A Teen’s Guide To Understanding & Communicating With People With Autism

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Westfield teenager Alexandra Jackman recently created a video aimed to encourage teens to understand and accept those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

During Jackman’s time in the Teddy Roosevelt Scholars independent study program at Roosevelt Intermediate School last year (eight grade) she wrote and directed the video as her class project.

“The purpose of my specific project was to help teenagers be more aware and understanding of people with autism spectrum disorder,” Jackman explained. “The video is so important to me because I feel it could help anyone, especially typically-developing teens, to feel that they can interact and get to know people with autism and not be scared of the differences. People tend to be more accepting when they are more knowledgeable.”

In the video, Jackman asks middle school students and teachers “What is Autism?” many of them who are unsure. She also speaks to the founder of Autism Family Times, parents of children with Autism, an Autism educator and a doctor. She also highlights children of all ages with Autism and even adults who have Autism. Take a look at the full video

Her video is geared towards teens, but is relatable to all ages on the basics of how to accept and understand those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Since age 10, Jackman has been working with the organization Autism Family Times as a peer mentor for children with Autism. She says the experience is both rewarding and eye-opening.

During the creation of the video, Jackman told Patch, “Maybe if they (middle schoolers) see someone with special needs, they won’t be so afraid to talk with them. For a lot of people, if they don’t understand something, they can be afraid.”

Jackman is now a freshman at Westfield High School, but has said being a part of Autism Family Times has made her consider working in occupation therapy.

“Because of this (experience) I know that I definitely want to do something with special needs when I get older,” she said.


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.”

The Legend Of Xena, Warrior Puppy, And Her Best Friend Jonny

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 Click this link to view the associated video:

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — A puppy, thrown away and left for dead on the side of a DeKalb County street, almost starved to death.

Seven months later, she is living up to the name her rescuers gave her — Xena the Warrior Puppy.

She is alive, well, and working miracles for all in her life.

One miracle is that Xena survived the abuse.

Another is what she is now doing for other abused animals.

And the biggest miracle is what Xena is doing for the little boy in Johns Creek with autism whose family just adopted her:

This just might be a match made in heaven.

Tuesday afternoon, Xena the Warrior Puppy was running around the yard of her new home in Johns Creek with her new best friend, Jonny Hickey.

How far they’ve both come. Together.

In September, Xena was near death, a victim of severe neglect.

The rescue group “Friends of DeKalb Animals” found Xena and somehow was able to nurse her back to health.

At a fundraiser in November, 11Alive News shot some video of Xena, wagging her tail, nuzzling up to the people around her, healthier and stronger.  Xena’s miraculous recovery had made her an international Facebook sensation, and she was raising tens of thousands of dollars for the care of other abused animals.

And at that fundraiser in November, Xena ran straight to two people she didn’t know, a little boy and his dad, and “introduced” herself.

The news camera caught a glimpse of it, the photographer not knowing, then, that the father and son Xena was greeting was Jonny and his dad.

Jonny’s autism had made him withdrawn, reluctant to speak and interact with others.

He fell in love with Xena.

And she fell in love with him.

And in late March, with Xena fully recovered and ready for adoption, she moved in with Jonny and his family.

The two became inseparable.

Suddenly Jonny is a chatterbox.

And he wanted his mom, Linda Hickey, to make a YouTube video of him telling the world about the month of April — how did Jonny know it is “autism awareness” month, and it is also “prevention of cruelty to animals” month?

“My name is Jonny,” he says on the video, “and this is my puppy, Xena. Well, my Xena was hurt really bad. By some not-so-nice people. And I have autism. So I think we make a pretty perfect team to spread the word to be nice to animals, and nice to kids like me.”

How far they’ve come, together. A match made in heaven.

On April 21, Friends of DeKalb Animals is holding another fundraiser, at Fleur’tee Bee Boutique, 1440 Dutch Valley Place, NE, in Atlanta, from 2pm to 5pm. Xena will be there, one of the stars of the event’s “kissing booth.”

Lynn Herron of Friends of DeKalb Animals told 11Alive News Tuesday that Xena, and her story of heartbreaking, near-fatal suffering, and her recovery, have drawn attention to the work of her organization rescuiing abused, abandoned and neglected animals. Herron said people who have followed Xena’s Facebook page have donated about $30,000, so far, which has made it possible for Herron to establish the Xena Shelter Fund for the most severely abused and injured animals, like Xena was.

Herron said DeKalb County Police have not yet been able to find out who abused Xena, but the case remains open, with a reward of $2,500 to anyone who helps lead police to the abuser:

DeKalb County Police Sgt. Tim Medlin: 404-294-2645
DeKalb Animal Control: 404-294-2996

“Auti-Sim”: Sharing Aspects Of Autism Using A Role-Playing Game

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In a playground filled with gleeful shouts, you approach a group of children. Suddenly, your vision turns blurry and pixelated. The echoing screams become raucous.

It’s the experience of sensory overload, according to a new game called Auti-Sim. The simulation, created by a three-member team at the Vancouver Hacking Health hackathon, aims to raise awareness of the challenges of hypersensitivity disorder and help people understand how it can lead to isolation.

The closer you get to loud and active children, the more overwhelming the situation becomes. As you move toward quieter areas, the strain tapers off. Watch the demo here.

Taylan Kadayifcioglu (who goes by Taylan Kay), one of the game’s programmers, says he was inspired by an excerpt from a documentary called Inside Autism. The clip simulates what it’s like for a person with autism to take a trip though Walmart.

“It was striking how an ordinary, everyday environment could pose significant challenges,” Kay tells Mashable.

“It was striking how an ordinary, everyday environment could pose significant challenges,” Kay tells Mashable. He continues, “It made me think of the coping strategies and how they may be misunderstood and mislabeled by other people … it was fascinating that they could impart some understanding and raise empathy with even that much. I thought it was a very clever attempt, and I thought I could take it a step further.”

After posting the demo on indie game site Game JoltAuti-Sim received generally positive feedback.

“We have had quite a few people with autism thanking us for giving them a means of communicating what they are going through,” Kay says. “We have had many people saying that through this experience they have seen themselves reacting in ways that they have seen [children with autism] do in real life.”

The game also garnered criticism from those with autism who said the game didn’t represent their experience with the condition. Kay explains it was a critique they expected to receive, since they had only 12 hours to develop the demo with help from a special-needs educator who served as “autism advisor.” As a result of autism’s wide spectrum, it was impossible to create one game that represented all possible experiences.

The team is in the process of expanding the demo to a full game, with ideas to add interactivity and more environments. Professionals in therapy, education and advocacy around autism will also collaborate. The game will serve as a teaching tool for the general public.

“Imagine teachers being able to provide better learning environments for children with autism, or siblings being better able to understand their brothers or sisters and feeling closer to them, or whole communities becoming more inclusive,” Kay says. “The positive social impact of such projects can be huge.”

Screenshot courtesy of YouTubeTaylan Kay

Here’s To The Birthday Girl!

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by Allison Ziering Walmark, via

Ethan and Eliza Walmark

It can’t be easy being the sibling of a child with autism. But this little 6-year-old girl not only copes with the situation, she’s also a tremendous source of support. She’s the light of her brother’s life and for that, he’s so very thankful.

My Sister, My Hero

My children are 16 months apart. With Ethan, our firstborn, we tried — and had fun trying, darn it — for five months before we hit the jackpot. (You might want to steer clear of room 901 at the CuisinArt Resort in Anguilla.)

When Ethan was 6 months old, our daughter Eliza was conceived, literally on my 40th birthday. (Tacky and trite, yet entirely true.) Still nursing Ethan and with just one newly returned monthly cycle under my belt (figuratively, not literally), I was convinced — and, more importantly, convinced my husband — that there was no way “we” could get pregnant so quickly. Famous last words.

The perfect present

My pregnancy was confirmed on Mother’s Day of all times. Who knew a pregnancy test would be the perfect present? At that time of my second pregnancy, Ethan’s development was right on target, and yet, I cried, feeling guilty, that somehow a new baby would short-change the unspoken “Mommy and Ethan alone-time” contract I had with my son.

The birthday girl

Ethan and Eliza Walmark

Eliza turned 6 on January 23 (1-2-3). Ethan, as always, was by her side and sang and played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in her honor. While Ethan has full speech — and a plethora of four-letter words thanks to Eminem and Prince — he has one more gift he wants to give his sister, which as his mother, I have taken the liberty to elucidate, as he’s too busy composing his next big symphony. (As it happens, he’s entitled it “Penis Poop.” Sigh.)

A letter from Ethan

For my darling sister, on the occasion of her 6th birthday,

You saved me. Literally, you saved me. The day Mommy and Daddy brought you home from the hospital is the day I completely shut down. In essence, your arrival forced them to realize my development wasn’t where it should be, and they called Early Intervention services. Without you, who knows if they would have stopped listening to everyone who said I was “just being a boy, and boys develop at a slower pace.” (More famous last words.)

Eliza and Ethan Walmark

You might not know it, but from day one, you have been my advocate, my protector, my teacher, my rescuer, my hero. My baby sister by birth order… a giant presence in my world.

We have two different sets of strengths: I am more musical, you are more athletic. I like computers, you like books. I like pirates and soldiers, you like princesses and Barbie. We don’t have a conventional relationship. Yet together, we are one very powerful force. We very much complete each other. Yin and yang. We are forever a team. We are The E-Team.

Sometimes I know you resent the attention that my music and autism engender, and I want you to know that I understand. I hear you tell Mommy and Daddy that you want to be on television… that you want to be interviewed for the newspaper… that you want to be on YouTube. Eliza, you don’t need to be on TV for everyone to see how talented, special and unique you are. You are already a star. You are my star. You are Mommy and Daddy’s star, too.

You are beautiful, Eliza, and not just because you have blonde curly Shirley Temple hair and blue eyes that make people stop in their tracks. That’s just your outside. Your true beauty is what’s inside, for it’s your heart and mind that make everyone you meet fall in love with you.

“You are one of those rare people lit from within.”

You are kind, thoughtful and wise well beyond your years. You are one of those rare people lit from within. You are the first to help a friend who is hurt; with a friendly smile and a kind word, you soothe their physical or emotional pain. You are quick to forgive a slight. Rather than receive material birthday gifts from your friends, you asked that they bring in one grocery bag of non-perishable food items so that you might donate them to the local pantry to help the less fortunate. (Come to think of it, are you sure we share the same DNA?)

When your friends ask why I am “different,” you try to educate them and sweetly say, “My brother has autism and sometimes his brain gets confused.” It is you, Eliza, more than any other person in this world, who has helped make me more typical. Who has helped make me more present in this world. Who has made me want to engage with others. Who has given me a sense of self, a sense of place and a sense of humor. You make the real world look so fun and inviting, that you help lead me out of my mind’s darkness and into the light. I see that your world is a wonderful place, simply because you are in it, and that’s where I want to be, too.

Ethan and Eliza Walmark

Your patience knows no bounds. When I get angry, you take your hands and wrap them around my face and say, “It’s OK Ethan, you’ll be OK.” When I do something good, you wrap your hands around my face and say, “Great job, Ethan! I am so proud of you!” When I mispronounce a word or say something inappropriate, you wrap your hands around my face and say, “No, Ethan. Say it like this.” And, I love it all, because I know you want the best for me and your support comes from the heart. Hopefully you know how proud you make me, as evidenced by my front-row claps and cheers at your ballet and gymnastics recitals. When you dance to my piano music, you make my heart sing!

Your teachers are amazed at your depth of empathy and they tell Mommy and Daddy all the time. One day, your teacher asked your class, “What are you thankful for?” Many kids mentioned a television show or pet. You answered, “My brother.” On more than one occasion, you have left certain extra-curricular classes in tears, because while you got a sticker, the teacher didn’t have an extra sticker that you could give to me at home.

Sometimes, I do feel guilty that I’m not the average, run-of-the-mill “typical” brother. But, it comforts me to know that you will always have friends like Lulu and Raya and CiCi and Marin, sisters-in-spirit, with whom you share “brothers with differences.” Rest assured that all us “brothers with differences” love our sisters just as much as you love us. We just have different ways of expressing our love.

While I know a birthday is traditionally a time to receive gifts, you should know that Mommy and Daddy also gave me a gift. That gift arrived six years ago — and every day since — and that gift is you. Having you as my sister is truly the greatest gift — and the greatest therapy — of all. I love you, Eliza!

Your loving brother,

Ethan Walmark

P.S. My room is still off limits to girls (except Mommy), so keep out.

A Prima Ballerina Of The Autism Spectrum

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Clara Bergs is a ten-year-old with a passion for dance, yet she faces far more challenges than the average budding ballerina. Bergs was diagnosed with autism and DiGeorge syndrome at birth, meaning she faces great physical and learning challenges, has difficulty connecting to others, and often dwells in a world all her own.

Clara’s parents noticed her repeating a certain dance around the house and after a while realized she had completely memorized Swanhilde’s masquerade in “Coppélia,” clearly no simple task. The video of Clara’s heartbreakingly beautiful dance has gone viral on YouTube, receiving a number of grateful comments such as, “She makes the world a happier place.” We too are blown away by this tiny dancer’s strength, grace and adorable smile. Watch Clara’s “Coppélia” and tell us it is not one of the most touching renditions of the classic dance you’ve ever seen.

Meet Alex Olinkiewicz, Shelter Island’s Resident Authority on Asperger’s

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Island Profile: Young Author Explains Life With Asperger’s

Meet Alex Olinkiewicz. If you live on Shelter Island, you probably already know him, at least casually. But until you sit down and talk with him, you may know little of his warmth, charm, intelligence and his self-awareness about coping with Asperger’s syndrome and other peoples’ reactions to it.

The 21-year-old 2009 Shelter Island High School graduate has a subtle shyness about him that he somewhat masks with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Many of his classmates may have left the Island for college or jobs but you’re likely to find Alex often alone at home, hunched over a computer dealing with graphics, one of the many talents this young author possesses.

He shows off his pictures and personality in his just-published book, “In My Mind — A Journey Through My Life With Asperger’s/Autism,” which he will be discussing at book signing events on and off the Island in the coming weeks.

Alex will be talking about his book and signing copies on Saturday, August 18, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Dering Harbor Inn. The following Saturday, August 25, from 10 a.m. to noon, he’ll do the same at Claudio’s in Greenport; and on September 1, he’ll be at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor from 10 a.m. to noon.

The book was written with the cooperation of Islander Dr. Richard O’Connell, a retired guidance counselor and author, who spent two years recording sessions with Alex, having them transcribed and then working with him to organize his thoughts into the book, for which Alex created the graphics.

Unlike the scholarly tomes that have been written about autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Alex’s story is very personal and it paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to be someone or have a family member who has Asperger’s.

The idea of a book started with a YouTube video Alex made when he was 16. The video got a few hundred hits and then, with promotion from YouTube, hundreds turned to thousands of views and finally more than a million.

Most online reactions to the video have been very positive, with only “a few jerks,” Alex said. “I mostly shrug them off,” while others online tend to answer those “jerks,” he said.

When he first tried to record his thoughts by talking into a tape recorder, it didn’t work, Alex said. That’s when he and Dr. O’Connell decided to record conversations as a means of drawing out Alex’s story.

“Realizing that people like me go through a lot of hell because we’re misunderstood, you have to wonder if there were a cure, would I take the antidote,” Alex says in the video. “The answer is no! I do not want to get rid of what makes me who I am. I don’t feel fully disabled. I will admit that I am sometimes disabled.

It’s what makes me different from everybody else. Why should I always want to be like everybody else?”

Still, when he’s angry, he admitted,   “I sometimes blame my disorder.” But generally, he said he thinks life might be “boring” without Asperger’s.

He does wish that society understood some of his needs. Just as people who can’t walk use wheelchairs and those who are blind have Braille, canes and guide dogs, he feels there should be at least something — if only an understanding in the culture of what his condition is all about — that would help him to cope.

Just knowing other people aren’t put off by what might seem peculiar or off-putting about his behavior would be a big help.

In today’s world, everyone sometimes experiences a sense of information overload. For someone with Asperger’s, that feeling is profoundly deepened. The world can seem a chaotic jumble to the Asperger’s patient because he or she is often overwhelmed by stimuli.

One way to cope with it all is to shut down. To the observer, someone with Asperger’s may appear to have flicked a switch that simply turns off the input, Alex said.

Alex sometimes hits his own hand to give himself focus on something other than all the outside stimuli. In particularly difficult situations, he’ll look down and refuse to acknowledge anything around him, he said.

He points to the part Dustin Hoffman played in the film “Rainman” about an autistic man. The actor would tap his head when he felt assaulted by sights and sounds around him.

Exactly how Asperger’s syndrome manifests itself will vary from person to person on the autism spectrum, Alex said. He explained his views using a pie chart: All human beings have various abilities that make up the pie. But a person who isn’t autistic has perhaps 15 percent of his pie devoted to social skills while someone who is autistic may have a only 3 or 4 percent of his pie dedicated to social skills.

“I’m very, very social, which is very unusual for people with Asperger’s,” Alex said. Still, he weighs his social skills at about a 12 compared with someone without Asperger’s who is likely to be a 15.

That social component results in an Asperger’s person sometimes being unable to understand others’ meanings, he said. But it has nothing to do with intelligence, a fact he demonstrates with his own conversation and other abilities.

He remembers when he was about 6 his parents were told he should be tested. After a battery of tests, his parents and doctors never used the words “autistic” or “Asperger’s” with him.

“They told me, ’Your mind works differently than others,’” he said. It was later at school that he heard the word “Asperger’s” applied to him and began to understand how it made his learning difficult.

“They tried their best to help me out,” he said about his teachers. He particularly credits teacher Robin Anderson, who worked with him throughout his schooling. “She became one of my first and closest friends,” he said. She helped him to improve his social skills and assisted with homework, he said. In many ways, Ms. Anderson paved the way for a less isolated experience at school than he would otherwise have had, he said.

Still, “School felt like a prison,” he said. But the last few years without school have been isolating, he added. It’s part of what led to the book because it gave him a goal, something on which he could focus.