“Celebrating Aspergers is celebrating Aspies. Always. In all ways.” An article by author Jennifer Cook O’Toole

Here, Jennifer Cook O’Toole – “Aspie Mommy” to three young Aspie children and author of the forthcoming book, Asperkids –  shares some thoughts about World Autism Day, celebrated every year on April 2nd.


I know there are families whose porch lights will burn blue on World Autism Day. There are some who will wear witty T-shirts, others may sign petitions or attend rallies – each and every gesture a vote of love and confidence. But around my house, World Autism Day will be “A Monday.” In other words, it will be a weekday like every other, filled from sunup (or beforehand) until long after sundown with Occupational Therapy appointments, definite routines, a meltdown or two, lengthy discussions on Greek mythology, zoology or Spiderman (depending upon which of my Asperkids is talking), and a dinner that looks an awful lot like the one I’ll have cooked the night before.

As the “Aspie Mommy” married to an “Aspie Hubbie” and Chief Operating Officer of our three Asperkids, EVERY day is a symphony of conscious choices, expenses and obligations that are my privilege to oblige. To us, supporting and celebrating neurodiversity isn’t a rally cry or Facebook cause. Celebrating Aspergers is celebrating Aspies. Always. In all ways.

World Autism Day is remembering to (patiently) fix my son’s socks so they feel comfortable, or taking the time to acknowledge his brother’s effort to not be the playground rule enforcer, or bringing their sister to karate so she can hone her motor skills and excel in a sport that doesn’t require teamwork. It’s remembering that my husband says “I love you” in a text because, happily, the thought crossed his mind – not because he’s being impersonal. And it’s telling another surprised someone that I’m an Aspie, too, and gently agreeing that yes, it does seem that the world has a lot to learn about those of us on the spectrum.

I may get a chance to wash my hair. I may not. I’m sure my kids won’t care that on April 2nd, I’ll be announced as an online magazine’s “Parent of the Month” for Autism Awareness month – but I’ll be proud to know it. I’m also quite sure I’ll be throwing in at least one load of laundry and encouraging someone to “use his words” rather than yelling. World Autism Day will be a day like every other: a Mommy’s-very-busy-and-in-sensory-overload-but-too-bad day in which I LAUGH at the craziness of my chaotic, complicated, blessed life. I will drive carpool and despair at Lego sprawl – content in my own hardwiring and constantly reminding my precious Asperkids (and the rest of the world) how very lucky we all are to have them here.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Josh Muggleton’s Top Tips for people on the Autism Spectrum – Tip #1: Making Friends

In this new series of videos, Josh Muggleton gives his Top Tips on various subjects for people on the Autism Spectrum. This month, he offers some advice from his own personal experience about how to socialise and make friends.

Joshua Muggleton has Asperger Syndrome, and is currently studying Psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is also currently gaining work experience as a Trainee Assistant Psychologist. Since 2005, Joshua has been leading talks, lectures and workshops on Autism Spectrum Disorders and related issues. He has spoken to MPs in the House of Commons, and has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, and CNN.

For more helpful advice from Josh, check out his video series of Top Tips for parents, teachers and professionals, and his new book, Raising Martians – from Crash-landing to Leaving Home.

Teaching Yoga to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders? A Piece of Cake!

By Michael Chissick, primary school teacher and qualified yoga instructor, and specialist in teaching yoga to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and author of Frog’s Breathtaking Speech.


Exciting New Training Project

An exciting new initiative which delivers the benefits of yoga to hundreds of children with autism will be the cherry on the cake. The project will be in action at a Special Needs Academy in Lincolnshire, UK, after Easter with more to follow.

Over the past thirteen years I have developed a model of how to teach yoga to children with autism. The model can be used by class teachers and teaching assistants with no previous experience of yoga. The structures, activities and postures are easy to learn and are safe to teach. The model is suitable for children across all key stages.

Special schools that have a high proportion of children on the autistic spectrum will use the model. The advantages are that teaching and training are geared to the specific needs of their pupils, and staff can be trained economically without time away from school; and the icing on the cake is that staff can use the model immediately.

How did we reach this point?

I have been teaching Yoga to KS1, 2 & 3 pupils as part of the integrated day at Special Needs School for thirteen years. Many of the children I teach have autism and sensory processing disorders. During each thirty minute session I work with the whole class, class teacher and teaching assistants. Time restraints make it impossible for me to teach all classes in my schools, so I tend to alternate classes every half term.

I had noticed that when I returned to a class to continue after a 5/6 week break there was a need to start over again, which can be frustrating. For many years I simply regarded it as part of the job of teaching pupils with ASD.

However over the last couple of years I have noticed that some classes had retained what I had taught them and were as enthusiastic as ever for their yoga. So what distinguishes the ‘ready-for-more-class’ from the ‘let’s-start-again-class? The answer is that the class teachers and teaching assistants have been teaching their pupils yoga without me… and doing a brilliant job at it too!

Why does it work?

The answer also lies in the fundamentals of my highly structured approach. For example, the children are seated on chairs in a circle. I use a visual timetable and posture cards to keep my verbal input to the minimum. Within the structure I target several layers or elements simultaneously; it’s like a multi-tiered cake. These layers are easily recognised by colleagues who are already experts at working with children with ASD and are using similar models in other curriculum areas.

 

The Layers

  1. Engagement tactics are, for example, encouraging children to choose from posture cards hanging from an umbrella; or children throwing tiny bean bags into the holes on a colourful board as a means of choosing a posture.
     
  2. Fun is key! Children eagerly get out of their chairs and into the posture because it’s fun; if it continues to be fun then they will want to stay in the posture.
     
  3. Repetition of postures over the weeks is a crucial; as children become more at ease with the posture leading to improved skills and greater confidence.
     
  4. Every child Achieves in the lesson.
     
  5. Social Skills like waiting, listening, speaking, helping each other, taking turns and following rules are targeted.
     
  6. Fitness Flexibility and improved co-ordination are the layers that tend to hit the news.
     
  7. Sensory is the sweetest layer. The vestibular system ‘tells us if we are moving or still, while our proprioceptive system is the unconscious awareness of our body position’ (Yack et al 2002). A combination of both systems gives us vital information about movement and where we are in relation to, for example, the floor. I teach many children whose vestibular and proprioceptive systems are dysfunctional. Using yoga postures I help to regulate those dysfunctions.

Feedback

Feedback from the Academy in Lincolnshire was wonderfully positive describing the day as excellent and staff commented that the model:

‘…does away with many pre-conceptions and prejudices – it helps make different types of movement accessible to all.’

It is early days in Lincolnshire, but soon the children and staff will be enjoying their yoga while I’ll be teaching 175 miles away. Seems like I’ll be having my cake and eating it.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Helping kids on the Autism Spectrum handle setbacks and celebrate successes – An Interview with Francis Musgrave

Francis Musgrave is the founder and trustee of AS Active, a non-profit community project set up and run by and for families of children with Asperger Syndrome (AS). AS Active aims to provide children with AS with a network of peers to play, learn and connect with, and to provide their parents or carers with some valuable time to themselves. The activities in the new book, The Asperger Children’s Toolkit, were developed at AS Active, with the input of clinical professionals.

Here, Francis explains how AS Active was founded and talks about how the activities in his new toolkit can help children on the Autism Spectrum handle setbacks and celebrate successes – see below for a free downloadable activity!


Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to found AS Active?

I’m a dad and came to set up AS active with a group of parents who were having problems getting their kids to go along to any kind of event, let alone an AS friendly one. We found a suitable secure venue, and then worked to train ourselves and others to become play leaders. We were fortunate to get help from our local authority, which sent along an experienced play leader and an Autism expert. We also got local mental health and medical professionals involved. Everyone was very enthusiastic and our first event was small but a real learning experience. It taught us that we should learn how to deal better with the unexpected, and that even guided play needs to have some fluidity, to be fun and enjoyable. One parent said to me: “We love coming here because we don’t have to explain anything, you guys just understand.”

Overcoming anxiety and getting to any event is the first hurdle to overcome, so we make it very easy for kids to enter on their own terms. A play leader will join parents and child in a light-hearted game, and slowly introduce them to other children. We then move on to group and socially interactive games. We reward positive signs of social interaction and caring with verbal praise and stickers, and guide alternative behaviours using individually focus distractions and gradually re-introduce children back into the group.

Kids with High Functioning Autism (HFA) and Aspergers, are very self-aware, and crave social interaction. We work with them to facilitate this, not only to make socialising a rewarding experience but to help them see and remember how it is achieved. It requires constant and persistent reinforcement, but it really pays off.

Can you describe how the idea for this book came about?

Parents often find this work  difficult to do at home; it’s both very time consuming and tiring, particularly if you have other kids. The book was driven by the need for a resource that parents could work with at home. It’s very focused and interactive and, most of all, fun so it becomes absorbing. We’ve found ourselves, and in speaking to other parents and educators, that fun really breaks down learning walls and the barriers to social interaction.

Interestingly, we never actually set out to write a book. What is now the The Aspergers Children’s Toolkit actually started life as a self-education exercise for my wife and myself. We learned quickly from other parents, that parental education was pretty thin on the ground, and largely self-funded. It was clear speaking to parents and mental health professionals that whilst there were no shortage of books on AS and Autism, very few were aimed at children, and fewer still were giving them the basic skills they needed, not just to survive but to thrive.

Image: An activity from 'The Asperger Children's Toolkit' - Removing unwanted and negative thoughts.

Download a free activity from the book!

So we set out to change this, but to do it from a child’s perspective and in a way that allows both parent/carer and child to learn together. We are aware that most kids need to learn life skills, but for HFA and AS kids the most important one is to understand their condition and to learn to shrink its impact on them. It takes a lot of courage to learn social interaction, and this doesn’t happen overnight; it’s complex. So seeing issues from the child’s perspective for us was the only way to truly get our messages across.

What is unique about the book’s approach?

Like AS Active itself, the primary objective of the book is to be fun. Through fun, we break down the barriers to learning and teach fundamental skills in a meaningful way that most AS kids can relate to. The book is written in sections that they can come back to it over and over again in order to reinforce what they have learned. It’s deliberately very colourful and visually orientated to aid processing and assimilation.

One particular example of where it really helps is in teaching breathing techniques and meditation, even for short periods, which really helps control emotions and anxiety (one mother even told us she uses these techniques herself). I think the environmental Occupational Therapy issues are often overlooked, and many people have commented that this was a real eye opener for them.

Why did you feel it was important to include safety in the digital world as a particular topic?

We live in a fast moving world, where the use of technology leaves few people untouched; many kids reading this book will be using technology on a regular basis. Being part of a vulnerable group, our children need to be made aware of the dangers – but in a way that doesn’t frighten them. Information Technology is a wonderful resource; we simply want to maximise its enjoyment and usefulness by taking a few simple steps to prevent undesirable outcomes.

The most important steps to online safety are to keep your personal details safe and secure as possible, and not to express your emotions publicly. The internet is an exciting and fascinating place, but like any place you visit there are fundamental rules and protocols. The book covers these rules and guidelines, and encourages openness with parents and carers for those times when children are just not sure.

How do you hope children with Asperger Syndrome and their parents/carers will use the toolkit?

I hope they will use it interactively, as a team – that’s one of the key themes of the book: the family, carers and teachers are all in this together. Taking a collaborative approach is not only a vital social skill, it’s also how we get things done in the wider world. It’s often difficult for caregivers and parents to interact with the more troublesome aspects of HFA and AS. This book helps provide ideas for the many routes to resolution.

Someone once said: “There is no problem that cannot be solved, but often the solution need not be what we expect.” With guidance and patience, we can learn to help our children have rewarding and fulfilling experiences if we are prepared to learn and accept the differences in others. This we can only do if we work together.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

How Positive Psychology can help children be happy, confident and successful – An Interview with Jeni Hooper

Photo: JKP author Jeni HooperJeni Hooper is a Child Psychologist and Parent Coach who is based in Winchester, England. She has over 30 years’ experience working with children in both public and independent settings. She now specialises in applying positive psychology to promoting children’s psychological wellbeing as a trainer, coach and consultant.

In this interview, Jeni talks about her new book, What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful, a practical model based on Positive Psychology principles that can help parents and professionals to support children in facing the challenges of real life.


Please tell us a little about you and how you came to work in child psychology and parent coaching.

I discovered psychology in my teens and was immediately fascinated by what we could learn about ourselves and creating our best life. I had a very happy childhood but knew a lot of children who didn’t. I loved school and did well there but I could see how hard it was for others. I remember a young woman with learning difficulties who lived nearby. She couldn’t talk but liked to go out for walks by herself with her basket of treasures. She was a child in a woman’s body, and I was horrified when children teased her. They tried to take her basket from her and she would become very distressed. I tried hard to imagine what it would be like to live her life instead of mine. I knew her family received very little help and just did the best that they could. I grew up knowing I wanted to make life better for children but at first I didn’t know how exactly. I suppose my motivation was both compassion for others and gratitude for my own good fortune.

I studied psychology at university and then went into teaching, first in primary schools and then in special education, before training as an Educational Psychologist. In Educational Psychology, I could support parents and schools to help those with the greatest needs. While this is vitally important, it helps only those in greatest need. In recent years, I have combined working in the public sector with setting up an independent practice so that I could share what psychology has to offer with more families. I think it is important to support all adults, both parents and professionals, to deal with children’s difficulties before they reach crisis level. My book is a means to share what I have discovered with a wider audience.

Can you explain what positive psychology is for the uninitiated?

Positive Psychology is the study of optimal wellbeing: what we need to be our best selves. For the past 100 years, psychology has focused on helping those in most need by treating mental health needs and learning difficulties. By focusing on this specialised area, psychology has become distanced from the lives of most people. In contrast, Positive Psychology reaches out to a wider audience. It is relatively new, but has taken off like a rocket, and now has a substantial evidence base of what helps people to flourish.

How do you find it helps the children you work with?

Getting things right from the beginning is the best way to create a good life for children. Wellbeing is about having the skills that you need for day-to-day life. Children need to learn how to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that they can make good choices. This self-determination is satisfying and boosts confidence.

Professionals and parents want the best for children and need to know how to guide them through childhood. Positive Psychology provides the evidence on which to base decisions. For example, we know that optimism is invaluable to mental health because it encourages people to be hopeful and take good care of themselves. It helps people stave off depression by reframing challenging experiences and it increases people’s overall happiness. We know that happy people are more successful at school, in work and in their relationships. So one of the pillars of positive psychology is to teach optimism.

Your new book is based on your own ‘Flourishing Programme’. Can you tell us what this is, and why you have written the book?

The Flourishing Programme provides a comprehensive guide to nurturing wellbeing. There are 5 core areas of wellbeing:

  • Personal strengths: the skills and abilities important to us which we choose to use when we can. These strengths are satisfying and also help us to be successful.
  • Emotional Wellbeing: keeps us calm and stable and able to get on with life. This depends on our ability to understand and manage our emotions so that we maintain a positive mindset.
  • Positive Communication: the skills to connect with others and nurture happy, healthy relationships.
  • Learning Strengths: to grow and develop, a child needs learning habits which motivate and help get results.
  • Resilience: is the set of problem-solving abilities which help us deal with challenges.

The Flourishing Programme provides a framework to assess a child’s wellbeing in each of the 5 core areas, and describes activities which will encourage progress and growth. There are downloadable questionnaires which can be used to assess wellbeing. The programme is designed to be personalised to reflect a child’s strengths and interests as well as address their current needs.

Every child is unique and their personality and strengths will determine the direction they want to go. One of my favourite sayings is: “The child provides the power while the adults do the steering.” When adults try to control everything they are likely to meet resistance; but equally when a child is left to explore and experiment, they risk confusion and failure. The Flourishing Programme suggests that childhood is a shared journey which works best when adults understand the unique strengths of the child. The book offers both parents and professionals a useful map to identify those strengths and nurture progress.

For an overview of The Flourishing Programme, please visit my blog.

With a positive psychology approach, is there a danger in focusing too much on the positive and ignoring the negative?

Positive Psychology is a memorable name, more so than “wellbeing psychology” would have been. But despite the name, Positive Psychology is not a one-sided approach. In the early days the media focused on happiness, but more recently the subject of resilience and bouncing back from set backs has been better understood. Positive Psychology is definitely not a happy, clappy approach. It faces up to the challenges of real life: not only how you get on track to make a good start in life, but also how you can manage challenges if something awful happens. Professor Martin Seligman, for example, is working with the U.S. military to monitor the wellbeing of soldiers and their families and to develop both self-help strategies and early support.

What are your thoughts on proposed Happiness Index – a measure of the UK’s happiness – and campaigns such as Action for Happiness?

The Happinex Index is a welcome concept. It reminds politicians to judge their effectiveness not just on economic criteria but by the impact policies have on people’s lives. This is harder than measuring growth in economics but equally important. I hope the Office for National Statistics will refine their measures to get past the trivialising headlines I saw recently which told us that the happiest people in the UK are over 65 with children and living in Northern Ireland. It is not a competition!

Action for Happiness is a great resource and I would thoroughly recommend people to explore the website: www.actionforhappiness.org. It reminds people what works for individual wellbeing, but equally how important relationships are essential to a happy and satisfying life.

 

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social Care

Book cover: How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social CareTrish Hafford-Letchfield is Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Teaching Fellow in Interprofessional Learning at Middlesex University in the UK, and Les Gallop is an independent consultant and trainer with many years experience in social work, social work management and training.

In this interview they introduce their new book, How to Become a Better Manager in Social Work and Social Care, a researched and practical guide to the fundamental skills and knowledge that a manager needs, underpinned by the values and ethics that are inherent to social work and social care.


This is the first book in the new Essential Skills for Social Work and Social Care Managers series intended to help managers in social work and social care. Can you tell us a bit about the series, the need for it, and what readers can expect from books that are featured within it?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: There are a lot of good quality books in our field which offer various critiques of management and models for thinking about how to be a better manager. I wanted to think about the actual skills that managers in social work and social care needed, for example, those which help people to practically grapple with the business aspects of management but which also pay attention to and value equally, the need to behave ethically in what can be very demanding environments. Managers that I have worked with in different settings often struggle with keeping up with new developments in management practice and particularly with having the time to think about their own learning and professional development. Becoming skilful as a manager does not always naturally emerge from one’s professional experiences although much of what we learn comes from what we do every day and the opportunity to reflect and consolidate those experiences. However, the need to develop more tailored or specific skills and to be a good manager might come to your attention for the first time when you move into a new management role or make a transition from one management role to another. Managers often acquire responsibility for managing others, without the benefits of formal management training, and they have to combine professional expertise combined with practice ‘know-how’.

This series Essential skills for Social Work and Social Care Managers aims to give front line or aspiring managers access to a practical quality guide to a range of different areas of fundamental management skills; areas that can often be taken for granted. For example, if you are about to go into a recruitment drive, you may want some tailored advice about how to write a job description or person specification, or if you are managing a difficult meeting, what are the quick tips to help you prepare? I hope that these short, handy but well researched guides are particularly tailored for those working in social work and social care environments or any environment with a core business of care.

So, the first book covers everyday skills such as time management, managing conflict and working effectively in partnerships. These are the background skills, so to speak. The second book in the series focuses just on project management and how to manage a project effectively, whether this is large or small. We anticipate further books in the series on skills in effective decision making, acting ethically and commissioning and contracting. I hope that people who have expertise and who are perhaps interested in sharing this with their colleagues as well as meeting the challenge of writing a book will come forward and submit a proposal for the series.

What do you think are the most common challenges for managers in social care?

Les Gallop: This is a question for our times. We live in difficult circumstances, with people in all social work and social care sectors facing uncertain futures. I want though to step back a bit from this and think about other sorts of challenges:

  • Dealing with targets: for many years and under various governments, managers have had to attend to ‘targets’ and all the associated activities, while at the same time recognising that even the neatest spread sheet about performance is not the same as performance itself. I love the quotation from Einstein, told to me by an old friend in management: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. Someone had better tell the government!
     
  • Remaining human: a silly thing perhaps, but pressure is relentless for a lot of managers, and it is easy to become jaded. Remaining human and keeping a sense of perspective (and humour!) is a real challenge but so important.
     
  • Reconciling demands: I have spent some time talking to managers recently about their work, and this challenge of keeping plates spinning, all of which are important plates, keeps them busy from the beginning to the end of most days. I’ve found myself comparing and contrasting it with my experience of management. It seems to me that theirs is a much more demanding world than I remember mine being, brought about in part by the target culture and by the increasing public visibility of social work and social care.

One thing remains, though, through the years: the sense of the sheer importance of social work and social care in any society concerned with inequality and social justice – and the healthy challenges that this brings about ourselves and our work environments.

How do issues for managers in social care differ from those faced by managers in, say, the financial sector?

Les Gallop: I’m sure that there are many overlaps between all sectors, given that management anywhere concerns ensuring that people work towards whatever are the organisation’s goals – I like the idea that the key task of management is to create an environment in which safe and creative work can flourish.

However, I do think that there are real differences between the various work places. In social work and social care, front-line staff are the service – whereas in the financial sector we can separate the person from, for example, the advice that they give. We discuss this in the book, using research by Bowen and Schneider on service organisations. They argued that the ‘products’ of such organisations are largely intangible, and service users will judge them therefore through impressions. A support worker’s performance will for example be judged by a service user partly in relation to their personal qualities. In many situations the act of providing the service and that of receiving it are simultaneous. The service user is an active contributor to this process. The Newly Qualified Social Workers with whom I have recently been working know this very well when a parent refuses to engage in discussion about a child’s well-being.

All of this means that in social work and social care organisations, supervision becomes particularly important. Front-line staff need support, motivation and time to reflect on how they work, along with some monitoring, in order that the vital exchanges between them and service users can be as effective as possible.

What originally spurred your interest in social care management?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: I fell in love with management theories when I did my first post graduate course in health and social care management in the early 1990s. It was the first time I had been encouraged to reflect on my management practice and think about the specific role I played and my own management style. I always believe that until relatively recently managers in our sector have been much maligned and neglected even though they have a professional practice background. When I went into higher education in 2003, I was asked to teach a module on management and organisations. I found that there was not a lot of diversity in the learning materials for social work and social care managers which meant going to the more traditional sources and adapting and tailoring them for my students. I haven’t looked back since.

Les Gallop: My decision to apply for my first management post had a lot to do with my manager at the time. I had come to appreciate what a difference she made to my work and that of my colleagues, as well as to the people who needed our service. In fact, I still see the first-line manager as the key person in determining the quality of service people receive. She brought a great mixture of challenge and support to her work and had an undying commitment to individual team development. I had supervised a few students and started to get a real buzz from seeing them develop in competence and confidence, and that added to my interest in management.

In terms of writing about social work and social care management, I did some writing for a university Higher Award in Social Work Leadership and Management. I came across Trish then, who was also doing some writing for the course. Students seem to appreciate it, and I realised more than ever how starved so many managers are of opportunities to think about their work. Ever since qualifying and having a positive experience of being managed I have valued opportunities for thinking about my work, and know how much it has helped me. So – when Trish asked if I would like to work with her on this book, I couldn’t say no!

What is the biggest challenge you have ever faced as a manager?

Les Gallop: Like all the managers I know, every day brought challenges for me. I suppose it is one of the reasons we do it, in spite of cursing it sometimes!

Perhaps though the biggest challenges are those where we have responsibility but little obvious power. I still feel the nerve ends twitch when I think of a situation where the large organisation I was working in was being divided. I had a lot of responsibility for sorting out how the staff in my service might be divided while not knowing about my own future. In the months of working on this there were a lot of tears. Some people had worked together for some time, and so established working friendships were about to break up. We did not know about whether there would be sufficient posts in the new arrangements to go round, and so individual futures were at risk. When we had little information about the overall plans, rumours would start doing the rounds to fill the gaps.

It strikes me that in these times of public service cutbacks there will be many managers going through similar experiences. I needed a lot of support to help me maintain a ‘public’ face of at least some dignity whilst thinking that this just was not what I had come into management for.

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: I am just about to take on a challenge in my own university where I have recently taken on some administrative roles with some delegated management responsibilities. That has definitely made me anxious about whether I will be able to practice what you preach? I may even have to turn to this book for my own advice!. It’s a scary thought that people may think I am not true to my own espoused values. I have always maintained some sort of management role since entering higher education within the voluntary sector which keeps me in touch with the real world. I hope that I am able to keep learning and that I can support others in doing so.

If you could offer just three pieces of advice to a social work manager wanting to improve their management skills, what would they be?

Les Gallop: I am not often the first in the queue when it comes to offering advice! After all, what might work for me might not work for others and vice versa. However I would, with some hesitation, suggest the following, which probably fits with what I have said above.

In order to develop our skills we need to have and to nurture good support systems, so identify sources of support. This sometimes will be people in similar posts whose views and approach you trust. A life outside work is another source of support.

I think then that I have discovered the simple realisation that we will never be the ‘finished article’. It’s a bit of a cliché perhaps, but a commitment to continuing professional development is what separates effective managers from those going through the motions.

My third thought is about self-awareness, as we argue in the book. We all find ourselves able to do some things better than others, and, given scarce time, managers need to work on those skills that are less developed, as well as honing skills that come a bit more naturally. This is why we wanted to give people a chance to do an audit of skills.

Trish, you have written a number of books, and are now the editor of a series of books for JKP – I imagine the advice on time management must come in useful when balancing a busy academic life with writing projects. How do you get motivated and find the time to write?

Trish Hafford-Letchfield: Yes, a lot of people think that I am a workaholic and do nothing but write every spare minute of the day in order to produce the books I have managed to write. However, many are surprised to find out how many other things I manage to cram into my busy life, including my music and I always consider myself as a bit of a culture vulture given that there is always so much going on in London where I currently live. However, I am a great believer in Forsters principle of ‘do it first every day’ which means that I tend to write in small chunks but I also write very regularly and in a much focused way. First of all, I establish an overall plan in terms of the timescales and tasks required then I work towards that slowly and steadily. I do tend to write my goals down and plan quite well in most areas of work and I also move the goal posts quite a lot but I believe that by aiming high, it allows for a bit of manoeuvre or compromise. For me, a lot of the work is done in the mulling over and reading, which I do on the tube to work, and in the more unlikely places. Writing for me, is a habit and the more you do, the easier it becomes. My advice is that regular focussed action keeps an initiative alive or keeps you engaged with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of extended procrastination, like everyone else but I think it’s healthy to indulge in that, and for me, I need to feel the acute pressure on my time as a result of a good bout of procrastination and then the challenge to get on with it. It’s all about the balance and being honest with yourself. I would say, be kind to yourself and kind to others, we are only human after all!

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Mediation Matters: Tony Whatling on Training Muslim Mediators in Afghanistan

A personal perspective from Tony Whatling, mediation consultant and trainer, and author of Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide.


Kabul revisited

The flight from Dubai to Afghanistan had taken us over the breathtaking panorama of the majestic snow-capped peaks and deep dark valleys of the Central Highland mountain range, which cover over 160,000 square miles.

It was late October 2010 and as we touched down at Kabul airport I reflected on my last training visit in 2004 and wondered what changes had taken place over that time. The excitement of my return to this wonderful country had been overshadowed by the news that, on that same morning, on the outskirts of Kabul a suicide bomber had taken the lives of thirteen NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and eight civilians.

Within three weeks of that dreadful event, many more innocent citizens – men, women and children – were slaughtered by more bombs as they celebrated the joy and excitement of the festival Eid Mubarak, in central Kabul.

Compared to 2004, it was sad to see that Kabul had become a city under siege. Every building of any importance was now hidden from sight and fortified with 20-foot high concrete walls, topped with razor wire. Getting into the hotel from the road took around 10-20 minutes every day as each steel barrier, followed by massive steel gates, allowed only one car at a time to pass through and be examined. They checked underneath the car, the boot and the engine bay. Once out of the car, bags were searched and checked by sniffer dogs before being put through airport-style scanners. All hotel uniformed guards carried machine guns at the ready with – rather concerningly – twitching fingers. Only main roads were surfaced, but all were inches deep in dust. There were many more cars than last time and driving was all based on a ‘he who dares, wins’ game of bluff and counter-bluff, with a terrifying lack of regard for the risks involved or for the lives of pedestrians attempting to cross the road.

It was all a stark reminder that, whether the disputes were between warring spouses, angry neighbours, work colleagues or nations, such conflicts would never be resolved by violence. Referring to a much-respected retired general, Britain’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan wrote: ‘Like most Afghans, he knew that the only answer was reconciliation between all the parties to the conflict. There had to be a new political settlement in which the Taliban, and the tribes and views they represented, were included, not excluded. Trying to defeat the Taliban by military force would never produce lasting peace.’*

Mediation for the people by the people

Over the past ten years, I have had the great pleasure and privilege of delivering a total of twenty programmes of family and community mediation training in eleven different countries, including Pakistan, India, Syria, Kenya, Portugal, the USA, UK, Canada, Uganda, Tanzania, and Afghanistan.

The training programmes are arranged by one particular Muslim group, which has faith communities in some 23 different countries worldwide. Most of those communities have now established dispute resolution teams, staffed by volunteer-trained mediators who are available to deal with disputes referred from within their particular local faith community group.

And so it was that I was returning to Kabul to train the latest group of carefully selected, newly appointed volunteer mediators from various districts in Afghanistan where this particular faith group has long-established communities.


Photo: Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.

Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.


For many of the 50 or so trainees, the learning challenges they faced were compounded by the physical discomfort of some 3-4 days walking, apart from the occasional luxury of a donkey ride to get to the training venue in Kabul. Much of their route – for example, from the northern mountainous Hindu Kush regions of Badakhshan – consists of little more than rough tracks. Some told of how the path had become closed behind them by ice and snow. Their safe return to loved ones and businesses was, as they put it with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, ‘now in the hands of Allah’.

For these people, who had lived through centuries of peaceful conflict resolution faith teachings combined with a tradition of voluntary service to their community, the personal risks involved were far outweighed by an awareness of the urgent need to connect faith traditions with contemporary dispute resolution practice.

New learning inevitably generates complex and challenging questions

One of the great pleasures of training such groups is the strong level of commitment, attention, and the high value which they attribute to any form of education and training. As a result, their acquisition of knowledge and skills tends to be much accelerated in comparison to their Western counterparts. This is all the more surprising since every sentence has to be translated, in this instance into Farsi.

Sadly, male trainees still outnumber women – one consequence of which is that men have to assume the role of women in role-play. This is always a source of great amusement within a group. In what other circumstances would you find a high-ranking officer from the department of counter-terrorism, a former mayor, a serving army general, judges and farmers, sitting cross-legged on the floor, acting out the role of a distressed divorcing wife?

The influence of the trainer in empowering trainees to stretch their boundaries never ceases to amaze me. To their credit, during the role-play debrief, these men frequently comment about the eye-opening insights they gained from this gender shift experience.

Here in Afghanistan, the training and learning challenges are complex, as participants struggle to make sense not only of the knowledge and skills they are gaining, but of the application of these to their non-Western culture and faith traditions.

It is very apparent that they are convinced by, excited about and wanting to apply these new ideas and practices. Yet at the same time there is an inevitable uncertainty and insecurity about the extent to which such practices will be acceptable within their more remote regional communities.

Evidence of this internal struggle becomes clear from the nature of the questions from – and often heated debates between – members of the group. Constant requests for help and advice are made about how to deal with the anticipated resistance to such ‘new ways’ being imported from the West.

This has been a common experience and preoccupation in the training of other groups for example in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Syria and, more recently with a group from Iran, where long-standing cultural traditions of dispute resolution are far more akin to arbitration.

In the more remote regions of these countries, disputes are traditionally referred to wise community leaders and/or groups of respected elders, who have the absolute authority to hear the case and determine the settlement. Regardless of the opinions of the winners or losers of this informal justice system, the judgement will be accepted and respected by all concerned. Consequently, introducing contemporary and non-authoritarian dispute resolution, by party empowerment and negotiation, challenges the authority of the tradition and risks a lack of respect for the authority, and therefore the status of mediators, regardless of Western contemporary beliefs in its efficacy.

Any response to such challenging questions must demonstrate a good level of understanding on the part of the trainer, together with all due respect for cultural and sub-cultural differences and traditions.

Whilst the questions may relate to the anticipated resistance in potential mediation clients, the underlying or ‘meta’ questions are also a reminder that the trainee, too, is a product of that same cultural environment.

The response of a trainer to the trainee’s uncertainty and doubts can be seen as a mirror image that reflects the doubts and uncertainties that clients may well bring to them as mediators. Trainers and mediators alike, on perceiving such doubts, must have the professional maturity to be able to steer into such confusion. Instead of trying to avoid it, they should share responsibility for their part in such uncertainty, rather than regarding it as the client’s problem. In other words, expressed or perceived doubts from trainees or clients should be encouraged, heard, understood and respected as normal at times of uncertainty and disequilibrium.

Is mediation an ‘idea whose time has come’ for Afghanistan?

Having referred earlier to the wise words of the former British Ambassador, I woke today to the news that, on the occasion of President Karzai’s meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister in London, it was announced that talks had now officially started between mediators and representatives of the Taliban.

My work in Afghanistan is related to one small Muslim faith community that is located within many larger and more complex historical faith, cultural and political systems. The work is a very minor contribution compared to the wider picture in this war-torn country. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt now that mediation and negotiated peace settlements are the only viable alternative, as for example we have witnessed in countries like South Africa. In such entrenched conflicts, we are dealing with highly complex and long-standing disputes involving deeply held values and principles.

When compared to disputes over substantive issues such as regional boundaries, electoral systems, or numbers of weapons, negotiated settlements will never be achieved by one side changing its position or values. Whilst we may all change and adapt our values as we go through life, we tend not to do that when in dispute. That is a time to stand up for them at all costs, regardless of risk to life and limb. The only way to achieve a resolution to such values disputes is when each side eventually comes to recognise the right of the other side to exist as fellow human beings – albeit having entirely different cultural and faith traditions, values and beliefs. Once that position is established, the respective factions can come together to negotiate practical measures by which they can learn to live side-by-side, regardless of their value differences – as is now happening with the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Such major international conflicts will not be concluded easily or swiftly, just because peace agreements are signed. In the cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland we may be facing decades of transition and yet, it would seem that once the tipping point is reached, despite attempts by minority groups to disrupt the accord, it is unlikely to revert to former states of all-out warfare.

Despite the marked differences between the advances of one minority Muslim group that I have had the privilege of working with, compared to the enormity of conflict in Afghanistan as a whole, the good news is that the skills and techniques that mediators bring are precisely the same.

Obviously very different procedural steps are needed when we compare spousal disputes with workplace, or commercial contexts with complex multinational conflicts. Nevertheless, the skills and processes of mediation are universal. So too are the essential principals that underpin the practice, such as voluntary participation, demonstrable impartiality as to outcome, joint party empowerment, confidentiality and fairness etc. – all of which are explored in more detail in the forthcoming book, Mediation Skills and Strategies.

Political leaders, community elected representatives and diplomats will inevitably take centre stage in such negotiations. Nevertheless we can only hope that they have the wisdom to ensure that highly-skilled, trained and respected mediators are ‘embedded’ at every stage of the process. They must be regarded as integral to the process throughout. Their values, skills and strategies are substantially different from the key stakeholders – and should be respected as such.

My personal view, from experience over the past decade, is that, in terms of cultural credibility, such mediators should ideally be recruited from within the Afghan community and culture rather than imported from the West. It is likely that training will need to be imported initially but it must to be seen to be culturally sensitive to substantial differences between Western Individualist and non-Western Communitarian cultural attitudes to conflict and dispute resolution.

Tony Whatling
January 2012

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.


*Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (Harper Press 2011), 352pp.

“Although fatigue may persist, it can go away” – An interview with Lucie Montpetit

Photo: Singing Dragon author Lucie Montpetit
Photo: Singing Dragon author Lucie Montpetit (Credit: Jackie Fritz)

Lucie Montpetit is an occupational therapist with over 25 years’ experience working in a variety of hospital settings. She runs workshops on managing fatigue, stress and pain using the approach she has developed incorporating a number of different techniques. She has personally suffered from debilitating fatigue and restored her health through the methods she now teaches others.

She is the author of Breaking Free from Persistent Fatigue - new from Singing Dragon.

In this interview, Lucie recounts her personal experience with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and how overcoming this condition through a combination of occupational therapy techniques and Eastern health modalities inspired her to help others to do the same.


Can you please tell us a bit about you and your personal and professional interest in improving the lives of people with persistent fatigue?

First, I’d like to explain that I chose the expression “persistent fatigue” because although fatigue may persist, it can go away. A frame of mind open to hope is important in healing.

When I started working as an occupational therapist, I was interested in understanding the drops in energy of my patients. Despite people’s motivation to get better, a lack of energy became apparent in rehabilitation. I encountered different types of lack of energy, whether patients were suffering from major depression in an acute psychiatric setting; war veterans suffering from late onset diabetes leading to leg amputation; or young mothers who just encountered their first major energy drop from multiple sclerosis or a rheumatoid arthritic attack. Personally, I went to see a neurologist at the age of 29 because of sudden energy drops and my GP thought I had multiple sclerosis, but nothing was found and it went away within two weeks. Then, after my second child was born, I had multisystemic symptoms that my GP did not understand. He said I must be stressed. But I did not feel I was more stressed than my co-workers and friends who had to conjugate career and family life.

Book cover: Breaking Free from Persistent FatigueEventually, despite my relatively healthy lifestyle, I had to find another doctor who put me on sick leave with the diagnosis of myalgic encephalomyelitis. It took me about two years to recover from the persistent debilitating fatigue. After that I started to do workshops for patients suffering from similar daily challenges. My book reflects in part my own findings to regain my health as well as the work I have done as an occupational therapist with patients suffering from debilitating fatigue associated with different diagnoses. So it is not a book about disease but about finding solutions according to different ways of gaining back one’s physical, emotional and psychological energy balance. For many, it is also a path towards empowerment and finding a new meaning in daily activities.

Can you paint us a picture of what the person with fatigue goes through on a daily basis?

Once the imbalance is severe, here is what I observed in my patients: Sudden energy drops at fixed time during the day or after physical exercise; poor sleep of different kinds (inability to fall asleep, waking up many times during the night with an urge to urinate and/or unable to feel refreshed even after a good night’s sleep); food and environmental intolerances; exacerbation of known allergies or new allergy appearances; dizziness; mood swings; foggy thinking; no buffer to deal with stress; having a hard time doing little things around the house, such as washing dishes, due to lack of energy and reduced capacity to organise and plan; having projects in mind and interests to pursue but the inability to do so due to lack of energy; not being able to lift grocery bags without shaking like a leaf and needing to go to bed right after; preferring to be alone but not necessary being depressed – essentially just needing to use as little energy as possible to “survive another day”.

What causes this debilitating condition?

One thing for sure is that long standing exposure to stress is a cause of this debilitating condition, but not only psychosocial stressors like your work environment, a conjugal separation or the death of a close relative. These can also include viral infections, postural stressors that leads to jaw misalignment and lack of sleep, nutritional deficiencies that prevent the production of energy at the cellular level, candidiasis, and long term exposure to moulds, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, allergens, electromagnetic smog and other environmental pollutants.

The accumulation of stressors leads to the imbalance of your psycho-neuro-immuno-endocrine (PNI) super system, known by researchers as allostatic overload.

What makes it worse, and what makes it better?

Continuous exposure to stressors of any kind – insomnia, not respecting one’s limitations and forcing oneself to do more – makes things worse. To make things better, get rid of the stressors when possible; eat energising foods rather than energy draining processed foods; modify daily habits to optimize the natural chronobiological hormonal cycles of one’s body; learn to change one’s mode of reacting into a more energising way of responding to daily life challenges; and make informed choices while honouring one’s strength and limitations. Choosing the right physical intensity of exercise to regain one’s capacities is crucial, while choosing key nutrients to optimise cellular energy production is also important in the process. Learning how to breathe efficiently through the nose in order to optimise the oxygen input is also very important.

What is the book about, and what motivated you to write it?

For many years, I have been dissatisfied with medical answers that purport to address the debilitating fatigue suffered by my patients with auto-immune diseases. Lack of resources and understanding, finding quick fix medications such as antidepressants for patients clearly suffering from musculoskeletal symptoms such as fibromyalgia, and having difficulty finding answers with the variety of health professionals I personally consulted inspired me to write the book. I needed to find answers firstly for myself, and then got the urge to share my findings and what I had learned with others facing similar prejudices among some health care practitioners. So the book is about finding personal solutions, different for each reader because of their own type of debilitating fatigue and personal way of over-spending their energy. People will learn how to make an energy balance sheet like one would do financially when consolidating debts. From their findings, they will figure out how to save energy in their daily lives and regain their inner mind-body balance towards health.

Can you talk about how your work and approach is influenced by Chinese medicine and other practices?

As an occupational therapist I was trained to view my patients from a holistic perspective, which is in accordance with my personal understanding. People require a meaning in the activity they are doing in therapy; they need goals of their own to reach in addition to those of my rehabilitation treatment plan for them. From my perspective as a martial artist of many decades, I am also influenced by the efficiency of energy expenditure, the need for the energy to circulate through the meridians and the influence of the breath during outer and inner Qi Gong and martial practice.

For me, the autonomous nervous system (ANS) follows the yin/yang principles. Patients I treat, for different reasons, have lost the balance of their PNI super system. This has direct repercussions on the ANS as it reverts to a constant “fight or flight” reaction mode as a result of too many stressors that leads to a narrow, skewed perception of daily life. In these circumstances, the ANS becomes too much yang.

I teach patients to reconnect with their bodies through their senses, the awareness of their body and posture in space and their breathing pattern. Then I use different Qi Gong exercises according to the level of energy of my clients or Chan Ssu Chin Tai Chi exercises (known as Silk Reeling Cocoon exercises) to reconnect further with their breath and body and the body’s ability to heal itself. Sometimes I use Neurofunctional reorganisation – Padovan’s Method® (NFR) with the patients to regain the balance of their autonomic nervous system and sleep rhythm: it is a powerful tool that follows brain plasticity principles. I had used NFR mainly with patients suffering from neurological conditions that follows brain plasticity principles in the past. Many of the NRF exercises help my clients suffering from debilitating fatigue as well because it helps reorganise posture, breathing, and ANS functions and rhythms.

Once the body starts to regain its natural rhythms, I encourage my patients to implement what they found useful in therapy into their lifestyle. I teach them about chronobiological rhythms so they can choose for themselves the minor changes in their daily habits that can help foster the natural flow of hormones and chi. Finally, when the patient starts to get out of the constant “fight or flight” mode and is ready to respond in a new way, I make use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) principles to help make changes to the energy draining perception of daily life to energising life habits that are better suited for the recovery process. All of those life changes follow the yin/yang principle to break free from persistent fatigue while restoring the inner balance called homeostasis in Western medicine.

How does the book reflect your general philosophy about health?

For me, health is a dynamic equilibrium within oneself. Equilibrium takes place in the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual dimensions of our lives in relation to our environment. If a person is disconnected from one aspect of his or her self, the imbalance will eventually be reflected in the other dimensions of his or her life. I believe that every person who comes to consult me is in part responsible for restoring and then maintaining his or her PNI super system dynamic balance that we refer to as health. People are amazing at finding ways to change their lives in ways that make sense to them. Once they realise from a new point of view how they were living, they have no interest of returning to their previous lifestyle.

Our environment has never had such a strong negative impact on our health. Depleted soils and foods, pollution of all senses, the intrusion of technology in every aspect of our daily lives and having to deal with the compound effects of so many hundreds of chemicals even before we are born are also major stressors that health professionals too often neglect. These are also consequences of living in a world that is too “yang”. There is an implicit false belief that we have to be busy and multitasking most of the time. We can be proactive in maintaining or restoring our health once we gain knowledge of those relatively new phenomena. Knowledge is power. Feeling empowered rather than feeling a victim of a disease changes your outlook on your condition. This frees your body-mind and it starts to heal itself faster. Allowing a few minutes per day to be rather than to do is sometimes sufficient to maintain one’s inner balance.

Finally, how should this book be used by the reader?

The book is to be read and applied according to your level of energy. As a start, people who have low energy would benefit from knowing how to nourish their bodies to optimise energy production. Then they should go to the chapter that appeals to them. Usually, a gut feeling leads people to what they need. If a reader is too exhausted to concentrate on reading, I recommend bringing the book to a true friend or the health professional he or she is working with to do some of the exercises with the assistance of the health professional.

Copyright © Singing Dragon 2012.

Therapeutic Gardening for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs – An Interview with Natasha Etherington

Natasha Etherington is an award-winning horticultural therapist and volunteer master gardener, and author of the new book Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs. She designs gardens and adapts horticultural activities to enable people with barriers to enjoy the experience of gardening.

In this interview, Natasha Etherington talks to us about her love for gardening and her background as a horticultural therapist, and explains how parents and teachers can easily introduce gardening activities into a child’s routine.


Can you explain what your job as a horticultural therapist entails? How did you get into this field, and begin working with kids with ASDs?

After emigrating to Canada in 2006, I retrained as an horticultural therpist (HT) at The VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, following my Master Gardener training which was also at The VanDusen. I’ve always loved gardening, and in the UK used to live next door to Kew Gardens which is now a World Heritage Site and absolutely beautiful. It was my sanctuary from a busy career at BBC2, home of Gardeners’ World.

My role is to help people of various ages and abilities to experience garden related activities, and to understand the benefits of working with plants. Working with plants is therapeutic. Being an HT is a challenging role; I must be flexible and inspire a sense of curiosity in the people I work with. In 2009 I approached my mentor Christine Pollard, HTM, with the idea of designing a Therapeutic Garden* at Pitt Meadows Elementary School, and running a weekly HT garden program for children with special needs. At the time I began the program I had no idea there were even any children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at the school. In 2010 the garden was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation for Accessibility from the Maple Ridge City Council. Success to me is when the teaching staff incorporates gardening into the children’s schedules.

*See the book for Natasha’s designs.

What are the benefits of gardening for children with ASD and special needs?

Getting a child with ASD into a garden has so many benefits, not least that they are given some autonomy outside. The most immediate benefit will be a sense of relief and welcome break from the classroom environment. Whilst gardening, we’re practicing social interaction and life skills, and working with soil and plants helps to reduce tactile defensiveness. Learning basic horticultural skills educates in context, and along the way you will also see an increase in language and communication skills. Of course, I explore this more and provide activities in the book.

What is the best way for teachers and parents to easily introduce gardening activities into a child’s routine?

At school, gardening/sensory breaks should be placed into a child’s schedule. This may be once a week or twice a week, but should always take place at a fixed time on a fixed day for continuity. The garden should be viewed as an outdoor classroom.

At home, gardening should be introduced when parents can find a moment to devote some quality time to their child and leave their cell phone behind. Parents will feel a sense of relief too. Easy introductory activities are all laid out in the book for those with little horticultural knowledge.

You use a mindfulness approach with the children that you work with. Can you explain why this is such an effective approach in the garden?

I find that mindfulness teachings relate fundamentally to the interconnectedness of Mother Earth, which fits perfectly as an approach for someone working with plants every day. This approach requires me to be open to experiences as they occur, which is crucial to working with children with ASD who can be quite busy and on the move. Mindfulness teaches one to be non-judgmental which I find children really appreciate. I listen. I don’t judge by what they do or say unless it is dangerous. My role is to be compassionate and enable children to understand the benefits of and experience working with plants.

The benefits for the teacher or parent leading the activities are that they, in turn, will learn to take time to stop and appreciate the wonder of Mother Nature and to share these moments with their child. In the present moment you will take a minute to stop, to acknowledge a thing of beauty such as a lady beetle or a dragonfly which has come to rest on your arm. You will greet this fellow creature and consider their short life cycle and their role in a plant’s life – you will be amazed. You might take it one step further and sit down, waiting until the dragonfly resumes flight. By doing this together with your child or student, you’re sharing experiences and making connections with one another that you are unable to do in a busy classroom. You can find out what motivates your young learner, which will help you build on their goals whether they are life skills or academic. In every chapter in the book, I point to this approach and provide tips for engaging with children through the use of a variety of activities. Don’t listen to anyone that says a child with ASD is just too busy to take time to notice a lady beetle or dragonfly. I have seen children with ASD quite captivated by many creatures, including birds visiting the bird feeder, interacting with them with bird song mimicry. Just so you know, I haven’t reached enlightenment yet…

What is your favorite gardening activity in the book, and why?

I’m a gardener, I love to dig! Being outside in the fresh air, digging and then perhaps planting, nurturing and watching a seedling grow. That’s satisfaction.

Can you tell us a bit about the “Enabling Garden” that you have designed specifically for wheelchair users?

I felt it was important for a student in a wheelchair whom I was introduced to to have ownership over one area of the garden. The Enabling Garden is an A-frame garden (using untreated cedar wood) which is inset into a long border to avoid being knocked or nudged as other students use the garden. It is placed between the vegetable patch and the digging plot to maximize the potential for social interaction. There is a universal access, adjustable potting table which provides space for two wheelchairs to work side-by-side or for a support worker. This garden provides a place for a child to get their hands into the soil and start planting seedlings or perhaps annuals. There are two hanging baskets for the child to use indoors when the weather is prohibitive.

It’s important to add that this was built with a grant from The Rick Hansen Foundation. I have placed the design for the Enabling Garden in the book so it is freely available.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

Teaching Theory of Mind – An Interview with Dr. Kirstina Ordetx

Dr. Kirstina Ordetx is the founder of Pinnacle Academy, an alternative private school for children with autism spectrum disorders in Bradenton, Florida, USA, and CEO of the Center for Autism Resources and Education, a not-for-profit organization which supports families and professionals working with children with ASD in Southwest Florida. She is also Director of Developmental Behavior Services at Advanced ABA, an organization which provides theory of mind and social skills training for ASD children.

In this interview, she discusses her new book for teachers and other education professionals, Teaching Theory of Mind, including her inspiration behind the programme and what makes it so successful.


Can you tell us a little bit about you and how you came to work with children with ASD? What led you to form Pinnacle Academy?

Nearly 20 years ago, I worked with a child who had been diagnosed with autism. His behavior was severe and significantly impacted his and his family’s quality of life. Through intensive, daily therapy, we were able to habilitate him and transition him into a regular kindergarten classroom. The experience was life-changing for me, personally. Over the years, my understanding of this condition and compassion for these families continues to evolve. I learn something new each day.

Pinnacle Academy was started by me and a parent ten years ago, in an effort to provide a specialized educational setting for children. Today, the Academy is “home” to over 100 students and provides treatment and education for children at any point on the spectrum. The families and faculty inspire me to continue to grow and to spread information to others who share my vision.

Why is theory of mind a particular area of difficulty for children with ASD?

For individuals who have Asperger’s syndrome and “high-functioning” autism, I believe that the Theory of Mind (ToM) concept defines the very breakdown in their social relationships. The first book I read regarding ToM was Simon Baron-Cohen’s Mindblindness. His writings spoke to me, opened my mind to a new explanation, and answered so many questions that I had been struggling with. When I assign this book to parents, they unanimously say: “That’s it! That’s my child!” It is so exhilarating to understand the core issue and apply strategies that work. As Michelle Garcia-Winner explains in her works, the breakdown is in social thinking. Hopefully, more professionals will embrace the curriculum that is now available.

Book cover: Teaching Theory of MindHow can the book and the program help?

I created this curriculum primarily for children who need a very basic foundation in the development of Theory of Mind. It often takes several sessions before participants even recognize that they are in the program to create change in themselves. The effects of the program can be profound. The caregiver education component is essential throughout the 12-week curriculum and assists in the generalization of learned skills. This program also lays a foundation so that children may continue cultivating their ToM skills via other well-respected curriculum that is available.

How has your background in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Applied Behavioral Analysis influenced the program?

CBT has always been a focus of my eclectic treatment model. The use of interactive lessons, self-assessment, video modelling, homework assignments, review, and goal setting strategies empower the children to be active participants. The focus of the program is on changing behavior and cognition. The combination is a recipe for success.

You’ve used the program with hundreds of children now, with some really positive results. What makes it so successful?

This program was developed to address the very basics in Theory of Mind development. It is for children who have difficulty grasping the rules and nuances of social interactions. The Social Experience was a name given to the program, because of the many caregivers who express to me that their child is simply “missing out on the entire social experience”. Furthermore, I had found that many of my clients were not fully ready to benefit from some of the other curricula that are available. I have seen this program provide children with a strong, basic foundation so that they may actively participate in those resources, which are listed in the book. In addition, the book has been designed to provide a step-by-step teaching manual, so that a variety of caregivers may instruct children in a small or large group setting.

Can you tell us about your most memorable ‘success story’?

Every child’s progress is a success story, regardless of whether it is large or small. When a child is able to engage in self-assessment and self-regulation to perform social problem solving skills, I consider that a success. There have been specific situations, particularly during video modelling exercises, where a child will have an “ah-ha” moment – the first time he actually realizes that his behavior contributes to a breakdown in social communication. This, of course, is my favorite moment, because active participation can now occur. Of course, it is always encouraging to have children return to ToM class each week and share stories of how their new “tools” worked.

You talk a lot in the book about the importance of reinforcing skills learned in different environments. What role can parents and caregivers play in this?

This is a skill-building program. Each curricular activity is designed to highlight a specific skill, and is followed by homework assignments and a caregiver letter to support discussion and growth outside of the class. Caregivers are first-responders to the child’s daily review of accomplishments and challenges. They can only support the child’s development when they have strategies and language to enhance their skill set. Skill rehearsal outside of the ToM classes will lead to improved troubleshooting skills, increased self-awareness, and an imperative generalization of skills across setting and social partners.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.