Forest School and Autism

Upon the release of his book, Forest School and Autism, we spoke to author and practitioner Michael James about what exactly Forest School involves, and why it’s so well suited for autistic learners. 

What exactly is meant by the term ‘Forest School’?

The term “Forest School” describes a specific approach to outdoor learning. Forest School has a strong ethos of learner-centered practice combined with an understanding of the benefits to wellbeing which come from regular contact with nature. Forest School is attended by people of all ages and abilities.

forest school

How is Forest School suited to the needs of autistic people?

Well, I’m always very aware of the saying “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person of autism”! The learner-centered ethos of Forest School seeks to accommodate the individual needs of different learners, and this flexibility can allow autistic learners the space to be themselves and engage on their own terms. This space includes the physical space of natural settings, which is far greater than in indoor settings, and also there is more space in time afforded by the Forest School approach. In my experience, this approach can suit autistic learners very well. Another strength of Forest School is the heightened awareness of place which can encourage practitioners to consider the sensory environment which is obviously important when learners have different sensory needs. For Forest School to best meet the needs of autistic learners the practitioner needs to develop autism awareness, and this book aims to promote and encourage that.

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Autism as Difference Not Disorder: Insights from the Author

Drawing on 30 years of professional experience and detailed research, Difference Not Disorder: Understanding Autism Theory in Practice exposes the myths around autism and provides practical guidance on teaching and learning, behaviour management, addressing sensory and physical needs of children with ASD.

Difference Not Disorder

Our recognition and understanding of autism forms a recent story in terms of human knowledge. In my lifetime this story gained momentum, hastening to the current perception of autism as neurological in nature. However, across the globe this neurological nature, viewed at-odds with the neuro-typical one, is considered impaired or disordered. The over-arching aim of this book was to question this assumption while posing an alternative view of difference not disorder because of all the children I had the honour to work with, children with autism were some of the bravest.

disorder

There are limitless ways in which I witnessed their bravery. They included venturing every day out into a world with incomprehensible social rules and codes in which lack of or inappropriate response could result in unwelcome, verbal attention or even confusing reprimand. It also included perpetually manoeuvring through sights, sounds and textures that could overwhelm and/or aggravate the senses often without being able to express mounting stress and distress; and/or experiencing revulsions towards some tasks but compulsions towards others in situations where you had no idea of the duration or scheduling of either.

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Creating Autism Champions

With Autism Awareness Week just around the corner, we are delighted to tell you about an innovative resource by Joy Beaney entitled Creating Autism Champions. Here, Joy explains what has inspired the book, and what can be done to increase awareness of and sensitivity towards children with autism.

autism champions

What made you want to write Creating Autism Champions?

I believe that we need to develop children who are aware of the various needs of people with autism and how they can work, grow and play together rather than putting the onus on those with autism to ‘fit in’ with school and society.

I worked as Manager of an Outreach Service supporting children with autism in mainstream Primary schools.  A major part of the work as an outreach service for children with autism was to promote inclusion. The outreach team delivered staff training to raise awareness of autism and recommended practical strategies and approaches to support children with autism. These practical strategies were designed to help the children themselves, as well as their teachers and caregivers. However, whilst these strategies undoubtedly helped the children to cope with the day-to-day problems of coping in school, we found that when the children with autism reached 8 or 9 years of age, new issues emerged surrounding the difficulties they had with social acceptance. We undertook a peer awareness project in local schools developing understanding and changing attitudes to autism so that children could become ‘champions for autism’ and support their peers both in the classroom and playground.

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Tactile Defensiveness – Moving from Avoidance to Self Love

From Noreen O’Sullivan, author of I’ll Tell You Why I Can’t Wear Those Clothes! Talking about Tactile Defensiveness and mother of girls with sensory processing issues, comes this personal snapshot of how her book has embodied the JKP motto, “books that make a difference”.

Five years ago, I had the honour of being signed on with JKP for my children’s book, I’ll Tell You Why I Can’t Wear Those Clothes! Talking about Tactile Defensiveness, and grateful it remains on their Best Seller list still today.

Over the years, I have received countless letters from parents thanking me for a book  specifically for their child and allowing them to express their emotions around this sensory issue through drawing and writing.

tactile defensiveness

We all have tiny nerves inside our bodies that we can’t see.
They have important jobs to do, like carrying messages from our skin to our brain.
That’s how we know when something is soft or hard, or hot or cold.

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Social Skills: Just a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down! by Shawn Amador

Shawn Amador, LCSW, is a school social worker who runs an after school comedy troupe, and is a part time therapist. Her new book, Teaching Social Skills Through Sketch Comedy and Improv Games, publishes this month.

 

Kids and teens with social cognitive deficits have difficulty seeing outside of themselves, which contributes back to having more social difficulty.  Due to their struggles, social skills training could possibly be a trigger or at the least, tap into insecurities.  We need to find ways to teach social skills in real time while interacting, thus also increasing ‘feel good’ brain chemicals which can increase positive feelings about interactions.

When adding theatre, improv skills, play-writing and sketch comedy to social skills training, it’s like adding spoonful of sugar to help the social skills go down!  Shawn Amador, LCSW, has created a program that adds all of these activities together, which makes “Social Theatre”™.  Participants in Shawn’s Social Theatre group therapy, say that it does not feel like therapy.  In fact, we make fun of ourselves through brainstorming socially awkward moments which we make into plays and correct with a more effective social skill  in the next scene.

In Teaching Social Skills through Sketch Comedy and Improv Games, there are activities that are adaptable to many social and intellectual levels from academically gifted, typical, to mild and moderate cognitive abilities.   Moreover, social skills sketch comedy scripts from the book can be utilized in teaching lessons or for performance.

If you would like to try some games that teach social skills, here are some popular games:

 

  • “Red Light Green Light” for Self Control
  • “Mother May I” for cognitive flexibility
  • “Yes, and” improv game for collaborative idea building
  • “Feelings Charades” for feelings recognition and expression
  • Acting out a familiar story, switching roles and acting it out again for perspectives

“Lap Therapy” Time by Beth Powell, LCSW

Beth Powell, LCSW, is owner of Beth Powell’s In-Family Services, an outpatient psychotherapy private practice specializing in trauma informed care. Her new book, Fun Games and Physical Activities to Help Heal Children Who Hurt publishes this month.

Bye-Bye Baby Bunting.

Daddy’s gone a hunting.

To catch a little rabbit skin,

To wrap his Baby Bunting in.

                                       Mother Goose

When I was a small child being cared for by my aunt, she sang this song while rocking me to a slow 60-beat-a-minute rhythm.  My aunt took over my care when my mother’s mental illness made it unsafe for my sister and me to be with her. What a contrast in care! My aunt’s rhythm, voice, words, touch, and smell were so much more soothing than my mother’s.  With my aunt, I could relax. I didn’t have to struggle to get away or dissociate into a floppy, non‑moving, barely breathing, pretending-to-be-dead little girl.  My aunt exuded safety and calm that soothed my restlessness.

Resting against my aunt’s chest, I felt the slow, consistent beat of her heart.  I relaxed into the protection of her arms wrapped gently around me.  Her voice, vibrating from her chest into my ears, awakened the proprioceptive neural impulses in my face that told me where I was in time and in space.  Grounding me with her body, she held me so I wouldn’t fall.  Wrapped in her loving arms, I felt safe enough to close my eyes.  The sweet smell of my aunt’s skin pleasured the lower, emotional center of my brain, enticing me to lie close and be still just a little bit longer.

The more my caregiver sang and rocked me, the more her song and her rhythm calmed and relaxed her.  As she calmed and relaxed, so did I.  We shared a pleasurable experience.  We connected in a happy, healing way.  My receptive language was developing.  Her words and touch assured me that there was someone much bigger and stronger than I was who had my best interests at heart.  She was unafraid and confident in her ability to nurture.  She put me first.  By her loving actions, she was forming a template in my brain of safety–security–protection–trust in a higher power through a concrete, much-bigger-than-myself human being.  The safety and security I felt in her arms paved the way for my future belief and faith in a loving, abstract, not-of-this-earth higher, heavenly power.

Adults create healthy, secure attachment in children through positive “real” non-virtual, physical interaction with them.  Caregivers are able to instill in children safety–security–protection–trust because loving, protective adults instilled it in them.  My birth mother couldn’t instill that in me.  But my aunt and uncle, my grandma, and my first‑grade teacher, Miss Beetles, could. They were the human caregiving angels God sent my way. Thus, in spite of the hard beginnings I had, the template was established, in childhood, for the “me” I am today because of caregivers like them who somehow understood what I needed and were able to provide it when I needed it.

Internalized safety–security–protection–trust is the base from which self-esteem, self-confidence, self-responsibility, self-strength, and altruism develop. It is the support upon which mature character or the internalized Fruit of the Spirit must build.  Without an internalized secure base, children develop anxiety and self-deception.  When a child has a secure base in childhood with positive attachment to a preferred, stable, protective, and physically present primary caregiver, then a healthy relationship with God, whom we cannot see, is much easier.

Insecurely attached and developmentally traumatized children often succumb to unhealthy control, anxiety, mistrust of those who love them, and abusive behaviors.  As adults they either become their own God (unhealthy narcissism) or they may find God in substances or toxic behaviors. Reversing unhealthy belief systems is difficult but not impossible. It’s work that is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor for parents who take a child’s antics personally, as if it is “them” whom the child is out to get by interpreting their“can’ts” as “won’ts.”

Therapeutic caregivers of hurting children seek the sources of the unpleasant symptoms that they see, and they address those sources from a psychological, neuro-behavioral, socio-emotional and spiritual growth perspective.  Children need to trust that adult caregivers can and will protect them.  This trumps any other socio-emotional need in childhood.  This is the base upon which the quality of the relationship with self, with others, and with God is built.  A child who has experienced significant neglect, abuse, loss, and chronic and acute stress has an even greater need for safety-security-protection-trust experiences with loving, mature, and stable adults.  They have a harder time developing trust because it has been broken, sometimes again and again.

Below is a therapeutic activity that caregivers can share and enjoy with the children in their care to help them establish an essential base of safety–security–protection–trust.

Caregiver–child rocking chair time to help calm brain and body

It’s not just about rocking infants any more.  Larger children who hurt can benefit from rocking, too.  And so can the caregiver.  This comforting act helps regulate children when they are fretting and need help regulating themselves.

It also provides caregiver–child quality “love and bonding” time.  How comforting rocking feels for both parties involved.  Caregivers can even rock themselves when they feel out of sorts, and it helps to re-set their brain.

Rocking caregivers should add a slowly-sung comforting song, hum something spiritually soothing, or just gently make a “shush” sound with their lips and tongue while taking slow, long, and deep breaths to not only better regulate themselves but to give the child something to match.   A regulated parent helps regulate a child.  The drawn out “shush” sound and the slow, rhythmic rocking replicates the sound and the movement the gestational infant at least should have received in utero.  This movement and sound helps the baby’s lower brain develop in a healthier way to better manage stress.  It also helps the older brain do the same.

Caregiver-initiated knee-bouncing games to help install rhythmic synchronicity and nurture trust in children

One of my favorite close times with the adults who loved and enjoyed me as a child was to “Go See Mr. Brown.”  I’m not sure where this knee-bouncing game originated, but it could have been passed down generationally through my South Mississippi maternal ancestors.

To perform this adult-activated activity, the child first sits, facing the adult, on the adult’s knees.  It’s important that the adult’s face and body language convey confidence and fun with lots of facial expression and eye contact.

The adult securely holds onto the child while the child securely holds onto the adult. Then the adult bounces the child slowly and consistently up and down on the knees in synchrony with the words and the 60-beat-a-minute rhythm of the following song:

Mr. Brown went to town

Riding a goat and leading a hound.

The hound barked; the goat jumped.

Threw Mr. Brown right down on a stump!

Surprise! The child does not tumble onto the floor.  Instead, the adult gently, slowly, and securely tilts the child backward as far as the child can comfortably tolerate without showing signs of anxiety and fear.  Then slowly, the adult returns the child to a sitting position on top of the knees.  The adult then asks the child, “Who kept you from falling on that stump?”  “You did!” is the desired answer.  “And I will every time!” can be the adult response.

As the child grows in trust that the adult performing the activity will keep him safe from falling, and will stop if the activity scares him, then the adult may gradually increase the speed and the depth to which the child is tilted back.  In the situation of a hyper-vestibular child (child fearful of too much movement), that may not be by much because the part of the brain which reads and adjusts to movement isn’t working as optimally as it should.  Heed the expression on the child’s face and take notice of resistance in the body to the tilting back movement.  Ask children if they are ready to tilt back.  Don’t force a child to tilt back farther than he or she is ready to go.  That doesn’t build safety-security-protection-trust.

“Lap therapy” time is supposed to be pleasurable and bonding.  It should be mutually enjoyable with lots of eye contact and joyful, loving facial expression on the part of the caregiver!

Inside food anxiety: Leah’s story

Inside food anxiety: Leah’s story

This article on food anxiety is by Jo Cormack, author of Helping Children Develop a Positive Relationship with Food.

Have you ever looked into a child’s eyes as they contemplate the plate of food you have served, and thought to yourself “what is going on in there?” Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to be a very picky eater, anxious about what challenges the next meal may bring?

Empathy is at the heart of my approach to working with picky eaters, because if we can’t put on a child’s shoes and walk around in them (as Scout puts it, in To Kill a Mockingbird…) we can’t hope to help that child. Seeing food from their perspective is essential.

This article is all about what it’s like to be a very picky eater, struggling with food anxiety. I wanted to share a child’s point of view, but with an adult’s insight and ability to articulate complex and emotionally difficult ideas. So I asked Leah (not her real name) – a parent in my facebook group for parents of picky eaters where I am co-admin – if she would mind recounting her experience of being a very picky eater as a child.

Leah told me how, until she was two or three years old, she ate pretty much everything. But then when her baby brother arrived, she explains that “in protest, I just stopped eating”. I have seen this before; sometimes big life changes can be incredibly hard for young children to process. They feel profoundly out of control and so they search frantically for something that they can control. Sometimes, this can be their eating. It’s one of the few things that a toddler can choose to do, or not do. Continue reading

All About Me

All About Me is an in-depth guide describing the practicalities of telling a child or young person about their autism diagnosis. It discusses when to tell, who should do it, and what they need to know beforehand. In this blog, author Andrew Miller explains his reasons for creating the book, and who can benefit from it.

autism diagnosis

What motivated you to write All About Me?

Telling children and young people that they have autism and trying to explain what it means to them is difficult. The abstract nature of autism, its associated differences in cognition and its lifelong implications make it hard for children to understand, and finding out that they have autism could potentially cause some individuals emotional and psychological upset. Therefore, in some cases it could create more problems for an individual than it might intend to solve.

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Winston Wallaby Can’t Stop Bouncing

Winston Wallaby Can’t Stop Bouncing is a fun, illustrated storybook that will help children aged 5-10 with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and/ or Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC/ASD) to recognise their sensory needs and to develop tools to support them. To learn more about the book, who better to ask than its authors, K.I. Al-Ghani and Joy Beaney? Chatting to them, we learned a lot about hyperactivity in children, what to look out for and what can help. There’s even a downloadable activity sheet for teachers. Read on to find out more.adhd

What motivated you to write Winston Wallaby Can’t Stop Bouncing and who is the book for?

Joy and I have worked together in special education for many years. We noticed that there were not many books available that could explain hyper-activity to children in a story format.  We decided to collaborate on this project using Joy’s expertise in Sensory Processing Difficulties, my skills as a story teller and Haitham’s ability to bring it all to life, through his illustrations.
We think the book has something for everyone: It is a story all children can enjoy. A story in which, we hope, children with hyperactivity will be able see themselves in Winston.  They will learn that it is not their fault and instead of being the problem, they could learn to be part of the solution. Parents and educators will have tools and strategies they can use that can help the child to manage their hyperactivity and, if successful, perhaps avoid the need for medication.

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