Toys in the Middle

Toys in the MiddleTransitioning from summer play all by yourself to playing with others at school is tough for our children. A simple way to introduce opportunities for group play is to place toys in the middle, kids on the outside, with children around a common set of toys and facing each other. Whenever a child looks up from play and sees someone, it is a brief social opportunity.  Slowly increase the time you expect a child to play near peers.  Transition them to group play by including a preferred toy in the shared set.  Opportunities for teaching group play: in the sandbox with toys, on the floor with cars and blocks, or at the table with play-dough.

Besides creating opportunities, what else? If you want to sustain play, join in!  Model functional use of the toys by pushing the car or rolling the play-dough.  Add simple language or sound effects.  Enjoy the moment.  If you are not having fun, the child probably isn’t either. I love to tell people that I get paid to play. More info?  Please comment = )

Hooray for School!

We borrowed copies of the CD’s that the teachers play in class and uploaded the tunes to our ipods at the house.  I was able to play “Hooray it’s time for School” every morning when we started back to school so that our son would know where we were going, and be a little more prepared for the routines.  I thought this was really helpful to give him a chance to learn the songs in a variety of settings.

Community Quest

A Teacher pushing a wheelchair I teach a medically fragile class.  The majority of my students are in wheelchairs.  So they don’t get to explore the campus on their own the same way as their peers.  However, it is important that they have many experiences and know where important people are: the school nurse, secretary, and principal.  Also, where important places are such as the office, bathrooms, library, cafeteria, and bus drop off. 


At the beginning of the year I take pictures of people and places that they should know. I do this with my phone so it is quick and easy.  Then we play a game called, ”Community Quest”.  I show them the picture and they have to find it. This can be done in groups with the students taking turns, or individually. My students really enjoy being out of the classroom and on an “adventure”.  They also get to socialize with the people in the pictures when they find them. It is a fun way to make sure they know where to go and who to see when necessary.

Open the Doors, and See all the People

Open the doors, and see all the peopleGot a student who is anxious about the big unknown world of school? Our kids love the advent calendar at Christmas time so we are going to do a modified “Back to School” version. Countdown the days until school starts with small doors that open to pictures of things they will get to do at school. Be sure to include your child’s favorite activities, such as puzzles, tricycles, or building blocks. Other ideas to add in to discuss could be the mode of transportation to school, particularly if your child will be riding the bus, and even a typical meal for their school day. Be sure to include friends pictures if you know they will be attending the same school. By month’s end you should have many fun things they can look forward to doing and seeing on their big day!

Our Hostess with the Mostest

Our hostess with the mostestTo help our daughter with autism get excited about starting another school year we have a big family Back to School Party in which we decorate using tons of pictures taped around the house: of her favorite school events from the year before, school friends, old teacher, new teacher, the school, playground, new classroom, etc. and we encourage our older guests to ask her plenty of questions about them. Also, we play a school supply themed scavenger hunt game and then she gets to play hostess, passing out cake she made. Our family looks forward to this every year as my daughter delights in being the expert and having her support team so actively interested in her school days! 

Summer Snack Strikes Again!

Summer Snack strikes againSnack time has become a fun, interactive learning experience in our classroom. Each week we create a fun snack based on our theme of the month. For example, this week we are making monster faces using sliced bread, bananas, raisins, apples, pretzels, carrots and grapes. (Note: Food choices that would get the SFMandy stamp of approval!) My students learn to follow multiple step directions as well as the ingredients and the use of different cooking utensils.


Another bonus? They love the end product! It’s fun and creates a wonderful social atmosphere. By the end of the week most of the students are able to independently make the snack on their own. Another discovery is that they often end up trying and liking new foods. With their sometimes very limited food repertoire this is another great snack time bonus.

Times Have Changed, but Love Hasn’t

Family photoRaising two children with special needs in the late 1950′s and 1960′s was definitely a challenge. Due to a military career, we relocated often which meant a new environment for Debbie & Susie who were six years apart. Fifty years ago our culture had not acknowledged that these special children would have a functional place in society.  In fact, they were officially referred to with a word that bothered us back then, and thank goodness, has since been banished. To us, they were our children and very loved in our family of six.  Fortunately, they were social and made friends at school and in our neighborhoods. Sometimes by themselves, and, more often, through the support of our other two children and their friends.

There were not special education classes available in every school system. We found that our choice of where to live within a community was determined by evaluating if an appropriate education awareness existed within the school district. We helped form and became active in the only local parent group in Arizona for special needs children. ARC’s goal was to lobby the schools to best serve this growing need. Thankfully, both Debbie & Susie completed high school and went on to work in sheltered workshops. It is amazing how our society has changed over the past 50 years. It is extremely gratifying to see efforts to mainstream these children (and adults) into our everyday culture and consider the importance of all individual’s quality of life. 

Collaboration with his Teacher Worked!

Chart for BehaviorLast year was an unusually stressful school year for my little guy!! There were several things that occurred that added to his usual school stress. Health issues ,which called for many doctors appointments which meant missed school. The passing of a Grandfather. As if life isn’t already stressful enough for a little guy with ASD, all these added transitions. To say that this created a struggle is an understatement! By the time mid year rolled around we were in a tail spin! Nose dive skidding across the tarmac is a great description! My little guy began making negative comments which led to mild self injurious behaviors. We as parents became increasingly concerned. Our little man while still in primary grades, we felt was getting older. As parents we had moved away from visual schedules and token systems. We thought that this wasn’t necessary any longer. What we didn’t realize was that with all these hurdles/transitions our little guy was struggling to know which way was up. After school he became nearly impossible. Simple tasks led to tantrums. After exhausting him and ourselves, we consulted with his teachers and worked toward a solution. He had a chart in place in the classroom that had simple faces that showed different emotions: happy, angry, sad that were being used throughout his day.

The goal, to help him become more aware of his moods and actions. It also served as a daily report card so that I could have an idea of how his day had gone. His teachers suggested that we do a similar chart at home with three tasks on it. “Do your homework” , “Lay out clothes for next day” “Practice piano” with emotional icons at the end of each task. Each day he would bring the chart home from school. I would ask him to complete each task and record the appropriate icon. The next day he would return his chart to the teacher. If he got all smileys his reward was either playing with lego’s or free computer time. It made all the difference in the world! We went from tantrums to “Mom I have to get my things done before bed.” The chart helped him to manage behaviors, emotions and encouraged independence and accountability. The key was giving him structure while rewarding him for independently maintaining appropriate behaviors and emotions. Within a week we saw a significant change in his demeanor. Within two weeks we saw a positive change both at home and school. Sometimes we underestimate the power of a simple chart and the structure that it brings. Three cheers for great teachers and visual charts!


Superman stampI remember a student whose parents had bought him a superman costume when he was three years old. This child had a particularly difficult time with anything new, and getting into a different outfit once at school, was near to impossible. Unfortunately our little superhero did not wear his costume that year, and had a rough time watching the other children in funny outfits, as well as all taking in all the other strange changes to his school day routine.

The next year, his parents with little hope for a different outcome sent the same superman costume for the Halloween parade and activities. This little super hero, with many of the same challenges from last year, had a persistent teacher and speech therapist determined to get a different outcome from last year’s meltdown. Singing one of superman’s favorite songs, the teachers modified the words of the song to reflect the actions of getting into the costume. Smiling and singing along, Superman morphed into a muscle enhanced superhero, complete with a red cape. Although his costume was a little short in the arms and legs, this little superhero couldn’t have been a better treat for his two teacher’s Halloween celebration!

From a Twin’s Perspective

Growing up with a sibling with autism can be challenging and bring up emotions that children don’t yet know how to articulate. A few strategies that helped my family include:

- Communicate and listen frequently: Talking about Autism, and what your child is feeling shouldn’t wait until there’s a problem at hand. Having these conversations and listening intently to the answers during calm times can help everybody feel more comfortable talking about their feelings and being more open to learning.

- Acknowledge the challenges and feelings that having a sibling with autism can bring up: There are many reasons for children with siblings with autism to be upset, ranging from teasing at school to frustration with the family dynamic. By listening to and acknowledging everybody in the family, it’s possible to comfort them in a way that further helps them accept and appreciate their sibling instead of resenting them for being different.

- Find outlets for stress outside of the home: Raising a child with autism can be extremely stressful. Whether it’s yoga, walking, bike riding, arts and crafts, volunteering or anything else, having a stress relieving outlet outside of the home is an easy way to avoid taking stress out on loved ones.

These are just a few techniques that can be used to create a positive environment for the whole family while teaching kids to accept people with differences and their differing needs.