Sunday, 24 April 2011

Sensory Integration & Autism + CJs Skate Park, Toronto

As teachers in a field where a majority of clients possess a diagnosis of Autism, sensory considerations are always on the mind. The foundation of my work as a teacher comes from appreciating that every child is completely different in his or her sensory needs; many children are both over and under responsive to certain senses, requiring systematic planning for successful learning. Without appreciating these variables, individuals with Autism often report a kind of fragmentation of interpretation of sensory information, which results in the need to control or regulate, i.e. a self-stimulatory behaviour is born (flapping, spinning, humming, laughing, tapping, and so on); imagine listening to 25 people talking all at one time and being asked to interpret. Not ideal.

I started thinking about all of this, and doing some research on vestibular stimulation (i.e. stimulating the balance system) after visiting CJ's Skateboard Park in Toronto. On Saturday mornings, CJ's is open for an hour for students with special needs to have use of the impressive, industrial sized, skateboard park. Believe me, I know what you are thinking..sensory overload, right? Well I went to CJ's Skateboard Park, and saw with my own eyes that with some thoughtful planning, some carefully placed visuals and a supportive environment, even a child that is over-sensitive to sensory and environmental variables can walk in frazzled, and walk out cool, calm and collected.

The youngest skateboarder was 5 or 6, and the oldest were teens; beginner and advanced skate boarders are coached by peer mentors, between the ages of 13-15 and are supervised and supported by CJ's Skateboard Park owner Jay and his incredibly kind and dedicated staff. FYII love that is an age-appropriate activity for many kids who do not possess the coordination or social skills to participate in team sports.

CJ's Skateboard Park owner Jay is a passionate skateboarder, and has a phenomenal way of connecting with each child (verbal and nonverbal). Jay has a way of eliciting language, developing a rapport, and increasing confidence in even the youngest skateboarders. After a brief chat with Jay, it was very obvious that he noticed some link between the motion that the skateboard provided, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Of course, Jay is absolutely right. Many children with Autism are sensory-seekers (under responsive to sensory information), and the motion provided by rolling back and forth on a 6 foot ramp is exactly what they need to regulate and sooth the senses; not to mention the 8 foot ramps, or drop-in foam pits. I imagine even after reading this, you are hesitant.

Let me go on by clarifying that every rider, and instructor, must wear a helmet in the skate park (ramps are made of wood paneling not concrete); further, each boarder wears knee pads, elbow pads, wrist pads, and any other pads their parents wish to strap on, the more the merrier. Each skateboarder is accompanied by a combination of 1-5 peer mentors, and 3-5 adult supervisors who circulate providing support and hand-over-hand assistance as needed. Service dogs are welcome in the parent-waiting area, and there is a huge space with couches, a big-screen t.v. and dinning room table for birthday parties (not to mention the play-station gaming area).

I absolutely love the idea of a skateboard as a functional way of providing the movement needed to develop balance, posture, reflexes, coordination, confidence and social skills! More on this place soon, because it's a gem!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Transitions, Transitions: Tis the Season to be Anxious, falalalalalalalala

Teachers and students alike are anxious at this time of year, planning for next year and beyond. As special educators, there are steps that we can take to decrease the overall anxiety of our students, and our colleagues, as the case may be.

How to transition into a new learning environment

-Expose your child to the new environment, before he or she is expected to remain independently
-Speak openly with your child, encouraging dialogue about new things
-Discuss expectations and rules of the new space
-Allow your child to explore the environment at his or her own pace
-Reinforce positive interactions with people, teaching materials, and toys
-Develop social stories which explain the new and unfamiliar routines and expectations; a new drive to school, a new route to walk, a new teacher and a new classroom.
-Allow a transition period, and don’t expect or require an easy transition; know that new environments can be overwhelming, and allow your child to feel whatever comes naturally.
-Pair the environment and instructors with fun, fun, fun. How can I successfully pair with a child?
 *Lots and LOTS of positive reinforcement: high 5s, hugs, tickles, fun activities and games, treats, special activities, trips to the park
*Establish trust in the relationship
*Establish consistent expectations and standards of behaviour
*Develop a rapport

Planing for a successful transition is an essential component of any thorough program; a transition plan is usually written by a special needs teacher, behaviour therapist or individual formally trained in the writing and application of a successful transition plans. For more information on how you can develop your own transition plan, or for information on professionals who can support the transition process, send us an email at

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Understanding Sensory Needs: In the Class

Music, Flashing Lights & Aromatherapy, OH MY!

Working in various integrated settings, I found ECEs to be particularly skilled at creating sensory experiences within the classroom! I have seen unbelievable sand and beach areas, science corners, and touch tables which provide hours and hours of sensory delight. Children that are either over or under responsive to stimulus, require a different kind of sensory consideration.

Of all the ways I have seen sensory needs addressed, within a classroom setting, my favorite are those which allow the student the remain a part of the class (though perhaps, off to the side, in a special area, or far enough away that individual child needs are met). I have seen sensory corners, waiting zones, place markers (an X or a Square), fidget areas and possibly the most widely used, story-book nooks and quiet spaces; all achieve the same goal, provide a safe space for the child to regroup. As teachers, we all make decisions when planning how our classroom will look and feel, and my hope is that after reading this, teachers will consider the sensory needs of each learner as an integral aspect of  successful classroom planning!

As teachers of children with varying needs, we become skilled at noticing the antecedents which precede self-stimulatory behaviors, repetitive behaviors and other stereotypies (hand-flapping, twirling, rocking, fidgeting and so on). Learning to distinguish between the various functions of each habit, will allow teachers to meet sensory needs, and decrease the likelihood of behaviors which interfere with learning. Knowing the functions will help determine the course of action for increase or decreasing the behavior; there are 4 functions, escape, avoid, gain access to desired item, or gain attention.

A short walk down to the office is a terrific, functional and age-appropriate way to self-regulate; these type of typical classroom experiences are a fantastic way to reward positive behavior, and reinforce successful learning. *not to say that a child would never be removed from a class based on sensory needs, just that it would not be a habit, so as not to reinforce that sensory behavior yields escape from task. 

Ex: First, a math work sheet and then, a walk to the office!

Many children require short body or sensory breaks, which should be sought within the classroom environment. Though out of class breaks (gym time, recess, lunch, and so on) are an essential part of a successful scheduled program, it is important for children to develop the ability to self-regulate within the classroom environment. In my class, this is facilitated by a tag-team teaching approach, in which teachers rotate between students, allowing each student to have both 1:1 instruction periods, and self-directed down time in between activities.

In planning for next year, I imagine many sensory additions to the classroom...stay tuned for more info!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Sibling Integration as a vital component of the Social Skill Building Experience!

Why Integrate A Sibling?

Many parents want their special needs child to experience the joy of summer camp; to spend time outside, and have the freedom to explore, grow and develop in an environment that is nurturing and safe. Taking it one step beyond, many parents also want some kind of facilitated socialization; a way for a child whose first instinct is solitary play, to engage with a group and/or thrive within the group dynamic.

Integrating siblings into the camp experience is partially an attempt to strengthen family connection, and partially an attempt to assist siblings in engaging with, supporting, and understanding  his or her special needs sibling(s). In a controlled environment, activities will be designed to meet the needs of the individual children, while addressing each child at his or her level.

Summer camp curriculum is developed by summer camp directors Lindsay & Alley! 

L & A have been successfully planning educational and extra-curricular programs for over ten years, and are confident in programming strategies, teaching tactics, and ability to assess needs. Our staff are professionals, with a desire to make meaningful change within the community.

Research-Based Approach

Research demonstrates that imitation skills are among the foundational social and play skills, which in time shapes social behaviour. All children are able to learn to imitate, thus all children are able to learn successful ways of engaging with peers, teachers, and family. With a sibling, children may become comfortable with the social experience; there is an instant rapport between siblings, which cannot be created artificially.

Some ways we target specific sibling-situations, are:

-Individualized Social Stories
*Being Gentle
*Saying Hello
*Asking for Help
-Visual Schedules
*Steps in Play
*Turn Taking

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Out with the old and in with the new

We are now accepting donations of gently-used kid's toys, kid's clothings, kid's sensory items, kid's outdoor equipment, or school supplies 

PLEASE NOTE: We are accepting donations of outgrown clothes; if they are in good condition, without stains, marks or holes, we would be happy to take them off your hands. We will use these donations to develop an extra-clothes closet; you wouldn't believe how many times we need an extra shirt, sock, or shoe.

We are NOT accepting undergarments of any kind.

Please ensure that these items are washed and folded upon delivery. Anything we are unable to make use of, we will donate to a local children's charity. It's a win-win for everyone.

If you are doing a clean sweep of your toy room, let us know and we would be pleased to help you sweep-out the old and make room for the new; we'll even come pick it up from your door step.

For more information, get in touch with Alley or Lindsay at

Saturday, 2 April 2011

ABA Therapy for Children with DS

ABA is an effective way for all hands on and visual learners to develop.

Children with Down's, like children with Autism, Sensory Integration Disorder, and others, in addition to being visual learners, often benefit from the individualized application of ABA the curriculum; the ABA curriculum is designed for learners with language delays.

ABA has been tremendously useful for increasing verbal behaviour, developing discrimination skills, and increasing overall compliance and willingness to learn. By increasing communication, developing social skills and refining self help skills, all children can thrive within the framework of ABA.

Here are some example of how ABA Therapy may be useful as a tool for assisting children with DS (Down's Syndrome).

After viewing the video you will see that "Manding" is another way of saying asking, or requesting; increasing verbal behaviour is on the radar for many parents of children with DS, so you will likely see the value immediately!

Walk Now for Autism Speaks 2011

The MM team is registered for WALK NOW FOR AUTISM SPEAKS 2011!

If you want to walk with us, or help us raise money reach us at for more information.


Friday, 1 April 2011

Website & Other Resources

After lots of tinkering, the Magnificent Minds webpage went live today! Very, VERY exciting. In doing a little internet hunting, I came across a few really, REALLY good websites that I cannot help but pass on.

1. The ID bracelets are fabulous; they have the medic alert sign, and are personalized for each child. They come in many colours, patterns, and sizes to meet all your kids' needs. I cannot stress enough how amazing these are for nonverbal children. Love, love, love!

2.Model Me Going Places 2...ok, so it's not a website exactly. It's an IPAD application, a free one! I haven't gone through it in much detail yet, but it seems very cool at first glance. It allows your child to watch same-age peers in various social situations. It's based on the teaching concept of video modeling, which is found to be particularly useful when working with visual learners (like those on the Autism spectrum). If TV is motivating for your child, you may consider downloading this free application to assist the transition into new environments (playgrounds, birthday parties, family functions, malls, and so on). I think it's particularly clever, because it uses something inherently reinforcing for many kids (IPADs, screens, and so on) and presents video modeling in a way that is age-appropriate and socially appropriate. A great website, full of useful information about Applied Behaviour Analysis, schools and centers using ABA approaches, and other guides for parents of children with Autism, Hyperlexia, and PDD/PDDNOS. I like the website because the purpose is to get maximum information to the public; you'll find all the answers on this website. IPAD Application for Special Needs Children has IPAD programs based on ABA teaching principles; what an amazing way to solidify knowledge gained in session or school! Choose from receptive language programs, number and counting programs, and so much more. This is the first I have seen of ABA applications; LOVE THAT!