The Westview School Blog
Did you know that tigers have striped skin and not just striped fur?
Did you know that reticulated pythons are longer than green anacondas?
Did you know the formula for the volume of spheres is four-thirds times Pi times radius cubed?
Did you know that honey is actually just bee vomit?
There is a common saying within the autism community, "If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism." Facts and insight collected from various students across various grade levels prove the point that we can always learn something from someone else. Like the students at The Westview School, these little nuggets of information are as different and varied as those who shared them.
With enrollment season upon us, the admissions department of The Westview School is busy fielding questions about the benefits of a private special needs education. Families are looking for the best fit for their children. The Westview School is proud to offer children on the autism spectrum a unique, specialized learning environment with outstanding educational and social opportunities. Some of the obvious benefits of a specialized special needs school include small classroom sizes and curriculum and instruction that is adapted based on each student's need. But there is much more that a school like Westview can provide a child that is not so easily quantified.
We asked our in-house experts, Becky Mattis, M.Ed., Admissions Director for The Westview School, and Mimi Le, M.A., LMFT, LPC, one of Westview’s Student and Staff Support Specialists, to weigh in on commonly asked questions prospective families have when deciding on a program like The Westview School. Their no-nonsense answers to the top three prospective family concerns about a private specialized education are supported by frank, heartfelt, and honest feedback from Westview students in elementary and middle school.
QUESTION 1: Will my child develop self-confidence?
One thing a parent of a child with autism learns very early on is that brains can grow. Developmental pediatricians and neurologists will tell parents, early intervention is the key, that a child's potential cannot be determined until they have an opportunity to learn. Children on the autism spectrum who participate in early intervention therapies and specialized schooling from an early age develop a growth mindset. The concept of a growth mindset was originally taught by Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck. She asserts that facing challenges, working hard, and learning from mistakes develops persistence and results in growth in intelligence and abilities. She further theorizes that people who develop a growth mindset at a young age are confident, resilient, and have a passion for learning. At The Westview School, you will frequently hear a teacher encouraging a student who is struggling with something say, "That's okay, you can try again." Instead of becoming frustrated when they make a mistake, we want our students to quickly regroup and try again.
Becky Mattis: Parents worry about self-esteem for their special needs child. The self-esteem impact that kids have when they are in a place that is meeting their needs, and they are learning and being successful is vastly greater than the negative impact that being in a place where their needs are not met, and they are feeling different and singled out.
Mimi Le: There is a vulnerability [at Westview] that you do not get in a neurotypical school setting. The vulnerability is that I am not the best at this. How can I get better? Both peers and teachers work together to help and encourage you. This may still happen in a neurotypical setting, but at Westview, we are very aware of it, and we make it part of each day, and so do our students.
When a student feels like they can excel at something new, they feel supported in their effort, and in turn, the other students in their class help that too. Students want to learn from the kid that is the expert on trains or the best at math. At Westview, there is never the social expectation to fit into the typical school social norms. There is no judgment. This builds confidence in a child when they are around others that support their expertise in something.
We asked Westview students, “What is your favorite thing about The Westview School?”
Jaden, Middle School: The teachers will go completely out of their way, will do anything they can to see their students succeed. They are always so nice and supportive, and I could not have any better teachers.
Thibault, Upper Elementary: I like this place because it provides a safe place. A safe place from bullies. [Westview] gives me a safe place to learn, and it achieves all its goals in doing so with all its students.
Noah, Middle School: I think The Westview School is a great place to be. The teachers, the classrooms, the fun things we get to do.
Cason, Middle School: My favorite things about The Westview School are the people, the academics. Look around [gesturing down the hallway]; this place looks pretty good.
Ruby, Lower Elementary: My teachers and everybody loves me and PE.
Theo, Lower Elementary: I have lots of friends to play with, and I learn things that I never knew before, and just like Ruby said, I like PE.
QUESTION 2: How will my child learn appropriate social skills without typical peer role models?
Becky Mattis: It is a common question for prospective parents, "Why not just put our child in a mainstream school to learn and observe social skills?" If our children could naturally pick up social and classroom skills from their neurotypical peers, they would easily fit into a mainstream setting. At The Westview School, we get excited when our kids pick up other behaviors because we can then use that as a building block for teaching and guiding our students toward a more appropriate social interaction. By virtue of the population, most of our students struggle with social skills, and because of that, we are intentional in working on the development of social skills throughout the day. The child is not being singled out by being pulled away to talk through those social situations. It is a learning experience for the whole class.
Mimi Le: When children on the autism spectrum are with others who are like them, they are more accepting of individuals with differences. When we put students together in a group or a class, we are looking at where are they are going to fit socially, behaviorally, and academically, so that they can learn something from another student. Where one student may be best at a particular thing, another student can learn from them. Everyone is learning from each other in those three different categories, which helps make them more well-rounded. All kids are different, autism or not. There is always something you can learn from someone else. The thought Westview puts in to placing our students helps to build a respect and appreciation for each other that they would not get in a normal neurotypical setting.
We asked Westview students, “What is something that your friends like about you? What makes you a good friend?
Jaden, Middle School: I am very persistent, and I will do what I can even if it must sacrifice quite a lot to get done what I need to do. I think that me knowing a lot makes me special because I get to teach people what I know, and I find teaching very fun.
Thibault, Upper Elementary: I am passionate, and I strive to work hard almost every single day. I am determined.
Theo, Lower Elementary: I like to run around and exercise a lot and play games. I like to play games on the playground besides tag, because my best friend Sid doesn’t like tag. I like it, but I want to play with him.
QUESTION 3: What if my child knows they are different?
We are all different, and differences should be celebrated, and all children should be taught in a way that most benefits them. In October of 2020, a teacher’s online post on why her neurotypical classroom looks like a special education one went viral. Karen Blacher, who has two children on the autism spectrum herself, found that students benefit greatly when classroom strategies are more focused on encouraging students to openly communicate, and expectations are adapted specifically to that child. Students are taught to both self-advocate and self-regulate.
Becky Mattis: We recognize that all kids are different whether they are on the spectrum or not. Each of our Westview children will discover the ways they learn best and how to then advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy is not only a skill they need for school but in life as well. Being accepting of the things that challenge them.
Mimi Le: Our kids become comfortable with who they are. It is okay to be different. Our kids develop an appreciation for themselves and each other. They are learning that their differences can be something they are proud of, and we foster that in the classrooms and through our conversations with parents. Our students will continue to give the world a new perspective on every aspect of life, and this new lens will lead to breakthroughs in the future.
With cultivating confidence in mind, we asked several Westview students, “What makes you special?”
Cason, Middle School: To be honest, I think I am pretty smart and good at gaming. I am probably the smartest in math. My brain works a little differently than everyone else. It can be good or bad in different ways.
Satvik, Middle School: I am a very tall person, and I am a hardworking boy.
Thibault, Upper Elementary: What makes me special is that I am different from everyone else, and it is like a whole different experience. Without these differences, I wouldn't have gone to Westview in the first place, and my sisters love me literally for who I am.
The Westview School’s mission is to provide a unique, specialized learning environment offering outstanding educational and social opportunities for children on the autism spectrum. We believe that children with autism spectrum disorder can grow and learn through a nurturing, positive, and happy environment that enhances their self-esteem. Building confidence, learning social skills and celebrating our differences is something that The Westview School builds into our daily curriculum.
If you think The Westview School could be a fit for your child, join us for our next Informational Session. The event includes discussions with our Admissions Director, Becky Mattis, about the student experience and program deliverables. Current parents will also be present to offer perspective and answer questions.
It has been said that you spend more time with your siblings than anyone else. It is one of the most formative and longest-lasting relationships a person will have. It is estimated that by age 11, siblings have spent more than 33% of their spare time together. When one of those siblings is on the autism spectrum, it is possible that the amount of time together may not differ, but the sibling dynamics certainly could.
Big sisters become little mothers. Big brothers become protectors. Younger siblings learn to be helpers. When a sibling is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, older and younger siblings tag along to therapy appointments and commutes to special schools. They become aware of differences between themselves and their siblings very early on. However, the differences and awareness that come from having a special needs sibling can often positively influence both the neurotypical child and the child with special needs.
Despite the dynamic shift, when children on the autism spectrum have a sibling in the home, it has been shown to positively affect the special needs child. Neurotypical siblings can provide increased opportunities for social skills in the home and serve as role models to siblings with special needs.
But, what about the sibling without a disability? Having a brother or a sister with special needs, in a way, can be pretty similar to having a typically developing sibling. There are the expected challenges among siblings – bickering, rivalry, learning to share, but overall, siblings of children with a disability, including autism, have a great capacity to be highly empathetic, compassionate, tolerant, and responsive to the need of others.
The Westview School blog interviewed several Westview staffers who all arrived in a special education career after growing up with a sibling with special needs. We asked them to share their experiences, how it shaped them as adults, and advice on the positive impact having a sibling with specials needs has had on their life and career in special education. We hope that by sharing their stories of growing up with a special needs sibling, our families may see the positive influences a sibling with special needs can bring to your child’s life.
Caelyn Pho is a Pre-kindergarten teaching assistant at The Westview School. She is the oldest of seven siblings. Caelyn’s youngest sister, Meagan (13), was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at four years old.
“I was twelve when my sister was born,” said Caelyn. “She was not diagnosed early, so I do hold a little bit of guilt, especially since working here. I realized how much more she struggled because of the delay.”
“I come from a very traditional Vietnamese family. Our culture's instinct is to protect,” said Caelyn. “It was more challenging during her younger years before our family learned the skills and strategies to be able to properly deal with her tantrums or other challenges.”
Lexi Doré is a Kindergarten teaching assistant at The Westview School. She is the only sister among four brothers, three older brothers and one younger. The two brothers closest to Lexi’s age are twins, Dalton and Dylan (24), and were born with cerebral palsy. Lexi’s younger brother Bouxdie (11), affectionately called Boux, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at two years old.
“We got a pretty concrete answer that Boux was on the spectrum when he was two. He wasn’t talking, and he had a lot of food sensitivity.” Lexi remembers the early years of speech therapy and occupational therapy.
Jared Dawkins is the Upper Elementary and Middle School science teacher at The Westview School. He is the middle child of three siblings. His younger brother, Jacob (20), was born with Down Syndrome.
Jared’s experience with special needs started years before his brother was born. “My dad had a cousin, Kevin, with Down Syndrome, so we were very familiar with it already,” Jared said. “From a young age, we were taught that Kevin was different, but he was still part of this family, and we should treat him the same as every other family member.” Jared learned about his brother’s diagnosis before Jacob’s birth. “My mom knew before Jacob was born, and I remember being told that he was going to be like Kevin,” said Jared.
How has having a sibling with special needs positively impacted your life?
Caelyn: I know that Meagan has influenced me and made me more empathetic and compassionate, and understanding to people who do have challenges. Because of my experience with Meagan, I never hesitate to reach out if I see somebody struggling. I never mind helping. Without judgment, there is just a simple, “Oh, you look like you need help.”
Lexi: I have always been an empathetic person with a big heart, but I think that all stems from my special needs siblings. As I’ve grown older, it has become more of a part of me, and it is something I pride myself on, being empathetic towards others. I know how it feels like to be different, and I try my best to accommodate people in how they want to be treated. Because of my experience, I pass that thinking on to my friends and everyone around me. They are just like everyone else.
Jared: Language is a huge issue for my brother, Jacob. He is twenty now, and his language is far less advanced than anyone he communicates with. Communicating with Jacob was learned through sibling dynamics. It comes second nature to our family. This ability to communicate is one skill that has served me well at Westview. Some of our kids seem unapproachable, but I find it very easy to get through to them and understand them.
How did growing up with a sibling with special needs lead you to a career in special education?
Caelyn: My sister is the absolute reason that I started working with this population. If it were not for her, I would not have found my passion, and I will be forever grateful to her. I feel bad for my friends who are miserable at their jobs, and I get to walk in every day, make a huge impact, and love it. That is all thanks to Meagan.
Lexi: I have always had a heart for people with special needs because of my older brothers, but especially when Boux came into my life. I was already volunteering at camps for children with CP. Knowing Boux and how beautiful his mind is and interacting with his classmates on field trips, I wanted to interact with more kids on the spectrum because they are so different, but they are all beautiful and unique. I just wanted to see life through their eyes, and being more hands-on with them is the best opportunity for that.
Jared: After finishing my undergrad degree in English Literature, I enrolled in Texas Teachers to earn my alternative teacher certification. One of the school counselors recommended special education “to boost my resume.” Westview was a perfect fit. I am still learning how to be a teacher, but one thing I didn’t have to learn how to do was learn how to approach and interact with our students. It can be challenging to find people who can interact with our kids in a meaningful and genuine way, and I had that experience already.
What advice would you give to siblings of children with special needs that you have learned from your family’s experience?
Caelyn: There was always a heightened sense of awareness that my sister was different when we were out in public. I was uncomfortable having an audience during an already stressful moment. As a young girl, this would make me angry when I noticed other people minding our business. As I have matured, I have learned to channel that negative energy into help and support for my family and sister. They are what matters.
Lexi: My best advice is, ‘Give yourself the love that you give to others.’ It is important to recognize that it is okay to focus on yourself sometimes, and I am learning this more and more as I get older. You don’t have to feel guilty for taking care of yourself and your needs. Help your sibling. Help your parents as much as you can but be patient with yourself and treat yourself like you treat your siblings.
Jared: It's essential to treat a special needs sibling as normal as possible. It is the only way I know how to interact with people with special needs, be patient and considerate of their particular needs, and treat them as typical as I can. For example, one thing I'll do is if we tell a joke in a family setting, my brother will ask what was said. His language may hinder him from fully understanding the joke in the same way, but just him receiving that information makes him feel like part of the group. In my experience, it's better for me, and my brother enjoys it more when we include him in the game.
What do you love the most about your siblings?
Caelyn: Spoken language can be challenging for Meagan, but she can sing a whole Frozen song without thinking about it. We are a very musically inclined family, so there is lots of singing and dancing for every family get-together, and Meagan is the star of the show. Meagan will start singing along, and she loves to dance. For this reason, she has become one of the pillars of our family just by being there. She reminds all of us to be in the moment. When we get together, we are all pulled in and connected.
Lexi: Boux wins over everyone that he meets. All my friends have this love for Boux. He is just the best person ever. He’s my best friend. Boux is one of the brightest, smartest, coolest people I know. Even though he is not able to convey through words that he loves me, the look on his face, when I walk into a room, I know that I am his best friend too. He teaches all of us that you don’t need words to express how much you love. Love goes beyond words.
Jared: His love for my dogs. I know Jacob loves me. He asks about me when I’m gone, and he likes to hang out with me. I do not doubt how much I mean to him, but my dogs mean more. We have a blast when I come over, and he will want to hang out with me, but if I show up without the dogs, his first question is, ‘where’s Sam?’ I am always second to the dogs.
The Westview School’s mission is to provide a unique, specialized learning environment offering outstanding educational and social opportunities for children on the autism spectrum. We believe that children with autism spectrum disorder can grow and learn through a nurturing, positive, and happy environment that enhances their self-esteem. This is attainable for our students because of the dedication of our faculty and staff. The Westview team is comprised of seventy members, each of whom was led to our special school for varying reasons with a similar underlying theme — a love and passion for the children on the autism spectrum and a willingness to make a difference in the life of a child. For Caelyn, Lexi and Jared, this experience is a bit more personal, and our school is better because we have them as part of our staff.
The behavioral therapist who assessed Julian in October 2010 spent two hours alone with him, took into account his developmental delays and inappropriate behaviors: the pushing, spitting, lack of engagement, and severe language delay; the crashing, breaking, food sensitivities, and meltdowns. Once I joined them, the therapist and I talked as Julian played with a vibrating train. He held the train by a thin string for twenty minutes, lifted the train up high, near the left side of his face, and moved only his eyes, shifted them hard left so he could stare at the bright red blur in his periphery. Perhaps he loved the leftward pulling sensation behind his eyes, the string vibrating in his small hand. Maybe it was the change in perspective as he held the train so close he was able to blur the separation between him and the shiny inanimate object.
Near the end of our session, the therapist smoothed the paper on her desk with one hand, looked at me, and said, “I believe Julian is moderately autistic.”
Her word choice struck me immediately. She hadn’t said “mildly” or “severely.” He wasn’t a little or a lot autistic. He was, according to Webster’s College Dictionary, “within reasonable limits…of average or medium quality.” Was there a reasonable level of disability?
“You do?” I asked because I’d hoped for anything but that, and in my denial, had become certain Julian only suffered from apraxia of speech. Now I needed a minute to recover enough to mask my devastation.
“I know this can’t be easy for you,” she said, and I lost my resolve not to cry.
At that moment, the Julian I knew – three years old, flirty, quirky, affectionate, in love with movies, cows, and alphabet letters – was gone. In his place stood a little boy from another planet, a familiar stranger. I’d just handed my former son over to a medical statistic, another 1 in 42 boys.
Almost overnight, a whole new existence formed, a parallel world that looked like earth but wasn’t. It was full of specialists with names like Toshio, Toodie, and Tempa, like Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. It was a sudden ambush of therapies I’d never heard of, long drives, too many forms to fill out, and appointments every week.
I didn’t sleep much. I’d wake in a panic at 2 a.m. and tiptoe into his room to watch my newly foreign child sleep. Grief sometimes took an unusual turn. Though I didn’t notice right away, my husband and I had stopped making videos of Julian and his sister, Victoria. We were still learning what autism was, but we perceived it as a loss, as the erasure of a person we thought we knew well. In essence, this meant one of our children had died, and it felt wrong to record the empty space.
But Julian was very much present; it was his parents who were lost. Still, there was an amorphous loss. Julian wasn’t blind or missing a limb. There was simply no way to truly name or measure what was lost, to label precisely what we were learning to accept. No one could tell me where we’d be in twenty years, what to expect.
If I asked for his name, he told me his age. If I asked his age, he told me his name or launched into a slurred rendition of the alphabet song. At almost four years old, his longest self-composed sentences were two words; he knew about six of these short sentences. His enunciation was awful; therefore, I was one of only a few people who could understand him. He could ask for juice or a toy, but he couldn’t tell me when he was sick, sad, tired, or hurt. He couldn’t tell me he loved me. He couldn’t answer most questions. He didn’t understand words like What, When, Where, How, and especially, Why.
I read countless articles and books about autism, searching for any window into my child, for a cure if one existed. Where were we going with so many hours of therapy, and when would we get there? I asked doctors, teachers, and therapists ten million questions, and still, no one could explain what was lost and whether we’d find it again.
Autism was a social communication disorder with repetitive behaviors, but beyond this general description was a wait-and-see prognosis for every unique child. There was no way to predict what his future would look like. We would have to learn as we went along, accept the trial and error of various therapies, diets, and doctors. His brain was structured differently, not erased. So not only would we need to teach Julian differently, we had to relearn him.
Although he couldn’t use a spoon, hold a pencil, drink from a cup, sit still, or play with other children, I saw a spark, a hint of a brighter light that was, for now, obscured.
Would he ever read? Write? Sit still? Potty-train? Would he be able to work? Was independence the ultimate goal?
Julian had many challenges, but language was especially difficult. Even though his speech became clearer and he began to memorize entire movie scripts, he still struggled to compose his own sentences.
Then he began using movie lines to communicate with us effectively, but still, how could he achieve independence with “movie talk”?
In 2016, I heard about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who used Disney animated movies to express complex emotions like love and loss. In both the book and documentary film, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, his father, Ron Suskind, explained his support of Owen’s Disney obsession by describing why he communicated with his son using puppets and silly character voices, encouraged Owen’s drawing of favorite characters, taught coping skills by applying lessons learned from Disney films to everyday life. He summed up his reasoning with a single sentence, “Whatever works to get to Owen.”
Whatever works to connect…
After learning about Owen, I threw everything I had at Julian’s obsession with movies. I bought the DVDs as soon as they were released, and the small character figurines. I allowed extra time on his iPad, let him watch movies in the car. Soon not only did he tolerate holding a pencil, but he also showed an interest in drawing. So I gave him colorful pencils, crayons, reams and reams of paper. Soon it was evident that he loved drawing, and I noticed that no matter how crudely drawn his characters were, their facial expressions were clearly nuanced. By watching the same movies over and over, he’d taught himself to draw feelings, and all he couldn’t capture in words.
He drew family members and school friends and always included himself as a central character, a protagonist in every adventure. He clearly expressed feelings, motivations, and even abstract thought in pictures. He drew complicated family dynamics, like the day he was born, and inadvertently “replaced” the former “baby of the family,” how that must have made his older brother feel sad. In this instance, he drew the reactions of each family member to fit their individual personalities, which included his oldest sister rolling her eyes at all the birth order drama. This told me he understood complex issues far better than he could convey with words alone. He had empathy, imagination and paid close attention to how people felt and interacted.
Julian once drew a picture of himself as an adult sitting before a computer, working in animation. That was the future he imagined for himself. As The Westview School taught him to read and spell, Julian began drawing “thought bubbles” and writing dialogue. His hand muscles grew stronger, and he developed greater endurance. The kid whose hands were once too weak to hold a spoon or pencil, the kid who hated reading and writing, was now writing books. He plagiarized in the beginning as he copied the drawing style and stories of his favorite author, Mo Willems. Then he inserted different characters, changed up the stories, and made them his own.
He sometimes drew fifty or more pictures in a single day, stacks of pages all over our house. We encouraged him every step of the way, and as much as I hate clutter, I knew we were on to something. So I saved every picture, even the half-drawn pictures, and what might be considered “failed” efforts. My instincts told me we had to attach meaning and value to these drawings, so Julian saw that we respected him and his “work.” His skill and confidence continued to grow.
Now at age fourteen, he’s making stop-action films using Videoshop and Garage Band to create the accompanying music. He’s using more sophisticated animation techniques, making his own music, telling his own stories with both colorful imagery and words. And that initial spark I saw in his eyes? It was creativity and a wicked sense of humor. The kid knows how to entertain.
Throughout these many years of learning to tell his own stories with pictures and words, one thing has never changed: Julian wants us to notice. He wants to show us his creations. He wants to connect. I think that’s what we’re all trying to do in everything we do, connect.
Will he manage to turn these skills into a career? Maybe. But more importantly, he’s proud of himself. He feels a sense of accomplishment. He has confidence and uses art to connect with others. Without his identity as a creative artist, he wouldn’t have as much faith in himself to stand on his own.
A few weeks ago, Julian knocked on my office door, “Can we talk?” He didn’t need anything; he just wanted to sit on the floor in my office and chat. This was new, his wanting to talk about nothing in particular.
I went with it, and suddenly he was asking me what kinds of things I worried about, what life was like for me when I was his age, what kind of kid I was, and was I happy as a grownup? It was evening now, and surely his ADHD medicine had worn off, yet he was so calm, so focused on my responses. He kept asking, and I kept answering, following his lead, our conversation stretching over five, ten, fifteen minutes, uninterrupted. We stayed on track. His thoughts were organized, one after the other, moving along a trajectory that was his alone.
It wasn’t scripted. I didn’t know where this came from, my son, who’s now taller than me wanting to know his mother better, to venture away from his comfort zone of animation to have a real conversation, to connect in a novel way. I felt like I was tiptoeing into his room again at 2 a.m., only now it was to watch him wake up, all on his own. I didn’t want my excitement to get in the way. Because at that moment I was the subject of interest, he held up close, seeking a new perspective, blurring the separation between us.
Teresa Cortez has been a Westview parent since January of 2011. She’s a mother of four and resides in Richmond, Texas.
The Why, What, and How of Dealing with Anxiety in Autism
The Texas Winter Storm of 2021. It was the coldest day of February in over 120 years. We had no heat, no power, and our electronics were starting to lose their charge. It would be 36 hours and another 24 of intermittent outages before the power and heat stabilized, and still another 48 before the freeze was done. Somewhere around the halfway point, with indoor temperatures dipping as low as 45 degrees, I sat in the dark filled with worry about keeping my family warm. I couldn’t help but think, “this is anxiety.” I felt it, which meant my son Noah, felt it too.
Noah is thirteen and on the autism spectrum. If you asked him what his fears are, he would list, in no particular order: fire drills, crazy arcade games, extreme temperatures, and dark rooms with unexpected noises. The ice storm that kept us extremely cold and in the dark for three-plus days created the prime elements for significant anxiety for my son.
A few weeks before Texas was blindsided by this epic winter storm, Westview EDU hosted Dr. Sarah Mire, an Associate Professor at the University of Houston’s School of Psychology doctoral program and Associate Chair for the Psychological, Health, and Learning Sciences Department. Dr. Mire presented her “Parent Primer to Understanding Anxiety in Autism and Helping Kids on the Spectrum.”
If you are reading this blog, it is a safe bet that you, too, are a parent of a child with autism. According to Dr. Mire, anxiety in autism is the most common mental health problem in children and adolescents with autism. Some research suggests that up to 80% of kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may also meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. The risk for elevated anxiety increases as these children get older. IQ matters too. Kids with average or higher IQ scores often have higher anxiety than peers with autism who have lower IQ scores.
So, my sweet Noah, age thirteen, with a high average IQ and being diagnosed on the autism spectrum, was what Dr. Mire described as “meeting the criteria for the elevated risk of anxiety.”
The truth is, our family did okay during the freeze. We were lucky. No pipes froze. Our home wasn’t damaged. Aside from the minor inconvenience of being left in the chilly dark for quite some time and boiling water for a week, we did okay. The most challenging part of the experience was managing my son’s anxiety. As many residents of the great state of Texas have shifted focus to how to better prepare for the next time a major disruption occurs, it may be helpful for us to learn some of the information and strategies that Dr. Mire suggested in her Westview EDU presentation.
What Dr. Mire had to say about anxiety - our response to it, what is proven to help, and how to implement it in our own homes - may be just the thing to pack away in our emergency preparedness kit, so we can go from being just okay to crushing it the next time an unforeseen event is laid in our path.
Let’s start with the WHY. Why does my child with autism suffer from anxiety?
Dr. Mire suggested several theories as to why up to 80% of children on the autism spectrum also suffer from some form of anxiety. These reasons include:
- Kids with autism recognize their differences from peers.
- They have heightened sensory responsivity, which can be disconcerting.
- Interpreting something as a “threat” when it may not be a real threat.
- They often have negative expectations and beliefs and tend to self-blame.
- Kids may have automatic negative thoughts.
- Kids with autism often have an intolerance of uncertainty, heightening anxiety and laying a foundation for anxious responses.
Anxiety happens. WHAT does it look like?
The three F’s of Anxiety: Fight, Flight, or Freeze (No Pun Intended)
According to Dr. Mire, anxiety is adaptive and necessary for survival. As humans, we all experience it in some form. When we interpret something as dangerous, our body kicks into motion physiological responses, autonomic nervous system responses, and life-preservation responses. Something must be done to keep us safe. In understanding anxiety, we also see that it exists on a continuum, meaning it can seem similar from person to person, but individual extremes can be very different. Dr. Mire states that research shows that most people react to a threat by either fighting, fleeing (running in the opposite direction), or freezing.
Dr. Mire notes that anxiety is multi-dimensional; it can affect physiology, thinking patterns, emotions, and behavior. High negative emotions combined with high physiological hyperarousal results in anxiety. Dr. Mire emphasizes that self-regulation is a critical skill. Challenges in self-regulating one’s body, thoughts, and behavior can lead to other things going awry. Dysregulation of emotion is common to both anxiety and autism. The good news is that new thought patterns or replacement thoughts can be learned, which can positively influence emotions, thereby decreasing anxiety.
During the winter storm, I was spurred into action. Dr. Mire would call this a “fight” response to anxiety. I gathered blankets and flashlights, checked and double-checked dripping faucets, and entertained the Wi-Fi-less kids with endless games of Spot-It by candlelight.
Noah’s anxiety was different and more dysregulated. More than likely, it stems from what Dr. Mire describes as “an intolerance of uncertainty.” When we continually interpret something as a threat (i.e., the anticipation of the lights going out), we experience anxiety as a problem of over-reactivity. Alarm bells are continually going off and start to create life interference based on how we interpret things. This is how Noah’s anxiety manifested during the freeze.
So, WHAT can we do? If anxiety is our bodies’ natural response for safety during crisis, how do we combat it when things get out of control?
Dr. Mire states that the most effective non-medication treatment approach for anxiety in autism is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It sounds technical, but basically, it is learning your child’s “before” and “after” when it comes to anxiety.
First, start with the “before.” What tends to trigger your child’s anxious response? How does the anxiety manifest itself? Then, use this information to minimize the anxiety response and set your child up for self-regulation success. Next, increase predictability. Give transition warnings, offer explanations – give your child the chance to take control of the situation themselves. The goal is for your child to learn self-regulation without any prompting from you.
Using the example of Noah during the recent winter storm, his anxiety was triggered by the unexpected loss of power. He vacillated between anger and frustration and even tears. As the days went on, it was helpful to continually remind him that we could lose/regain power at any moment and to prepare for the uncertainty.
Next, Dr. Mire focuses on the “after” – How does your child calm down? She suggests using this information to identify ways of teaching self-calming strategies to your child. For example, Noah uses physical movement to blow off some steam, so we bundled up and took a snowy walk around the block. This seemed to help him better process what was happening and accept that things were not just happening to him, and the outcome was out of his control. Dr. Mire gave other examples of ways children can reset and begin to self-regulate - music, physical touch, talking, or even a preferred toy are just some examples.
Knowing your child’s “before” and “after” will help you approach the following strategies more effectively.
HOW can your child learn to understand his or her anxiety:
Dr. Mire believes that a combination of first explaining followed by modeling behavior is the best way to teach your child how to combat anxiety. It is very common for children to be able to pick up on their parents’ anxiety and responses. As parents, we can model how to cope with stressful situations or thoughts. Deep breathing is just one way to reduce the physical effects of anxiety. There are many multi-sensory calming options, but the most important thing is to find what is most calming for your child.
Noah is most often calmed by logic, routine, and familiarity. On the mornings we woke without power, we made a habit of going into Noah’s room and opening wide the window blinds to let as much natural light in as possible. Being in his room away from the darker spaces in our home surrounded by his drawings and books helped Noah reset and settle into our days.
HOW as a parent can you support your child during periods of anxiety?
Parental Support = Practice and Praise
Dr. Mire suggests practicing together before strategies are needed. Don’t wait until your child is anxious to work on these. Help them become accustomed to the prompts. Model use of the same strategies, and let them see you doing it. Practice strategies while doing things that make them anxious, gradually exposing them to the situation that causes anxiety. As with any learning, self-regulation is an ongoing process. Praise attempts to use strategies, even if it “doesn’t work” that time. Problem-solve for next time. And do not forget to give yourself a pat on the back, too. You are working hard, and this is not easy.
The winter storm gave our family multiple days of practice calming everyone’s anxieties about the weather and the cold and the electricity. Noah was pretty good at praising himself. On the third afternoon, as the lights flickered off, he came down from his room and said, “Mom, I think I’m really getting the hang of this.” And, as any good mom would, I replied, “You sure are Champ!”
When it comes to the why, what’s, and how’s of dealing with anxiety in children with autism, it is clear that there are proven strategies that improve outcomes when learned and put into practice consistently. However, if your child’s anxiety is escalating or interfering with daily life, Dr. Mire encourages families not to be afraid to seek outside help. Find a provider with experience with autism and evidence-based approaches that a family can integrate into anxiety treatment.
For more information on Dr. Mire’s Westview EDU presentation, Dealing with Anxiety: A Parent’s Primer to Understanding Anxiety in Autism and Helping Kids on the Spectrum, you can access Dr. Mire’s presentation slide deck here. Thank you to Dr. Mire for her generosity in sharing her knowledge and expertise with our community.
If you are looking for a cognitive behavioral therapy provider, please contact Penelope Khuri, Marketing Coordinator at The Westview School, for our recommended list for local providers.
Westview EDU is a monthly education series provided by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. Westview EDU sessions are open to the community and are held virtually via ZOOM. For more information on the upcoming sessions and how to RSVP, please visit our website.
When Grayson Garcia first walked into The Westview School at the age of three, his parents would have described him as grumpy, agitated, easily upset, and angry all the time. He had minimal language, and outside of his parents and brothers, he did not connect well with others. A lengthy evaluation process and an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis led the Garcia family to The Westview School. After a tour of the campus, the Garcias had hope that Westview would be a fit for their son.
Joni Garcia, Grayson's mom, remembers the day she brought Grayson in for a visit in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) class. "Grayson took two steps into the lobby and stopped," Joni recalled. "He looked at me, and then down the long hallway, and then over to the reception desk where Ms. Candi sat. Grayson threw himself on the floor and began to scream and cry."
At Grayson's initial reaction to the visit, Joni felt her hope start to fade, but what happened next is just one reason why Westview is an answer to so many children and families.
"Ms. Candi stepped out from behind her desk, grabbed a wagon parked in the hallway, rolled it over to Grayson, and with ZERO emotion said, 'well, if you wanted to ride in the wagon Grayson, all you had to do is say so.' Grayson immediately stopped crying and just stared at her, and then without a word, hopped in her wagon and was rolled down the hallway."
That interaction began three years of a nurturing and supportive education at the Westview School that prepared Grayson to transition to a special education program in a public school and eventually into a mainstream general education class.
So, what is it about The Westview School that helped Grayson become a mainstream success story? When it comes to early intervention for ASD children, what are the key ingredients for a successful Early Childhood Education Program that families should look for?
1. A strong early childhood program will have teachers and staff with experience and training in connecting with children with ASD. Traditional daycare programs are loving, safe environments that ensure basic needs such as feeding and changing are met, but many times the teachers don't have the training or experience to know how to connect with children with ASD. Joni realized on her first day at The Westview School that it was less about Grayson connecting but more about someone else being able to connect with him and speak his language.
2. A low student to teacher ratio ensures that each child gets the individual attention and support they need. Limiting class sizes to a maximum of five students with a teacher and assistant ensure fewer distractions and more opportunities for student participation in lessons. Also, smaller groups allow teachers to differentiate instruction, engage with each student, and better facilitate student to student interaction.
3. Effective ECD teaching should be based on research-based methodologies and strategies. Young children with ASD need a program designed to develop self-regulation, attending skills, and joint attention. Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research (the STAR program) is a research-validated program that includes guided lesson plans, teaching materials, data systems, and a curriculum-based assessment in six curricular areas.
The STAR Program uses curriculum-based assessments to identify performance levels for each student, based on a scope and sequence of developmentally appropriate skills. Assessments are used to track and report student progress and identify instructional skills to be targeted for instruction. Children are engaged in high-interest, thematic units. As students learn how to self-regulate and attend, they are ready to work on pre-academic skills such as letter and number recognition, one-to-one correspondence, sorting, colors, shapes, and basic math vocabulary.
4. The development of communication skills is a core component of a strong ECD program. Emphasis is placed on expanding and contextualizing language within social interactions. Both expressive language abilities (labeling, describing, and comparing/contrasting) and receptive language abilities (identifying, matching, and sorting) are a focus of effective early childhood programs. Skilled teachers use a variety of structured activities to encourage and elicit spoken language. With a scaffolded approach to language acquisition, children learn to follow directions, complete tasks, and work in small groups within their environment.
5. Teacher facilitated social interaction is essential in ECD classrooms. In the most effective classrooms, teachers devise developmentally appropriate play situations to teach students how to play and interact with others. Peer relationships and appropriate social skills are acquired through guided play and interactive group games and activities. Students engage in various teacher-facilitated activities, such as pretend play, storytelling, role-playing, social routines (birthday parties, Halloween, etc.), and floor play to encourage group participation and interaction. Focus is directed toward exposing children to experiences that lead to a greater understanding of social expectations.
6. A focus on fostering self-help and independence should be a part of any strong ECD program. Self-help skills such as eating/drinking, dressing, and cleaning up play areas are intentionally incorporated into the daily schedule. Toilet training may be part of the daily routine. Children should be given the opportunity to make choices throughout the day and encouraged to become more independent. Using visual schedules helps students become more independent during transitions, restroom time, and other daily skills and activities.
Over two decades of autism research have shown that early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) combined with the prompt, evidence-based, and effective intervention will result in the best possible prognosis for children with ASD.
Research also indicates that in an appropriate educational setting, early intervention for at least two years before the start of primary school can result in significant improvements in language acquisition, motor development, academic achievement, social skills, daily living skills and also promotes independence in children.
Grayson is now in third grade. According to his parents, he is thriving in a general education classroom with 22 other typical kids. Grayson still has autism, but his diagnosis does not define him because of his success in the Westview School's early education.
Accepting students as early as 24 months, the Westview School proudly offers a high-quality early childhood program using research-based methodologies and strategies. If you would like to learn more about our early childhood program at The Westview School, visit our website or contact Carol Harrison, Ed.D.
If you think The Westview School could be a fit for your child, join us for our next Informational Session. The event includes discussions with our Admissions Director, Becky Mattis, about the student experience and program deliverables. Current parents will also be present to offer perspective and answer questions.
Dr. Harrison brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to The Westview School following an extensive career as an educator and administrator. She served as an elementary school principal and special education administrator for 25 years in the public school system and later taught as a professor at Stephen F. Austin University. She holds a Doctorate in education.
Why Art Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Art Therapy offers the opportunity to learn and practice many social and emotional awareness skills that are a struggle for children on the Autism Spectrum. Self-expression and maintaining and developing relationships are explored and enhanced through both the therapeutic relationship and art therapy. This is because the relationship established between a client and the therapist can promote healthy and safe attachments. The art-making component builds on that relationship and offers an alternative form of communication, sensory integration, self-expression, and promotes cognitive-emotional development.
8 Reasons to Try Art Therapy for Your Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder:
1. Imagination/Abstract Thinking
Art therapy can help your child display age-appropriate imagination and abstract thinking skills.
2. Sensory Regulation & Integration
Art therapy can improve your child's ability to regulate his or her body and integrate sensory experiences.
Children learn to use art to externalize and process thoughts and feelings, improving communication and connection between children and their caregivers.
4. Developmental Growth
Art therapy helps children hit important milestones like age-appropriate drawing ability, fine motor skills, overall artistic development, and can be used to improve other relevant deficit areas that can be addressed using art.
5. Visual-Spatial Skills
Art therapy improves the child's ability to negotiate and render/model in both two and three-dimensional spaces and the ability to rotate objects mentally.
6. Recreation/Leisure Skills
Art therapy helps children on the spectrum develop productive, enjoyable leisure activities and generalize them to the home and other natural environments.
7. Developing Self-identity/Empowerment
Using art-making can help children explore, learn, and discuss the different components of an Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis that empowers them to build a positive self-identity.
8. Reduce Anxiety/Stress
Art therapy also promotes learning coping skills through the creative process, including mindfulness, deep breathing, and guided imagery to improve emotional self-regulation.
How to Tell if Art Therapy is a Good Fit for Your Child:
• Does your child struggle with self-expression, relationship building, emotional regulation, abstract thinking, sensory processing deficits, or communication?
• Is your child interested in creative processes?
• As a parent, are you willing to actively participate in your child's therapeutic treatment while respecting therapeutic boundaries?
If you answered yes to the questions above, your child might benefit from art therapy.
Individual Art Therapy sessions are tailored to your child's needs. The child will lead the therapist to what materials naturally pique their interest. From there, the art therapist will create a treatment plan that includes goals and objectives. You, as the parents or caregivers, will be included as active participants in the therapeutic process.
Group Art Therapy sessions are based on a common goal. All group members will be screened to ensure they are an appropriate fit, and members will be placed according to similar developmental and emotional needs. There is a significant social and communication component to every group that children on the spectrum can benefit from. Because many individuals diagnosed with ASD are visual thinkers, artwork can facilitate forming connections with peers because it offers a concrete way to see another's perspective.
Hillery Jones is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Art Therapist. Her passion is in using the creative process to help children, adolescents, and adults gain a deeper sense of self-awareness. Her approach is client-led, practical, holistic, and adaptable in everyday life. She integrates a kinesthetic learning component of connecting mind and body to her practice. She uses traditional talk therapy and art therapy to meet the unique needs of each individual. Her ultimate goal is to provide clients with the tools needed to be the best version of themselves.
Hillery received her B.A. in Art Education from Lamar University and her M.A. Art Therapy Counseling from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. She has worked in school, hospital, residential, and out-patient settings.
Learning about Finley's Autism diagnosis at age three was overwhelming. I cried because I was scared and didn't know what it meant for Finley or our family. His whole life flashed before my eyes. Would he be ok? Would he be happy? Could he enjoy himself and his family and friends?
Finley was our first child. As I reflect on the time of his diagnosis and the years following, our world quickly became intense and stressful. Our singular focus was to get Finley everything we thought he would need to develop. The right school, the right therapists, the right activities.
When Finley was 6 or 7, I noticed that he communicated better with me (and his mom and younger brother) than he did with others. I realized that he was comfortable making eye contact with us, but not others. It became clear that the comfort of the family bond was helping him communicate better with us.
It was a lightbulb moment. I realized how important my relationship with Finley was to his development. With me, he had a "head start" and was more expressive. He gave more within our family unit than he could give to the world around him. Our relationship blossomed, and it was reciprocal. I was finally open to receive from Finley what all parents experience - the joy of seeing the world through their child's eyes. And, as our connection grew, I could clearly see how meaningful our relationship was for him. Being present and meeting him where he was socially and emotionally was me showing up for Finley in the best possible way. It was my job to give him the opportunity to have experiences and make memories when he was most comfortable and able to be himself. And this is when Finley is at his best. This is when Finley can take it all in. As a dad, watching this happen... well, it can be thrilling.
And, while I can still get anxious when I think of Finley's future, spending time with him now is something that gives me comfort and joy. And I am not near as anxious as I used to be, because I know he is well on his way to being the best person he can be.
Finley says that the weekend is "when I don't have to go to school, and you don't have to go to work." It feels great when someone else is excited to spend time with you on the weekend. So, I'm really looking forward to this weekend and spending time with Finley. We may go golfing on Saturday with his brother and grandpa. On the golf course, Finley likes to drive the cart, and I like to be his passenger.
Temperatures are dipping below 90◦F and the smell of pumpkin spice is in the air. Fall has arrived in Houston! As we move into another season of 2020, we have learned to be flexible, anticipate the unexpected, and go with the flow. That said, there are several reasonable ways in which we can consistently support our families’ and communities’ health.
Tried and true methods to stay healthy:
-Wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing, as Covid-19 is still a concern.
-Exercising regularly and encouraging physical fitness for the whole family.
-Keeping up to date with doctors’ appointments (including check-ups), dentist visits, therapy sessions, and flu shots. As we move into flu season and as we are seeing another uptick in Covid-19 cases, our communities must try to keep the hospitals from getting overwhelmed again. This means we all need to keep from getting Covid-19 and the flu (there’s a flu shot for that!).
-Staying home if you aren’t feeling well, and getting tested for Covid-19 if you are showing any possible symptoms. This epidemiologist tried out the free test at Minute Maid Park- Lot C and was impressed. It was an oral swab, rather than nasal swab, and the PCR results were in my email within 46 hours.
New and novel ways to support good health:
-Supporting your family’s mental health through mindfulness. Stress has been a constant factor, especially lately, and mindfulness methods can be helpful in providing relief.
-Maintaining relationships with your social circles, even while maintaining physical distance. As a community, we have really gotten creative in the many ways we can stay in touch. Weekly Zoom get togethers, drive-by birthday parties, sending cards in the mail, and taking classes online together are some fun ways to keep up with loved ones. Consider creating a social bubble with another family whose Covid-19 exposure level is similar to yours; commit to only spending social time with each other and maintain strict social distancing with all others.
-Creating new traditions for holidays and special times. Halloween is a great time to “boo” your friends by dropping off treat baskets on their doors. Thanksgiving could be a multi-state event with families sitting together online to eat dinner at the same time and even playing games like bingo together! Cookie exchanges can easily become online events, and you can even include long-distance friends!
-Reaching out to give and receive support. One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been watching people standing up to support one another. Whether saying a kind word, smiling eyes behind a mask, or showing gratitude for the “helpers,” we have shown the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
As we move into the end of the year, look back and see how far we have come in 2020. Our children are thriving and doing well in so many unexpected areas, and our communities continue to stand together through thick and thin. Hang in there and enjoy the cooler temperatures- we’ll see you outside!
Wishing you strength and good health,
The Westview School COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee
The Westview School COVID-19 Medical Advisory Board is comprised of Westview parents and former parents with experience on the front line during this pandemic. These highly-trained professionals work in many different fields of medicine, such as epidemiology, pulmonology, and critical care. This group of medical professionals continues to be an invaluable resource to The Westview School leadership team.
Many parents have children who are picky about the foods they eat. However, some children seem to take this selectivity to an unusual or extreme level. When this happens, parents can become desperate and resort to strategies or techniques that they would never consider for other issues. Stockpiling fast food cheeseburgers or making multiple trips to the grocery store just to ensure that the “right” chicken nuggets are available may not be a parent’s ideal response to a picky eater, but many families have had to use these strategies just to keep their children eating.
"If you have a picky eater, it is likely that you have had at least one person say, 'If she gets hungry enough, she’ll eat!' The truth is that this 'traditional wisdom' that kids will eventually eat what is provided or repeatedly presenting the same food until the child eats it does not work for all children."
If you have a picky eater, it is likely that you have had at least one person say, “If she gets hungry enough, she’ll eat!” The truth is that this “traditional wisdom” that kids will eventually eat what is provided or repeatedly presenting the same food until the child eats it does not work for all children. This appears to be especially true for children with intense sensory needs, like those that often occur alongside autism. These families often feel trapped by their child’s picky eating, limiting the places they go or even the family trips they take due to concerns over whether they will be able to get their child to eat and/or the behavior they might use when their preferred foods are not available. When good, old-fashioned consequences, rewards, and bribery are ineffective at expanding a child’s food repertoire, specific intervention may be necessary.
What can you do to help expand your child’s palate? Many families find relief in sensory-based feeding intervention, such as the S.O.S. Approach to Feeding®. This approach draws on the expertise of psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, dieticians, and the medical community to provide an intervention that is Sequential, sensitive to the Oral-motor needs of each child and addresses the Sensory needs that are likely involved in a self-restricted diet. Typically implemented in a group setting, the S.O.S. Approach to Feeding® aims to change the ways that children learn to explore new foods by integrating play and positive experiences with the introduction of new foods. The Stewart Center is fortunate to have two professionals trained in this approach and offers groups for different ages, as well as individual sessions, if needed.
The holiday season provides a particularly challenging set of social expectations, especially when it comes to food and eating. Children are often asked to eat (or at least tolerate) foods that are unfamiliar to them. Loud and embarrassing refusals can ensue, leading to hurt feelings and even family conflict. Teaching children more socially acceptable ways to decline non-preferred foods is a good first step toward navigating these tricky situations. For example, in our “Picky Eaters” group, children are taught that brains need lots of information before making a decision, and that we avoid saying “I don’t like that” until our brains have collected enough of this information. Instead, we say “I’m still learning about that.” Not only is this less offensive to whomever prepared the food, but it also opens the door for playful interactions with the food as we continue to gather our important information.
However your family copes, we want everyone to know that picky eaters do not have to dictate your family’s choices, and that there are more options than simply accepting your new, limited experience.
If you would like to learn more, The Stewart Center offers family consultations, group or individual therapy sessions, or even just help troubleshooting or brainstorming. Call 713-973-1842 to find out more.