Water Safety Tips for Children with Autism

It’s summertime, which usually equates to a lot of time outside. And with pools open and all the lakes here in Michigan, that often means time in and around water. While swimming and playing in water are fun and great exercise, it can also be very dangerous. In fact, just last year the Michigan Department of Natural Resources issued a new flag warning level for the Great Lakes. Because of the increased danger lakes and pools have, water safety for children with autism, or any child, is extremely critical. 

Why water safety is so important for children with autism

Children with autism, as well as Down syndrome, often wander, which can obviously be very unsafe if they get close to water unsupervised. Additionally, drowning can occur without making any sound. Children may also be unaware of things such as water depth, water temperature, water currents, or slippery surfaces. Not every child likes to be in the water, especially children that struggle with sensory issues. However, all children should still be aware of water safety in case of accidental slips or falls into a pool or lake. 

This statistic is scary and sobering, but every parent of an autistic child needs to know – drowning is a leading cause of death for children with autism. We’ve compiled some tips and ideas to teach water safety to your child with autism to help you prepare for this season. 

Get your child in swimming lessons 

Every child should learn to swim, and for children with special needs, it’s important the skill is taught in a way that resonates with them. Make sure the teaching environment is not too distracting or overwhelming for your child. 

There are many programs that provide adaptive swimming lessons for children with special needs. You can start by contacting your local YMCA. And the National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Toolkit for caregivers provides an excellent guide and resources for managing wandering, as well as how to find swim lessons in your area. 

Provide reinforcers

Have reinforcers and preferred items available when your child performs important or difficult tasks related to water safety. This could include tolerating getting into the water, using appropriate safety gear, getting out when a whistle is blown for “adult swim time,” or leaving the pool when instructed. 

Visual learning of water safety

Use video narratives, social stories, or visual routines to teach water safety. The Swim Angelfish channel on YouTube, for example, is a great resource which provides a variety of videos that can be utilized to teach water safety to kids with disabilities. 

Many children with autism spectrum disorder are rules-driven, so use that to your advantage. Set specific rules for how they are to behave around water. Then practice those rules in real world situations. And if you have a pool at home, or live on/near a lake, consider placing “STOP” or “DO NOT ENTER” signs on doors that open to the outside, or gates to the pool. 

Use appropriate swim gear

Even if your child knows how to swim, it’s still a great precaution to use a life jacket or flotation device around water, whether they are planning on swimming or not. It can also offer reassurance when attempting a new skill and teaching independence. The especialneeds website is a great place to purchase special needs and sensory-friendly water gear, if needed.  

Teach key information

Because of the high percentage of wandering in kids with autism – nearly 50% – make sure your child knows his or her name, address, and phone number in the event he or she is separated from you. If your child does not speak, make sure they wear a bracelet, tag, tattoo, etc. with their name and your name and phone number. 

Set up your environment vigilantly 

Even if you feel confident that your child thoroughly understands the rules of water safety, accidents can still happen. It’s important to prepare for the worst so that nothing slips through the cracks. When preparing your environment near water, consider installing fences or gates with alarms around the body of water, if applicable. Additionally, you should also think about placing alarms or chimes on doors that open to bodies of water and keep toys of interest away from the water when not in use. Taking these measures will ensure that life-threatening wandering doesn’t take place.  

Communicate with others

Talk with your neighbors, whether at home or on vacation. Ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child wandering alone outside your home or property. Even if you don’t own a pool, but your neighbors do, ask them to be particularly aware of your child wandering near their property. 

We hope these ideas help you implement water safety for your child with autism. And for more general recommendations for pools, beaches, lakes, etc., check out this swimming safety guide. We want everyone to have a less stressful and more enjoyable summer

If you found this information helpful, we’d love it if you’d share it with others!

Traveling with a Child with Autism: Tips for a Smoother Ride

family on a roadtrip
traveling with child with autism

Whether it’s summer or the end-of-the-year holidays, most people equate these seasons with time off for vacation and road trips. But the idea of traveling with a child with autism can be overwhelming for both the parents and for the child! They thrive in structured, familiar routines, so hitting the road or the sky to a new destination has the potential to be stressful and create an environment for meltdowns and other negative behaviors. But even with the possible challenges, there are many benefits to experiencing new things. So here are tips for a smoother ride when traveling with a child with autism.

1. Plan Day Trips Before Week-Long Adventures

If you have never traveled away from home with your child with autism, start with a few day trips to help prepare them for a bigger event. Brainstorm some activities your child enjoys – maybe a new zoo, an aquarium, a water park or the beach (we have plenty of lakes here in Michigan) that are a short drive away. But plan the trip so you can stay overnight in a hotel. This will give them the hotel experience while still close enough to home if things go sideways. Having a few day trips as “practice,” you and your child will be more prepared for possible issues that may arise on a longer trip.

2. Pick A Destination That Will Interest Your Child

For many kids, they will just go with the flow of most any vacation. But for a child with autism it is important to choose a place that fits with your child’s personality, interests and strengths. Do they love the sensory stimulation of the sand on the beach and the water? Maybe they enjoy museums, monuments and a busy city? Or possibly they are at home in the woods, exploring trails and the calmness of nature? By selecting your vacation spot that matches their interests and sensory processing abilities, you will help your child be more successful in this new experience. If you’re looking for a destination that is also recognized as autism-friendly, check out our blog post Top 5 Autism-Friendly Vacation Spots.

3. Important Items To Pack

Different beds, foods, smells and sounds can create sensory overload for those sensitive to them. Remember to bring items your child uses to cope during times they become overloaded. Here are a few helpful items to consider bringing along: fidgets, a weighted blanket, sunglasses, noise-cancelling headphones, or any other soothers that help them. In addition, be sure to pack a few of their favorite toys/snuggles, DVD’s, books. It’s also good to include them by asking what they want to take along.

There are also a few added safety precautions for those who are nonverbal or have difficulty communicating. If you don’t have any of these, consider purchasing an autism necklace, a Medical bracelet, or a zipper pull, which provide an easy way to share your child’s diagnosis in case of an emergency. Another great tool is to create temporary tattoos with emergency contact info for their arm just in case they wander away from you. There are also a variety of GPS tracking devices if your child is more prone to wandering.

4. Build A Vacation Music Play List

Create a list of songs your child (and entire family) will enjoy – from movie soundtracks, popular music and sing-along songs. A road trip playlist can not only entertain, but comfort your child when they are in a new setting. If your child really loves music, involve them in the selection of songs. Also use the time to talk about your upcoming trip to help prepare them for what is to come.

5. Visuals & Role Playing Are Powerful Tools

Showing your child what will happen and when through a personalized picture schedule can relieve stress and reduce anxiety. Creating a visual support allows your child to process what’s ahead without being bombarded all at once. Consider making a picture schedule that’s designed sequentially to cover various portions of your trip. A chronological version that shows daily plans to review each morning can help, as well. This way, it can also double as a pre-alert device. Include pictures of the car/highway/airport, hotel, pull pictures off your destination’s website, etc. You could also use short captions to turn it into a story. Creating a calendar to count down the days leading up to your trip can also help prepare your child for your actual departure.

Additionally, transitions – changing from one situation to another – are common while on vacation. Children with autism can find these unfamiliar transitions difficult. Along with visuals, role playing a few weeks before a trip will allow your child time to process what he or she might expect on vacation.

We hope these tips will be helpful as you prepare to travel with your child with autism. And please let us know if you have any tips that you already have used to make your trips successful.

Autism Acceptance and Finding Community

autism acceptance and finding community
parents meeting for coffee

April is here again, which means it is time to celebrate and honor Autism Acceptance Month. Previously called Autism Awareness Month, the recognized period was started in 1972 by the Autism Society as National Autistic Children’s Week. It evolved from that into an entire month of recognition. In 2021, it was renamed from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month.  

The Difference Between Awareness and Acceptance 

The evolution of this nationally celebrated month’s name is due to the need to move beyond “awareness”. Today, many people are already “aware” of autism, and have been for some time. This elevated awareness has led to an increase in autism diagnoses since the disorder’s discovery. Currently, autism is prevalent in 1 in 36 children aged 8 years old, according to the CDC. With that said, being aware of autism is vastly different than accepting individuals with autism. This month, we emphasize the ability to accept individuals with autism. One way this can be done is through meaningful action with a focus on parents of individuals with autism.  

Taking Action by Finding Community

Something that many people do not consider when they think of a child receiving an autism diagnosis is the toll it can have on the child’s parents and family. The impact of an autism diagnosis is that it can feel isolating. And that feeling of “being alone” can make it challenging for parents to find the support and community they need. In addition, support is not always readily available. That is why for this Autism Acceptance Month, we want to focus on the importance of finding community for people with autism and their families.  

How Support Groups Can Help

Support groups are wonderful because they can serve multiple different purposes at once. But helping people connect with others who share similar experiences is what makes them essential for families impacted by autism. Support groups provide an abundance of resources. They also are filled with people who can relate to what you may be feeling. The people in these groups can help give advice for managing the unique ups and downs that come with raising a child on the spectrum. You, in turn, can help others who may have questions. Support groups also provide a wonderful place to share accomplishments along with challenges and create friendships for both you and your child.  

Where to Find Support

In Michigan:  

Michigan Alliance for Families has many resources for families impacted by autism. Parents can search for local events, get information on ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) services, educational services, and other supports. Their Navigators are available by phone to help families find autism assistance throughout Michigan.  

If your child is receiving therapy services, other parents are a great place to start to find those who are understanding of your situation. Ask your child’s BCBA or Therapist if there are some parents you can connect with. Or, stop and strike up a conversation with another parent when you are at the clinic. You never know what kind of friendship may develop! 

In All States and Online: 

Parents Helping Parents offers an online support group that meets once a month to discuss autism resources and stories. As the website explains, this can be a terrific way to connect and learn from parents who may share a similar story to your own. In addition to parents, anyone who works with children on the spectrum is encouraged to check it out.  

Healthline has an abundance of autism resources, ranging from general information to education and government benefit resources. They also specify resources for specific age groups and list multiple support groups and organizations for autistic individuals and their allies.  

Facebook is a place where you can find a group page for about anything. And that does not exclude support groups for parents of autistic children! This can be a wonderful place to meet other parents and discuss ideas, struggles, and accomplishments. Facebook groups are a place you can learn more about the autism community. Healing Haven even has their own private group specially created for parents of clients only. 

The Benefits of Autism Acceptance

An important thing to remember is that an autism diagnosis does not define a child or their family. Additionally, those with autism should never be underestimated. No one knows what the future holds.  

The more parents find a community and the support they need, the more likely they are to accept their new circumstances, which helps communicate autism acceptance to our broader communities. Through acceptance of our personal situations and finding others who understand, we can reduce our stress levels and bring richness to our lives. Additionally, it is important to note that acceptance applies to everyone. Parents who accept their child’s diagnosis can be fully present to support them. In addition, all of us learning to accept our neighbor, nephew, child’s classmate, who has autism, will set an example to others. And simultaneously, we will help create a community for that family to feel included. Through acceptance we help spread empathy and kindness of others’ differences. By living out acceptance we can make an impact far beyond the autism community. 

We hope you have found these resources to be helpful and we encourage you to share any information discovered here with your friends and family. Please feel free to leave a comment if this impacted you in a significant way. Happy Autism Acceptance Month! 

Uncovering Interests and Talents Through ABA Therapy

Two people playing the piano together.

When people think about ABA Therapy, they typically envision an environment rich in opportunities to promote communication, social skills and play skills. But what many people may not consider is that ABA Therapy can also help develop an individual’s vocational interests and jumpstart hobbies, which is especially important for individuals with autism. This post shares the story of one client who turned an interest into a new skill.  

The client, who will not be named for privacy purposes, found himself paired up with Healing Haven Registered Behavior Technician, Alex Levy, in fall of 2022. During their daily therapy sessions, the duo uncovered that they had a shared interest in music. With this, they both gravitated toward playing the piano in our music room. 

Many clients, employees, and parents alike have heard the floating, peaceful melodies of the piano filling the air in our clinic throughout the past year. Alex can often be heard practicing outside of his ABA Therapy hours. If heard during therapy hours, however, it is likely Alex playing piano with his client or his client playing solo. 

The power of music

Alex said his interest in learning to play the piano began when he saw a coworker playing it. “It just sounded very serene and peaceful,” said Alex. He has been taking advantage of the in-clinic piano, practicing on it for nearly a year. 

When Alex began working with his client, neither of them knew much about playing the piano. But once Alex started experimenting with tunes and sounds, his client began to gravitate toward it, too.  

The client’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), Amanda, said that Alex and his client’s bond is an amazing and beautiful one to see. “Alex has been able to connect with him and engage with him on a whole new level,” she said. “I am still in shock whenever I do a supervision session and hear [the client] play a new song or show me a new skill he has learned on the piano. They both make me want to learn to play too!”

Recognizing your child’s interests

The mother of Alex’s client reports that her son has had a noticeable interest in music since he was a toddler. “We have pictures of him trying to play different instruments,” she said. “We also have pictures of him from a few years ago also trying to play the piano at Costco.” 

She said that, considering her son’s past interest in music and the piano, she wasn’t surprised to hear he was toying around with the piano at Healing Haven. What was surprising was the level to which her son was learning and developing musically.  

The magnitude of his talent became apparent one day when she took her son to get a haircut. She explained that the establishment she takes him to has a bounce house and a piano in the back to be enjoyed by the clients afterwards as a reward.  

“He just sat down at the piano and started to play something and I was so surprised and excited to hear him,” exclaimed the client’s mom. “I recorded him and showed my husband and family. I mentioned it to Alex later and he said, ‘yeah, he’s actually really good and is picking it up.’ We were so happy to hear that!”  

A flourishing talent

A tune Alex began learning early on in his piano journey is Viva La Vida by Coldplay. The catchy, repetitive, and uplifting chords captured his client’s attention immediately. This became a song heard regularly around the clinic. After a short amount of time, it was indistinguishable if it was Alex or his young client playing.  

Aside from Viva La Vida, Alex said his client likes to practice Beethoven tunes as well as various other classic melodies. “Usually when we play the piano together, my client likes to mimic whatever I play. However, he does add a lot of different variations to the things that I play or have shown him,” Alex said.  

The client’s mom is unsure if her son can read music notes or if he relies on sounds and visuals he receives from Alex’s playing. Alex believes it is the latter, which isn’t an unusual special ability for individuals on the autism spectrum.  

Alex can relate to this skill, as he is also on the spectrum. “Being on the spectrum definitely has helped me increase pattern recognition when it comes to learning to play instruments, but I do like to think I have a little bit of talent,” Alex joked.  

The benefits of music

There are many benefits of playing music for those on the autism spectrum. The client’s mom thinks her son’s newfound hobby and passion has made a positive impact on his behavior. “I think he goes to play when he needs to relax and sort of unwind from the day,” she said. “I would also say it has given him some extra confidence. He loves when we clap and cheer him on while he plays. He gets a big smile on his face and seems to stand taller when he gets up.”  

Amanda can attest to this. She said she has noticed that her client loves having others listen to and watch him play the piano and that he has even allowed peers to play alongside him. “Usually, he only wants his therapists and familiar people around him, but this has allowed him to let other people into his world,” Amanda said.

Alex has noticed a difference in his client’s behavior in the clinic as he’s gotten more involved in playing the piano as well. “It’s kind of given him more of a sense of entertainment and joy,” Alex said.  

Last November, another Healing Haven parent gifted a piano to the client’s family after hearing him play in the clinic and learning that the family was seeking an in-home piano for him.  The family is hoping to start piano lessons at home soon. Alex’s plans for playing the piano include getting an in-home piano and making more time to practice. 

Helping your child with autism find their passion

“The interest in music has always been there for him [her son], but ABA and his therapist provided the opportunity for him to learn and explore playing the piano,” said the client’s mom. “We wouldn’t have known that he has the passion and talent for piano if not for his exposure and opportunity during his therapy sessions.” 

At Healing Haven, we love to help children discover their interests and passions through our ABA Therapy. If you’re looking for potential hobbies to try out with your child, check out this list of ideas.

Developing Relationships on the Autism Spectrum 

developing loving relationships when you have autism
mom hugging son

In the United States, our culture has predetermined ideas of what love looks like between parent and child as well as between adults. As most of us have experienced, relationships can be complicated, autism or not. And developing relationships when you have autism is just as important as it is for those who don’t. Autism can cause differences in communication, understanding of context and sensory perceptions. As a result, people often believe that individuals with autism don’t understand or even require love and loving relationships. However, that is simply not the case.  

The expression of love starts at a very early age as parents and others are teaching skill sets that children will need for the rest of their lives. Here in our clinics our team witnesses the many ways kids with autism connect with their therapists and show love. And, as professionals deeply invested in the wellness of our clients and their families, many of our team members read and learn about some of the less commonly discussed aspects of life on the spectrum — and that includes love. 

In this post we share some wisdom from our President & Founder, Jamie McGillivary. She shares what love for someone with autism may look like and how to help foster the ability to develop loving relationships. 

Start with understanding and acceptance 

Because love is universal and not limited by age, we will start with a couple of concepts about love on the spectrum for parents and loved ones to consider. 

First, it’s important to recognize there is a notable difference between feeling love and behaving in a loving way. And this difference applies to everyone, not only those with autism. Jamie says that when we consider autism as a way of being, rather than a disorder, an individual’s response to love makes a lot more sense. Essentially, loving behavior can look very different from one person to the next. Just because a person isn’t comfortable with hugging or kissing, doesn’t mean they don’t feel love. 

Second, individuals don’t have to excel at recognizing the emotions of others to have emotions of their own. Jamie points out a great irony regarding this idea. “As therapists, we teach the skills of putting yourself into another’s shoes, but, as so-called neurotypical people, do we do this when interacting with people with autism?”  

This concept is called “theory of mind”. It is the ability to understand the experiences of others, even if they don’t coincide with our own. For those of us who don’t have autism, we can show the greatest amount of love simply by extending understanding and acceptance. 

Expressing and receiving love 

Parents can gain a lot of understanding about how their child with autism, as well as anyone else in their lives, shows and accepts love by reading The Five Love Languages, a book series by Gary Chapman. There is a kid’s version too. 

The 5 Love Languages

Everyone has a preference as to what feeling loved means for them. The 5 Love Languages are: words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service and physical touch. You can learn more about each of the five love languages through Champman’s book, as well as in our post 5 Ways to Express Love to Your Child with Autism

Learning how your child expresses and receives love is an important skill. Jamie provides this example, “You can learn about your child’s love languages by observing their behavior. Are they in your space, do they say ‘mom, mom, mom, mom, mom’? This gives you a clue that they need you to fill their bucket with quality time.” 

If you sense that your child is feeling less connected, it might be that you or others aren’t communicating in their preferred love language. Receiving a gift can mean very little to someone who craves praise and acknowledgment. Some kids with autism want hugs but will never give them from the front. Thay may need a hug from the back or the side for it to be acceptable to them on a sensory level. 

Additionally, a common misconception is that kids with autism don’t want to be social. In reality, they may feel disconnected because you are not communicating in a way that’s meaningful to them. 

A common scenario most parents can relate to is when a preschooler wants to play with a peer but doesn’t know how to express they want to play.  So instead, they kick over the peer’s just-completed block tower. And the reverse of this is when a child asks another to come play but is ignored by the nonverbal child. The children in both scenarios have a need and a desire to be with each other. But unfortunately aren’t able to communicate it in a way that the other understands. 

This is called “negative reciprocal actions,” and when they add up, the person trying to connect eventually gives up. Socially, this is where we see a difference. Kids with autism express their needs on their own terms.  It’s important to learn how to speak their language of love.  

Setting a relational foundation 

As parents, you are the first role models for loving relationships. If you are accepting and open to your child’s differences, it opens the door to enter your child’s world. Follow your child’s lead and be a detective in how they communicate with you. When you figure that out, you will get more back in return. 

By recognizing your child’s way of connecting with others, it goes beyond your own parent/child relationship. You are helping them express their need for love to others. This sets the stage for teaching pivotal social interactions that can help them make deep friendships and develop loving relationships. Developing a connection with your child – or grandchild, friend, relative or love interest — with autism, is possible. The key is figuring out how they express and receive love.. 

Toilet Training Tips for Kids with Autism

toilet training and autism

Toilet training is a fundamental skill to teach all kids. But it can be a tricky skill for children with autism to master. Some parents may find toilet training a smooth process, while others find it a huge battle. Many parents try to start the process and feel discouraged, then decide to take a break. Wherever you are in your child’s journey to using the toilet independently, know that success is definitely possible.

Is Your Child Ready for Toilet Training?

The first step in helping your child with autism use the toilet? Determine if they’re ready. Our Director of Clinical Standards, Dr. Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, suggests a list of pre-requisites to consider before starting the toilet training process.

Can your child…

  • sit on the toilet or potty chair for a few minutes?
  • pull pants up or down?
  • hold urine for at least 30 minutes?
  • imitate skills such as sitting and wiping?
  • find the bathroom or potty chair in the house?

Your child doesn’t need to be proficient in each of these steps all at once to start toilet training. However, keep in mind that the process will be easier and more successful if your child can complete most steps first. If your child struggles with fine motor strength and control, consider occupational therapy (OT). OT can help with skills such as pulling pants up and down, wiping, etc. Additionally, there should be minimal behaviors occurring with bathroom use. If behaviors arise often, be sure to address them prior to starting the toilet training process.

Reinforcement and Encouragement

It’s important to utilize reinforcement and encouragement when working on toilet training your child with autism. You can reinforce their success in using the toilet in a variety of ways, including:

  • Food, such as candy or a small treat
  • A sticker chart
  • A highly preferred activity such as tablet time, a game or favorite toy

Along with reinforcers, use lots of verbal encouragement. Make sure it’s specific and descriptive: “I love how you asked to go to the potty.” Or “You did an amazing job sitting on the toilet for x amount of time!” etc.

Barriers to Toilet Training

Toilet training kids with autism can definitely have its setbacks. You might encounter challenging behaviors from your child, such as fear of using the toilet, refusing to use it, misusing toilet paper or other materials, or tantrums when encouraged to use the toilet.

Some children with autism might be hesitant to use the toilet due to sensory issues. If this is the case for your child, identify the sensory issue. It could be that the toilet seat is uncomfortable, they may feel cold, or feel afraid of the loud flushing sound. Perhaps utilize a toilet seat and let your child hold a stuffed animal or toy while sitting to help them feel safe and comforted.

Another barrier to toilet training is constipation. Kids with autism can be prone to constipation due to selective eating. If you notice your child struggling to void with bowel movements, consult your pediatrician.

General Tips for Toilet Training Kids with Autism

  1. Take toilet training one step at a time! While many parents are eager for their child to gain independence in the bathroom, try not to rush through the process.
  2. Have your child use pull ups or underwear as they transition from diapers.
  3. Use visuals in the bathroom such as a step-by-step laminated sheet with photos to help your child remember the toilet use process.
  4. When starting toilet training, plan a time to be at home with your child (Ideally, a week).
  5. Take data. You could create a chart, take notes in a notebook, or find a data sheet that works for you through an online search. For each toilet session, list the date, time, accident, success, location, and any independent requests.
  6. Make the experience fun and rewarding! Ensure your child is comfortable on the toilet by having them pick out a preferred toilet seat. Keep toys and books in the bathroom and even play music. The more enjoyable the experience is for your child, the more likely they will pick up skills and move towards independence.

If your child receives ABA therapy, check in with your child’s BCBA. They can give suggestions specific to your child as well as general support throughout toilet training.

Toilet training, though necessary, is a huge task to undertake as a parent. While it can be discouraging at times, remember to celebrate the successes. And with encouragement and consistent reinforcement, your child will learn in his or her own time.

Autism-Friendly Activities Around Metro Detroit 

autism-friendly activities in metro detroit

‘Tis the season, which means winter break is upon us! For many, this equates to extra down time to relax and play. But for children on the autism spectrum, this “down time” is out of their routine. A change in routine can cause anxiety or trigger behaviors. That’s why, for parents and caretakers of children with autism, it is helpful to have some autism-friendly activities in mind. Doing so helps to ensure an active and enjoyable holiday break for everyone.  

An amazing BCBA on our team, Megan Tucci, MA, BCBA, LBA, compiled a list of autism-friendly activities and events in Metro Detroit to share with her clients. And we thought it would be awesome to share it with all of you, as well!  

Sensory-Friendly Events and Activities Around Metro Detroit:

  1. AMC Sensory Friendly Film Showing : These sensory film-showings feature lowered sound and dim lighting. Patrons are able to bring their own dietary-friendly snacks and kids are free to “dance, walk, shout or sing” or move about the aisles. There are no previews or advertisements before the movies. The movies are geared toward children ages 5 & up and showings begin at 10 am on Saturdays. Wednesday evening movie showings, which may be geared toward an older audience, begin at 7 pm. The participating locations in southeast Michigan are Sterling Heights, Clinton Township, and Livonia.  If you do this, we suggest calling the location to get information about available showtimes.
  2. The Henry Ford : Many areas of The Henry Ford in Dearborn offer sensory-friendly kits that include noise-cancelling headphones, quiet spaces, and sensory-friendly maps. Staff members have also received special training from the Autism Alliance of Michigan.  
  3. Michigan Science Center : This fun and uniquely cool educational space offers “sensory backpacks”. They contain headphones, sunglasses, laminated maps, and fidget toys. The backpacks also have various sensory-friendly interactives.
  4. Detroit Zoo: At all times, the Detroit Zoo offers sensory bags equipped with noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, verbal cue cards and weighted lap pads to guests who are prone to feeling overwhelmed by new environments. Additionally, staff receive training through the Michigan Autism Safety Training to recognize and handle sensory needs. For children who love lights, check out Wild Lights at the Detroit Zoo this holiday season. They have dates available through early January! 

Other Autism-Friendly Events and Activities  

  1. Urban Air : This large trampoline park offers the chance for kids of all ages to jump, fly, climb, and participate in a variety of attractions and activities! 
  2. Legoland Discovery Center: This center, located inside Great Lakes Crossing Mall, contains several attractions inspired by – you guessed it – Legos! Experience a 4D Theater, have fun on rides, and of course, build some legos! 
  3. Outdoor Adventure Center: This unique interactive “outdoor” museum is indoors yet has all of the exciting features the great outdoors brings. The Center includes some awesome exhibits to enjoy. Sensory-friendly options have ended for the year, but keep your eyes peeled for the center’s 2024 schedule of specialized sensory-friendly days!  
  4. iFly Detroit: This fun, indoor skydiving experience is well suited for older, braver kids who are ready for an adventure! iFly Detroit is located in Novi and offers an “All Abilities” program specifically designed for those with physical or cognitive special needs.  
  5. MetroParks Holiday Lights/Events: It’s too late for this year but take note for next December. Each MetroPark hosts a different seasonal event. Events include Lights on the Trails, crafts, Holiday Lights at the Farm, Snacks with Santa, and much more! 

NOTE: We are not making specific recommendations for readers to participate in these autism-friendly activities. That is up to the discretion of parents in choosing activities they and their children participate in. 

AAC: What It Is and Why It’s Important for Children with Autism

There are many means of communication used in our world. The most common ones used today are spoken words, gestures, eye gaze, facial expressions, print, sign language, and even GIFs. When it comes to individuals with speech and language delays, it is possible to augment and provide alternative options for them to efficiently communicate with others. Children with autism, Down syndrome, and other speech and language struggles benefit from access to additional communication tools. In this post we will explain what AAC is and why it’s important for children with autism. 

AAC stands for Augmented Alternative Communication. What does augmentative mean, you might be wondering? Augmentative simply means to make something greater by adding to it, and alternative, as we know, is to have multiple options or possibilities available in a situation. So, when thought about it in literal terms, AAC is something every person uses to communicate. 

Types of AAC

There are two different types of AAC. The first type is what most people use in addition to or instead of verbal communication, which includes some of the examples we listed above. However, many children (and adults) with an autism diagnosis utilize aided AAC, which can be “high tech” or “low tech”. Low tech AAC can be anything that involves using pictures or icons to communicate. High tech describes communication apps on an iPad or tablet, such as TouchChat or LAMP Words for Life. Any type of computer with a voice, or even large buttons that talk, would also be considered high-tech AAC.  

Myths Surrounding AAC

When it comes to AAC, many people, including parents and professionals, are misled by the myths that have historically surrounded it. The most common myth is that AAC will hinder speech development. While this may seem easily believable, we have seen many examples in our clinic and elsewhere of children who build more speech due to having another opportunity as a bridge to spoken language.  

Another popular myth regarding AAC is that it’s not necessary so long as the child or person can communicate their basic wants and needs. At Healing Haven, we support not just the very basics of communication, but each individual’s growth and independence. This means making friends, expressing ideas, showing interest in hobbies and activities, showing love, and much more. Everyone deserves the opportunity to do these things.  

Effective Use of AAC

While AAC, whether high tech or low tech, is a bountiful means of communication, there are reasons it may not be effective, which can be discouraging to families.  

AAC is most successful when parents, caregivers, and school staff have been educated to personalize the device and present models appropriately. Presenting models “appropriately” may look different for different children based on their language level, processing time and interests. When these factors are not taken into account, ineffectiveness and inefficiency can result.  

It is important that families who are adjusting to a new form of AAC have the resources and support they need to effectively integrate the form of communication into their child’s life. At Healing Haven, this is a large part of the parent training we offer to each individual and their family. 

Teaching AAC with Spoken Word Communication

One must remember that AAC is just another avenue to communication for those with language and speech processing challenges. The autistic community themselves say they need more than one avenue to communicate. Many times, speech and language professionals teach an individual AAC and spoken word communication simultaneously. Through the therapy we provide at our clinic, the two will always go hand in hand. It is important to us that every child has more than one option in their modes of communication. 

It is important to understand your child’s style of language processing to personalize the vocabulary and provide appropriate models. Please reference the “User Tips for AAC” section below to learn more and see the link to our blog detailing Analytical Language Processing and Gestalt Language Processing. The Speech and Language Pathologists at our clinic are highly skilled in helping parents and children personalize AAC based on the child’s style of language processing. 

Setting Your Child Up for Success with their AAC Device

There are many steps you can take to ensure your child with autism has a pleasant and successful AAC experience. While some of these may be easily overlooked, they are vital in encouraging and teaching your child to communicate. Some of these steps are:  

  • Ensure the AAC device is always readily available. This includes having necessary AAC accessories such as cases with handles and straps.  
  • Learn how to edit and add new content to your child’s AAC device.  
  • Allow your child to explore the device as much as they please. Even if it seems like the child is just playing or “stimming” with the device, this interaction is still helping to familiarize the child with the AAC and its functions.  
  • Model consistently and often on the AAC device.  
  • Ensure everyone involved with helping your child communicate (family members, school staff, caregivers, etc.) knows how to effectively and comfortably model language on the device. This includes knowing and educating yourself on your child’s style of language processing. 
  • Do as much as you can to encourage your child’s use of the device. This could look like modeling on the device to talk about your child’s favorite cartoon character, food, or activity, or creating communication opportunities that are appealing to your child and their interest.  
  • Always ask your child’s SLP for help when needed. These individuals are AAC experts and should be able to help with whatever you may need to be as fluent as possible with AAC communication! At our clinic, the SLPs and BCBAS collaborate and work seamlessly to support the child’s communication. You have a team of resources. 
  • Lastly, ensure the form of AAC is consistent across all professionals and/or providers (the child’s entire team should be using the same type and same brand of high or low tech AAC). 

User Tips for AAC

When it comes to children with speech-language deficits, communication is most effective when it is used naturally. With that, we encourage you to follow your child’s lead with their communication attempts and always react with praise at any attempt they make to communicate. It is best to simply model alternative ways to communicate, as opposed to requiring a response from your child before giving them what they want.  

Many children with autism are Gestalt Language Processors (GLPs). For GLPs, there are four stages of language development. What stage your child is at determines the setup of their AAC device. If your child is at a stage 3 or higher, or once they get to that point, they are working on the freeing of single words and the combining of 2-3 words. This is where it’s important to know the difference between core vocabulary and fringe words.  

Many AAC devices have a core board, which is a page on the device, typically the main page when opening the app, that includes both “core” words and phrases and “fringe” words. The exact configuration of these words depends on the device and app being used. You can then use these words and phrases to help your child build their vocabulary and customize it to fit their wants and needs. Alternatively, if your child uses lower-tech AAC, such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), you and your child’s speech team can customize the words based off of the child’s interests and needs.

AAC Resources

If your child has an assigned Speech Language Pathologist, they will be your best AAC resource. Additionally, the internet is abundant with resources that can help you navigate and utilize your child’s AAC device. Here are some of the top websites we recommend to parents of AAC users:  

And of course, learn more about AAC by connecting with our speech team at Healing Haven, operated by Gigi’s Kids Speech and Language Therapy, which the information in this post comes from.  

We hope this post has helped enrich your knowledge of AAC and answered some questions you may have had surrounding it. If your child has benefited from the use of AAC, please feel free to share in the comments. Let’s continue to make communication all-inclusive! 

Holiday Stress Management Tips for Autism Families

The holiday season can be full of wonderful activities, parties and family gatherings. But there is also an added level of stress during the holidays because of the extra “hustle and bustle”. Shopping, baking, decorating, wrapping and hosting – how much can we add to our plates? And when you are also parenting a child with autism or other special needs, the demands of the holidays can become overwhelming. With input from our Counselors on staff, we’ve compiled some holiday stress management tips to help you enjoy this season. 

Holiday Stress Management Tips

1. Acceptance

Something that may seem obvious is the ability to accept your child as they are and be flexible about their needs. An acceptance mindset can be a significant driver to reducing your overall stress. Mentally prepare yourself that during this busy season your child may engage in more self-soothing behaviors to cope with the changes in their routine and added stress. They also may not want to interact with all the extra family and friends that you see this time of year. Giving your child some control and choices may help as well. You can offer controlled choices about the time they go and leave from gatherings, if they want to go somewhere, or where some decorations should go. 

2. Flexibility

Also look at your own expectations around the holidays and try to be more flexible.  Realize that it’s OK that your child may not feel the same way about the holidays as other kids. Your child may not like the traditional holiday activities, so stop and ask yourself the motivation behind doing something (like taking a picture with Santa). If the motivation is that it’s a “childhood tradition”, it’s not worth having your child stress out, panic or go into a full meltdown getting near Santa. Try to develop a flexible mindset. If you have to make a last-minute change because your child becomes over stimulated, that’s not only supporting your child and their needs, but also a self-care practice for you! 

3. Set Boundaries

You know your child and how and where they are at their best. If your entire family is gathering at Grandma’s house, there are ways you can still participate. Plan to stay for an hour so that you leave before your child reaches their sensory maximum. It may be helpful to communicate ahead of time the boundaries you are setting with your family members to avoid any misunderstanding. Here is a great resource to share with family or friends who are hosting holiday gatherings. And thanking them for understanding the choices you need to make will help them to feel appreciated for being flexible. 

You could also plan to arrive at gatherings early in order to allow your child to slowly acclimate to the number of people showing up in real-time, which could help make them feel less overwhelmed. 

4. Say No

With so many invitations, activities and options presented to us during the holidays, we can end up finding ourselves in situations that may take away from the enjoyment. Furthermore, saying yes to an event when you actually want to say no can lead to feeling overwhelmed and also experiencing resentment. If you know your child will not do well at someone’s house, you can kindly decline an invitation. Remember, all you need to say is “I am sorry, we cannot make it – thank you for the invitation.” You do not need to give a reason or explain why you cannot make it to the event. It can be hard to say no, but if it will reduce the stress in your life, you need to do it for your own sanity. 

5. Pace It Out

Decorating your home for Christmas can be fun for some, but sensory overload for others. If you gradually get your decorations out, your child can acclimate to the new lights, smells and sounds slowly. Progressively introducing new decor into the living areas of the house allows your child to gradually adapt to the environment. Otherwise, you risk overloading them with the changes all at one time. 

It may also be useful to take time to familiarize your child with the destination or venue of any gathering as well as the guests that will be attending. This can be done through photos or preparing a photo album they can hold and refer to during the event, as well as reviewing it beforehand. This can help reduce the chance of surprises and help them feel comfortable in knowing the environment and people they will see.   

6. Find Balance

An important holiday stress management tip is to work in some quiet, soothing activities with your kids to help them balance all the additional sensory input that comes during this time of year. And those quiet moments can benefit you, too. Furthermore, find balance in the ability to indulge in the yummy treats of the season without feeling guilty. It is common for healthy eating habits to take a backseat this time of year. But if you can balance out the sweets indulgence by increasing your water intake each day, you may feel more positive about enjoying the holiday treats. 

It’s also important to make sure to set some time aside to indulge in self-care activities that help you relax, have fun, or feel energized. These activities could include talking with a friend, going for a walk, reading, listening to music, or whatever else you enjoy. The important part of self-care is not so much what you do – it’s that you make time do it.   

7. Keep Structure

You and your child have schedules – daily, nightly, weekly routines. Keep as many things consistent as possible. For example, if you have self-care activities such as attending a workout class or getting your nails done, keep that commitment even during the busyness of the holidays. If your child has a nightly routine of taking a bath before bed, leave the holiday event with enough time to allow your kiddo to complete their routine. Keeping your typical agendas will set you and your family up for success during this often hectic time. And if a change in your child’s routine is unavoidable, creating a holiday visual schedule can help them prepare and process what is coming. Here’s another great resource for holiday social stories and visual schedules

8. Avoid Perfectionism

So many caregivers are perfectionists by nature and the holidays can intensify the desire for things to be “just right.” Though this may be difficult, try and focus on the big picture of the holiday season by avoiding getting caught up in the little details. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect, write it down or say it out loud – “things do not need to be perfect this holiday season!” 

9. Consider Dietary Restrictions

As you likely already know, autistic individuals are more likely than others to have dietary restrictions. This is something to be aware and mindful of, as well as make known to others so that your child isn’t excluded in that sense. Even if there are no dietary restrictions, having preferred food items around for your child can be an effective tool in helping them remain calm and comfortable in stressful situations. With this said, also be mindful of extreme amounts of sugar available and accessible, as this could also heighten stress and anxiety during the holidays.  

10. Sleep!

This is a small one and may seem somewhat of a cliché, but getting enough sleep is so important for stress management- especially around the holidays. With all the things we have to get done during the holidays, sleep often gets neglected. But we also know that lack of sleep makes most people more vulnerable to irritability, mood changes, etc. Protect your time to sleep by prioritizing what needs to get done today verses what can wait until tomorrow so that you aren’t sacrificing sleep to get things done. Do your best to ensure that your child gets enough sleep, as well, as this can make a huge difference in their energy and behavior.  

Some of these holiday stress management tips may seem easier said than done. But we hope that you find at least a few of them helpful and easy to incorporate into your holiday season. Even if it’s just hearing that you CAN say no and set boundaries… doing so just may lead to a less stressful and more enjoyable season! 

And if you find your stress level increasing into the new year, our Counseling program helps parents of kids with autism, as well as children and teens on the spectrum. Contact us for more info. 

If you found these holiday stress management tips helpful, please share this post with others!