April 2009 Archives

April 30, 2009

Last Day of Autism Awareness Month: In the News and My Son's Progress

This month has been amazing.  Not only have more people been aware of Autism through the news and events, but my son's life has been significantly changed this month in my eyes. 

First, the news.  I have posted many times my assertion that Autism is caused by genetics, and that the genetic link will be established.  Well, as of this week, the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania, along with UCLA, Penn State, and a number of other institutions, reported two papers that has found one specific genetic marker that is common within autistic people, and another paper marking 13 other more rare genetic markers that are also strongly linked with Autism.  I was previously aware of 10, but it seems that another 4 has been added to the mix. 

It's great news, because now perhaps the Autism community can unify and become strong enough to get proper legislation through Congressional Committees.  It also means that genetic therapies may be coming down the pipe sometime in the next few decades. 

Also in the news, celebrities have been spreading their opinions regarding the causes of Autism, and how they feel the community could be best served.  I'm glad they feel so strongly regarding the theories that have been thrown about by people with no medical or neuropsychological backgrounds.  It's a great opportunity to learn and share, perhaps to get them on the side of Science and research instead of anecdotes and unproven therapies. 

But now to the more important detail (for me at least):  My son's progress.  To date he has been reluctant to be verbal, preferring to communicate through looks and by independently working out a solution for himself.  While I'm proud that his brain works so well in the problem-solving area, I would like him to start focusing on speaking. 

Just last night, he was playing with some plastic golf balls.  I wanted me to pull them out for him, so as I did I would hold one up and say "ball".  I then made a song out of the one word while bouncing the ball in the air, to help him connect the word with the object.  Within a few minutes, he said "ball", prompting excitement between my wife, my son, and me. 

Later that night my son decided to undress himself.  This usually means that his pull-up has been soiled, and he needed a change.  But the pull-up was still clean and dry, so I took him to the bathroom and stood him in front of the toilet.  It took a couple of tries, but he used the toilet, shut the lid (a little loudly, but I'll take what I can get), and flushed.  I was so proud!  He is in the process of being potty trained, and I think we may have him trained by the time he starts Kindergarten. 

These are all really huge events in my son's life, both the scientific discoveries being made for Autism, and his progression to mainstreaming within society.  He will always be apart from society at some level, and I'm fully embracing that fact.  He will instead have a different way of approaching ideas and concepts.

So that is the news for the end of the month.  I had hoped that some serious Autism legislation would have come from the US Congress, but it seems those bills are all still in Committee.  It's disappointing, because with the growing need for real action in helping parents manage autism in their lives during this critical time, Congress hasn't acted soon enough.  Well, there are more months in the year, let's see if anything does happen. 

April 28, 2009

Testing Qumana for Mac

I've found myself wanting to find a decent blogging program out there that will allow me to manage the blogs that I currently have and write blog posts offline.  It's helpful in that I am able to provide more review time to my blog posts while also having several pending. 

There are quite a few offline editors for the Mac, though most are paid apps.  Being the good Scot that I am, I like to find those services that are free.  Hence, the reason why I am testing out this particular application.  We will see how it goes. 

Apple Web Tablet/Netbook Rumors

Since the suggestion back in 2000 that Apple would release a tablet like device that would be a PDA, I was excited to see what they had.  After years they released the iPhone and iPod Touch, and I've been very happy with my iPod Touch.  It does everything that I would need a web tablet to do, with a few exceptions.  Part of the problem is the lack of software, part of the problem is the hardware design.So, when I heard that Apple might be releasing something like the iPod Slate (a larger version of the iPod Touch with more hardware accessory features), I got really excited, and started my list.  That was before I actually had an iPod Touch.  Now that I do, my opinions have changed somewhat based on what the iPod Touch can do for me now, and what it will most likely do for me with the new iPhone 3.0 release, and what it still will not allow me to do without the right hardware/software.  
  • Presentations:  As an educator I make a lot of presentations, and need a lightweight platform that will hook up to a projector easily with only one attachment that I need to carry around, and a way to cycle through the slides easily.  I used my PowerBook for this very thing, because it was so small and lightweight.  Currently, only a Netbook can offer me the same flexibility, and it's about the right price too.  The thing is, I want to keep with my Apple platform if I can.  Otherwise I will be switching to Linux on a Netbook, and I'm not too thrilled with clamshell designs.  A tablet PC with a mini-DisplayPort and a dongle that will attach to a VGA or DVI cable to a projector would save a lot of time.  And having it run iWork would be huge.  ^_^ 
  • PDF Reading:  I love Stanza, which allows me to read the text of any PDF easily.  But it doesn't include the images with those PDF's, which can be rather critical.  There are several apps for the iPod Touch and iPhone that will let you read a PDF without any trouble, but with such a small screen I find my self straining my eyes to read the details, or have trouble keeping the blasted thing centered.  A larger screen would do wonders (like a 10 inch diagonal display ^_^). 
  • Writing:  I want a platform that will make it easy to write.  Whether a blog post, tweet, document, book, or homework posts for students, a well designed platform here would be ideal.  The best software I have found for writing books or projects of any size is Scrivener, and something like that on a mobile platform that I can use from anywhere would be ideal.  
  • Connectivity:  If I want to be able to use this anywhere, I want to be able to have a connection anywhere that is decent, both in speed and in price.  Currently the AT&T iPhone plan is too rich for my blood, hence the reason why I got an iPod Touch.  But I would be quite happy with a product that used a 3G or 4G connection (like WiMax) that was portable and the rates were reasonable.  After all, I would prefer to have a network connection over a cell phone, and use my device with VoIP for all phone calls.  It's cheaper for me, and cheaper for my provider.  Plus, I want to not be tethered to any one provider.  Let me take it with me where ever I go to which ever provider offers the best service for the price. 
  •  True VoIP:  Currently the iPhone has VoIP apps for proprietary systems that are free, and several that are paid-for apps.  It's ideal for the iPod Touch when you have a connection, though you can't always leave it on because of battery issues.  For true VoIP to work, it will need to have a connection that is always on, and the VoIP app would need to run in the background while you work on one app or another.   
  • Battery Life:  Because I want to have this device run on a low power mode, but allow apps like a VoIP app or other such apps to work without trouble, the device will need to have some killer battery life.  It shouldn't be hard, because most of these apps are not high-power apps. 
  • File Storage and Transfer:  Currently on the iPod Touch and iPhone, if you write a document in Notes or other app, it can't be moved to another location or off the app.  There are a few exceptions, but I'm not sure I like those exceptions.  I would like to be able to create a document on this device and then move it to another storage location (network, USB storage, even SD card would be fine).  That would make working on the device ideal.   
  • Full Apps:  I would like to have the option to either have full apps available, or make it easier to develop full apps for the device.  The iPhone 3.0 SDK has gone a long way to that goal, and there is a possibility that a full-fledged app like Scrivenr, iWork, or even SecondLife/WOW would be made available for the device.  That would be cool, but not a necessary thing. 
  • Bluetooth Keyboard:  Give me a chance to have a real keyboard tethered to it, and be separate from the device.  No cables to worry about, just a clean wireless connection.  It would let me develop faster and write better than any touch screen keyboard, though having the touch screen keyboard as a backup would be just fine.  
  • Podcast On the Go:  Let me make a podcast on the go, either video or audio.  A built-in version of GarageBand with a video capture program built in would make this a very versatile tool while on the go.  Add a video camera to it for iChat video conferencing and video capture would be a huge plus! 
  • Cloud Computing Ready:  This would be sweet if it were possible, and it should be.  For the device, you would just need to allow for apps to access the cloud easily, which means network connections would need to be reliable.  the iPod Touch does this to a certain extent, but there has been some innovations that would be well served by a tablet format.  
  • XCode:  It would be so sweet to have an XCode SDK available for the device for quick and dirty project development.  It probably wouldn't happen, but it would still be a huge bonus! 
So that is my new list.  A lot of it still exists from the old platform, but many of the old requirements that I had are now satisfied with the iPod Touch.  There are several apps that are available for the iPod Touch that work with the needs I see, but not everything is there.  Those of you who are arguing against such a device may point out that I can accomplish just about everything with an existing Netbook or with a full-fledged laptop.  That's true, I could, but those machines do far more than I will ever want to do while I'm on the go.  I'm not going to develop movies on the thing, I'm not going to be running any complex server apps or anything like that.  I just have a very specific list of needs that I would like to have met with a device that can do it, be small enough to fit in a pocket or small bag, and let me work while I'm on the bus or train.  Netbooks can do some of what I have described, but unless it's running Linux I don't trust the operating system or the tools running on it.  I want something that will not crash on me while I'm writing, surfing, or recording audio.  That leaves Windows out.  Yes, I have had problems with Windows XP, and Vista doesn't install on any Netbook that I am aware of (not that I would use it anyway).  I don't know about Windows 7's capabilities as it is still in Beta stage, and as such will keep it out of the equation.  Linux can do it quite easily, and it's just as reliable as Mac OS X.  The problem with Linux is a personal one:  I don't like to spend a lot of time compiling to get things to work.  I lose interest in it after a few days of trial and error, fighting with poorly written documentation, and finally giving up and dealing without that one crucial app that I needed.  I would put up with it when Windows was my only other option, but not when I can have it on the Mac and have it just work.  But now, it comes to the crucial question:  Will the thing actually sell?  That depends on two additional questions, does it do what you need, and is the price right?  In answer to the first:  I think so, because there are a lot of people who are looking for replacements for their laptops that don't need anything overly powerful.  I wouldn't replace a laptop if I needed anything like virtual machines to test development code or compose video through Final Cut Pro or Adobe Producer, but I will for the tasks I need to accomplish above.  You would see something like this take off in Education specifically, and almost saturate that market right off the bat.  With the few exceptions in Engineering and whatnot where a full-powered machine would be needed, it could quickly become the del-facto platform for taking notes, writing papers, submitting them online or through a classroom share, all without any paper being distributed.  Add a USB port and you can hook up a USB Printer and print it out if needed.  Healthcare would be another ideal location for this device, particularly if a centralized healthcare record network is created.  Healthcare providers could walk around with a similar device like a clipboard without having to worry about a clamshell design needing to be sat down before you can use it.  In answer to the second question:  It needs to be priced near the Netbook line to be reasonable.  I'm placing a reasonable price range between $300 and $600.  Anything more, and you would want to pay for a laptop anyway.  Previously I put the price tag at around $800.00, but at that price now I would skip it and go for a laptop.  Remember, add to that the cost of a wireless carrier and it becomes a pricey proposition.  At the $300.00 to $600.00 range, one can get a decent price, and possibly even get a subsidy from carrier X to use their network.  Anyway, that is what I would like to see if it were going to happen.  It would completely replace my need for a laptop while traveling, and allow me to do my real powerful and processor-intensive work on my desktop at home, or in a cloud computing environment as the technology begins to mature.

Autism Legislation Lost In Committee on the Hill

In case you haven't heard, this month is National Autism Awareness Month, and as such our elected officials on Capitol Hill have been diligent in expressing their desire to support those families who deal with Autism on a daily basis.  Autism was even given some face time during the 2008 Presidential elections.  President Obama even set aside a portion of his recommended budget for extended Autism research.  You would think it would be a high priority.  But it seems to have lost it's shine in Congress.  Perhaps it's because there are more pressing issues to deal with.  I will concede that while Autism can bankrupt a family with current support and educational methods, having all families bankrupt would be a worse scenario.Perhaps it is because Autism was a champion cry of on political party during the 2008 election, which ended up being the losing party.  I can't honestly accept that as a reason as those bills currently in Committee are spit evenly between both parties.  Partisan politics may be a problem in other areas of legislation, but not where Autism is concerned.Perhaps it is because the Autism community itself is divided.  Ah, there in lies the insidious truth.  Currently there are several schools of thought regarding the causes and treatment of Autism, with a lot of people coming up with some pretty wild ideas that have seen some anecdotal positive responses with little research to support the theories.  Because of this division in the community it is difficult to find a unified voice to get anything accomplished.  As such, we are easily conquered as a community by other more organized groups and concerns.  So what can we as a community do in order to unify?  Stop fighting amongst ourselves as our children grow up within a condition that can be worked through with basic services that are cost effective, reliable, and empowering for the family.  Instead we need to work with our legislators to come up with cost effective methods of providing the tools necessary to help our children.  I've posted before what I think would be ideal:  Resources provided by existing organizations supporting Autism students that are readily available for parents to utilize.  Parents will then be able to better support their children at home with the right tools and knowing what to do.  But it would need to be broken down in this method: 
  1. Provide an evaluation for the student, to determine what modules will be best to assist the student. 
  2. Provide modules that are flexible and independent of each other, which parents can use.  This includes instructions on how to teach, what to look for in success, and how to judge/evaluate success.
  3. Provide a central communication hub, either through phone, letters, email, or online forums, that will allow parents to share experiences in a confidential manner with those professionals, and get additional assistance or recommendations when needed.  
  4. Continue the process at regular intervals, to be best evaluated by the professionals.  
This method would be cost effective because the parents or caregivers of the children become the actual one on one instructors that autistic children need while still being in contact with a professional that can evaluate and maintain several parental groups in a given session.  They still work, no one loses their jobs, and more autistic children are getting the help they need.  It can also be close to real time with the use of various communication tools and social networking environments that currently exist.  Currently there are eight bills in the House and Senate that are related to Autism, some are more comprehensive than others, some more cost effective than others.  None that I have read so far seem to touch on the actual method of educating autistic children.  Instead it seems that the programs are designed to give the resources to the community, and let the community continue in their current method of pocket-support.  Hmm..  Perhaps it's time to contact the Secretary of Education and propose this plan to him, just to see where it would go.  Anyway, for a list of Autism Legislation currently in Congress and links to their status on GovTrack.us, they are below.  Let's hope they get out of committee soon, so that Congress can claim they did something during Autism Awareness Month rather than sit on their backsides.
BillStatusLast Action
H.R. 1878: Global Autism Assistance Act of 2009IntroducedApr 2, 2009
S. 819: Autism Treatment Acceleration Act of 2009IntroducedApr 2, 2009
H.R. 1707: Helping HANDS for Autism Act of 2009IntroducedMar 25, 2009
S. 706: Helping HANDS for Autism Act of 2009IntroducedMar 25, 2009
H.Con.Res. 96: Recognizing the importance of autism awareness, supporting efforts to increase funding for research into the causes and treatment of autism and to improve training and support for individuals with autism and those who care for individuals with autism.IntroducedApr 2, 2009
H.R. 1600: To amend title 10, United States Code, to provide for the treatment of autism under TRICARE.IntroducedMar 18, 2009
H.Res. 349: Expressing support for designation of April 2009 as "National Autism Awareness Month" and supporting efforts to devote new resources to research into the causes and treatment of autism and to improve training and support for individuals with autism and those who care for individuals with autism.IntroducedApr 21, 2009
H.R. 2051: To amend title 10, United States Code, to authorize extended benefits for certain autistic dependents of certain retirees.IntroducedApr 22, 2009

Youth Program Still Looking for Dark Basic Programming Instructor

The University of Utah's Youth program is looking for an instructor for Dark Basic programming.  The class is for students between the ages of 13 and 17, all in the afternoon. The details are here: 

Video Game Programming I with Dark Basic (Age 13-17)

If you’ve always wanted to create your own video games and never knew how, this class is for you, even if you’ve never programmed before! DarkBasic is an introductory-level computer programming language that focuses on basic concepts and 2D games. Learn the fundamentals of computer programming, such as bitmaps, sprites, input devices, sound effects, music, and movies. Course cost includes a DarkBasic book with a CD-ROM trial version of the language compiler.

YETEC 115-001 • MTWThF, Jul 27-31 • 1:00-4:00 PMLOCATION: Annex 2169, Campus • SLC 

 

YETEC 115-002 • MTWThF, Aug 3-7 • 1:00-4:00 PMLOCATION: Annex 2169, Campus • SLC  

Video Game Programming II with Dark Basic (Age 13-17)

Expand your video game programming skills. This advanced class will focus more on game planning, code management, and 3D games. Learn the more challenging aspects of programming and use your imagination to create a variety of fantastic games.

 

YETEC 116-001 • MTWThF, Aug 10-14 • 1:00-4:00 PMLOCATION: Annex 2169, Campus • SLC

If you have any interest at all, or know of anyone that would be interested and needs a little extra cash, please contact Claire Turner: cturner at aoce dot utah dot edu.  Thanks!

April 27, 2009

Personal Life Lessons: Being Too Sensitive About Autism

A few posts back I made a comment about a great experience that my son had in his Church class, and also mentioned the concern I had about a mother who wanted to pull her son out of my son's class.  The reason that my wife and I had heard was that my son was autistic, and took too much attention away from the other children for her son to get the adequate attention he needed.  It was then surmised that she just preferred to have her son in another class, and was using my son's autism as the excuse.  That idea bothered me, and so I mentioned it slightly in that last post.  Both my wife and I took offense, though it did not effect our religious worship in any way.  I, as with most parents of autistic children, was very sensitive to any suggestion that my son was anything  but a normal child.But, in spite of the fact that I had not used any names and kept the post confidential, the mother of this child found it and realized how we had interpreted her request to move her child out of the classroom.  What happened next shook me to the core:  She apologized and explained why she was moving her son.  The reasons behind the move are not relevant to this discussion, and are personal to the parent, so they will be omitted.  But the fact that she was willing to apologize surprised me, as I found this out of character of the person I had decided she was because of the initial request.  Instead I had judged the mother rather harshly, and completely wrongly.  I had to quickly apologize for the wrong I had done her in the assumptions I had made, and offered a way to help solve the situation she was looking to accomplish with the move of her son.  This experience got me thinking about whether or not I, and others in the Autism community, are too sensitive to the events surrounding our child.  With a disability like autism where little is known about the cause and treatment, parents go though several levels of dealing with the news.  I had hoped that I was at the acceptance level, but I still get very defensive when any suggestion of a failure to parent correctly is whispered from a restaurant booth or table.  When people are afraid of my son, say things like, "he doesn't LOOK like he's autistic", and other comments about his being different, I get angry and defensive.  So, obviously, I am not quite at acceptance.  But this mother has helped me realize that, and realize that I need to change.  From this experience, I learned the following lessons: 
  1. It's easy to misunderstand:  Because we don't know what goes on in someone else's head, we try to fill in the blank.  Often times, and it seems more often than not in our current society, we tend to fill in the worst possible scenario.  So instead of giving someone else the benefit of the doubt, we tend to jump from our assumptions to rather rash conclusions.  I did this to the discredit of the young mother with whom I should have been more understanding.  
  2. Only you can take offense:  It's interesting that we say "I was offended by that", and "I took offense at that" in English, when it's so true.  Offense is one-sided.  One can only take offense, whether or not the other body is intending the offense. I look at my own situation with this young mother, and I took offense at a perceived slight that was based on an action that was unexplained.  It was not related in any way to the offense I took, and yet I was perfectly willing to do so.  That is a huge failure on my part, and one that I have vowed to correct.  
  3. Forgiveness is Divine:  It's been said before, and it is so true.  Offering forgiveness, and asking for it in return, is truly what separates mankind from the animals.  To be too proud to offer an apology, or to be too proud to accept it, is perhaps one of the biggest failures in our modern civilization to date.  No one likes to admit that they were wrong, but to assume you are right on every issue is folly in itself.  Again, in this case, I was grateful that she was willing to apologize, and to accept my apology.  But I have also looked back at other slights that I have taken offense to, whether real or imagined, and realized that it's my failure to both apologize and to accept apologies that has been the problem.  It's something that I need to work on as well. 
  4. No matter what you do, you can't hide your anger:  This I learned, because even though this young mother didn't follow my blog at all and had no idea that I posted my assumption, she found it.  It took a while to get to her through several others, but in the end she found it.  Even though I didn't add any names, identify any classrooms, or anything like that, she was still able to find it.  So no, you can't hide what you put on the Internet.  In this case, I'm glad it was not hidden as now we have been able to mend some fences and I learned some great lessons.
And so, because of this experience, I hope to have a more uplifting focus on my blog regarding autism in general.  Venting may be therapeutic, but it has no place in the public forum.  I hope that others will also learn from this experience, as taking offense at anything is often a waste of time and energy.  While you don't have to live with all that insensitive people throw at you, you do have the right to forgive and forget, while removing yourself and your family from the situation.

April 24, 2009

Teaching Writing Skills

My son is currently trying to learn how to write his name.  He is excited about this, because I have been trying to help him write his name since he was 2, and now he has the chance to show his teachers what he can do.There are two things to keep in mind when teaching an autistic children:  
  1. Autistic children need to have the steps broken down for them.
  2. Autistic children need to have both auditory and visual stimulation to keep their attention.
For the steps, this may seem easier than it really is.  For writing, you need to include “Touch the paper” as the first step, then down for a line, up for a line, over for a horizontal line, and so forth.  It can be pretty involved, but it’s the same steps that you should be using for any pre-schooler.  The result is a step by step instruction manual for writing the alphabet.  For auditory and visual stimulation, just saying the letter as it’s written has worked for my son.  His preschool will say the steps as they write, but I would rather he identify the letter with the visual queue.  For me, it just makes more sense.  Of course a really neat tool that could be used to teach children how to write with their fingers would be, say, an iPhone app that would give you a letter to write, tell you the steps as the letter is written in front of you, and let you trace your finger as it writes.  This would be a huge SCORM module for the iPhone (if the iPhone supported Flash of course), and could help teachers evaluate preschoolers in general.  Hm.  Something to work on, I suppose.  ^_^For now, I find using a whiteboard easel (available at IKEA) works for my son, as he can write his name and then draw other things on it.  We have also used a Magna-Doodle, crayons and paper, and finally sidewalk chalk.  The medium doesn’t matter, it’s the motion and the sound that helps the autistic child learn.So now while he’s able to write some letters, I want to help him understand that they are related and have specific sounds.  This is going to be really hard, because sounding out letters is primarily auditory.  Perhaps if I add some finger gestures with each sound…  I’ll post what I find.  So for those of you with autistic preschoolers and were wondering how to reach them with writing, give the above a try.  A huge thanks to my son’s preschool teachers for their help and insight!

April 23, 2009

Secure Login for Apple WebMail

This week I have been teaching my Mac OS X Server Essentials v10.5, and a question came up:  What is the use of having security on the directory if you have a clear text login to webmail?  It's a good question as I have been pointing out default security policies of other services that use clear text passwords, and I have warned against using them.  In this case, the default setting is in SquirrelMail, the webmail service used by Apple's Mac OS X Server when accessing your email.  This setting sets the authentication method to "login", which is an insecure method.  The workbook process during the class has you secure the connection with SSL to protect against harvesting, but there is another way:  change the authentication method.  This isn't in the workbook, and so I'm posting this for the benefit of those that wish to have this information.  SquirrelMail can use other authentication methods, such as CRAM-MD5 and Digest-MD5.  But to set it up, you need to get into the command line.   I know, it's a little scary for those using the Mac, but it shows you just how powerful the Mac platform can be when you start looking under the hood at the UNIX core.  ^_^The Steps:
  1. Open your Terminal
  2. Type "sudo /usr/share/squirrelmail/config/conf.pl"
  3. Select the Server Settings (number 2)
  4. Select the Authentication Method (number 6)
  5. Allow it to check your system for available authentication methods (y)
  6. Type the desired authentication method (cram-md5)
  7. Save your configuration (S - and requires root access, which is why we sudoed the command to begin with).
  8. Quit (Q)
And that's it!  SquirrelMail will now start using CRAM-MD5 as an authentication method for your webmail.  You can now disable your less secure methods and feel comfortable that you have a least one more level of security to protect your user's email, and your user's directory login information.Other things you can do:  
  1. Set up SSL for your webmail connection to protect the connection itself.  
  2. Set up a realm to access to login page.
Either of these methods will add another level of security to your webmail access.

Migration Failure: Blog is Back Up

Obviously, because you can read this, you know that my blog is back in service.  I tried migrating the blog to another host, and the old saying, "you get what you pay for" rung true.  The free host site, Hostrator.com, is completely down, taking my new blog location with it.  So, I'm back with Dreamhost, humble and repentant, and I was able to talk my wife into letting me renew my services with them.  So, everything will be working as normal, and for those of you waiting for new posts, their will be another couple coming today (I've been saving up ^_^).  I have one for Autism Awareness Month, and one for Apple WebMail management.  Until then, let me just say how nice it is to be back.  ^_^

April 14, 2009

Breakthrough: My Son and his Church Class

On Sunday a very special thing happened in my son's primary class at church.  To date most of the other children have been either indifferent to my son, or have outright feared him.  One parent in particular seems to be rather fearful of him, or is at least using him as an excuse to have her son moved to another class.  During his class, one young lady's hand was touched by my son, and she immediately freaked out and told my wife, who is also their teacher.  My wife, frustrated by the treatment of my son's condition by the previously mentioned parent, decided to huddle the children together and explain autism to them.She did it in a way that I could not, as I tend to be verbose and in depth when I explain autism.  She identified my son's behaviors and lack of speech, asking the children if they have noticed these things.  They each said yes, and she explained that he was unable to speak, and uses touch and face contact as a way to communicate.  She then sent the children out into the hall with the other teacher in pairs, and a little boy grabbed my son's hand.  My son smiled at him, grabbed his hand back, and the little boy was excited!  He declared that he had made a friend, and was happy for the rest of the day.  The children are all four years old, so their understanding is limited to their four years of life experience and what their parents have told them.  The exciting thing is that they now get it, they understand that my son is not being bad, he is not trying to be disruptive.  He is just trying to communicate with a world that is different than his own.  If only the parents of these children were in that situation, and were as willing to accept my son for who he is.  What a message for Easter, a time of renewal, Spring, and a focus on those things that bring us closer to each other after the cold separation of Winter.  For me, this was the most memorable Easter I have ever had.

April 8, 2009

Autism and Violence: Understanding Autism In the Midst of Media Reports

Lately there have been a lot of news articles about violence and autistic children and violence, and a lot of parents concerned for their children when an autistic child is around them.  As a parent of an autistic child, I have had some of these concerns brought to my attention with little reason other than the news media hype.  So, as I have explained to other parents about my child, I think it's a good time to make it public.  Understanding AutismAutism is, as I have posted before, a genetic predisposition for increased brain size.  There are currently 10 suspected genes, with six of them being identified, that can each individually cause autism, and the effect is accumulative if more than one gene is predisposed.  These genes cause swelling and enlarged brain gray matter, which increase the processing of data in the brain to an overwhelming point, causing meltdowns.  For instance the data that is read from looking at one's face is so intense that many autistic children cannot look anyone in the eye.  Because of this condition, autistic children are slow to develop social skills.  They don't like to play with other children, they don't want to be bothered with other people.  They are intensely focused on their task and if interrupted, they get angry.  They also do not process auditory responses or body language separately as do "normal" children, but need a combination of both in order to understand.  Hence, just waving your finger silently will be ignored, or calling out the child's name alone will be ignored.  Sarcasm, anger, jokes..  these things are generally lost on autistic children because they don't understand the subtle, non-verbal hints that identify these subtle social situations.  This is the basis of what autism really is.  With this foundation of understanding, perhaps you can better understand the social situations that occur around autistic children.  Autism and ViolenceAutistic children are not any more predisposed to violence than any other child.  Period.  They can get angry, hurt, frustrated, and feel hated just like any other child.  They also are more prone to getting frustrated and angry if they are forced into social situations that interrupt their current task.  But that doesn't make them more prone to violence.  As a matter of fact, they are more likely to do injury to themselves than to other people.  So why are reports of autistic children and young adults engaged in violence more prominent in the news?  Because autism is scary.  We don't know what causes it directly, we don't know how each autistic child will react in a social situation, because every autistic child is different.  But keep in mind that there are plenty of reports of violence among young children that are not autistic.  It's just not news because they are normal children.  What's interesting is that no one has crunched the numbers to see, statistically, whether or not autistic children are more prone to being bullies than normal children.  My guess is that if someone actually did crunch the numbers, they would either find little evidence to prove that autistic children are any more of a danger than normal children in any given social situation.  Autism and FearSo why do we have this conversation?  Why are school boards around the country being threatened by parents of "normal" children to take autistic children out of schools?  Because parents are scared.  Idiots and fear-mongers have whipped up myths about autism in order to profit by it, and as such parents want to justify their actions out of fear.  But instead of wanting to learn more about autism and children with autism, they prefer to label them as they would a thing, and dehumanize them in comparison to their children.  I recall a made-for-TV movie with George C. Scott and Judith Light called "The Ryan White Story", about a young hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from a transfusion.  The young boy was kicked out of school because of the perceived danger to other children, and when he was allowed back into school because of a lawsuit he was forced to be segregated.  All because parents were panicking, afraid of the then misunderstood disease.  It is now happening all over again with autistic children.  What To Do As a Teacher, Parent, or CaregiverSo what do we do if we find behavior that is not appropriate?  It does need to be addressed, and yes, autistic children CAN learn new behaviors.  Autistic children are not stupid.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  You just need to address them with both a physical motion (not hitting or restraining, please!  We are not in the Middle Ages), and a verbal command.  Often times simply placing a hand on the shoulder or arm can get their attention if they are not in the middle of a meltdown.  If they are, you may just need to wait until the child looks at you.  Also, do not use subtle body language.  You need to be as direct as possible.  They will not understand the "silent treatment", being shunned, or being sat in a corner.  Be clear, be authoritative, and be firm.  Do not yell, do not be threatening, and do not try to restrain the child.  Treat them as you would any other child, but without the subtle comments, sarcasm, cutting remarks, or other methods of "humbling" children.  They will either not be noticed, or do more damage than you can imagine.Something else that would be of great benefit for children around the autistic child is education.  Have an autism specialist visit the class and explain autism to the entire class.  Help them understand what their peer is going through, what they mean by their comments and actions, and how best to address them.  Education is generally the best method for all concerned.  If parents are concerned, have a special parent student meeting to help them understand the science behind autism.  Let them know that autistic children are just like all other children, they just process information differently.  They still have feelings like other children, they think, laugh, love, hate, envy, and live like other children, just in a different world.

April 7, 2009

Gardening Update: First seeds planted

I've been a little late in posting this, because of storms and other things that have come up over the past couple of weeks.  About mid March we had some really warm weather, and I thought it would be a good time to start planting.  I also knew that at least one more snow storm was on it's way, so I didn't want to plant everything.  So, I planted my cold weather plants.  I started with my Detroit Red beets, which are a good general beet for pickling and baking.  I love pickled beets, particularly if they are sweet beets, so I got quite a few.  They are also heirloom (though not packaged as such), so I can collect the seeds next year and replant them.  I planted about three to four short rows of these.  Next I planted some watermelon radish seeds that my Parents had, just for some variety.  They are a white radish with a red center.  I planted about three rows of these, though to date my cat has dug up almost one whole row.  Stupid cat.The next group of plants were my Golden Beets.  Another heirloom variety, these beets do not bleed as the red ones do and are extremely sweet, so they are good for baby food.  I planted three rows of these.  Following those I planted five rows of an heirloom beet that escapes my memory, but has concentric alternating circles of red and white going through the body.  I thought they would be interesting pickled, and provide some variety with the other two beets. I then had my father plant some icicle radishes, a long white radish.  Next to that I planted some regular carrots that my mother picked up.  These were special, in that they were the VeggieTales carrots, which show my nephews absolutely adore.  Finally I had two very long rows to plant, so I planted some head lettuce and some leaf lettuce.  I'm not usually a lettuce eater, because I'm not too fond of iceberg lettuce (it's absolutely tasteless in my opinion), and I don't trust lettuce in a plastic bag.  The lettuce always seems to go bad very quickly, along with just about every other plant in a plastic container.  Nope, it's just better to grow your own.  And finally, I planted some heirloom lemon cucumber seeds in a small spot at the top of the little garden.  These look like tiny melons, but taste like cucumbers, and should look really cool floating in a nice, large pickle jar.It's also a good thing I restrained myself from planting the corn I have waiting, and the pumpkins.  I wanted to wait until the danger of a frost was over, which will be sometime this month.  Also, I would have planted my Bloody Butcher dent corn (really good for parched corn) near my Strawberry Popcorn, which would have been disastrous.  As it stands I'm going to have to plant the popcorn at my in-laws house to protect the seeds and have a good crop.  The pumpkins I'm not too worried about, as they will have a physical barrier.  But that barrier only goes up to 4 feet, which means the corn could try to cross-pollinate.  Not a good thing for two heirloom varieties, both of which are very useful for long-term storage.  At any rate, I'm really excited for this year's growing season.  I already have a list of plants I want to get for next year, and I'm in the process of finding locations for them as this year's experiments take shape.

April 3, 2009

Senate Bill 219 Autism Treatment Acceleration Act of 2009 Submitted to Committee

Yesterday, April 2nd, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Autism Treatment Acceleration Act of 2009, which has been since submitted to Committee.  The wording of the bill is not yet available, so I'm not sure what the bill is aimed to do, other than the short name for it, which is:A bill to provide for enhanced treatment, support, services, and research for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and their families.I can only hope that it is similar to House Resolution 1707 submitted by Representative Granger (R-TX) to the house, which provides help for families who live with autism, and those with autism.  But this is a really good time to talk about what autism legislation should look like.  Autism is not a disease, but rather a condition in which those with autism learn differently.  They have a different method of processing stimuli, and as such need specific teaching methods to help them learn vital life skills.  Some have a more pronounced condition than others, and as such may or may not be able to learn those basic skill sets even with specific training.  The bottom line is:  no two autistic children are the same.  So what should legislation look like?  Well, there are two ways to go about Autism treatment.
  1.  Take the children away from the family and raise them by a team of specially trained teachers, therapists, and doctors that have the "magic powers" to do the job parents are not able to accomplish.  This was the mentality in the 50's to the 70's, and led to a lot of very dysfunctional families and autistic children.  It was also accompanied by electric shock therapy, physical restraints, and various other techniques that were popular during the Spanish Inquisition.  
  2. Teach the parents what to do, and have them perform the therapy in a loving, safe environment.  For those that don't have the option of spending all day with their child, provide the same training to the child's caregiver.  
I'm sure by the tone of each point that you know of which I am in favor, but let me tell you why:Autism is growing as a diagnosis, and that means there are more children out there that will need help.  Many parents who have one child with autism most likely will have another child with autism, so we are looking at whole families that need help.Autism therapies and schools are very, very expensive.  Health Insurance companies feel that they shouldn't have to pay for autism as a diagnosis, because it is somehow not a health condition.  It is very prohibitive for families to pay for this treatment in most cases, because the cost of treatment can exceed a single parent's annual income.  That is even more true in this time of economic trouble.  At the same token, because of the growing number of autism diagnoses, it becomes prohibitively expensive on Government of any size to provide full coverage where insurance companies will not.  The cost of staff alone for individual education for each child with autism becomes excessive.  Yet these citizens of our country need help, and they need that help as soon as they can.  How can it work and still be fiscally responsible? Personally, I think the answer is obvious:  Train the parents and care-givers, and provide them with the tools to help their children.  There are a number of benefits to this:
  1. Parents of autistic children generally have a vested interest in their success.
  2. Parents and care-givers can continue the techniques and training 24-7, or at least during all waking hours.  ^_^
  3. A mobilized, well-trained workforce with a personal vested interest is like a well-oiled machine:  it will just keep going with little maintenance.  
  4. The cost of a single, small training facility for parents and care-givers is far smaller than building several autistic children's developmental centers, and require less staffing in general.  
  5. Support and help can come from the community built around the classes and supplemental online portals.  This also makes it convenient to deploy learning materials.  
  6. Parents will have the ability and freedom to quickly adapt the training methods to fit their child's specific needs, without having to change methods for another autistic child in class.  
  7. Parents are smart individuals, and giving them real concrete methods to help their children is better than setting them loose on the internet or be at the whims of any idiot celebrity that has more money than brains.  Knowing what to do and how to do it will relieve the fear and anxiety that parents of autistic children experience.  
Now, there will be some possible problems, such as dead-beat parents that don't want to help their children.  But we already have a system in place to deal with such parents, and help those children.  Another nice thing about this program is that parents and care-givers will not be "milking" the system, as the only real benefit they have is getting to take a class for free that teaches them teaching methods.  They don't get voucher money that could be used for other purposes, they don't get free stuff that they would turn around and sell later, just knowledge that would empower them as individuals and families.  Of course, there may be some other holes in the system that I could be missing.  Feel free to mention any to me, because if we do get legislation that helps in this method, I want to be sure that it is done right!  Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading what Senator Durbin has proposed.  Hopefully it will be something that is fiscally responsible for all concerned while providing real, tangible benefit for families with autistic children.

April 2, 2009

Parents, Children, Autism: Education or Obsession?

I've been posting a lot of articles about autism lately, almost exclusively.  Autism is a huge part of my life because of my son.  I spend a lot of time trying to work out ways to better his position, plan his future, and prepare for the eventualities that come with a child with special needs.  Of course, as I go through the research and study, discussions and learning theories, I begin to wonder whether or not I'm allowing autism to consume my entire life.  Am I?This is a discussion that is primarily for my own sanity, but I thought I would share for all those parents, friends, family members, etc. that see autism in your personal world and wonder how it impacts that world.  Every day I live with autism and the results of a son who has difficulty communicating.  Actively, I'm trying to help him learn to communicate as best he can.  I try to work on his writing skills, spelling, and written vocabulary, and soon I'll be trying to help him with typing and playing an instrument.  Ultimately, I want to have a son that is well able to express himself without assistance of other people, either through an assistive application on a personal, portable device or ideally through his own speech.  Passively, I'm accepting the situation for what it is:  my son, whom I love very much, needs special attention.  Regardless of what I do actively, this fact does not change.  I could try to ignore it, but it does no good for my son.  I could try to beat him into submission, but that does not work for autistic children, who are unable to recognize anger, frustration, or other social indicators.  Recently, I read an article by a grandparent to an advice column, concerned that her grandchild was taking over the family.  The article then had a nice long discussion on behavior modification and better discipline within the home, but had no advice on how to accomplish these goals for a parent with an autistic child.  Instead it made the autistic child the villain, willfully controlling his parent's lives.  Now, I don't know the full details of the family life the article was referring to, and I doubt either the grandparent or the advice columnist do either, and so I won't comment on their situation or their ideas of discipline.  But it did awaken a sense of anger in me.  If your child is autistic, your life is going to seem very different than from other parents.  Where cousins will start talking, your child does not.  Where other parents start to complain about their child's talking back to them, telling them no, yelling, and such, all you can do is nod and feel a little hurt that your child doesn't speak to you.  You want to do anything you can for your child, and so you spend a lot of time doing research, helping with therapy, etc.  You feel as though you are in a race against time, trying to get your child caught up as quickly as possible to other children for their benefit.  You don't want them to grow up being teased, bullied, and shunned because of who they are.  You want them to have an equal opportunity in this world.So is that obsessing over autism?  Perhaps, but do you obsess over your children?  Do you want them to be as educated as possible when they start school?  Do you read to them, help them learn to write, work with their speech, and teach them useful skills?  Of course you do, because you love your child.  Now, just imagine that your child can't mimic what you do, and doesn't imitate.  You have to go through the same steps hundreds of times, so that they learn the routine.  This takes time, a lot more time than just showing them a couple of times and have them get it.  Now, imagine your child is easily distracted by any combination of action and sound, and doesn't stay interested unless there is a combination of action and sound.  How much more difficult would that be?  Ask any parent of an autistic child, and they will tell you.Anyway, that is me venting.  Next time you start to complain about how hard it is to teach your "normal" child something to a parent with an autistic child, please don't get offended when they just nod and smile.  It's not that they don't care, it's just that they have dealt with far more than you can imagine already, and find your complaints a bit less compelling than you may have hoped.
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