Self-Awareness and Self-Determination at the Gottschall Access Program

What are Life Skills? For many, the idea of a Life Skills curriculum conjures up thoughts about functional life skills including cooking, laundry, hygiene and cleaning. For some it might mean vocational skills such as following directions, computer skills or alphabetizing.  Others may think of lessons about accessing the community: safety signs, social skills and transportation.  While many of these skills are important and necessary for young adults transitioning to adulthood life and responsibilities, I think we sometimes overlook an important process on this journey.  What do you WANT to do?

Moving on to adult life can be a daunting experience for all of us who have made that transition. I think many of us have reached that point in our life when we wonder if we work to live or live to work. I know in my case it is certainly both! Fortunately, my work is rewarding, dynamic and plays to my skill set.  My first job at Papa Gino’s however, (while I did love the employee discount) was a job of necessity.  It is vital to offer everyone the opportunity to find employment that fits well with their skills, interests and motivations while matching their need for support and fulfillment.

Through the Gottschall Access Program, our first year of Life Skills Curriculum aims to provide the base for this opportunity.  Our first two semesters concentrate on the principles of Self-Awareness and Self-Determination.  We feel that these 2 tenets are crucial to the process of figuring out “what do I want to be when I grow up?”

“Creating Happiness is done in many steps.  Only with self-awareness can we see where our steps are taking us.” – Pathway to Happiness

Self-Awareness is defined as “The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a ‘growth mindset.’” – Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Through our self-awareness curriculum we support students’ exploration of their strengths, interests, skills and talents.  So many students come to us well aware of their challenges and the things they cannot do well, but they often have a difficult time identifying the things that they are good at.  Through assessments, guided activities and self-exploration we encourage the students to realize their skills and interests.  It is also necessary through this process to discover our challenges and areas in which we require support or accommodations. This can be an empowering process for students to realize that while they do have limitations, as we all do, it’s ok! It’s vital to know ourselves before we can move onto knowing what we can provide others in work, school or community environments.  Once students have identified what they are good at and what areas they need improvement in, we can move onto self-determination.

“When you know yourself, you are empowered. When you accept yourself, you are invincible.” – Tina Lifford

Self-Determination is defined as the process by which a person controls their own life.  Once the students are comfortable with their self-awareness and have a good handle on not only what they are able to do, but what they would like to do, we can move on to how make that happen.  Through our self-determination curriculum we explore and practice how to be effective communicators, how to identify and request needed accommodations and how to set achievable goals.  A very important component of self-determination is motivation. For some students entering adult life, their decisions and advocacy has been done for them by their support system.  Students need to be self-motivated to want to achieve their goals. Without this, goals become the property of someone else rather than the student’s own. Motivation will provide perseverance when things don’t go as expected and a desire for self-advocacy to make changes when needed. It is important for us to teach students how to formulate goals, make plans and advocate for themselves or request support when needed.

It is our hope, at The Gottschall Access Program, that our students will emerge with a confident idea of who they are and a plan to live their best lives.

 

Advertisements

Both Sides Now

By Jan Randall

“Try taking a stand on just one leg. You have to see both sides.” Joss Whedon

I’ve always been by nature the kind of person who wants everyone to get along. I loathe conflict and divisiveness. So the widening gap in the Autism community, that I have seen growing over the last few years has me feeling disheartened.

As the Autism world evolves we are hearing more people express the feeling that Autism is just another way of being. Some say Autism has always been around, others describe it as just the next step in evolution. Still others bristle at the thought of a cure. All expect that those with Autism should be accepted and respected for who they are.

On the flip side of Autism we have those of us (me included) who have sons, daughters, or loved ones who are challenged in the most serious of ways. The vast majority of our children have challenges with communication, sensory processing, and with their understanding of the world. They will need care, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of their lives. We too want acceptance and respect but we are also the ones who hope, wish and pray for answers that will bring truly effective treatments, as well as a cure for Autism.

So can these two sides stand side by side and both be right?

I think they can. There was recently in interesting article by Simon Barron Cohen in Scientific American titled “Is It Time to Give Up on a Single Diagnostic Label for Autism?” In it he says: “Most everybody now agrees that the terms high- versus low-functioning were stigmatizing and therefore should be avoided, but the clear contrast between AS (Asperger Syndrome) and classic autism might have had value and perhaps should have been retained and likely could have been distinguished with high reliability…. A widely held view is that medicine makes more progress by identifying subgroups, and AS versus classic autism were two very useful subgroups, because they are quite different in terms of likely levels of independence and educational and occupational attainment.”

Although there has long been a gap in opinions on Autism, I believe the merging of the Aspergers and Autism diagnosis into Autism Spectrum Disorder was the beginning of the gap widening. I’d like to see the DSM revisit the diagnosis and how it can be differentiated. But while we wait, my hope is that people can see that every person with Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder (or Aspergers if they prefer), should be accepted and respected. At the same time we must not lose the importance of awareness. Without awareness we lose sight of the severity of challenges that all too many individuals grapple with every single day.

I think this quote from Safe Minds sums it up perfectly, We envision a world where people with autism are safe, healthy, and full participants in life, and the development of moderate to severe autism can be prevented.”

 

It’s almost graduation time…now what?

My experience with my sons transitioning from graduating this August to entering the adult service world has been one filled so far with some mixed feelings. I think many of us on this journey can’t help but think of what we need to do to help our kids through this process verses someone without a child on the spectrum. I have come to the realization that my sons are blessings even in the more challenging times, though when you go through challenging phases, it can be hard to feel that. As our kids get older, it can get harder in different ways as there are things they may not get to experience. Examples of this may be driving, dating or heading off to college. At times like this, when they are heading to a milestone like graduating high school, I will think about potentially what they would be doing if they did not have their challenges of being on the spectrum. I think it is important to recognize and acknowledge these feelings, but also to realize that we are on this path for a reason and our kids contribute so much to our lives and other people’s lives in their own individual ways. People comment to me how much my sons smiles brighten any room they are in and how they both have such a great sense of humor and express that in so many different and unexpected ways. Several years ago, one of my sons kept changing the voice on his brother’s iPad to a female voice and would really laugh when his brother would use his iPad and try to change it back. In sibling rivalry fashion, I also recall his twin chasing him around the house with a ladybug sensory toy which his twin was terrified of so that he could get the preferred spot on the couch.

I have now visited all the proposed, potential day habs and have decided with my husband on the best option for our sons now. Similar to my experience through their younger school years, no perfect program exists really. I know we all dream of hitting the mega millions and creating more diversified programs to address everyone’s needs. I am hopeful that more and more programs and opportunities will be available to our kids to maximize their talents and abilities and realize that they are lifetime learners like we all are. It has always been a pet peeve of mine when parents are told that if a child doesn’t reach a milestone by a certain age, the likelihood is low that they will. I personally do not believe this at all. This attitude really limits our kids. I am amazed at how much my sons continue to learn and they have surprised me quite a bit at times with skills I had little awareness of.

The GAP program (GOTTSCHALL ACCESS PROGRAM) at BCC is an example of offering a different option to individuals on the autism spectrum. Of course, I am a little biased as it is a college based program of CAR. It gives individuals on the spectrum an opportunity to further explore and learn in a more specialized college -like setting. I hope our kids will continue to have more choices like this for learning enrichment programs they can participate in. I intend to explore this option in the future for my sons. At this time, I feel given this huge transition, I would see how they would do in the current adult service model. I have chosen to do Agency with Choice which offers more flexibility in options to individuals. I felt this was best for our family. I am planning on my sons attending the day hab several days a week and the other days providing them with a home based/community program. We are planning on using the same agency for both services to hopefully make this as seamless as possible. Of course, DDS funding has to occur for this happen. We hope to have that budget info soon.

True to my organized nature (I feel a necessary by-product of having twins on the spectrum), prior to visiting these programs, I created a checklist of what I felt was important in order for my sons to be successful. For them, I needed a program proficient in assistive tech, a bright and open space with no fluorescent lights, a small group dynamic that also had an established sensory program and practiced PBS (Positive Behavioral Supports). I also wanted a program that had them being active as much as possible, involved in the community through volunteering and have the ability for them to be in different rooms. While they share a brotherly bond, they also enjoy being apart sometimes wanting to be far away from their twin. For my piece of mind as well, I wanted a program that had windows on the doors to see into the rooms. I was surprised to see that some of these programs didn’t have this. I felt it was an added safety measure to at the very least, be able to see what was happening in the rooms. I also wanted a program that seemed open to my input as well.

Once we visited all the programs, my husband and I went through all the programs’ pros and cons and through a process of elimination we decided on one. I acknowledge that Massachusetts offers adult service programs and some states may not, I am grateful for that. Part of me was somewhat relieved once a program was chosen, but also felt like more options should be available to our kids. My next step is to meet with all the relevant people from their current school program, the adult day program and DDS to come up with a transition plan. As most of us, attest to once we have gone through this process or are going through the process like myself, it is filled with some hesitation, but also hopefulness for our children’s future. I was fortunate enough to have the ability to discuss and get valuable insight as several friends who have gone through this transition with their own children. It helped me realize this is just another step on our journey. Still, wish me luck! I wish anyone luck as well who is heading to a milestone with their child and going through a new experience as I feel being hopeful and having an action plan really does make a difference.

Learning to let go.

The hardest part of being a parent is learning to let go!  Your child starts out as this perfect little being that is 100% dependent on you.  You love him more than yourself.  He grew in your womb and  drank from your breast.  For his first year of life he was still a part of you.  Then slowly you have got to share him with the world.  You let people babysit him, you send him to preschool.  But you are still the constant in his life!  You are His Mum.  He loves you and still needs you.  Then “real” school starts and he has teachers, bus drivers, and friends.  You are no longer the only one who is teaching your child.  There are outside forces that are molding him into the man that you are raising.  You hope he remembers to be kind, to help others in need and to be strong.  You get through elementary school, junior high and high school.  Your baby is now a grown man!  He is making his own choices and living his own life.  Then he decideds to drop out of school and work for a living.  What?  That is not my plan for him!  You know this decision that he is making is going to make his life harder.  You try to share your opinion but he does not want to hear it.  So, you yell it louder, so he can hear you better!  But that does not work because you both are now yelling and screaming saying things you do not mean.  You try to get him to see this from your point of view because you know you are right! He needs to stay in school so he can be the person that you envisioned him to be.  So, you continue to yell and scream,  beg and cry.  So what happens next?  He moves out!  You are devastated! What?  You are still a child!  My child!  You are not ready to be on your own.  You cry the first night he is not home.  Your world is changing and you are not ready and then it hits you! You are not ready, it has nothing to do with him, it is you! I am being selfish.  I am trying to hold him back.  This is his life.  I taught him to be independent and to follow his dreams.  To be brave and to stick up for himself when he wants to do something that people might not agree with.  Here I am his cheerleader all throughout his childhood trying my hardest to hold him back for myself.  Oh my goodness!  I have to stop! and let him go.  Am I pleased that he droped out of school?  Hell no! but I am glad that he is following his dreams.  I tell him and myself that he can always go back to school.  You are never too old to learn new things.  He is still on his own and I miss seeing him every night.  I do get to see him a few times a week when he comes over for dinner and does his laundry and we sit and chit chat.  Our relationship has changed.  It is no longer a relationship of me telling him what to do but one that ebbs and flows.  I love him with all my heart and I want the best for him.  But I had to accept that my job has changed from care giver to that of a confidant and maybe even a friend.

Cassie Ricco

Falling In the GAP

We have all heard the phrase falling between the cracks. Sometimes people with different and specific needs cannot find the right fit for them or there is just nothing geared towards those with such criteria. Sadly, it is understood that not everyone gets the care and attention they need because there is no way to tailor programs to so many different needs. That’s a very pessimistic outlook, isn’t it? I fell into one of these cracks or as they should be called, GAPs. What if we saw these GAPs as an opportunity for a niche market?
Through my own personal experiences and growth in life I have learned that I want to help people. My first experience with this was in the fourth grade. My teacher asked me to help one of my fellow classmates who had been left behind. Little did I know; my teacher had been struggling for months to break through to her. Once she saw that I was able to, I was asked to be her “tutor” for the remainder of that schoolyear. As a young student I obliged and thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until the end of the year that my parents were informed of what I had been doing and they had praised me for it. This set a ball in motion for me that I have never wanted to stop.
Fast forward to me turning 18 and just having graduated high school. I attended community college and worked on the weekends. I had two best friends that I would hang out with daily. I always knew that one of them was different. He struggled in school and with developing the social skills needed to grant him success with others. He was my best friend though and we always had each other’s backs. His mother saw that I had been successful with him and asked me to join her agency to help youth struggling with SED’s (Serious Emotional Disease). At 21 years of age, I had finally gotten an understanding of those with special needs and how to better assist them. It wasn’t until then that I had realized my best friend had been diagnosed with SED’s/ASD. How could I have never known this after being friends with him close to seven years? It’s because it didn’t matter. He was my friend and I had his back regardless.
At this point I wanted to do more! I wanted to have his back in ways that I never did before. I wanted to move up in my agency and acquire the skills to give my best friend the best chance to succeed. Unfortunately, my lack of education prevented me from advancing in the company and my new-found awareness of my best friend’s needs caused him to notice that I was behaving differently. He began to distance himself from me. This was a tough time. I felt like I lost my way.
This was not going to stop me though. I began volunteering with Special Olympics and began educating myself on mental health and a variety of different disabilities. I wanted to advance in this field but it was difficult. I felt like had fallen between the cracks. Little did I know, I had fallen into the G.A.P.
Life takes us weird places sometimes but there will always be a net to catch us. Sometimes we fall for a bit longer than we would like not knowing where we’re going to land but it is our duty to help provide a net in those cracks so that no one is left behind. The Gottschall Access Program did that for me and for so many of our students. I hope more GAPs can be created so no one should feel like they’ve fallen between the cracks.

Thanks for listening,
Antonio Vitorino

Looking Up

When I started thinking about this blog, I wanted to write about my challenges with my son during 2017 because it was a year of many challenges and changes.  Over the New Year holiday I saw so many friends’ posts on social media about what a difficult year 2017 had been for them for a variety of different reasons.

I think 2017 was a difficult year for many of us.  It is hard when everything changes without warning and you are left feeling like someone pulled the rug out from under you.  When the place you were once comfortable in is now gone, you wonder if anything will ever feel “normal” again.  I think 2017 left a lot of us in that place.

At first, I was really mad at myself because I did not see it coming, but in honesty, it wouldn’t have made a difference.  Keeping everything in perspective, what I consider challenging was a year full of changes, the introduction of medication, and a new school with new faces.  The reality is we are all still here and healthy and after what some of my friends have been through this past year, I want to be respectful of that fact.

So I find myself in a new role as a parent of a young adult and this is the hardest one yet.  Knowing when to push and when to step back is tricky.  I remember being 19 and thinking that I knew it all and wanted to be independent of my parents.  How do you balance that for a young adult with ASD who does not have the skills to be totally independent but is somehow pushing against everyone and everything because of the frustration presented by the challenges of their diagnosis?  What do you do when your child, who already has limited access to parts of the world, makes it even smaller by their behaviors?

So for now, I take each day one at a time and deal with what each day brings.  Not every day is bad.  We are actually a long way away from where we were one year ago.  Finding a place for my son in this world as an adult will present different problems at various times.  Behaviors exhibited by a 3 year old are not as cute when displayed by an adult with ASD.  Knowing if it is a good day to take him out versus staying home…is learned through trial and error.

Over school break my son repetitively watched the movie “Sing”.  I always seemed to walk into the room as one of the characters was saying “You know what’s the great thing about hitting rock bottom? There’s only one way to go and that’s up!”

So that is my goal for 2018….looking “up”.  “Up” to me means learning from each experience from last year, applying new strategies, and knowing that each day is a new day.  That planting seeds to produce new behaviors takes time.  Recently, I have learned so much about anxiety and self-regulations that I don’t feel so overwhelmed by the behavior challenges but more empowered or at least educated to understand them.  “Up” to me isn’t that the problem is solved but that it doesn’t leave me with my head spinning and feeling helpless.   Each new tool in my toolbox allows me to climb one step higher out of rock bottom.  I don’t know how far it will take me but I like the direction it is leading me.

My hope is that if you struggled during 2017, this upcoming year is full of peace and joy.  I hope you took something from the challenges you met with last year and can somehow apply your own version of “up” to 2018.

Thank You

Patricia Leonard-Toomey
As we head directly into the holiday season, many people begin to express their thanks for their families, the delicious food on the table, etc. While those things are important, I am reaching back to March to begin my thanks.
My daughter and I were in Olive Garden for lunch. She loves to go to Olive Garden because she enjoys the Gnocchi Soup. We do not go there often because I cannot always predict the type of experience we will have. Sometimes we get right in, order our food, enjoy the meal and successfully leave the restaurant. Those are the good times. Sometimes we have to wait to be seated, we sit near too many people, the waitress takes a long time to get to the table or the food takes a long time to arrive. Those are not the good times.
When we went to the Olive Garden in March, the restaurant was not too crowded. We were seated in a small section where a couple of the tables were already occupied. We did have to wait a bit for the waitress and the food did take a while to come out, but my daughter was holding things together. I had to constantly reassure her that everything would be ok, and she was getting anxious and a bit loud. At the table directly across from us were two women conversing in another language. One was elderly and I believe the other was her daughter. As my daughter’s voice got louder they kept looking over at us. I did notice that they were smiling so I was not too concerned. When my daughter began to ask for the mints that Olive Garden provides at the end of the meal, I was ready. I had three Andes Candy Mints ready in my coat pocket! Those were ok, but not quite what she was looking for. The younger of the two women came over with her Olive Garden mints and asked me if it was all right if she gave them to my daughter. She told me that watching us made her so happy because in the country she was from she used to work with people and she missed having those experiences. My daughter of course said Thank You and then asked her name. Her name was Betty. My daughter was happy but I was grateful. We do not always get smiling and kind looks from people when we are out and her kindness made the rest of our day.
A week later, my daughter was at Chuck E Cheese celebrating her 31st birthday. Yes, I realize some people will question the “age appropriateness” of this outing, but Chuck E Cheese is her favorite place on earth, and we always have a small birthday party for her at this particular location. We had our cake, sang our songs and my husband and I left her with someone who has worked with her for 15 years to enjoy the rest of the pizza. When she came home she had a Chuck E Cheese doll with her. I assumed she purchased it, but was told the man in the booth behind ours had bought it for her after we left and wished her a happy birthday. His name was Jesse.
My daughter has probably forgotten Betty and Jesse. They have probably forgotten her. I will never forget them and think often of the kindness they displayed to my daughter and what it meant to me. So, thank you to all of the people like Betty and Jesse, and Happy Thanksgiving