Teaching autism: first things first

What do we do first for kids with autism?

Teach them to communicate!

Meet their sensory needs!

Here’s the video I created to share with those who work with your child with autism. I hope it helps!

 

Let me know what videos you’d like to see by leaving me a note in the comments below.

Please tweet: What other autism questions do you have?

I’d love to meet you! You’re invited to my autism book talk on August 3! Here’s a link to the event page on Facebook: https://goo.gl/ScsskD

The book launches on July 25. You can purchase it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christianbook.com and everywhere books are sold. The twins are so excited to sign books. They’re adorable about it. “Should we practice signing our name, Mom?” I can’t wait for you to meet them and see how awesome they are. And I can’t wait to meet you!

Help for Indiana Schools: Autism Resources

It’s frustrating as a parent of children with autism to know there are excellent resources out there but that Indiana schools fail to access them.

In too many public schools, autism is an annoyance, especially at the secondary level. This is partly due to not addressing the needs of students with autism at the elementary level.

If students are reached very early with evidence-based interventions, many of the issues for students who respond to therapy, phase out by the time they are in secondary school. There are certain things a student must be able to do in order to be successful at the secondary level, and one of them is the  ability to handle anxiety. Others include being able to attend to a task, take directions that they may not want to comply with, and be able to respond to conflict in socially acceptable ways.

Notice that most of these issues aren’t academic. They are social and emotional. Still, if a child with autism is to be guaranteed access to a free and appropriate education, they aren’t able to access it if they can’t get past the social and emotional piece. Yet, during IEP meetings, schools argue that these  are non-academic issues and schools are not required to address them.

What I’ve experienced in Indiana is a lack of genuine compassion and interest in helping students with autism succeed. I’ve also experienced a shameful scarcity of school attention towards helping students struggling above the precarious precipice of diploma track vs. certificate of completion. (I heard a rumor that “no diploma for people with low I.Q.s, etc.,” could be changing for Indiana but I’m not holding my breath.) Too often I’ve been told or have overheard teachers and paraprofessionals say, “don’t bother wasting your time helping that one, they’re taking them off diploma track anyway.”

Special Education teachers burn out because of lack of administrative support. They are given over-sized case loads that result in students falling through academic cracks. They’re not provided with materials, resources, or training for meeting the students’ needs. The mantra is to do the bare minimum of intervention so that schools can legally pocket the rest of the special education monies. Students in dire need of 1:1 aides are not provided them. Instead, one “instructional assistant” or “para-professional” is given to classrooms, and only maybe 1 or 2 per grade if that. No one student is given enough attention and support. Sometimes, high school students still need 1:1 support. Need is the operative word, and is the word that schools interpret any way they wish.

And where is the accountability for special education dollars? Why is our local area program bankrupt? The money wasn’t spent on my twins with autism, I can tell you that. (They are 22 now.) Was the money (millions) spent on teacher training in my school system? No. Was the money spent on 1:1 paraprofessionals for students with autism in my school system? No. Was it spent on administrative conferences and trips? Yes. Why are we not allowed to see how the money is spent?

Special Education teachers are under strict orders not to offer any services outside of the bare minimum. And because teachers want to keep their jobs, they do what they’re told. If you want services, you, the parent, have to bring them to the table. Remember, the school is not obligated in any way to go above and beyond anything but minimum. This is how they interpret and practice “free and appropriate.” Period.

Not all schools are turning their backs on autism. I hope to find these schools and highlight what they’re doing right. (If you know of one, please let me know in the comments below.) But far too many are doing it wrong. Far too many simply don’t care. What’s more important to many schools is keeping ISTEP scores high so they can attract high-scoring students to their schools via the voucher program.

If your student doesn’t make the administration look good, you don’t matter. You’re an inconvenient annoyance. The school hopes parents will pull the student out of school by the end of the year. If the student has already attended X number of days, they get to count the student for the full year and get to pocket the special education monies without spending a dime on support.

Parents are ill-informed of their recourse options. Even though the state law requires that parents be given the “Procedural Safeguards” brochure at the IEP meetings, few parents have the energy to read and digest it. Most of their energy is poured into getting their student through one more day, working their own jobs, and dealing with their other children. This brochure usually isn’t explained by anyone in the IEP meeting. And parents with low-functioning abilities are too embarrassed to have anyone explain it to them.

Here are some resources every parent with a child with disabilities living in Indiana should use:

Indiana Resource Center for Autism. This organization provides incredible training for teachers working with students with autism. Why aren’t all the schools in Indiana accessing this? Is it time to ask our legislators to  mandate this training for our Special Education teachers? There are also great resources for parents, including a Lending Library and a few helpful videos:

 

Another excellent help for parents when working with public schools is In*Source.  If you’re not getting what you believe your child needs in school, and every IEP meeting is a war zone, this organization can help you. They provide trained support advocates to go with you into the IEP meeting and help you navigate the laws to get your child’s needs met. I am a trained In*Source advocate, but now that I’m a teacher, am unable to be part of this service. These advocates are volunteers, and are passionate about helping kids with disabilities get what they need in public school. Don’t hesitate to contact them for help.

Other (Sort of) Helpful Autism Resources in Indiana:

Autism Society of Indiana

Autism Speaks

The reason I call these “sort of” resources is that they do provide information and fund-raising types of things, but not much practical hands-on help for families living in the trenches. However, I’m not belittling what they do. My focus for this post is for helping parents get what they need for their child at public school.

I love helping parents find answers. What questions do you have about autism, disabilities or accessing public school services? Leave your questions and comments below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible!  Do you know of a school that does autism intervention right? Please tell me so I can feature them on my blog!

My newest book is available now for pre-order at the following locations. I am so excited and the twins can’t wait to meet you! Our Book Talk will be August 3rd at Manchester Public Library. I will post more information as the date draws near!

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Indie Bound

Powell’s

“Help for Indiana Schools: Autism Resources” first appeared on Karla Akins’ blog at KarlaAkins.com

Autism: Not Different Enough

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Click to Buy

When I read Gloria Doty’s book about her daughter with autism, I felt a great kinship with her. As you know, my twin adult sons also have a diagnosis of autism. As we venture into adulthood with them, I found this book an absolute comfort. It helped me realize that I’m not the only one experiencing all these new adventures in many of the same ways.

If you know someone with a child with autism, I hope you’ll share this interview with them. It’s such an important one, and helps parents understand the importance of getting guardianship for their adult child with autism.

This is a beautiful book, and I enjoyed reading it. It reads fast, and it feels like you’re sitting with Gloria and having a chat. I loved it so much I had to do an interview. What follows is the delightful time I had with Gloria discussing this gem of a book.

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Teaching kids to touch type

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If there’s one thing I am grateful for from my public school education in the 70s, it’s that I was able to take classes to learn how to touch type. I can still type about 93-102 words per minute (WPM), and believe me, it’s come in handy when writing books, blogging, and writing research papers! (Thanks, Mr. Geesik!) (I can still hear and see him wiggling his fingers and sing-song saying, “Type, type, type!”)

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Since I have special needs children, and taught many special needs kids in my cottage school, I was always on the lookout for unique ways to teach life skills. One of the coolest tools I discovered  were these ingenious typing gloves from a company called Touchtypers.

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From the website: “Touchtypers is a system that uses specially developed lettered gloves and simple exercises to make it easy for students to learn to touch-type on computer keyboards, using any typing system or word processing software.”

The gloves come with an instruction booklet, but I also used old-fashioned typing books to help my students practice.

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These gloves worked great! I like anything that helps children self-direct and teach themselves. The only thing you have to do is supervise a bit to make sure they’re actually using the correct fingers and not “cheating.”

I hope you like these gloves as much as I do/did. I don’t get any kind of kickback or anything from this company. But when I experience a great product, I want to tell everyone about it.

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Oh, and when you order the gloves, err on the smaller side because they stretch. Let me know how you like them!

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Autism grows up: Their first jobs!

God will make a way!

It’s been an exciting school year so far at the Akins ranch.

The twins are in their senior year. They are 20 years old and will be 21 in February. They’ve waited quite anxiously for several years for this to happen and now it has.

They have jobs!

Their vocational school, Heartland Career Center, has a program that helps high school students with special needs gain job experience. The twins get school credit for working at their assigned jobs several afternoons a week.

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Isaac’s first day on the job!

Isaac got a job at Pizza Hut. He had to go through the interview process and he was amazing. We’re so proud of him!

Isaiah got a job at a local bakery boutique. He was so excited on Friday because he got promoted from making pie boxes to doing dishes. I got a text from him: “My boss let me do dishes!”

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Isaiah and his tower of boxes!

When the boys were four years old, one of their psychologists asked me what my aspirations were for them. I told her that I hoped they’d learn to read and be independent someday. She leaned forward in her seat and said to me, “That’s just pie in the sky thinking and you might as well get that out of your head right now.”

Really?

Pie in the sky is pretty tasty if I do say so myself.

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Here. Share a slice with me!

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Sometimes Mama Bear needs to back off

The Bear Family Stand Up

I’m subbing at the high school this week in a special education classroom. That means that my twin sons who take life skills classes are in my department. This is great fun for them. But today my Mama Grizzly showed a bit when a staff member (not a teacher, a support staff) rudely snapped at one of them, first thing in the morning. No hello. Nothing. Just a bark.

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The reason she snapped at my son was valid. It was how she handled it that wasn’t. He’d left his backpack in front of a locked classroom door, and while waiting for someone to unlock it, he slipped into my room to visit with me.

When the staff member arrived, she flew into my classroom and barked, “Whose stuff is that in the hall in front of Mrs. —‘s door?”

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Isaiah, who is almost always cheerful and sweet, and wouldn’t do anything wrong on purpose to inconvenience someone, jumped up from his chair and headed toward the hall door, “Oh, that’s mine.”

To which she responded with a great scowl and angry voice, “Well then move it, it’s in the way.” (Or some such phrase of which I don’t remember the exact words.) All I know, is that I never talk to students that way, and especially not special needs students.

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It’s all in how you say it. And I realize that teachers and staff have bad mornings. But bad mornings should be left at the schoolhouse door. Being a grouch doesn’t model appropriate behavior to students who need it more than anyone. I dare say that teens with autism need it more than elementary-aged children (although they all do desperately need it).

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I did complain to their teacher about her, but as I was doing so, I felt petty. It’s impossible for me to protect them from all the rude people on earth. Especially now that they are adults. (They are 19 but still in school until they are 21.) Still, as an educator myself, I feel that all students should be treated with respect. Tone of voice speaks volumes.

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As I shared in my post on my philosophy of education, school may be one of the only places some kids have that’s a safe place to fall. If they are to feel valued, school personnel must treat them with respect. It doesn’t matter what a child’s label is, they are still deserving of politeness.

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Maybe the snarky  staff member works with hard behavior cases. I don’t know. But I do know that children will act the way you expect them to most of the time. I know this because I’ve worked with some very, very difficult students. No one should ever be valued less because of their limitations or emotional struggles.

i-believe-in-youThis Mama Grizzly is learning which battles to fight. It’s not easy. There will be many more instances, I’m sure, when I won’t know whether to bite my tongue or take up the torch on behalf of my sons. It’s because of their vulnerability and inability to know if an offense is truly something they should be reprimanded for, or an honest, un-meant mistake. A student with autism isn’t always going to process that a book bag in front of the door might be in someone’s way.

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This frustration at the world for not understanding autism is part of what parenting these kids is so difficult. We want people to understand them, and frankly, most people aren’t even going to care. It’s something I’m learning to accept. Even 19 years later.

autismbI think as long as I live, the Mama Grizzly side of me, will always wrestle with the teacher in me, to teach the world how to get it about autism, kindness, and respect. Thankfully, the kind side of me won today, and I didn’t go toe to toe with the staff member. A part of me wishes I hadn’t complained to the teacher.

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Sometimes I feel I should wear a sign that says, “If you think I’m opinionated, you should know how much I want to say and don’t!” There’s so much inside of me that feels like it’s going to blow at times when people are rude to my children or other people with disabilities.

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Only with God’s help am I able to model appropriate behavior when I’m feeling protective. Since my gift is words, it’s also my weakness, and I know I need to temper my opinions with grace.

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Have you ever felt the need to stand up for your children? How did you handle it? What do you think I should have done? Should I have said something or not?

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Strong Girls aren’t Mean Girls part III

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A few weeks ago I wrote to you, dear Strong Girls, about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.

Today I want to share a great Strong Girl story with you.

Last night, in front of thousands of people, Anahi Alvarez gave her Homecoming Queen crown to her friend, Lillian Skinner.

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Lillian, described as sweet and innocent, was targeted by mean girls and told she’d been nominated as Homecoming Queen, which wasn’t true. When her friends, Anahi Alvarez, and Naomi Martinez, who were nominated as Homecoming Queen, found out, they vowed that if they won the crown, they’d give it to Lillian.

Watch the amazing report here:

 

Today, I’m happy to award the first Strong Girl Commendation Award to Strong Girls Anahi Alvarez, Namoi Martinez and Lillian Skinner.

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Do you know a Strong Girl who should receive this award? Let me know and I’ll honor her here.

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My philosophy of education

I’m at that point in my degree program where I have to submit a philosophy of education to my portfolio. I thought I’d share it with you here and I’m eager to hear your thoughts!

Karla Akins
Western Governors University
Bachelor of Arts Special Education K-12 and Elementary K-6 Licensure Track

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I come from a long line of educators. My father was a high school teacher and my ancestors built one of the first school houses in Pennsylvania, where it still stands in Halifax. My formal experience in teaching began when I was a twelve-year-old teacher’s aide in a preschool classroom. “Busy Bees” had a loving, nurturing teacher named Mrs. Reed. By watching her I learned kindness, and what it felt like to see a child go from “not knowing” to “knowing.”

busy_bee-399x411I also formed my philosophy from the good and bad teachers I had as a child. My bad teachers taught me the importance of compassion. My good teachers taught me to look for the reasons behind a child’s behavior. I was fidgety in school, and until my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Strecker, discovered that boredom was the reason for my disruptiveness, I was often in trouble. Instead of punishing or embarrassing me, she kept me meaningfully engaged.

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Because I’m the parent of three children on the autism spectrum who struggled with academics, I’m a firm believer in searching for an open window into a child’s understanding. I enjoy the challenge of discovering the key that unlocks concepts for students. I’m also drawn to children with difficult behavior. I believe that behavior is communication, and I relish in decoding what challenging students are trying to say.

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I believe that lessons in the classroom should be meaningful and engaging for all students. If they aren’t, it’s a recipe for undesirable conduct. I have a tongue-in-cheek motto: “You can’t teach a moving target.” Most young people have a fascination with something that will keep them engaged. Using that fascination, I believe, is the key to keeping their attention and motivating them to participate with success.

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Regardless of ability, all students have gifts inside them that I, as a teacher, am responsible for unwrapping. A good teacher will focus on abilities and gifts of a student to enhance and strengthen weak areas. This goes hand in hand with using a child’s fascinations and obsessions to motivate them to learn. When children experience success, they gain the courage and esteem to try new things and practice skills they are weak in.

thegiftedMy passion as a teacher is to be an enthusiastic encourager. By focusing on strengths, cheering students on through positive reinforcement, I’m able to build trusting relationships with my students, who then develop the confidence to navigate their academic careers. In this way students reach their full potential.

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While firmness is important, I also realize that a teacher’s patient attention and presence in a student’s life may be the only soft place in the world for that child to fall. Teachers now, more than ever, need to realize they are a hero in the life of their students, and may be the only hope some kids have for feeling as if they matter.

For a child who lives with hazards in their neighborhood, or perhaps, poverty, teaching a child what they can do to change their world is a powerful way for the student to accept responsibility and appreciate the power they possess as an individual. Every community has its own challenges and culture. Therefore, I believe, teaching methods should change based upon the needs of the child, their families and their culture.

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I’m a teacher who believes in teaching to the individual needs of the child. I respect my students as fellow learners and hope to motivate them to find answers for themselves. By teaching in a way that piques a child’s interest to the point they beg for answers, I have accomplished the main goal of my philosophy, which is, to guide students toward success not only in school, but in life.

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When autism parents kill–it has to do with hope

autism-1As a parent of twins with autism, I know what it’s like to feel desperate and alone. I know how it feels to have doors close and be left with no one to help carry the load. Professionals go home to their families, most don’t have any idea what it’s like to live with the turmoil. They get to sleep through the night without worrying if their child will harm themselves or wander off.

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Maybe you’re reading this and you have a child with autism. Like me, you probably think you’d never entertain the thought of murdering your child, no matter how desperate your feel. But we have to remember that our experience with autism isn’t another parent’s experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condoning murder in any way shape or form. I think I’m trying to understand the emotions that drive someone to do such a thing.

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And I do get it. I do. When you are screaming for help and no one comes, you feel backed into a dark corner of no hope. I believe it’s loss of hope that causes parents to kill their disabled children. At least, I think that’s what happened in the case of Dorothy Spourdalakis who murdered her severely autistic son, Alex Spourdalakis, age 14, last year. (You can read the story here.  It’s compelling. Sad. And too often a common story regarding severely autistic children.)

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But in the case of Gigi Jordan, I’m not so sure. In that case it appears it was a selfish act. Or was it? Could it be true that she killed her son in order to protect him from an abusive father? It certainly can’t be true that she couldn’t obtain services for the child. She’s a millionaire. If she couldn’t obtain services, then who can?

Cases like this are just one reason I was prompted to write a book about autism (My book, Autism: Practical Help and Spiritual Hope for Parents, will be available in April 2015). Parents need to know there is definitely hope in this journey. Hope doesn’t make the road easier, but it makes it bearable.

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Autism isn’t who my children are. It’s a name of a disability that causes significant challenges in socialization, speech and behavior. All people with disabilities are precious. planned for and valuable to God. As much as I love my children, I know that God loves them even more, and He has a plan and purpose for their life. I sincerely believe that if we pray and ask God to send us help to cope, and what services to access, He open the doors. At least, that’s what He’s always done for me.

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As I wrote in my book:

“With God all things are possible” Matthew 19:26. I clung to that scripture and believed it the entire time
my twins were growing up and I continue to hold on to it today.  Things I thought they may never do, they’ve done. More than I ever imagined.

God’s Word tells us that we can’t begin to imagine what He  has in store for us (1 Corinthians 2:9). I can testify to this.

I will admit, when I see children suffering, I have a lot of questions for God. This is when I lean on the faith that God knows what He’s doing and He is up to something good, whether we see it right now or not.

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As a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), I see children suffer more than I want to. Life is hard and I certainly don’t want to minimize anyone’s pain. I know what it’s like to feel alone and hopeless. This is why it’s important that Christians reach out to hurting families. If they reject our offers of help, then at least we’ve tried. Without the hope of Christ, what hope is there, really?

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All human life is sacred because we are created in the Image of God. Murder is never the answer to the frustrations of parenting a child on the autism spectrum or a child with any kind of disability. Yes, it’s difficult. But it’s do-able. More than that, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. The struggle has been worth the benefits. My sons love me with the purest form of unconditional love I’ve ever known besides Jesus’ love. They are truly God’s gifts to me.

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The following video was prepared for Sanctity of Life Sunday which is in January each year. If you’d like to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves, you can find information here: BeAVoice.net.

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Autism musings: control freaks

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As autism parents, we may find ourselves seeking to control other things around us because we can’t control autism.

I’m guilty of it myself.

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The incident that occurred recently with the young man with autism and the fake ice bucket challenge doesn’t help things.

Sometimes, because of the fear autism brings to our door, and the lack of control we have to change it for our kids, we may find ourselves trying to control other areas of our lives.

fearFor myself, I cope by being a workahaolic. I admit it. I’m happiest when I’m deep into my work as a pastor’s wife, writer, substitute teacher and full-time student (I’m pursuing a special ed. degree.) If I’m busy I don’t have to face the incessant worries of what my twins’ future may hold.

managing fearI need to remember that fear is a liar. Worrying about their future, or whether or not someone will talk them into doing something that will hurt them, is fearing something in my imagination. As a writer, I’m extremely imaginative. You have no idea the things my brain can dream up!  Thankfully, I’m not alone. Thankfully, I can tap into God’s peace when I’m afraid.

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Corrie Ten Boom, holocaust survivor, wrote, “If God sends us on strong paths, we are provided strong shoes.” Sometimes it seems that some people are given more hardship than others. But I have no doubt that God will equip us for these difficult situations if we ask Him to.

fear-1_thumbBut do we remember to ask? And when we do ask, and He provides us with an answer that isn’t what we think it should be, do we turn that help away? Are we too proud? Too embarrassed?

I’ve had to give up a lot of control in my life in order to get the help I need. I’ve had to let go of being afraid of what people think, for one. The woman who comes into my home every day after school to help me with the twins, sees my house at its worst sometimes. She also attends our church. I have had to give up the fear of her telling someone what she sees.

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“Did you know the pastor and his wife didn’t make their bed today? And there were dirty dishes in the sink? And the kitty littler box was full and she’s always behind on laundry? And they didn’t have supper until 8:00 PM?”

I run that risk because if I want to accomplish the dreams in my heart, I’ve got to be able to let someone help me. It’s scary and uncomfortable. But it’s not as bad as regret. I don’t want to lie on my death bed and regret I didn’t try to pursue the dreams God placed in my heart.

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I know a woman who has to control every single little thing her in her life and the lives of others around her. When she isn’t able to, she gets extremely upset. She has a big heart, but she has no idea how much pain she is in or how offensive she is to others. There’s something inside of her that feels out of control. Whether it’s pain from her past, a bad memory, or some other fear, something keeps her hand in every pie. I feel sad for her because it’s also not in her nature to accept advice or direction from anyone else. That would mean giving up some control, wouldn’t it?

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If you struggle with control, I encourage you to give up one thing this week that you obsess on and have a difficult time letting go of. Maybe it’s how the dishwasher is loaded or how laundry is done. Maybe it’s a pet peeve. Letting go and letting God is liberating and freeing. Jesus came to make us free. Give Him what it is His in the first place and give peace a chance.

What will I give up this week? I’m going to give up an extra hour of study time and work very hard to be in the moment with my family.  I’ll let you know how it goes!

Share with me below what it is you will let go of. I’d love to celebrate with you!

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