Friday, December 6, 2013

Spectrum Holiday Gifts - I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas

Season's Greetings!

Each year at HeARTs for Autism© I hear interesting stories about the gifts our kids want for the holidays. Some are "doable" and others are amazing requests or impossible feats. Then there are other children or young adults who are harder to shop for given the way they perceive and deal with the world. Sometimes grandparents, relatives and friends want to shop but just don't know what to get. The following is our Spectrum story with useful suggestions and tips for gift giving:

In 1953, a 10-year-old name Gayla Peevy, sang the song “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”, which became quite popular. I love the lines:

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas; Only a hippopotamus will do. Don’t want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy. I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy! I want a hippopotamus for Christmas; Only a hippopotamus will do. No crocodiles, no rhinoceroses. I only like hippopotamuses, and hippopotamuses like me too!

This time of year, we listen to the radio station with non-stop Christmas holiday music, and the song always makes us laugh. Yet, it probably makes us laugh because the song to others might be preposterous, but to a family living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger’s or any other special needs, this pretty much sounds like the intense requests we have gotten from Kevin and our friends have gotten from their children with various special needs.

We have had requests for giraffes, elephants, castles, restaurants built in the back yard, flying suits, a hot fudge hot tub and a classic Mini Cooper car, to name a few. The request is not for the toy version, stuffed or model size, but for the real thing. The trick has been to work with our son to find suitable alternatives, given his potential heartbreak for really expecting what he has requested.

So When Only a Hippo Will Do, What Are We To Do?
As the parents and loved ones dealing with the requests, simply take notice and see how to engage the child with possibilities.

*Their request may be based in a special interest. Given the social and communication deficits in ASD and other special needs, we need to meet the person on their ground and find ways to connect. Many of these kids can not communicate what they want. Look then to their interests, perseverations and passions for clues for meaningful gifts. As we learn to speak “their” language, we build trust and show understanding. When we can share in their excitement, they learn ways to connect outward, and we find we can relate in genuine ways. This mutual interest then becomes the greatest of gifts – the present of our Presence.
*Some suggestions families have used to build bridges in understanding, include taking field trips to a place which represents the child’s interest, going to the library or bookstore, using modeling clay to create scenes or objects, painting or drawing the topic together, visiting museums, creating collages from magazines or internet images, and simply just quietly observing what seems to make the child light up when they are engaged with their interest.
*Sometimes, the interest has deeper meaning and connection to a quality or experience of life they would like to have. For instance, one boy was into tanks and animals, liking the ones with big claws and fangs. Turns out, he felt weak and defenseless. These interests indicated he wanted to feel more powerful. His parents and teacher created opportunities for him to experience positive empowerment and his interests then shifted.

Sharing of Love
The holiday season has many messages competing for our attention, but the core one to all traditions, is the sharing of love. For our children with special needs, this season is not the time to worry about fixing their problems…it is an opportunity to show and share unconditional love.

Self Care: Holiday Stress
Given the stresses of the season, it is important we take care of ourselves. Find at least three things you would like to do this season, and request the help to make it happen – something just for you. Another aspect of self-care is to plan special needs care. Here are some examples:

*Prepare your child for various events that will occurring, using social stories, visual schedules, and sensory tools, while being mindful of stimuli and foods.
*Ask hosts for a quiet space.
*Gently and discretely explain your child’s specific needs to guests who might wonder. Education is always a powerful ally.
*We often bring our own snacks, and have an exit plan, often traveling in 2 cars, when the kids were younger.
* We use behavioral strategies and stress reducers, like breathing and yoga, to center when overload happens.

We blend the “social” scene with the auto/self needs, balancing as best as possible, trying not to place too many expectations on any of us. Overall, we choose to find our joyful, peaceful space in the midst of this hectic season, remembering that what really matters is the spirit of celebration which honors each of us uniquely.

"I only like hippopotamuses, and hippopotamuses like me too!" Wishing you a joyous and peaceful holiday, rich with love and wonderful presents and presence!

Visit to learn more, see beautiful art and to gift/donate to our awesome AWE-tistic children & family programs.

© Robin V Schwoyer 2012-13

*article first appeared in Special-ism, an online blogzine. Visit Special-ism for great resources for special needs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From the HeART

Kevin created a series of paintings a few years back called Knife, Fork and Spoon, given those were the items used to create the art. Often there was a spiral of paints from a center point with great energy emanating from the creation.

Around that time, the movie "Horton Hears a Who" became popular, and Kevin saw his paintings as somehow looking like the "speck" or spore in the movie which Horton would speak to and turned out to have a whole civilization living inside of it.

Wherever we went, Kevin would pick up dandelions or other flowers and speak to them, hoping to hear a response. Sometimes he thought he did. I loved the broader messages of the movie of how we perceive and interact based on what we think we know to be true. I also loved the poetic aspect of Kevin wanting to find and interact with whatever species he might find inside these spores. Somehow it was easier for him to interact with this than other people, yet his desire was a bridge to socialization with other people.

The artwork then became known as the Pollen series - they are quite beautiful and many pieces have been used as thank yous for large donations. Some people have commissioned Pollen pieces. In the photo, Kevin is creating a new Pollen piece called "Speck-tacular." It was used as an auction item for another charity.

The creation process is a great tool for anyone working with children especially those with Autism, ADHD or other processing disorders. As a parent or teacher, you can help by providing the supplies for any creation. We discuss ideas.I help Kevin with his articulation, coaching him on ways to express verbally what he is thinking and planning. Then there is the planning process: what does he want to do; what does he need; is there a theme; do we need to buy anything; can his brother or sister help; will he make a sample first or just dive right in; does he have enough time to finish now or will he need a couple days; who is cleaning up. As he creates, there are other pieces of cognitive processing merging with the creative urges...and it's always interesting.

This art was different in that included a sparkly yarn being glued on for accent. This was a new twist to his earlier pieces. People loved how it turned out. And he knows his piece was used to help another group raise funds.

With children, you can consider their sensory issues and motor planning issues. Use crafts as a way to create patterns in the brain and the body which will help them with other skills they need for daily life. You can use the crafts to reinforce math concepts or science. Your interaction allows for modeling of social skills and communication. Of course, at all times be encouraging...not imposing...this is their creation.

When we tap this part of the brain and being, we help them to grow in more whole person ways than traditional academics. The left brain activities of school require a different processing than these artistic right brain experiences, yet the 2 sides of the brain link and cross, and actually, left brain processes are enhanced by what occurs here.

So, grab some smocks and art supplies, cover your surface, pick your mediums, and simply begin to play and express. Enjoy the heart connection that happens when we create together!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Appreciating Adventures in Nature

As a child, I would LOVE it when a teacher would say, "Close your books and get your jackets. We're doing class outside."
"YAY!!!," we would all respond. Out we would go to take a walk, stopping to observe and answer a few questions. Usually, when we returned to class, most of us were calmer and more focused. Some of us, maybe, stayed a little keyed up, (okay, so it was me and my friend Joey.) BUT, we really did get much from the experience, given our learning styles and sensory needs.

At home, my mother loved to take walks and do activities in Nature. Although she kept an immaculate house, she was the first to say, "Housework can wait. It's too nice out to be inside." So, out we would go for walks. She was quite pensive and inquisitive, often observing objects we found for longs times in silence. For my chatty self, it could be a bit much...the silence piece, yet what she taught me through her model was Peace. There was something in this outdoor experience that deserved a silent, centered awareness and appreciation. Mom also had a thing for trash...she recycled long before anyone around us did...and she wrote letters to companies complaining about their continual development of "individual" and disposable packaging. She couldn't imagine where all this "trash" would go if they did not develop recyclable packages. She was quite ahead of her time given she was born in 1935. She had us do park cleanups through her woman's group and church. Mom encouraged me to join a volunteer group as a teenager which studied freshwater ecology and did clean ups in watershed areas. She taught us how to be creative with objects we found in nature, and we made many crafts. She even created something she called Pebble Pets, which were stones we found, cleaned, glued together and painted to make various objects, characters, etc, long before Pet Rocks were the craze. We sold these creations at fundraisers for church and other outreaches.

I am so thankful for what she shared with us and taught, since it evolved in me, to be the basis of the work we do with kids on the Autistic Spectrum through HeARTs for Autism and Happy HeARTs Yoga.

Today, with my own children, and with kids in our outreaches, I love to share the "great outdoors" with them. Arts and crafts give us a wonderful way to share Nature with the kids and families. Yoga, especially outdoors, is such an incredible experience. This summer, we had the good fortune to do Yoga and Art with children and families at Nature Centers. What a perfect place/space to educate! The tradition of Yoga comes from the early yogis observing and mimicking Nature. The expression of breath, mindfulness and postures, in concert with natural rhythms, is a powerful healing experience, which also educates on so many levels through integration of the senses and knowledge.

In the picture, you see my kids enjoying a day in Nature. Throughout the summer, we would go on hikes exploring different parks. Sometimes, we did yoga, other times storytelling, other times we would "play" with math and science as we interacted with our surroundings. Mind you, this was mixed with kids being kids: sibling bickerings, being hungry, being hot, and sensory issues for the ASD child, but overall, it was a good experience.

If you are interested in an Adventure in Nature, it can be as simple as just taking a walk and then doing a nature break of "being" still for 30 seconds, open to whatever your senses notice. When home, you can discuss what you "found." Or you can mimic the sounds, draw a picture, make a clay creative, as you facilitate expression of what the young people discovered.

Or, you can plan the trip to include science activities, like cataloging the plants, birds, insects, etc they see. They can measure objects found, then use math to determine differences in size or use geometry to explain relationships. Tell stories and act them out. Learn the history of the area...teach the art of how to ask a question and then find the answers. Bring art tools: pens, pencils, markers, paints, paper, clay, etc and have the kids recreate what they notice.

For special needs children, consider whatever their specific condition is and tailor activities to meet their needs. For my son, given the ASD and Sensory issues, I involve him in various ways with the siblings, adjusting plans which cause too much anxiety. On the other hand, I encourage him to step out of his comfort zone to try new things. The siblings help me with conversation skills, and it can be a good thing to watch how they decide to interact and take care of each other.

For this trip, I had them each create a Field guide. We took some plain white papers, folded them in half and then stapled the booklet. They decorated the front cover with their name and whatever else they wanted. During our day, we would take breaks to record our findings. Very interesting, what each child recalls, or rather chooses to share. The daughter was most elaborate with her drawings and listings. The youngest boy, had to take a while to process and didn't really do anything with his Guide until dinner time, when he wrote a detailed story about the experience, including illustrations. The oldest, was more interested in asking Asperger type questions about things that interested him, and acted as if he was going to "die" if he had to write anything down. Then again, writing is difficult for him; Not the thought process, but the actual holding the pen and having to focus that way. We decided he could take pictures and share with us that way. And then we used the camera to photograph moments we wanted to remember and certain objects of interest.

Many skills were in play that made for a great adventure, and the Field Guides focused their involvement to create an enjoyable, educational experience as well.

Fall is coming...what a great time to try an Adventure in Nature! Let us know how it goes and what you found on your journey...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Zen Garden - Mindful Moments

“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” ~ Alan Watts

A zen state is one where we simply exist in the moment, fully present, fully aware, simply content to BE. Children have their zen moments in the midst of their excited outbursts of childhood exuberance. Adults tend to lose their zen nature as they become involved in the daily to do lists and concerns over the past and future

Teaching children as they get older to take time to BE is very important. Creating opportunities for simple pleasures away from the high tech, fast paced lifestyles they are now used to can be a great gift. Taking a moment as you begin to eat to be mindful of the food, the preparation and how it nourishes us, and to offer an intention of gratitude is a very easy way to introduce mindfulness. To chew slowly and allow the sensations of the food to flow over us awakens new awareness. Showing the children, that as we do chores, we can slow down to just focus on the task at appreciate what it is we are working on...awakens a deeper awareness. Multitasking is a good thing, but as a perpetual way of life, it creates undo stress on the mind and body.

We find art projects are pathways to mindfulness for children and adults. The brain shifts in function and even in chemistry as it is allowed to just play. We're not talking so much about a project that has a definite desired result - this can create stress as we measure the finished product. Free flowing creative expression allows the heart to light the way.

With children on the Autistic Spectrum, we have often noticed, when left alone, they are quite Zen like. Very involved and deep into what has captured their focus. Sometimes, we see it expressed as a repetitive activity they use to calm and regulate their sensory systems as their minds try to filter and sort the onslaught of input. We will go to that place with the kids...share the flapping of hands, spinning plates, lining up of cars, the ripping of paper, the humming, the staring at lights through the window blinds, the fascination with the ceiling fans, the discussion of little known facts about a specific insect...somewhere in here is the beauty of being. As we engage, space is made for genuine connection. From here, we may find the child will engage further and shift into opportunities for us to teach or expand the activity. Art type activities of various types can invite a child on the Spectrum to connect with the activity and express. In turn, they connect with others, sometimes explicitly, and other times implicitly. The process unfolds in ways in which we see into one another and hear, even if words are not spoken. The art speaks, whether it was one brush stroke or a canvas full of incredible detail, one dance step or an elaborate routine, because the heart has spoken.

In this project of the Zen Garden, it is fun for the Spectrum child, siblings and friends to use a shoe box, some sand, some interesting objects and just play with their finger in the sand in a quiet relaxed way. Depending on the children, of course, use caution with the objects or watch for any inappropriate behavior with the objects, sand or box.

The girls in this example had fun creating their Zen gardens from stuff laying around. They did some yoga and then sat and "played" in quiet with the Zen Garden. They doodled their fingers in the sand. One used a quartz crystal to draw. A simple, gentle shake of the box allows the process to start anew. Arranging the objects, they found it had a calming affect. An easy, unplugged process of just being. A good stress release for the high strung moments.

For our Spectrum kids, the process is quite intriguing, each expressing and sharing. For the moms and dads, they are amazed how therapeutic it feels to just draw a finger in the sand.

So in the height of our summer heat, find a cool spot, a few supplies, BREATHE deeply, let go, and BE in a Zen state for a bit. Amazing what it will do for you!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rock Art - Magic Colors

Here is a project kids love. Take a walk in the park with the kids and look for small stones. Collect the stones and bring them home. Have the kids clean the stones, and then they can sort for size and shape. Let stones dry.

Parent, you can heat the oven to 250 Degrees F and get out a cookie baking sheet. Place some foil on the pan. Have the kids place stones on the pan. Place in the oven for 15 minutes.

Parents, remove the pan and stones from the oven and sit in safe place, so kids do not get burned. Take a stone from the pan with tongs and place on a paper plate and then have the child place a wax crayon on the hot stone. Wow! It melts! Use one color or many...swirl the colors...experiment. The colors may run down the side and around the stone, creating a colorful effect.

Stones will cool down after 5 minutes, so you might want to keep the extra stones in the oven while you are creating. When ready get out the next stone and have fun!

The waxy, magical nature of the colored stones is alot of fun and they make cute gifts. We gave ours to people in a meditation class, and they loved the uplifting, joyous child energy in the the stones! A good way to connect the child within.

For the stones you keep, you can decorate houseplants, the garden, table, or anywhere a little unique splash of color would be great. Enjoy!

Materials needed: Stones, crayons, baking pan, oven, oven mitts or potholders, tongs, paper plates & mix with IMAGINATION
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Tshirt Art Time

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Looking for some Cool Summer fun? Need to take a break from the outdoor activities? Need to get the kids moving? Or need to channel the kids' energy? Here's a simple fun project: T-Shirts!

Materials needed: Shirts, fabric paints, glitter, sequins, any other cool things you want on shirt & IMAGINATION

Parents and kids, please make sure you protect the surface where you do your creations. Let your creativity flow. We did splatter paint in the backyard under the shady tree, which made for some great effects.

Set the shirts aside to dry. Wear and enjoy!

(Parents, be careful when washing...handwash or delicate cycle suggested, air dry, to protect your creations!)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

PLAYTime (Peace, Love And Yoga)

Mindfulness. Breathing. Stillness. For kids who struggle with sensory integration, along with other developmental issues, being able to take a breath and become more deeply aware of themselves is a great thing. Skills learned during yoga classes create improved focus, greater strength, flexibility, balance, confidence, and the ability to self regulate how they process sensory stimuli and stress, which might lead to emotional overload.

Our classes, which are for children and specialize in the Autism Spectrum, are good fun and the families are reporting many improvements. One family is surprised that what the mom thought she was doing was bringing her son to improve his physical fitness, found that it has increased his social skills as he is speaking to everyone about yoga and showing people poses and breathing. Another noticed her child using the breathing exercises to calm himself as he gets upset. Another mom uses the kinesiology exercises to warm her son up for homework, and the teacher has reported him using yoga during his break times at school. All the kids have said they love coming and ask for more classes.

The combination of teaching greater body and mind awareness through postures and breathing does much to improve functioning for the kids. Adding in fun and imagination as we tell stories and act out the stories in all kinds of yoga poses stimulates creativity, expression and social interaction. Playing games builds social awareness and skills as well. The chant provides positive affirmations for the children. And the relaxation and meditation time is truly amazing. For parents who are used to nonstop kids, seeing them lay still, breathing deeply and simply being is incredible. Each of the children reports they like the way they feel when doing it.

How is yoga relaxation different than a normal "rest"? After doing yoga, the body is ready to recover as it allows toxins to move through and integrates the "happy" hormones and neurotransmitters. The awareness of mind and body during yoga creates a grounding and centeredness which anchors into their body as they experience the few minutes of relaxation. By the time class is done the kids feel more "whole" and more present. Yoga means union, and it seems the gift of yoga for the children is them feeling healthier and more unified in their existence. In turn, they experience greater confidence and performance in the other areas of their lives.

In all, it is good for the kids and the adults, and the PLAYTime in Happy HeARTs Yoga classes promotes true quality family time. Namaste!

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PLAYTime and Happy HeARTs Yoga are registered trademarks of HHY 2010.