Month: June 2013

Izzy Paskowitz and Surfers Healing

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I have posted before about the benefits of surf therapy.  The group Surfers Healing, founded by Izzy and Danielle Paskowitz is just another testament (FYI: the story was from Yahoo!,  I was unable to embed their video here, so I added 2 links from YouTube).  If you ever get the chance to get your kids to experience this, please do!  The surf, and the water in general has wonderful therapeutic benefits for autistic children.  I also took a moment to send them a Twitter.  Have a great summer! -Ed 



Pro Surfer Israel Paskowitz Uses His Unique Expertise to Help Autistic Children

It was a summer day in 1969 on Tourmaline Canyon Beach in San Diego, when Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz fell in love with surfing. He was 6 when his father, legendary surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, took him out to ride together on his board. “I will never forget that wave,” says Izzy, “it was my kick off into the tribe.” Considered the first family of surfing, Izzy is the fourth of nine children of Doc and Juliette. They lived a nomadic life in a 24-foot camper and traveled the country for roughly 23 years.

By the time of Izzy’s first surfing experience, Doc, a Stanford graduate and a doctor, had left his career to fulfill his love of travel, family and surfing. Doc believed true wisdom did not come from formal education but from life experience and surfing. The family’s journey is the subject of the acclaimed documentary film, “Surfwise.”

Izzy naturally became a pro surfer. In 1983 he beat legends of the sport and soon became a world champion long-boarder. He won national and international events, including Australia’s Coke Classic Championship and the Hang Ten Classic. At the height of his career he landed a Nike cover ad standing next to Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan and Andre Agassi.

“With my beautiful wife, Danielle, by my side, I felt invincible, like I was king of the world, “ Izzy recalls. But then their second child, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism at age 3. “It took me a long time to accept his condition, to even say the word ‘autism.’ I had the dreams of any professional athlete: that my son would be just like dad, and it wasn’t looking like that.” Izzy ran from reality and continued to travel, drink heavily and surf professionally until Danielle gave him an ultimatum: Come home to take care of his son or leave the family for good.

A contest in Hawaii in 1996 inspired the greatest and most rewarding endeavor of Izzy’s life. Isaiah, then 5, was having an uncontrollable tantrum on the beach due to sensory overload, a symptom of autism. He took Isaiah in the ocean and they paddled out together on his board through the waves, just as his father had done with him. “A calm came over him. He was loose and relaxed, and genuinely happy,” says Izzy. “He was a regular boy out there doing what I always dreamed of doing with him.”

From this magical moment, Izzy and Danielle founded Surfers Healing, a free, one-day surf camp in which professional surfers take out children with autism. Today, Surfers Healing gives 3,000 kids a year in 22 camps across the country the opportunity to feel the same calm and joy Isaiah felt.

“I am not going to find a cure,” says Izzy. “But I do know now that I can ride waves with autistic kids and we are not going to charge a penny for it. These are the best days in my life.”


Living Life as Brothers: Photographing Triplets with Autism

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Is Autism Ultimately A Reward System Processing Disorder?

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When we hear the voice of someone we like, care about, or have a connection to, there are neurochemical process that take place which signals our brain that what we are processing is pleasant and enjoyable, therefore possesses value, and is worthy of further attention.  Hence, a reward system.  The underlying concept here is that children with autism possess those processes to a lesser degree.  I remember days in college when a professor teaching a philosophy course droned on and one; no matter how hard I tried I could not pay more attention, and eventually without the option of physically leaving, my brain shut down and signaled that sleep was the way to go.  Is this really what autism is like? ‘Checking out’ of a conversation or situation because  that voice doesn’t stimulate enough chemicals to give its intended reward? 

If you couple this concept with that which was posed earlier (the use of Oxytocin to improve socialization), it doesn’t seem so preposterous after all.  In fact the use of a ‘love drug’ to foster the increase in rewarding neurochemical reactions seems to be the next logical step in this study.  The prospect is tantalizing: two relatively unrelated (except for its target populations that is) studies could potentially clinically validate each other. Oxytocin could be used in conjunction with Functional MRI to study the connectivity between language and autism.  This would be an elegant use of the most recent scientific studies related to autism.  

Gotta love science!! -Ed



It’s long been observed that many kids with autism have a hard time communicating and socializing with others. Now a new study using MRI scans provides some clues as to why.

Thanks to a weaker connection between the brain’s language and reward centers, the human voice may provide little to no pleasure at all to kids with autism.

In a separate 2010 study, researchers at the University of Utah began to explore the potential of MRI scans to better understand autism.

As they report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers were able to spot “underconnectivity” using functional MRI, which tracks blood flow to look for brain activity.

Researchers scanned the brains of 20 children (average age: 10) with so-called “high-functioning autism” — normal IQs but trouble hearing emotion in voices — and 19 kids without autism but in the same age and IQ range. Not only did they find that those with autism exhibited weaker connections between the part of the brain that responds to the human voice and two regions associated with reward, but there was also a weaker link between the brain’s voice processors and the amygdala, which involves emotion — including the ability to perceive emotion in others.

“This is an elegant approach to using neuroimaging to better understand [autism],” Andrew Adesman of the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, who is not associated with this study, said in a news release. “The natural next step is to try to replicate these findings in further studies, and to expand the research to include younger kids.”

It’s still unclear which came first — the weaker brain connections or the lack of use of those connections due to some other neurological deficiency. Either way, these weak links suggest not only difficulty processing emotion in others’ voices, but perhaps difficulty getting any pleasure out of voices at all.

“When we speak, we don’t only convey information, we convey emotion and social cues,” Daniel Abrams, who led the study out of Stanford, said in a news release. And of the theories as to why kids with autism may have a harder time reading those cues — one is that the brain has some sort of sound processing deficit, another is that these social cues don’t register with the brain’s reward system in the same way — this new work certainly leds credence to the latter.

Of course, the study is small and the findings preliminary, not to mention very specific; autism is a spectrum disorder that affects a wide range of people differently. These brain connectivity patterns may look very different in kids who appear at different points on the spectrum than the high-functioning ones studied.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for these kids in the study who have a hard time reading social cues. Who’d want to sit around listening to people talk if those voices bring no pleasure?

Happy Father’s Day!

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Father’s Day

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The Power Of Silence

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Silence is symbolic for many on the Autism Spectrum; for many who are nonverbal, it is a literal interpretation.  The autism community as a whole was (once) viewed a silent minority hidden amongst the neurotypical populace.  We have only begun to understand, however, that the autistic and the neurotypical can, and must, coexist for the benefit of both.  Like the Chinese yin and yang, there must be a balance; this applies to music as well as autism.  To understand and appreciate autism, there must be an acceptance of it; an understanding of the neurotypical allows for an understanding of the autistic, and vice versa.  As explained below, music without silence, pause or punctuation, is simply unending cacophony.  Silence allows us to appreciate the sound. -Ed






Baroque instruments including hurdy gurdy, har...




There is one phrase I overuse to an almost criminal extent – “the power of music”. As a Nordoff Robbins music therapist, it is both my currency and an easily digestible sound-byte that trips off the tongue when I haven’t the time or inclination to explain what it is I actually do.



When music therapists talk about the ‘power’ music has, I think we are describing music’s inherent potential to connect us, to move us, to remind us who we are and to change the way we think and feel.



Everyone has an instinctive understanding of the language of music. Consequently, we can’t help but respond to it. As a (faintly embarrassed to admit) monolinguist, I find it pretty easy to ignore an overheard train conversation spoken in Spanish or Mandarin… yet if it’s in English I find it nigh on impossible not to earwig at least a little. So it is with the language of music; we all understand it, so when we hear it we can’t help but tune in.



Where did this innate, universal understanding come from? Well many would say that it is because we are all formed by music.



When we enter the world our primary relationship, usually with our mother, is fundamentally a musical one. There are the obvious musical tools – the lilting melody of her voice as she sings to calm us or her rhythmical rocking to lull us to sleep. But the musical nature of the relationship runs far deeper. In fact when trying to describe the nuances of how a mother and her baby interact with each other, child developmentalists such as Daniel Stern found that they constantly borrowed from musical terminology to do so; the rhythm of the interaction, the shifting dynamic range, a shared crescendo, and so on.



Even before that, our earliest experiences in the womb are essentially musical in nature. We hear the rhythm of our mother’s heart beat on average about 26 million times before we leave the safety of the womb. We experience and internalize the regular meter of her pulse, her breathing, her walking.



We also hear the melody of our mother’s voice. Or to be specific, we hear the melody, and we hear the silence when it stops. Many now consider this ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ creates our first meaningful experience of ourselves – of something being with us, then, through silence, absent.



I’ve recently found myself considering this relationship between music and silence in music therapy, which has been prompted by David Hendy’s excellent Radio 4 series, Noise: A Human History. In this week’s episode, in which he focused on humanity’s affiliation with silence, Hendy said that ‘in a world full of noise, the value of silence is rocketing’.



As a Londoner who spent 10 years living under the Heathrow flight path I know all too well what he means. But his insight reminded me that we take silence for granted at our peril. Indeed I believe that the source of the ‘power’ of music is, to a large extent, the power of silence. It is the silence before, after or during a musical experience that articulates and structures that experience, and in doing so helps us to make sense of it.



So silence, perhaps counter-intuitively, is one of the most powerful tools in a music therapist’s armory. Because through the journey from silence into music and back again, comes meaning. And often our job as music therapists is to help clients find a balance between the two; for example with clients on the autistic spectrum.



Much of the original work that Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins did when formulating their approach to music therapy was with autistic children. Today, 50 years on, the range of client groups whose lives are transformed by the charity that bears their name has expanded enormously. However, at the Nordoff Robbins music therapy centre in London where I work we still see a lot of children and adults with ASD.



Commonly, these children develop repetitive, self-isolating cycles or patterns to create order and sense from what can be for them an incomprehensible, orderless world. So often they will come in to the music therapy room, find an instrument to play and soon get stuck or lost in one of these repetitive patterns – endlessly playing up and down the xylophone or beating a drum, unable or unwilling to stop; perhaps for fear that in the silence the incoherence of the ‘real’ world will return.



One of our tasks as therapists in this situation is to make that silence bearable. To use it to punctuate the music we make together, in order to make our musical connection meaningful and understandable. In doing so, we can then offer a pathway out of isolation to be able to communicate in a slightly more endurable world outside.



Silence in music therapy, as in life, can take on many qualities. It can be oppressive or mutual, uncomfortable or soothing. I often find in music therapy with verbal adults that when a long musical improvisation ends it is very difficult to come straight back ‘into words’. Here an instinctive shared silence – sometimes of as long as a minute, can act as a de-compression chamber allowing us time to return from the intimacy of spontaneous shared music-making back into the realm of words and interpretation.



Many who go to classical music concerts will recognize that instinct in the couple of seconds’ silence between the music ending and applause starting. It brings audience and musicians together in a moment of shared, intimate stillness, reminding us that what was experienced individually was also experienced together. And again it acts as a transition back into the wider world. That is of course unless some idiot ruins the silence with a self-agrandising ‘bravo’ before the final note has even ended.



So really when we talk about the power of music, perhaps we have in mind the eternal dance between music and silence, one framing the other to create meaning that is unique to each of us, spoken in a language that is universal.



Finding His Voice In The World

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Please click this link to view the video associated with this story: Man, 19, With Special Form Of Autism Finds New Way To Express Himself.

A nonverbal teen with autism has found his voice.

19-year-old Neal Katz has gone from not being able to speak to being able to translate his thoughts through an electronic device, as he demonstrates in the CBS video above. Katz is now able to perform tasks such as order in a restaurant and go to the grocery store.

Katz’s mother, Elaine Hall, said that her son was turned down from nearly every camp because his disabilities were too severe until Shalom Institute, a Jewish overnight camp in Malibu, accepted him.

“I work here in Malibu every Thursday,” Katz told CBS through his machine. “I plant trees, pick fruits… put down drip irrigation.”

Hall said that her son’s electronic device, as well as the workers at the Shalom Institute, have helped him express himself and learn through interaction with nature.

Katz has recently been offered a full-time job at an organic farm.

“He loves it. It’s given him so much pride. They pay him. He saves his money. He’s so proud of who he is and what he’s become as a result of the Shalom Institute,” Hall said.