Category Archives: Autism

Eagle Scout Project Helps Students with Special Needs Learn Social Skills

Making connections with the community is an important component of our schools and adult programs. One of our longest running connections is with local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They are known for being helpful, and for many years, they have been generous and supportive to ECLC of New Jersey!

Scouts have volunteered at our annual walkathons and other events and completed projects at our schools in Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus for students with special needs, as part of working toward Gold Awards and Eagle Scout.

Jackson Koury of Troop 121 in Chatham is the latest Scout to lend us a helping hand and build bridges to connect with our students.

Koury built a mobile Lego Therapy station as his Eagle Scout project, which will help our students improve their communication, creativity, collaboration and social skills.

Lego Therapy is a lot more than just playtime. It was developed by a clinical neuro-psychologist and used in classrooms, in Occupational Therapy and in social skills groups at our Chatham school, which enrolls about 170 students with special needs, ages 5 -21.

Eagle Scout.jpgStudents select a kit and take on one of three roles: supplier, builder or engineer. After choosing a kit, the supplier finds the Lego pieces. The builder puts it together, and the engineer makes sure everything is correct. The small groups and clearly defined roles, help students with special needs work as a team, collaborate and talk. It has been a big hit with students and teachers.

“The Lego cart is always moving from room to room. It is constantly in use. Our students really love it, and we can see how it helps develop their social skills,” said Assistant Principal Allison Clemens. “We are very thankful to Jackson for his work!”

Koury decided to complete his Eagle Scout project at ECLC after joining the Play Unified Club at Chatham High School. In Play Unified, several hundred students from both schools enjoy social, academic and athletic activities in the evening at the ECLC school.

He has been a Scout for 10 years, starting as a Cub Scout at age 6. “My favorite thing about scouting is the personal development and growth that comes from camping and hiking,” said Koury, who is a sophomore at Chatham High School.

While student enjoy the Legos, Koury is busy finalizing his Eagle requirements in anticipation of a Court of Honor sometime next year. We are grateful to Scouts like Koury for building connections with our students.

How to Get Outside for Spring!

We have all been looking forward to warmer weather and getting outside more. Here are some easy, fun and free things to do in the Spring!Flowers

Take a Hike! – There are many parks and trails throughout New Jersey, with trails suitable for families or beginners.  Check out a listing of New Jersey parks.

Free Concerts – Many communities,  county parks  and libraries offer free concerts in the warmer months.  Review a listing of free events throughout New Jersey.

Museums – There are a variety of museums to be visited, whether they are all about art, history, or science.

Garden – Don’t have space for your own plot? Some towns have community gardens where you can plant and harvest your own! It’s always so rewarding to grow and then eat vegetables or admire flowers that you grow yourself. Gardening is also a great way to teach children about nutrition. Greenhouses and garden centers are fun to explore, too.

Visit a New Place – Take a ride to Frenchtown or other towns along the Delaware River. Take a drive to the Jersey Shore before the summer frenzy starts or explore northern areas, such as the New Jersey State Botanical Garden at Skylands.

Farms & Petting Zoos – If your family is comfortable with animals (and not allergic!),  farms are fabulous place to visit, pet small animals and check out Spring crops. Get some ideas at Mommy Poppins and Fun New Jersey.

Outdoor Craft Shows & Flea Markets – These  are plentiful in the Spring and Summer and fun to explore. Look for local listings or social media posts to find out where they are happening.

How About Traveling? – As always in travel,  preparation is the key. These days, many of us bring tablets,  phones and music to fill time and energy on the road. Train Travel

Doing research and preparation about your destination, before you hop into the car or catch a flight with your child, will help make or break a trip. 

If you are going to a city or a beach,  know what the sites are and plan an agenda in advance. Help your child learn organizational and research skills, by sharing this advance planning with them.

Likewise, if you are going to visit family,  planning activities that you would like to do with them is also a good preparation. Of course, agendas are not always fulfilled, but it helps to set expectations for the trip and may ease anxiety about traveling away from home and breaking up daily routines.

Here are suggestions for making the travel time fly by:

  • Audiobooks
  • Downloaded guided meditation (assists with entertainment, relaxation and sleeping)
  • Coloring books, clipboards, pencils and travel-ready art supplies
  • Travel journal to write, draw or paste in photos or other items of interest from places are seeing
  • Get ideas for how to keep children occupied while traveling. 

Have a Happy Spring!!

by Allison Weideman, PsyD, Chatham School Psychologist

 

Feeling Gratitude during the Hectic Holidays

The holidays are upon us! We  look forward to the extended time off,  busy holidays, and being thankful for time with family and friends – or most of it anyway.  

Shopping,  cooking,  company,  family, and more! The holidays present activities and expectations that can create stress or even guilt. We are not all going to have a Hallmark Moment Holiday!  

How can we find ways to have  quiet time and gratitude  for all  we do have? christmas-cookies-2918172_1920

Gratitude is a deliberate and active practice for any time, but especially when times are busy and stressful due to family/personal difficulties,  hectic  holidays,   or troubling world news.   It is easy to feel overwhelmed and forget the good things that will endure. 

I only have to view a news program to remind myself to be grateful for a place to live, food to eat,  and people to be with,  because so many people are tragically going without those basic comforts.  We can’t control all that is chaotic in the world, but we can take steps to make our worlds a little calmer and more appreciated.

Some positive activities and thoughts for  the holidays:

  • As a family,  donate some items that you no longer use.  Organizations are always looking for clothes, household items, etc.  This also helps children understand what to be grateful for that others are not always as fortunate as we are.   Charitable organizations  are always grateful for donations of time or food  if you are able.
  • Remember those who are alone for the holiday. Send a card to someone you miss.  Call family who are far away.  Bring dessert to a neighbor.
  • Take a break. Go outside and play football with the family or take a walk.   You will all remember playing and looking at nature as much as the wonderful meals.
  • Count your blessings — and not just the big ones! Make this a practice for every day.  Oprah Winfrey often suggested thinking of three things a day to be grateful for.  Some people like to write them down.  Being able to get out of bed, walk, speak, and eat are things we take for granted most of the time. Be mindful of them during these distracting times. Name the people who care about you.  Don’t forget small things like getting a hug, making someone smile, walking your dog, accomplishing a routine task.
  • What about big, family dinners? Take charge of things you worry will be problematic.  Plan ahead for seating.  Decide who will do best sitting with whom.  Have children make place cards for guests.  Find ways for children to be included – then set them free.  Holiday meals can be a long stretch for kids.  Plan something fun for them to do when the adults are lingering at the table, after the meal.   Have a simple craft project set up or a familiar movie for them to watch.  Ask willing teens or adults to take a turn supervising or playing with the younger ones.  Sharing the load is something to be grateful for, too!
  • Have a guest who likes to be a food critic? Ask them to bring a special dish to share. Too busy or tired to bake? Take a breath and pick up some prepared desserts.  Everyone will be just as happy. Guide the conversation topics, and steer away from hot topics like politics. Turn off the world and the television.   Have everyone name something they are grateful for.  Although it may seem corny, it is interesting and uplifting to hear what others name, and it reminds us what to add to our own list.

Studies have shown that cultivating gratitude in daily life contributes to a more positive mood and a greater sense of emotional contentment.  If it can help us in daily life, imagine the benefits for busy holiday times!

By Allison Weideman, Chatham school psychologist

Pets & Children with Special Needs

Thinking about a pet for your family?  Pets can be a wonderful addition to a family for many reasons and have a positive benefit, especially for children with special needs. 

Girl with dogResearch involving children with autism has found that having a family pet from a young age tended to improve social behaviors, such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to people’s questions.

The fact that animals are non-verbal can be a positive and soothing factor for children with sensory or communication issues As we pet owners know, there are many lessons a child can learn through pet ownership and care. 

The benefits of pets include:

  • Relief from anxiety and stress.
  • Learning about compassion and emotions.
  • Greater emotional knowledge about companionship, building a bond and making a friend.
  • Encouraging socialization and development of related social skills.
  • Understanding rules and chores in a concrete way.

Before you jump into adopting a pet, recognize that owning a pet is a lifetime commitment. Like any long-term decision, advance thought and preparation is key!

Also, consider adopting a rescue animal, but carefully evaluate if this choice is  suitable for your child. There are many wonderful dogs and cats patiently waiting for a “forever” home at your local animal shelter or pet adoption agency. 

Choosing the Right Pet

Dogs and cats are popular pets for good reason. Dogs come in all sizes and personalities. They provide unconditional love and acceptance; enjoy being touched; can play with the family, and can go places with you.

Dogs do require a high level of care, such as regular walking, brushing, and training. It is important to research breeds that are child-friendly and suitable for your home and lifestyle. Consider whether barking or dog play behavior might frighten your child.

You may be surprised to learn that there are more pet cats than dogs across the county. Cats are the top choice in part because they require much less daily care and are less expensive to own than dogs. They also live longer, on average, because they are smaller than most dogs. 

CatIf you are considering a cat, just as with dogs, it is important to find the right match. Cats tend to have distinct personalities and don’t exhibit the same type of behavior as dogs. As cat lovers know, cats are affectionate, friendly and will bond with you. They enjoy closeness and petting and play.

However, cats do not roughhouse like dogs. Cats tend to be more quiet and sensitive than canine companions. For those reason, cats can be a good choice for a sensory -sensitive child who might be frightened by loud barking, jumping and lively dog behavior.

Not all children, or adults, are comfortable with animals. This can create a very stressful situation for both people and pets! If you are in doubt about your child’s comfort level with any animal, it is not the time to bring home a pet.

If you would like to have some type of pet experience in your home, fish may be the answer. Fish are low maintenance pets, and watching water movements has been found to be soothing. No guessing why they are the No. 1 pet in America!

fish-bowl-846060_1920Fish, require maintenance and good, consistent care. Learning responsibility is important, but as the parent, you will always need to monitor and supervise the care and ensure the safety of both your child and your pet. Small, furry pets such as guinea pigs and hamsters are often appealing. However, they have to be handled very gently and care must be taken to have their cages always locked, so escape or unwanted attention from other pets does not occur.

No matter what you decide, a good suggestion is to expose your child to the pets you are considering before you bring one home. Here are some ways to check out pets:

  • Spend some time with friends who have pets, visit a rescue group or foster a dog before adopting.
  • Prepare your child by reading some books about pets together.
  • Create a checklist, social story, or visual images of what to expect and how to behave with your pet.

Additional articles on this topic:

By Allison Weideman, ECLC Chatham School Psychologist

Audiobooks Can Turn a New Chapter in Reading for Your Child with Special Needs

With summer approaching, it is the time for summer booklists and dreamy thoughts of poolside or beachside reading.  It is also time to help children prepare for their summer reading fun.  I encourage all families to make use of a free and widely available tool to increase language and literacy abilities in students: Audiobooks!

Web girl-1176165_1920If you are an audiobook enthusiast, you already know how much there is to learn from this powerful and addicting resource.  If considering using audiobooks for the first time with your child, don’t hesitate!   Summer is the perfect time to explore the world of audiobooks and relax somewhere special, while the written word is brought to life.

Audiobooks increase accessibility to and independence with written material. Many students with special needs often have different relationships to reading material than other people; there are often large barriers between our students and the content contained in print. Our students deserve equal access to literature.  Audiobooks help to breakdown hidden barriers contained in print and level the playing field.   With the press of a button, your child is in business.

There are many difficulties people with special needs may encounter when trying to access text, including:

  • Decoding for some children and adolescents can be difficult work and very labor intensive, which impedes comprehension of the material.
  • Longer or thicker books may be intimidating to students causing anxiety, avoidance and diminished self-confidence.
  • They may have difficulty turning pages and/or visually scanning text.
  • Students may decode well but may have difficulty with inferential thinking (ability to read between the lines)
  • Families may have less time to do so because their child may require more care in other areas, such as with eating, bathing, getting dressed or dealing with behavioral challenges.

Audiobooks increase comprehension by 76 percent!   Did you know your child’s reading level may not be her comprehension level?  Your child may be like many people and able to comprehend two levels beyond her own reading level!    Why not embrace opportunities for your child to listen to audiobooks and learn information he is developmentally ready for?  Audiobooks provide context that supports understanding of more challenging words and ideas.  Audiobooks are typically read by esteemed actors whose voices imbue text with meaning.  Different voices are often acted out making it clear who is speaking and helping the child follow along with the plot.

Boost language skills and content knowledge! The words, sentence structures and ideas used in books differ greatly from the functional language and ideas we communicate every day.  Literacy experiences through audiobooks provide children the gift of gaining exposure to rich vocabulary and novel, creative ways of saying things.  Children acquire background knowledge that allows them to think about and converse about broader, more worldly topics and helps them make connections more easily to the curriculum at school.  When enjoyed with a parent or sibling, audiobooks provide great springboards for family discussions.

Combining print and audio increases recall significantly over reading print alone! Audiobooks can be listened to as a person reads along with the text.  Using two modalities as opposed to one has been shown to help students remember the text better and also score higher on tests.  For more advanced readers who may not have the stamina or confidence for a longer book, part of the book can be read and part can be listened to.  Alternating chapters is an option, as is reading the first few chapters and listening to the last few.

Multiple formats to choose from make finding an audiobook easy. Choose from CDs or downloadable digital books (e.g., Audible, Google Play, Overdrive) In my experience, students newer to audiobooks may benefit from the CD format, as tablets and smartphones are often discriminated stimuli for other forms of entertainment or are distracting because of their other features.  Also, CDs are acceptable for a student to listen to in bed, whereas tablets and smartphones should not be in a child’s room at night.  Most audiobooks are available from the library, as libraries share their inventories.  It is possible and convenient to reserve audiobooks from your library’s Website then pick them up at the front desk.  Keep in mind that apps such as OverDrive allow for modifications that may be helpful to some students, such as listening at half speed.

Explore the wide world of audiobooks. Just like when choosing a book, certain audiobooks are a better fit than others. Consider your child’s interests.  If an audiobook is not a great match, please don’t give up trying.  Try different selections until your child is interested.

How to Get Audiobooks

Your local library is a wonderful source of audiobooks on CDs and downloadable audiobooks.  If you do not have a library card, add a trip to the library to your summer plans!

Another easy option for getting audiobooks is using Audible or Google Play.  You can purchase audiobooks through their Websites or apps.

Audible’s Website offers a free one-month trial.  After that, a subscription fee of $14.95 applies monthly.  For that price, you get one audiobook, which can be accessed through your multiple devices.

Google Play is something you may already use.

  1. If you have not used Google Play before, run a search for Google Play.
  2. From the Website, use the menu on the left side of the screen to select Books.
  3. From the new menu on the left, select Audiobooks.
  4. Run a search or browse selections.
  5. Purchase the desired item.

Written by Laura Koch, Chatham School Speech Language Pathologist

Let’s Go Bike Riding!

Spring is here, and bike riding is the ultimate warm-weather activity! Parents always ask, “How can I teach my child to ride a bike?” There are a number of ways to teach your child to pedal and balance on a bike. bike-775799_1920First, a brief word about safety. Always practice in a protected area with a minimal amount of distractions and obstacles. It takes a lot of attention and focus for children to spot an obstacle, process the information and react quickly enough to avoid it. Parents will need to give their children hands-on support and constant cuing for safety awareness. And, of course, always wear a helmet!

Begin by teaching the child to ride a regular upright scooter. This is a great way for kids to learn how to get their feet up off the ground and how to balance. BikeIt is especially useful for children with gravitational insecurity. While gliding on the scooter, the children are also practicing steering, avoiding obstacles, getting on/off and braking.

 

 

Another way to practice balancing on a bike is by using a glider. GliderA glider is a bicycle without pedals. Have your child sit on the glider with both feet on the ground and begin pushing forward with their legs, propelling the bike forward for short distances. The goal is to get both feet off the ground for a few seconds, while the bike is moving, to learn the sensation of balance. Aim for gliding for 8-10 feet.

 

 

For children who need practice with pedaling, there are many over-sized tricycles available on the market. At ECLC of New Jersey, we use this large tricycle, which is available at Walmart and Target. Our students LOVE it! Children can also practice pedaling on a stationary bike to learn to pedal smoothly and continuously.Trike

 

 

 

There are a number of bike riding ‘camps’ available specifically geared to the special needs population. iCan Bike uses adapted bicycles, a specialized instructional program, and trained staff to enable individuals with disabilities to learn to ride a conventional two-wheeler. According to their Website, approximately 80% of the people who participate in the iCan Bike program learn to ride a bicycle independently (at least 75 feet with no assistance). iCan is a five-day program, with students riding for only 75 minutes each day! For more information, see their Website.

Written by Chatham School Physical Therapy Staff

Let’s Plant a Sensory Garden!

Garden

What is a Sensory Garden? A sensory garden is meant to appeal to ALL the senses, not only our visual sense. They are often utilized with special needs populations and are found to have therapeutic value for many individuals.

We are most familiar with the sights of a garden. Enhance the visual appeal with plants of varying flower colors, including red, soft grey and mixed color foliage. Consider plants with different textures and shapes and some (like grasses and tall plants) that will sway with the breeze.

The sense of sound will be enhanced with features, such as wind chimes,  grasses that rustle and textured paths that make sounds as you walk on them. Having a birdbath will add bird calls and visual interest. If you have a pathway, incorporate  gravel or stones that produce sound when walking.

For the sense of touch, include plants that can tolerate some touch and “petting.” Hosta, coneflowers and yarrow are all quite tolerant of touching. Vary the textures of plants, so that you have some smooth leaves and flowers and some larger or fuzzy textures (purple sage). Some plants are just fun to touch, such as lamb’s ears, astilbe (with its fern-life foliage) and sunflower heads.

For the sense of smell, choose plants with appealing scents, such as roses, lily of the valley, honeysuckle, and the annual nicotinia, which produces a scent at night. Grow some annual herbs, such as mint, thyme or rosemary. Pick them for a salad or crush the leaves in your hands to experience the scent.

What are native plants and why should I have them? Native plants and trees grow naturally in a geographic area, and provide food and sustenance to birds and butterflies.  Many of the plants and trees we see in garden centers are lovely, but they are not native to the United States. They don’t provide the needed support for our native wildlife and are not as hardy.

Consider plants, such as coneflowers, sunflowers, yarrow, hosta, beebalm, coreopsis, veronica and native blueberry shrubs. Any variety of milkweed is an important food plant for monarch butterflies. These are all perennials, so they return each year.

How to get started! Planting and tending a garden is a wonderful child and family-friendly activity,  and a fantastic way to welcome Spring! And, of course, when your plants and flowers come into bloom, you can enjoy them all season. Whether you want flowers or food,  there are easy growers to get start started on this Spring.

A garden can be a large plot of ground, or as simple as a container or a flower pot.  It can be fancy or as simple as three ingredients (pot, soil and seeds).

There are many seeds that will grow well  when planted directly in the garden. Some easy and hardy annual  flower seeds are zinnias,  sunflowers, marigolds, cleome and alyssum. Seeds are available at garden centers,  home stores and even some supermarkets.

It’s fun to look through the seed packages together and decide what to grow. Easy, high-producing vegetables include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and zucchini, which are easily planted from small containers. If you are adventurous, hot pepper varieties are pretty. Luckily, all seed packets have instructions! Watering and weeding your garden are two activities everyone can do together. And, then, pick some flowers for your table, or make a salad, and enjoy what you have created!

 

Pretty Plans

Among many flowering native shrubs you can consider planting is this gorgeous Hydrangea quercifolia plant!

For further information:

10 Steps to Building a Garden.

Top 10 Native Plants for the Northeast.

10 Plants for a Bird-Friendly Yard.

Why Native Plants Matter 

Sensory Nature Adventures and Play – for families of children with disabilities.  

Gardens for the Senses. 

Written by Allison Weideman, Chatham School Psychologist