COVID-19 & The Special Needs Community

Hey everyone! I hope everyone had an enjoyable and safe summer. As I’d discussed earlier in my Pandemic Precautions post, we’ve spent the last year and a half taking many actions to ensure that Anjali isn’t at a high risk for COVID-19 due to her behavioral tendencies naturally not following all the recommended precautions. Reading that post made me think about how the general population of special needs individuals are dealing with the pandemic, and if this community is more susceptible to COVID-19. I found some interesting results when researching this topic, so let’s dive right in! 

I want to start off by making it clear to everyone, and clarifying for any reader who may need to know this, that it is important to note that individuals with ASD are NOT “at higher risk for becoming infected with or having severe illness from novel coronavirus (COVID-19)” (CDC). In other words, the diagnosis of ASD, Aspergers, or any other behavioral conditions in itself is not something that puts your immune system at a relatively higher risk for COVID-19. Only individuals in these groups that also happen to have pre-existing health conditions that weaken the organs that the virus attacks are at relatively higher risk, and it is important for any family member of a special needs individual who may fall in this group to be conscious about this fact. 

With that out of the way, let’s look at how patterns of social interactions during the pandemic have increased the rate of individuals in the special needs community contracting COVID-19. A study from Drexel University showed that adults with Autism “receive services from outside caregivers and have had avoidable hospitalizations compared to the [parts of the] population without mental health conditions.” Indeed, this added risk is something that even we have contemplated in Anjali’s lifestyle. As is the case for many special needs children, Anjali has ABA therapists visit us on nearly a daily basis, and this necessary part of the lifestyle for individuals with Autism can also serve as a catalyst for spreading COVID-19 in this population group. It is also important to note that precautions that need to be followed for the pandemic can be quite disruptive of the preferences for individuals with Autism. “Physical distancing, restrictions on activities, new telework arrangements, and the shift to virtual learning can cause significant disruptions to daily routines, changing an individual’s physical and social settings. Each of these changes can create challenges for individuals with autism and their families” is how the NIMH perfectly describes this factor. The results of these disruptive precautions can be one of two things: added distress upon the Autistic individual in an already confusing time period or inability for this individual to follow the necessary precautions. This applies to Anjali as well, since I often wonder how well she has acclimated to the new COVID safety protocols at her in-person classes in school, and whether this has been an uncomfortable adjustment period for her, since she is a child that has sensory needs of touching the objects around her.

Link to the research paper conducted by A.J. Drexel Autism Institute: https://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/XY59J4MSVATMP9IGRZIK/full

 

Well what can be done about this? The top priority should be the safety of special needs individuals in the pandemic. Therefore, precautions should still be followed at all costs, even if it means cutting out somewhat important interactions with outside caregivers during this pandemic time period or guiding the autistic individual through an awkward acclimation period with COVID-19 protocols. However, if something simply can’t be cut out of the lifestyle of a special needs individual’s lifestyle, then the second best option is to ensure that all variables regarding that factor are monitored and controlled. An example of this may be daily in-person therapy sessions being done with a mask on, regular testing of all parties involved on a monthly or weekly basis, and cancelling sessions if anyone develops symptoms. Hope this serves as some food for thought for now, and stay safe everyone! 

Anjali’s Experience With Hindi

Hello everyone! Hope everyone is staying safe during the pandemic as the summer approaches. I wanted to post a quick update for how Anjali is doing during these spring months, and something special that we’ve learned about her during this lockdown time period. To be more specific, we’ve noticed patterns of Anjali picking up a little knowledge in the language of Hindi!

Let’s start with some context. Our family has always spoken both English and our mother tongue of Hindi. However with Anjali, since instructions are already not easy to convey to her, we have always stuck to speaking in English. This is what we thought would be best for her, since it would be consistent with the language that she hears from her therapists and school teachers as well. However, since our entire family was home most of the time during lockdown, we learned about Anjali’s familiarity with the Hindi language!

Perhaps the biggest factor for this may be her connection to music. In my previous post, Musical Magic, I covered how Anjali surprised us all by hearing certain songs a few times and then later humming or singing parts of those songs during her free time. These include a lot of Hindi melodies as well, and the chorus of these songs may have introduced Anjali to a few Hindi words. Another major factor for Anjali picking up these Hindi words, is all of us, since we occasionally forget to use English when giving instructions to Anjali. These instances typically involve my mother, who may ask Anjali to sit properly at the dinner table in Hindi or other basic instructions in Hindi instead of English. To be clear, Anjali doesn’t truly understand the meaning behind the mass majority of Hindi phrases. However, it is still interesting to see that she understood certain words of the language, and we are excited to see if we can develop this linguistic base to increase her knowledge in Hindi. 

So what can we learn from this? I think the important takeaway is that bilingual families shouldn’t entirely rule out introducing a second language to their special needs child. As was the case for Anjali, the child may learn a few phrases and keywords from the language being used by others in the household. Of course, it is important to consistently use the same language that is used by instructors of the special needs child. However, occasional usage of a second language may help such children develop a base of phrases and key words, which are useful for eventually teaching any special needs child the unique ability of speaking a second language!

Sports & Special Needs

Hello everyone! I hope all of you are doing well and staying safe during this pandemic time period. After writing my previous post about how Anjali learned to ride her bicycle, and discussing in that post how a routine of physical exercise has benefitted her greatly, I started wondering about the general effects of sports and fitness for all children with Autism and other special needs. In what ways, from a medical and sensory perspective, do sports benefit a special needs child? What examples are there of professional athletes who’ve made a career in sports while having special needs conditions? In order for these questions to be answered, and to satisfy my curiosity, I set out to research the topic. Therefore, let’s dive into the answers that I found!

As I stated earlier, I noted in my previous post that Anjali’s routine of going cycling each day has greatly benefitted her sensory needs and helped her release energy, thus improving her general focus and behaviour throughout the day. However, I wondered if these benefits of physical exercise are agreed upon by the general scientific community that’s researched on this topic. The answer: yes it is! Scientific research has shown that sports benefit for special needs children in multiple ways. This is supported by the conclusions determined by the research team of the University of Delaware, who conducted a “meta-analysis of 29 studies looking at the benefits of exercise among more than a thousand young people on the autism spectrum.” The head researcher states that sports have a positive effect on youth individuals with Autism, since physical exercise improves “motor skills, skill-related fitness, social functioning and muscular strength and endurance.” A fine example of sports satisfying a special needs child’s sensory would be swimming, since swimming “provides a soothing sensory input,” as stated in a VeryWell Health article. This was a major reason for us to involve Anjali with swimming, and it is quite clear how sports can play a key role in improving the motor skills and sensory needs of a special needs child. 

Image result for sports autism graphic
Here’s a graphic that summarizes some great sports for children with Autism! (image link)

In my opinion, perhaps the best benefit that sports can provide to special needs children isn’t the obvious lifestyle of fitness that is promoted through sports, but the opportunities for social interactions. This is especially true in a team sports setting. This ideology is supported by the research team from the University of Delaware, since they also concluded that “physical activity programs can provide a fun, safe setting for interacting with other children. In other words, they can offer excellent opportunities for practicing social skills.”  Therefore, with the benefits that sports for specials need children being apparent, one might ask the question about if there have been individuals with special needs who’ve pursued sports all the way to the professional level? The simple answer: yes! There are multiple great role models from the special needs community who’ve been successful in the highest level of their sport. Examples include Jim Eisenreich, a 15 year Major League Baseball pitcher and World Series champion, who was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.

Image result for jim eisenreich
Image of Jim Eisenreich (link for image)

A major reason for an increase of professional athletes with special needs is the growing acceptance of teams providing accommodations for players. This is explained by a contributor to Sports Illustrated, who states that  “‘There’s been a big change in the autism community in how we look at sports . . . It’s gone from something we didn’t even think about to: Sure, you deserve to play if you want. We can figure out ways to accommodate you.’” Overall, it’s very clear that children with special needs not only greatly benefit from sports, but have a limitless ceiling when it comes pursuing sports as a career. For these reasons, I believe the community of special needs children need to be exposed to sports at a growing rate in the future. 

Ready, Set, Go! (How Anjali learned to ride her bicycle)

Hello everyone! I hope everyone is staying safe and having a good time during this holiday season. During the lockdown, our family has been consistently guiding Anjali on bike rides on a nearly daily basis. This effort, led mostly by my mother, has taken the last few months, and we’ve finally taught Anjali how to ride a bicycle without any assistance and training wheels! Let’s take a look back at the process of reaching this point.

In the earlier half of the year, we were trying to find ways for Anjali to remain active and safe, as highlighted in my Pandemic Precautions blog post from that time, since lockdown had just been put in place in our town during that time of the year. My mother started having Anjali ride a small bicycle that was previously unused for many years. The biggest challenge at that time was for Anjali to familiarize herself with the format of a bicycle, become comfortable sitting in a seat, and not be scared of the speed at which she was travelling. It took many days for my mother to train Anjali to simply sit on a bicycle. Once that goal was hit, she started bringing Anjali to the sidewalks and started teaching her how to pedal. This was the biggest hurdle at that time, since it was difficult to make Anjali understand that the bicycle would only move if she pedals on both sides of the bicycle, and not just on one pedal. Eventually, Anjali had the confidence to start pedalling and she started riding a few laps of our street with training wheels, with one of us walking beside her at the same time.  

By this point, Anjali became comfortable with completing multiple laps with training wheels. Breaking Anjali out of this comfort zone and teaching her to ride the bicycle without training wheels became our next challenge. Once we took off the training wheels from her bicycle, we had to once again spend multiple days to get her to simply sit on the bicycle and not be afraid of the lack of training wheels. Eventually she learned to ride without the training wheels, as long as someone was holding her from the side or her shoulder. In reality, this assistance didn’t help her balance or ride the bicycle. We simply had to do it in order to make her feel safe and confident. However, on a specific day my mom subtly removed her hand from Anjali’s shoulder while she was riding, and Anjali didn’t notice and continued riding! We’d done it! Anjali could now ride a bicycle without any help. From this point onwards, Anjali only became more confident, and eventually we bought a brand new bicycle for her. Now Anjali goes on two bike rides nearly every day! 

Something that I hope readers take away from this story is the simple fact that patience and persistence are needed in order to teach any new skill to a special needs child, which is a message that I shared in my Little Einsteins blog post as well. It took months of hard work and daily efforts to teach Anjali how to ride her bicycle. However, the result was worth it, since Anjali now has a form of exercise that she enjoys doing on a consistent basis!

Musical Magic

Hello everyone! During lockdown, our family has noticed a lot of Anjali’s special personality traits on a day-to-day basis. One of these fun quirks is how much she likes to sing songs, and how she understands and memorizes songs that she has heard just a few times. Of course, we’ve heard Anjali singing the theme songs of her favourite TV shows for many years. However, something interesting that we discovered recently is that she has started memorizing the tune, rhythm, and lyrics of a few lines from songs that aren’t from her favourite TV shows, and instead they are songs that she might have heard in a movie that we were watching or on the radio. We’ve noticed her singing these songs on multiple occasions, and this ability really surprised and impressed us!  This got me thinking about the appeal of music for Anjali. Why is it something that interests her, and what general benefits or impacts does it have on special needs children? Let’s take a deep dive into this subject in order to find an answer to this question.

After reading a bit about this topic, it was fascinating to learn about the positive impact that music has on children with ASD, and other special needs. I got to learn about music therapy, and how it is a specific therapy type that utilizes music to produce cognitive and social growth in a special needs child. Music therapy has very a powerful and beneficial impact since “music has quickly become a tool used in autism therapy since it can stimulate both hemispheres of our brain, rather than just one . . . This means that a therapist can use a song or instrument to support cognitive activity so that we can build self-awareness and improve relationships with others . . . Music encourages communicative behavior and can encourage interaction with others, which is something that autistic children have great difficulty with,” as stated in PsychologyToday article that analyzes a National Institute of Health study.

What is Music Therapy? What is it Used For? Does it Work?
Here’s a diagram showing how music affects the brain.

This shows how music acts as a catalyst for growth for a special needs student.  Perhaps the cognitive benefits and appeal of music is the reason behind Anjali being most engaged in her therapy sessions during the portion of the session where music videos are played, and having a general interest in music. The NIH study, that was the focus of the PsychologyToday article, certifies the importance of music as a tool for enriching the lives and learning of special needs children, since the study concludes “that 8–12 weeks of music intervention . . . can improve parent-reported social communication . . . and intrinsic brain connectivity in school-age children, thus supporting the use of music as a therapeutic tool for individuals with ASD.” 

Music therapy for autism spectrum disorder
Here’s the link to a great page about the impact of Music Therapy on special needs children, that can be found on McMaster University’s website: https://healthsci.mcmaster.ca/learningtechlab/news/2017/11/27/music-therapy-for-autism-spectrum-disorder

So what did we learn from all of this? Mainly the fact that music has been proven to be a positive influence and impact on the development of special needs children. Due to this, I think it is important for every parent or guardian of a special needs child to expose their children to music from a young age. By doing so, you’ll be increasing the likelihood of the child being drawn to music as a hobby, and music will definitely have a positive impact on the growth of the child. At the very least, they might expand their vocabulary, as is the case with Anjali who has learned some new Hindi words, due to some Hindi songs that she’s memorized, and greetings from multiple languages, due to a specific greetings song sung during her therapy sessions. Overall, it’s clear that music is a powerful tool for the growth of a special needs child. 

Online Learning

Hello everyone! Hopefully everyone is staying safe and indoors during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Due to this situation, a lot of kids around the world have had their definition of school change. For a highschooler like me, this means live video call lectures, using online platforms to submit assignments, and having every aspect of school go digital. If such a drastic change is made for someone like me, what does online learning mean for a special needs child? How has Anjali’s learning through school changed while at home? Let’s dive into these questions.

Here’s another article about the topic of online learning for special needs students. The Touro College blog analyzes the feasibility of online learning for such students. Picture credit and article link: http://blogs.onlineeducation.touro.edu/5-ways-online-learning-can-benefit-special-needs-learners/

In my previous post, titled Pandemic Precautions, I covered the educational routine that we have maintained for Anjali while she is home. However, this did not cover what activities the school has planned for Anjali during the shelter-in-place. A few weeks after I put up that post, schools in our area officially switched to online learning for the rest of the year. This prompted Anjali’s teacher to create a comprehensive lesson plan for all the students in Anjali’s class. This involves sending out multiple reading platforms and games to be completed by the child with parental help, regularly sending out video lessons, and maintaining communication with parents in order to keep track of the progress each student is making during this time period. Our school district even provided us with an iPad for Anjali’s learning during this time period! I had also mentioned briefly in my last post that we are voluntarily continuing a few of the ABA, speech, and occupational therapy activities with Anjali, such as making puzzles. Anjali’s therapists have started doing weekly live calls where they conduct activities and check in with the progress of each child. Overall, we believe that both the school and therapists have done a comprehensive job when it comes to maximizing learning for Anjali, but this new routine also requires effort from our ends to make sure online-learning is sufficient for Anjali’s development.

Anjali has been using Khan Academy as a resource, since it was reccomended by her school. Such free resources can be used by parents to mantain learning of students while at home. Photo credit: https://keeplearning.khanacademy.org/

Clearly, Anjali is benefitting from a robust online learning plan implemented by her school and therapists. While thinking about this topic, I realized most special needs children across the country may not have access to such amenities, as I have explained in prior posts such as State Services. What can a parent of a special needs child in that position do? Clearly maintaining an educational routine during this time period is important for all special needs children, since not having any learning for the remaining 3 months of the school year would prove to be disastrous for overall development of any special needs child. In my opinion, the only route a parent can take to maintain learning for their special needs child is setting up their own learning schedule for the child, if the ones provided by school and therapists prove to be inadequate. Many free tools are available for parents when it comes to tutoring special needs children at home, such as Khan Academy and other platforms (no such platform has sponsored this post). Overall, it is clear that during the lockdown many parents with special needs children will have to put in extra effort towards maintaining study routines for their kids, and keeping up with the online-learning provided by schools and therapists. 

Pandemic Precautions

Hello everyone! This post will be regarding perhaps the biggest news topic of the year. Yes, I am talking about the Coronavirus pandemic. More specifically, I’ll cover what our family is doing to keep Anjali and everyone else safe. Along with this, we will also dive into what our future outlook should be regarding this viral pandemic.

DO THE FIVE: [wash hands, cough into elbows, don’t touch your face, stay more than 3 feet apart, and stay home if you feel sick]” are the major tips from the World Health Organization. Of course, the recommendation of keeping three feet space is difficult to follow when parenting a special needs child (we are still trying our best though). Besides that, our family is following all these tips in order to maintain hygiene and keep Anjali safe. Touching one’s face is a problem that not only Anjali but any special needs child with sensory needs faces. Instead of her chin, stress relief rubber items always serves a good substitute for Anjali to apply pressure on with her hands. We have also limited the times Anjali leaves home, but not at the cost of her much needed exercise routine. Anjali is still taken for bicycle rides around the neighborhood, but her visits to marketplaces have been stopped. Due to this outbreak, Anjali’s ABA and speech therapy have been canceled for two weeks, along with her school. Not having this work-period badly hurts her daily routine. In order to keep Anjali focused, we have to conduct therapy and academic activities with her. These may involve solving puzzles or completing reading homework with her. These are greatly needed for her to release energy and remain focused during this two week period.

Washing hands, along with other great tips, are discussed in this Autism Speaks article about the impact of coronavirus on the special needs community.

Clearly, the pandemic has greatly changed Anjali’s and our lives, even if only for a temporary period. Due to such changes, many parents might panic about what the future holds regarding the impact of this virus. To those people, I have one word to say: relax. Try to understand your special needs child’s routine, and what parts are altered due to therapy and school cancellations. Try to continue those activities with the child, even though a professional is not there to do it with them. As for hygiene, the same rules apply to all of us. Follow instructions of public health officials, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay away from gatherings. Following these simple rules can keep not just the special needs child safe, but all individuals around us safe. 

2019: Our Journey So Far

2019. Perhaps the biggest phase of change Anjali has been through in a year. Perhaps the biggest spike in the development of this blog. Sitting here on the 31st of December, just hours away from reaching a new decade and year, all of these thoughts were passing through my head. This post will serve as a neat summary of Anjali’s journey throughout 2019, and how my documentation of her activities has played a role in our lives. 

Let’s start at the beginning. My first post in this calendar year was all the way back in April when we talked about the importance of Vacations for Anjali. I found our vacations to be such beautiful examples of how a child with behavioral and interactive obstacles could still connect with the aura and beauty of a place like Yosemite National Park just like the rest of us. This showed us how important vacations with appropriate precaution can be for a special needs child because they deserve time to unwind just like the rest of us. I then decided to share with you all the public health data about rates of Autism, ASD, Aspergers, and other such conditions rapidly rising. We discussed how being diagnosed under such conditions can be shocking for many families, as was the case for mine as well. Along with this, I shared the amendments made to the diagnostic process and why this is a possible factor in rising data. The attention of this blog once again shifted to Anjali when I had the opportunity to share her progress as a swimmer. This was another post that had an important message about how special needs children should not be treated any differently. They should still have fun in their lives through activities like swimming because at the end of the day they are children after all. 

In the latter half of this year, my content’s two categories of personal experiences and data about the special needs community started to blend together. In July I posted about the Job Opportunites our current economy offers for individuals of special needs. Hearing about a specific case sparked this idea in my mind, and I was truly invested in understanding what this big bad world has to offer for these children when they grow up. I think the conclusion of this search was that some opportunities do indeed exist, mostly from people who know a special-needs individual in their lives, but there is certainly room to improve. My next post was about State Services. The idea of government is a funny thing. We feel disconnected by it yet it affects us in every aspect of our lives. Therapy and professional help is the most important aspect of a special needs individuals life, yet so many states have failed to provide a sustainable system. I think the Job Opportunities post and State Services post asks some very important questions. How much does the world pay attention to individuals of disability? Are we recognizing their talents and why are so many of us not caring to the level we should about providing them with their needs?

  Reviewing my last two posts of this year helps me cap off this neat summary of the year. Little Einsteins served as a wonderful reminder to all of us that every child has potential in the classroom. The content simply has to be taught to them in a way that suits them, because every child is a different type of learner, especially one with special needs. Sensory Showtime also reminded us all how special needs children are no different, and as long as their needs (or sensory needs in the context of that post) are addressed, they too can partake in the wonders of life such as forms of entertainment. Those thoughts are what I would like to leave you all with as we reach a new decade and year. Thank you so much for coming all with me on this journey so far, and stay tuned for more content in the coming year! Have a great 2020 everyone!

Sensory Showtime!

Happy holidays everyone! While a lot of us here in the United States and the western world are bombarded with Christmas decorations and events throughout our local areas, my family was excited about one specific event. Our local mall had a sensory-friendly Santa meetup for kids with sensory needs. Anjali falls under this group of children, and I was very grateful that this community of kids was not excluded from these festive events. Is a sensory-friendly Santa common? What events are sensory-friendly throughout the year? What does it even mean for an event to be “sensory-friendly?” All of these questions popped up in my head and I set out for answers. I hope this post can help family members of special needs children find these events and for others to understand the importance of these events.

Sensory-friendly Santa can be a stress-free environment for a special-needs child. Explore options such as the ones provided by https://www.autismspeaks.org/santa#CA. Picture credit: https://cbceducation.net/autism-speaks-sensory-friendly-santa/

First of all, what does it mean for an event to be “sensory-friendly?” A simpler explanation would involve first looking at the word “sensory.” Many special needs children are sensitive to the sounds, lights, or colors of their environment. For example, the bustling noise of people in a mall may seem normal to us but might have an impact of greater magnitude on a special needs child. This is specifically the case with Anjali. Each special-needs child has unique sensory needs. Another example is explained by Jennifer Lovy when she writes for the Friendship Circle Organization about how her son’s sensory-friendly birthday party meant “no loud music, no dark skating rink, and no flashing lights.” The formal definition for a sensory-friendly or autism-friendly event is explained by The Place for Children With Autism as an “environment [that is] . . . moderate and structured. If you’re curious about the environmental accommodations available for a sensory-friendly event, always ask to make sure you or your child’s needs can be met before attending.” With a clear understanding of what a sensory-friendly event is, we can now look at the different options of events throughout the year.

This chart by beacons unique.com fully shows the sensory impact an environment can have on a child.

I’ll start off this list of events by making it clear that I am by no means endorsing any of these events. Nor am I suggesting every family should participate in Christmas events. I am simply informing that many entertainment options exist for special needs children. An example of this a sensory-friendly Santa. Business Wire writes about this growing trend and the “partnership between Cherry Hill Programs and Autism Speaks. Together, they are presenting an unprecedented 741 events in 581 shopping destinations across the U.S. and Canada on November 24, December 1 and 8, 2019.” The festive Christmas season isn’t the only time sensory needs are considered for special-needs kids. AMC theaters have partnered with the Autism Society to offer “[a] Sensory Friendly Film program  . . . available on the second and fourth Saturday (family-friendly) and Tuesday evenings (mature audiences) of every month. Please check your local theatre listings for specific showtimes.” The Friendship Circle Organization shares more events including “a number of Major League Baseball teams [offering] sensory friendly evenings (often on Autism Awareness Night) . . . [and] local Pump It Up [continuining] to offer sensory jumps once a month”

Movies can be a sensory rollercoaster for a special-needs child. AMC and other theaters run sensory friendly shows that are a great alternative for a special needs child.

These events are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of sensory-friendly activities across the country. The point I am trying to make through this post is how necessary these events are. We take for granted how our bodies and senses aren’t sensitive to the everyday sounds and sights of the world. These same aspects of society are bothersome to almost every special-needs or ASD child. Despite this, these children still deserve a variety of entertainment options just like us. So the next time you consider watching a movie or going to your local Christmas event I hope you consider options that accommodate for your special needs child. The following is a helpful link to find sensory-friendly events for your child: https://www.autismspeaks.org/events. I hope this article helped others learn about the sensory needs of special needs children and understand the importance of these events. Best of luck to all for 2020!