The Westview School Blog
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.
Are mealtimes a battle? Does your child have a limited food repertoire or only eat one brand of food? Desperately seeking tips for a successful family mealtime? The Stewart Center has some Picky Eater experts on staff to share their favorite tips and best practices from hands-on experience working with some of the pickiest eaters and their families.
The first question many families ask is: Who can help? Eating is a multisensory experience. As adults, we forget the many factors involved in eating because it is such a routine task for most of us, but eating is a surprisingly complex process. Both speech and occupational therapists can play an essential role in supporting positive change in even the pickiest of eaters.
Abby Cook, M.S. OTR, and Alexandra (Ali) Nevins, M.S., CCC-SLP are part of The Westview School's Stewart Center team and are trained in the S.O.S. Approach to Feeding®. This approach is a sensory-based feeding intervention that moves students through a hierarchy of exercises designed to increase tolerance of various foods. The S.O.S. Approach to Feeding® was developed by Dr. Kay Toomey over 30 years ago. Her program has a high success rate in the diversification of diets of picky eaters.
Because eating uses every sensory system, from visual and tactile to vestibular and interoception, a multisensory approach to feeding therapy is the start to a recipe for success. Pun intended. The Stewart Center therapists are trained in evaluation and assessments and the facilitation of individual and group feeding therapy.
When it comes to feeding therapy, a speech therapist, like Ms. Ali, can assess and support the development of a child's oral motor and feeding skills, mechanisms of chewing and swallowing, oral motor structure as well as protecting the airway during the swallow, biting, and chewing phases of eating.
An occupational therapist (OT), like Ms. Abby, can help to develop a child's fine motor skills and coordination needed to move food from plate or hand-to-mouth. Skills such as grasping, utensil use, postural control, and musculoskeletal strength for positioning during eating are necessary for successful feeding. An O.T. can also observe and assess environmental factors, modify or make changes to support optimal focus and attention to eating. Both speech and occupational therapists will consider all of these factors when working with children with food aversions to identify how to best help an individual child.
Today, we want to offer some quick tips that you can implement at home now. When dealing with a picky eater, it is essential to examine three things – the environment, language, and behaviors we model. Start with a quick check by asking yourself these questions:
- Is there a smell or taste that is overwhelming or underwhelming to your child?
- Is the environment overstimulating?
- Is there background noise during mealtimes, such as television or music?
- Does your child have the opportunity to watch a sibling or parent eat and model typical feeding behaviors?
- Can your child manipulate a utensil successfully?
- Do you find yourself saying two more bites, and then you can go (i.e., play, watch tv, or play the IPad).
Try these tips to skip those mealtime battles and help your kiddo expand their palate and self-feeding skills.
Set Up for Success: Check Your ENVIRONMENT
- Seating tops the list of important environmental factors for a successful mealtime. Think 90-90-90. Hips, knees, and elbows should be at 90-degree angles while seated for eating. Stick to a sturdy chair or highchair at the table.
- Provide appropriately sized utensils at mealtime, and use fun phrases to initiate utensil use during mealtime like "Catch the food on the fork."
- Keep food portions small – especially with new foods. The new color, smell, or texture may be overwhelming! Always provide at least one familiar food item for your child to eat. Make sure to have some new options to try exploring, but a safe food should be just that - one that feels "safe."
- Keep regular mealtime routines to lower stress and keep expectations clear for everyone.
- Have your child throw away their uneaten food items in the trash. This gets them one step closer to interacting with food, even if it is to throw it away.
- Limit both visual and audible distractions during mealtime. Television, music, and iPad can detract from your child's ability to observe typical eating and self-feeding.
- Model it! Eat meals together as much as possible. Children need to see visual models of typical eating behaviors.
Hungry for LANGUAGE. While your focus may be on what should be going in your child's mouth, what comes out of yours matters just as much.
It might be time to flip the script if you have said one of the following to your picky eater: "Clean your plate." "You have to take two bites to leave the table." "Good job eating that." "Finish your food before (i.e., T.V. or Dessert)." These phrases can unwittingly up the anxiety during mealtime.
Instead, use some alternate words/phrases that keep mealtime stress-free and fun.
- In response to, "I'm not going to eat that!" ask, "What can you do with the cheese stick?" It helps to give an example: "Can you make a mustache or wiggle it like a wobbly worm?"
- "What can you catch on your fork?"
- "Does that food have a big flavor?"
-Encourage your child to say, "I'm still learning about that." instead of "I don't like that!"
Your mother may have said, "Don't play with your food!" but when it comes to a picky eater, it might be time to change your BEHAVIOR around eating.
- Model eating and be PLAYFUL! Make food fun! Make it ok to "play" with your food. Parents can model food interactions that go beyond simply eating; encourage play during mealtime. Some examples of play can include: placing food on body parts, making a noodle into a worm, using crackers to build a sandwich, digging for gems in jello or pudding, and using food as a mustache or a long tongue.
- Avoid forcing your child to take a bite or a drink of something. This sets up an unwinnable power struggle.
- Avoid tricking your child with foods or beverages. As therapists and parents, we need to build and maintain a child's trust-related to food and drinks. When we "sneak" a new vegetable or drink into a familiar dish or a preferred cup, it can disrupt trust and turn a child off from a preferred food altogether.
We hope that these tips help you gain confidence and avoid some pitfalls at mealtime with your picky eater. If you want to learn more about Individual or Group Feeding therapy, please reach out to The Stewart Center. Our team is passionate about working with our picky eaters, supporting their families, and having fun with food.
Parent & Caregiver Workshop (Free Full parent workshop video)
Learn from Dr. Toomey (the founder of the SOS Approach to Feeding) about why children don’t eat well and practical strategies for improving mealtimes in your home through the introductory video “When Children Won’t Eat (and how to help!).
Alexandra (Ali) Nevins, M.S., CCC-SLP is a Licensed Speech-Language Pathologist with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and obtained a Certificate of Clinical Competence through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Ali completed her Bachelor of Applied Science Degree from The University of Mississippi and received a Masters of Science in 2018 from Yeshiva University at The Katz School. In New York City, Ali worked as a clinical extern in the school system as well as at New York Neurogenic Speech-Language Pathology, P.C. Ali has been working full-time as an SLP at The Stewart Center at The Westview School since 2018. She has received continuing education training in SOS Approach to Feeding ® and Social Thinking ®.
Abby Cook, M.S., OTR is a Licensed Occupational Therapist with the Texas Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners and obtained certification through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Abby completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Family Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and received a Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy from the University of New England in Portland, Maine in 2017. Once in the Houston area, Abby started her OT career in Early Childhood Intervention for Brazoria County and has been full-time with the Stewart Center at The Westview School since 2018. Her continuing education training includes SOS Approach to Feeding ® and introductory coursework in The DIR/Floortime Approach®.
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 on Thursday, January 21 at 10:00 AM 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.
Have you heard the saying, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism?” It is called a spectrum for a reason, and under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder, you will find a vast differentiation of children and behaviors.
My son, Noah, is 12. As a parent, I am way past the point of explaining or apologizing for his differences in behaviors and communication. He is an awesome kid. As his mom, I know exactly how much time and effort and money our family has invested into growing Noah into the best version of himself. From therapy to special schooling, medications and doctor’s visits, we have ten-plus years invested. For all his weaknesses, his strengths are many, and I can honestly say that I know how hard we have worked to hone those strengths. It is still a work in progress and probably will forever be.
This started as an article about 10 things I want you to know about my child with ASD. But, really there’s only one thing I want you to know: WE NEED GRACE.
Grace has many definitions, but let’s go with this one: “The disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy or clemency.” There’s a lot of talk about Autism Awareness. We even have a month for it in April as a reminder. But, what do you do in the face of someone who is different, and how will you teach your children to react to those differences?
There was time somewhere between his diagnosis at 24 months and now that I was more sensitive and less accepting of what I perceived as a deficit in my child. Was I doing enough? Was I doing the right things? Is everyone looking at us?
One moment always comes to mind. Noah was about 6 years old. He has always been high energy with difficulties in body regulation. Translation: he’s super hyper out in public. It’s funny because he’s pretty logical, and he has a good moral compass of right and wrong. He knows how he should act in particular situations but somewhere between thinking and doing, things tend to go awry. We happened to be heading into his favorite store - Target. Before getting out of the car, I gave him a little pep talk. I call it front-loading, where I prepare him for what is about to happen next.
Me: “OK, buddy. Here’s the thing. We are about to go into Target, and I want you to have a super quiet body.”
Noah, with complete confidence in himself: “Got it, Mom.”
But, as much as I tried to front-load, and as much as Noah thought he had this, walking into Target, the excitement of a favorite place couldn’t keep his little body calm. He was immediately jumpy and chatty earning stares from the other shoppers. So, there I stood on the toy aisle, giving up the fight of keeping him quiet. I was letting him live his best Target life by bouncing up and down the aisles.
Another mom walked up to me. She said, gesturing toward Noah “is he… (awkward pause and whisper) autistic?”
She continued. “Have you tried therapy? Or diet? I have this friend…”
You could ask any autistic mom to fill in the blanks here. We’ve all been in this sort of a situation. And, man… it totally stings.
“Did you vaccinate?”
“Have you tried ABA?”
“Is he gluten free/casein free?”
“Have you seen Parenthood?”
She must have caught me at a weak moment because all I could think as I started to tear up was Noah was eight, and we had been in therapy and special schooling for six years. And, I was working so hard for him. He was working so hard. And, it just took one misplaced comment from a well-meaning fellow mom to bring up all the insecurities that in my heart said, “Are we doing enough? And is it all my fault?”
I always wonder how that particular situation could have gone differently, and why it has always stuck with me. Maybe just a “Good job, Mama!” would have sufficed. Maybe Noah isn’t something that needs fixing. As a parent, we are always trying to challenge and improve our children, neurotypical or not. That’s why it’s called “raising” kids. We are all just working on different things. And, I am so proud of my child, and he’s got so much to offer to our family and this world. He’s smart and kind. He loves his sister and pizza. He’s the fastest drawer I know, and his favorite color is red because it comes first… duh. He can pick out all the countries of the world based on size and shape, and he is an avid collector of graphic novels. And, one of the things, I am trying to teach him is showing love and acceptance to the people around him. Need something to work on with your kiddo too? It’s a good one. Take time to say, “Thank you.” Take an interest in the people around you even the ones who are different. Practice simple acts of kindness. Raising tiny humans is hard - autism or not.
And, I think the best we can do is show a little love and give a little grace and teach our children to do the same.