July 2011 Archives

July 21, 2011

Autism and Technology: Touch Screens And Learning

Article first published as Autism and Technology on Technorati.

The first iPhone, as displayed at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California.I haven't posted anything in a while, and there is a reason. Recently, I had an opportunity to visit the Apple Campus in Cupertino, California, and meet with a key person who designed the iOS devices for which Apple is so well known. It was exciting for me, because I know how important those same iOS devices have been for my sons in their development. It was a rare treat for me to personally thank those who had a hand in developing such a key device.And you know what he said? He said he didn't even think about the Autism community when designing the first iPhone. Instead, he said he was surprised, extremely surprised, and thrilled that the device has been found to act as a catalyst for those on the Spectrum. For him, it showed the ingenuity and inventiveness of developers who took the simple premise of the iPhone's multi-touch platform, and made tools that worked.And just before this meeting I also had an interview with Brandon Bailey of the San Jose Mercury News about using touch screens and apps to treat autism. He was interested in my take on the HP Hacking Autism project, which focuses on developing apps for all platforms that help children on the Spectrum. And, while I am very biased to Apple products, I said that all platforms have potential, and if the apps are there parents have more choice for their budget.So, why touch screens? What makes them better than, say, a mouse, or a keyboard? If you think about it, using a touch screen is fundamental. We are used to touching what we want, moving things with our hands, etc. Our fingers are our most versatile tools, and we feel most comfortable with them. Once you introduce another tool on top of that, it complicates the process. Using a mouse means you have to relate the mouse position on the desk (which you do not see) with the mouse pointer location on the screen. Keyboards are about the same way. But a touch screen removes that layer between you and the content, making it easier to utilize. That is why I personally feel touch screen devices are better than using a mouse and keyboard, or even a stylus, for that matter.So the age of the touch screen became a great age for the Spectrum. Technology is easier to use, making those with learning disabilities more enabled in their learning and ultimately empowering them to progress in ways that were difficult or expensive in the past. It's exciting, and I'm constantly amazed with the apps for Autism that I find out there.

July 10, 2011

Diversity in Autism: What Makes a parent with Autism a Super Parent

Article first published as Diversity in Autism on Technorati.Every child with Autism is different.  There, I said it.  Just like every 2-year old has their own personalities, every child on the Spectrum behaves in a different way to the same stimuli.  In fact, whenever you have a disorder of the mind, even though some behaviors are the same, what sets those behaviors off can be very different.  This is a very important fact to know when you notice someone with a child with Autism.For instance:  Autism runs in my family (and my wife's interestingly enough).  Some in the family are runners, and will do anything to just get out and run.  Others, like my son, is a problem-solver, and looks for ways to get around any barrier he finds (even if it is for his own good).  Some only have a couple of behaviors, appearing a little slow in their social interaction but still being very focused and knowledgeable in their tasks.  Yet relatives still say, "Well, your son doesn't do X, or he does Y which will lead to Z", as though they know the roadmap for my son better than I do.  Let me first say with all love that relatives mean well.  They are concerned for me and my family, and they want to help.  But what they don't realize is every attempt to break that delicate balance of sanity between work, working with my sons, keeping up on schooling requirements and techniques to augment at home, and contribute with the house work just creates more stress.  And while they are trying to help me focus on caring for my child, they don't seem to see that I'm already doing the job by doing everything right as recommended by his teachers and school psychologists.  Instead they see the broad difference between my child's development and those of his neurotypical cousins, and want to push me to push him even more.You see, a parent of a child with Autism has to be a Super Parent to begin with, just to manage their son's or daughter's condition.  We are constantly aware of the environment, trying to make sure that it will not be too stressful through sensory overload.  We look for key signs in our child as a method of communication, making us hyper-aware of our children.  On top of this we are constantly looking for ways to help our children develop normally and become self-sustaining, contributing members of society.  Most parents try to do this anyway, but if they have a child with Autism, they are constantly on their A-game, and it will wear parents out. So what do you do?  As a parent, you need to find some down time.  You need to find some time, even if it's in the middle of the night, when you have a chance to relax the brain.  Some communities have respite services that allow for a couple of hours a day of free time while their child is being watched by a professional care-giver.  This is a great idea, and something every parent should take advantage of when available.  For those who do not have this service, they need to find a trusted care-giver that is willing to take the children for short stints when necessary.  Generally it would be family members, but it could also be good friends. If you are a family member that is looking to help, stop trying to look at the child with Autism as an Autistic child.  The child, the little boy or girl, is a child first.  They have needs like a child, have a personality, and just wants to learn and grow like other children.  Instead of trying to stress out the parents by telling them what to do, try engaging with the children.  You will get a better feel for the child's abilities through these little stints than otherwise, and can perhaps help the child make intelligent connections between behaviors (i.e., relating sign-language with speech).  This doesn't mean that is the ONLY way the child will learn, but it's the way the child will learn with you.  Go with it, and enjoy the time.  Let the parents worry about their children.  There are exceptions to this, but for most parents of a child on the Spectrum, it's pretty common for this method to work. 

July 7, 2011

Windows Cloud on the Mac: SkyDrive and Windows Mesh

The cloud continues to be the sexy Buzzword in technology today.  Everyone seems to need it now, even though many have already been using the same technology through email, network file storage, etc.  But now, we are doing in the "cloud", where someone else worries about backing up our data.  There are a number of different ways to define the cloud, but for me it means putting files and services on the Internet, allowing any device to access the data as needed.  So today, as I look for various ways to back up my data for a trip next week, I thought I would check out Microsoft's SkyDrive and Windows Mesh. Microsoft's SkyDrive is, essentially, online storage much like web-accessable storage through Dropbox.  For the Mac, you upload your data using a web browser, and you can then access that same data using any internet-enabled device.  Ideal for documents, the browser-based storage tends to choke when transferring large files.  That's too bad, because Microsoft gives an impressive 25 GB of free storage, enough to make any file hoarder drool.  Also, if you are looking to upload folders through the browser portal from a non IE browser, you are pretty much out of luck.  Active X is required to get it to work, which is a problem for those of us on the Macintosh, or those in the Linux world.  One other feature is the ability to open, edit, or even create a Microsoft Office document from your SkyDrive, making it similar to Google Docs but with more storage capability (at least for free). This is a neat feature for quick collaboration, as you just share a folder with your documents in them and anyone can edit from the browser.  If you try to access the edit feature from your iPad or iPhone, it's not there.  That's similar to early versions of Google Docs, though now at least you can edit your documents in Google Docs on your iOS device. But the huge, gaping hole here is lack of access to the drive outside of the browser.  There are some software out there that does provide access, such as SMEStorage's Mac Cloud Tools app, but I shouldn't have to purchase software just to use the storage the way I want.  You can also upload documents directly But what about the features that Dropbox has, where you can drop a file in a folder and have it automatically sync to your devices?  Well, for that type of feature, you would need Windows Mesh.  Windows Mesh is for Windows Vista/7 and Mac OS X 10.5 and newer only, but it allows someone to drop a file into a synced folder and have it automatically upload to another computer.  You can view your devices you have synced, and all the folders you have synced from the Windows Mesh website. Once the synchronization is complete, then you can also view the data you dropped in the folder from that same website. What it doesn't do, that Dropbox does, is provide access to the Mesh folders using an iOS device (beyond the web browser).  A dedicated app would do wonders for those of us that use iOS.  That being said, for documents, you can use Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac to save and retrieve your SkyDrive-saved documents.  A very nice feature that will be coming to iWork as part of iCloud very soon.  So overall, it's a nice service.  Some features like Dropbox, some like Google Docs, some like the future iCloud, and in general fairly useable.  Not exactly what I was looking for, but definitely something I will continue to use. 

July 6, 2011

Lanta's Frozone: Frozen Custard, and Much More

Over the 4th of July holiday, my family decided to try someplace new.  We had never been to a new restaurant on 5600 West called Lanta's Frozone, and we thought we would give it a try.  It was very quiet, but then we were on our way back from a trip to the Zoo, and most other people were at the noisy, crowded parades.  As we tend to avoid such places for the sake and sanity of our children, we caught them at just the right time. Lanta's serves up frozen custard and yogurt, and even let you make various recipes and mixtures for your dessert pleasure.  But that's not why we went.  We went for the sandwiches they advertised.  Why?  Well, it was hot, and we wanted something less heavy than a burger.  And it's a good thing, too. When I ordered the staff seemed new, but then we were the only one's in the shop so they probably felt it was less rushed then it might normally be.  The combinations included either fries, chips, or the "house salad", but no drinks (of which they have one size).  My wife wanted the french dip, and I went for the Philly Cheesesteak.  They have children's menus with half sandwiches, so we got the boys grilled cheese and ham.  I wanted to try the salad, and the rest of the family had fries. The wait seemed long, though not as long as places like Chili's.  What was impressive was how my oldest with Autism took it: very calm, very relaxed.  My youngest wanted to run around, perhaps because there was so much free space to run.  Anyway, when the food did come, I was shocked.  The sandwiches were large.  The boys both had what looked like normal-sized sandwiches, at least if they were made with store-bought bread.  The rolls my wife and I had were large too, and stuffed full of filling.  The cheesesteak was not overly spicy, and perhaps even on the mild side, but very tasty.  Philly Cheesesteak and House Salad at Lanta's FrozoneBut what really surprised me was the house salad.  Most "house salads" are tired bits of Iceberg lettuce with a tomato and smothered in Ranch dressing.  Not at Lanta's.  No, you get a Spring Mix salad with candied almonds and berries with syrup with a vinaigrette and a cube of Feta cheese.  It was completely unexpected, and very delicious.  The lunch was so filling, in fact, that we didn't have room for any of the custard.  So we took a quart home and gave it a try.  I can definitely recommend the custard. So Lanta's Frozone is now definitely on my list of Autism-friendly places to go, at least when there are few people in the establishment.  I'm not sure how it would be completely packed, though I'm definitely willing to go back.  If only for the house salad, if nothing else. And I still haven't tried any of the soups.   

Is Autism Genetic or Environmental?

Article first published as Is Autism Genetic or Environmental? on Technorati.Boys playing, some showing Autism behaviors, others do not.The Archives of General Psychiatry published a research paper on potential environmental triggers of Autism through a twin study in California. The research compared genetic similarities in twins, and made varying assumptions based on environmental factors surrounding the pregnancies of the parents.The study took a lot of assumptions into consideration as they calculated the impact of genetic vs. environmental studies, which effected the results of the study dramatically one way or the other as these assumptions were adjusted. The idea is that regardless of the results, there is a possibility of environmental triggers that can cause Autism, and therefore more research is needed.The study is pretty impressive, as actual subjects were interviewed specifically for the research project as opposed to passive surveys being reviewed to look for common patterns. As such, the study took my attention. Still, I don't see the evidence compelling enough to make the claim so many news outlets take in saying environmental factors cause Autism.So what does cause Autism? This is the frustrating question so many parents who receive the diagnosis have. How could this happen to us? What caused it? Where does the blame lay? What am I going to do?The truth is, no one knows for sure what causes Autism. That's because Autism, unlike diabetes, the flu, or even cancer, is not a medical condition. Instead, it is a definition given to those what exhibit a specific set of behaviors. Those behaviors are what defines Autism, not a specific medical condition. Hence any number of things can "cause" Autism, if they cause a specific behavior.So while I am more inclined to say, based on the research in the past 5 years, that Autism is a genetic disorder, there are those who can claim environmental causes. The difference? Most cases of Autism "caused" by environmental exposure (with the exception of environmentally related damage to the brain) are not permanent. For example, if someone is unable to process cassein or gluten properly with various enzymes can possibly show Autistic tendencies temporarily. But the effect wears off, unlike the majority of children on the Spectrum that I see in my sons class.So what is a parent to do? Worry about the child, not the diagnosis. Get ready for a fun ride as you deal with behaviors of which you may be unfamiliar, and enjoy every milestone you reach. That is what truly matters. A "cause" or a "cure" may come and go, but your child is yours forever. Make the most of it, and you will never regret it.

July 4, 2011

The Virtues of Security Doors

Article first published as The Virtues of Security Doors on Technorati.Boy on grandpa's lap, and a dog looking at them. Family is important, and keeping them safe may sometimes mean keeping them in.Security is a really important thing, especially for your family. You want to know that your family and possessions are safe and secure. But if your family includes a child with Autism, who may be prone to bolt, security takes on a whole new meaning. It's not just about keeping bad elements out of the home, but also keeping your family safe within the home.We have had problems in the past with our son bolting. The kitchen door is not visible from the living room, and therefore makes it difficult to keep track of his comings and goings when he goes into the kitchen. He can also use the sliding glass door to go in and out, if need be. Whether bolting on us or on the babysitter, it became a problem that needed a solution.We started with just using the deadbolt, which worked for about two days. Once my son realized that the deadbolt was being used, he would just turn it and he was gone. We also tried using a lock on the storm door, which met with the same level of failure. The problem was the ease of locking and unlocking the door from the inside. It just wasn't going to work.So, we moved on to a security chain at the top of the door. It was too high for our son to reach, and worked for about a month. Then he started using chairs, boxes, the piano bench, whatever he could find in order to unchain the door and run. And then there was the problem of the chain being used when someone wanted to come in: it ended with a frustrating wait until someone unchained the door. And, not to mention, a problem for entry should there be an emergency. And, there was no way to leave the door open to let in sunlight and fresh air on a nice day and still have it be secure. No, we needed another solution.Then we found security doors at Lowes for a reasonable price, and I liked the idea. Here was a secure way to let in air, while also locking the door down. My wife's grandfather has similar doors for his home in Southern California, and loves them.But it wasn't perfect, as we needed some way to secure the deadbolt from the inside. And then we found double cylinder deadbolts, which require a key on both sides to lock and unlock the door. This was ideal, making it a great solution for our family. Not only does it secure from little hands, but anyone with a key can still get in when it's in use.So, as a test we installed the security door on the most critical entry way, which was the kitchen door. It's worked so well we are already planning on doing the same thing for the kitchen door and the garage door, two additional doors that require security (though the garage door is not as critical). The solution works for our needs, and requires less hardware.It's an interesting solution, and one that I would recommend for any parent concerned with bolting children. It doesn't take the place of a locator device (either GPS or radio), but it at least adds one more level of peace of mind.

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