that’s the assumption

In fact, that’s probably why the people in the segment seemed so surprised by what the kids were showing they knew once they began communicating via the iPad.

In short, I say anything that helps people get past a “disability” and makes it easy for them to see, for example, an incredible child who is full of all kinds of thoughts and ideas . . . then bring it on.

That also includes kids who are in programs organizing their brain. The apps for autism fall under what we call “building into the structure”—where we encourage parents to help kids compensate (in this case communicate their ideas) while they’re building highways.

The 60 Minutes segment also noted it was interesting that kids with autism were so attracted to the easy touch-and-swipe iPad screens. However, this too makes sense when we look at kids with underdeveloped brains.  In such case, there is often a huge disconnect between what they’re thinking they want to do and what their body then actually does.

Yet with the iPad, it’s practically effortless to do just that. So, it’s really not surprising that such kids like using it.

We see the same reaction with our non-electronic “brain toys” at our site.  With very little effort from these kids, such toys produce an immediate really cool visual and/or auditory effect.  So, just like the iPad, kids are very attracted to them.

There was something else to glean from the 60 Minutes segment.  Near the end, they showed a boy who did not seem very enthralled with the app.  The teacher kept trying to redirect him to use the iPad to communicate, but he clearly wasn’t interested—until by mistake, he touched something, and a lion appeared and growled. That seemed to catch his attention and amuse him.

So what to learn from that part of the segment? Well, before we get down to business . . . (in this case: “This is how you will use this app to communicate.”), we need to allow all kids some time to first explore and play with whatever’s new.  Not everything always has to be an instructional moment.

Bottom line: It’s positive when compensations make something easier for kids who are trying to function with a disorganized brain.  But I also want parents to know we can help kids beyond that. We can actually help kids organize their brain so there are now an endless number of possibilities available to them.

And within that same process, such kids will be able to share their thoughts and ideas . . .  even if an iPad or some other compensation is not around.

How Jon Bon Jovi May Inspire Parents

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While The JBJ Soul Kitchen is intended to help people who are hungry, it’s also a model for parents.

Jon Bon Jovi has just opened a “pay-what-you-can” restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey.  But guess what? The premise of The JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant is also a great model for parents.

How’s that? To understand the connection, we first need to learn how The JBJ Soul Kitchen differs from a traditional soup kitchen.

First, the food is gourmet-quality. The JBJ Soul Kitchen’s menu includes savory dishes such as grilled salmon with seasonings, pork chops with fig and apple chutney, mashed sweet potatoes, sautéed greens, and homemade carrot cake. The menu in itself underscores an important premise of the restaurant: Just because someone is homeless or in a need of a meal doesn’t mean that he or she wouldn’t also enjoy delicious, healthy food.

Second, there are no prices on the menu.  Instead, paying customers are encouraged to leave whatever they choose in envelopes left on the tables.  Those without money can bus tables or wait on tables or work in the kitchen. They can even volunteer elsewhere and earn a certificate that’s good for a meal at the restaurant.

That’s because The JBJ Soul Kitchen is based on another general premise: Those on the receiving end are also held accountable for giving something back.

So Bon Jovi is meeting a community need (i.e. feeding hungry people,) but he’s doing so in a way that honors and respects such individuals’ dignity. He does that by giving people options as he also holds them accountable for contributing something to the community.

That’s a great outlook for parents, as well.  We, too, can meet our kids needs in a way that doesn’t come across as pity or condescending or one-sided (where we do all the giving, and they do all the receiving).  Like The JBJ Soul Kitchen, we can present our kids with options for ways to give back to our family. That way, we also create a sense of community in our own homes . . .  where receiving and giving are then considered all part of the same circle.

Getting Rid of Distorted Fears, Part One: Why Kids Have Distorted Fears

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Distorted fears can interfere with daily life.

Some kids express fears that prompt others to go, “Huh? You’re afraid of what???”  That’s because whatever they fear—riding an elevator, going upstairs or to bed alone, being near a dog—is just no big deal to most other people.

So then, how do we end up with a distorted fear in the first place?

They usually originate as a result of underdeveloped lower centers of the brain. In such case, information is not always processed as others receive it.  Not only can such kids register something ordinary as fearful, but such underdevelopment also makes it more likely they’ll then respond with a fight or flight reaction.

However, the fear persists for several other reasons.

For example, suppose a parent immediately comforts a child whenever she reacts to a distorted fear. That child’s brain now registers this response as validating her distorted sense of danger and reaction to it. From a child’s brain’s perspective, there’s now no difference in how a parent responds, for example, to an adverse reaction to clowns (which poses no true threat) than to rattlesnakes (which do represent danger).

It’s also possible that a parent’s subconscious is inadvertently keeping the fear alive.  For example, a parent may feel needed whenever she comforts or rescues her child. In such case, the child will continue to assume the role of someone needing to be rescued.

Distorted fears may additionally persist when family members acquiesce and adjust their actions around the child’s fear. For example, parents may ensure that whatever the child is afraid of isn’t “out” when they visit friends and family.  Or, at the airport, they’ll drag luggage up the escalator since elevators cause the child to have a meltdown.

However, now the child has zero motivation to overcome the fear. Not only does everyone dance around whatever frightens her, but her brain additionally registers a (distorted) sense of power over others and an (unrealistic) expectation that everyone will always be so accommodating.

Last, distorted fears persist when kids don’t trust the person in charge to lead. In other words, it should suffice for a parent to merely say, “You can trust me. It’s completely safe to (fill in the blank).”

Yet, if there’s an underlying distrust, all assurances in the world don’t seem to make a difference.  That’s why separation anxiety is always a distorted fear.  In other words, why would parents ever leave a child somewhere they didn’t believe was safe?

So, it’s important to ask: On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly do I want my child’s fear to be gone?  Anything less than an immediate, forceful “10!” response ensures the fear remains and the process outlined in Part 2 will not be effective.

Occasionally, a child is so invested in keeping the distorted fear that he refuses to participate in the process to eradicate it. That’s good feedback that this child actually perceives it’s more beneficial to keep the fear than to lose it. So, here, the first step is to help the child shift that (in itself) distorted thinking to wanting the fear to go away.

How do we do that? Well, if our child, for example, won’t ride in an elevator, now he stays home any time we’re going somewhere that has an elevator.  If our child is afraid of dogs, now he stays home any time dogs might even be in the vicinity of wherever we are going . . . and so on.

Note that we’re never angry or sad when we leave the child behind. Instead, we just calmly explain to our child that we (the family) are no longer willing to perpetuate a lie (there’s danger when there’s not). We’re also no longer willing to be hostage to distorted thinking by avoiding whatever he’s afraid of, and we’re no longer willing to have our time (wherever) delayed by a meltdown.

But most of all, we remind the child that he chose to not participate in a process to eliminate his fear. So, that means he’s also choosing a life where his fear will continue to affect him in undesirable ways . . .such as being apart from others and not going different places.

The good new is: The child is usually ready to begin the process after being left behind just one time. :-)

However, there’s an important footnote to addressing distorted fears. Some kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain have what’s called gravitational insecurity. That means they actually do not feel connected to the earth.

In such case, fast movement, such as going on slides and swings at the park, is truly terrifying.  (Imagine if we were asked to do that from a high tight-rope.)

So for such kids, fear of movement is real—not distorted—and, therefore, we do not address this with the steps presented in Part 2.  This fear will only go away when the lower centers of the brain develop as intended.

Getting Rid of Distorted Fears, Part Two: Ten Steps to Conquering a Fear

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When we conquer a distorted fear, we also gain a new sense of confidence.

Step 1. We talk about the fear when the child is not frightened.

Once in the fear mode, we don’t process information very well.  That’s why we only talk about the fear whenever our child is feeling safe and unthreatened.

Step 2. We use humor to underscore there’s no real danger.

Suppose a child is afraid to walk upstairs alone. In such case, we might say:  Every time family members walk upstairs, they get beamed up into outer space, right? No? Well, then every time family members walk upstairs, they go bald, right? No? Then what happens if you walk up the stairs alone?

Step 3. We put a positive spin on whatever the child fears.

For example, a child who is deathly afraid of skeletons now learns that her skeleton actually protects her jello-like brain from getting hurt! Who knew?

Step 4.  Our child creates positive intention statements, expressing what he’ll do (differently) when faced with the fear.

Such statements are written and posted around the house, as well as said aloud. Some examples of positive intention statements are:

  • I can hold my mom’s hand in the elevator and then ride it without screaming.
  • I can stand next to a dog without crying.
  • I can stay in my own bed without yelling for my mom.

Note that positive intention statements are not one-size-fits-all, such as, “I’m not afraid of (fill in the blank).”  Rather, they specifically spell out what the child will do differently (than prior times) when now facing the fear.

Step 5. We have dress rehearsals before implementing a new plan of action.

Suppose a child is afraid to go to sleep at night if the closet door is shut.  In such case, the parents and child create the same bedtime scenario—but during the daytime—to practice what the child will now do differently at night.

So in broad daylight, the parent initially assumes the role of the child, and the child just watches “the show.”  For example, one parent puts the child (the other parent) to bed and then shuts the closet door. The parent assuming the child role models how he’s cool with that . . . no yelling, no tears, nada.

Then it is the child’s turn.

Note that dress rehearsals may also include some fantasy. For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, a sibling can be the “dog” during the dress rehearsal. That way, the brain has chances to become familiar with what it’s going to do . . . but without anything that actually triggers the fear.

Step 6. We include something in our new plan that physically helps with anxiety.

We may give our child something, such as a squishy ball to squeeze, when first overcoming/facing a fear.

Step 7. We get rid of the distorted fear in baby steps.

Suppose a child is afraid to ride in elevators. After rehearsing riding in an imaginary elevator at home, our first trip to a real elevator may be nothing more than watching other people get in and out of one. That’s it—and the child knows, up front, that’s the only expectation.

On the second trip, we may now add pushing the outside elevator button, but we still never get in.

On the third trip, we put one foot in the door—and then take it out, and that’s it.

On the fourth trip, we step in so that we’re completely inside the elevator, but then we get out before it leaves, and so on.

Note that we may be able to accomplish more than one or even all of the above steps during the same trip to an elevator (depends on how easily the child does each prior step).

For some situations, our baby steps may focus on increasing the proximity to whatever is feared. For example, if our child is afraid of dogs, we may just first watch a dog from our front window, while we stay inside our house. Next, we may watch a dog down the street, and so on, working our way up to standing next to a dog and eventually petting it.

Step 8. We provide on-going dialogue that reinforces we’re conquering our fear.

As our child completes each baby step, the brain registers: “Hey, I survived!  Whatever I feared was going to happen, did not!”  So, it’s important to point that out.

We also want to thank our child for trusting us and for showing the courage to do something that makes him uncomfortable (but is truly safe). Here, we’re shifting the focus from the original fear to a broader concept  . . . one of creating brain maps that say, “I can do this.”

In contrast, when we keep our distorted fears, we reinforce brain maps that say, “Run! I can’t survive! I can’t trust anyone!”–even if that isn’t true. Throughout life, the former mindset is going to serve us much better than the latter.

Step 9.  We stack the deck.

It never hurts to work behind the scenes to ensure things go smoothly. For example, we can keep our child up way past his bedtime on the night he’s going to stay in his bed all night. We can pick a store with the cutest clothes—that just happen to be on the second floor—when we’re going to ride the elevator.  We can find a dog that has never barked once in its life when we’re going to pet it. :-)

10.  We repeat the positive experience in successive days.

This reinforces that new highways are strengthened and the old highway (i.e. the distorted fear) disappears.

Last, we want to celebrate in a way that appeals to our child—both during the process and when the fear is gone. We do so to honor the child’s willingness to conquer a fear and to rejoice that our child’s life will now move forward more smoothly—and with a lot more joy.

The Upside of Letting Go

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When we’re not so attached to an outcome, we find ourselves smiling a whole lot more.

How many times have we been emotionally invested in an outcome, only to react with fear or anger or frustration when it didn’t turn out as we hoped?

Since we can’t control many of the outcomes in our lives, maybe it’s time to give up being so attached to them.  In such case, we still note what we’d like to happen—but then, we let it go, choosing to view all outcomes as just opportunities to learn and grow.

And guess what? Turns our there are lots of perks when we chose to detach from an outcome.  Here are just a few:

  • We don’t waste time worrying about what might happen.
  • We aren’t disappointed by whatever does or does not come to pass.
  • We don’t place judgment on the experience.
  • We aren’t tempted to cheat (e.g. on a test) since we are no longer fixated on the results.

Seems like a pretty good deal for simply shifting how we think.

Yet letting go is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when it comes to our kids.

For example, we’re often calm and collected when dealing with someone else’s child. But the minute our child does the very same thing, we morph into someone else. Why? Well, we’re very attached to our child’s future.

Yet there’s some irony here. The child we’re not nearly as invested in . . . gets the better side of us. Hmmm . .  maybe that awareness alone can help us lighten up when interacting with our own kids.

We may also have trouble letting go if we think we’re owed an apology. Nothing like feeling we’ve been wronged to justify “holding on” to something.

Yet, again, what does that really get us? I’ve found this quote to be helpful in such situations: “Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.”

Last, I think it’s easier to be detached from an outcome if we remember that other people may also be involved in same situation. That means, by default, not everyone is going to get what he or she wants.

Carol Burnett underscored this kind of thinking when she first started her career. I recently watched an interview of her, and she was sharing how she never became upset or second-guessed her talent if she didn’t get a job after an audition. Instead, she just viewed the actor who got the role as . . . this time, it was the other person’s turn.

So, it comes down to this: Is it serving us (or our kids) well whenever we’re attached to an outcome? If the answer is no, then why not let it go and see what happens.

Since I’ve been doing that, I find that I’m traveling much lighter these days—and enjoying the journey so much more.

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