August 21, 2021

Social Skills Advice For Going Back To School From Former Students With Autism

Hello Everyone,


It's been a while since a post was done; we have been working on writing a book about dating with Autism (more information to follow in the future) and enjoying the summer.  This post was conceived by several of the gentlemen (all diagnosed with ASD) I work with who have shared a number of negative social experiences when returning to school at the end of summer vacation.  They figured, that combined with the isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic, this year may be especially tough for kids, in general, but especially for kids with ASD who are returning to school.  In an effort to experience some healing and gain something positive from their negative experiences, the guys decided to come up with some suggestions for returning students to try and ease their social transition back to school.  Please note when reading, that these are simply suggestions based on personal experiences and may not be applicable to your child's situation or necessarily feasible.  As always, the guys and myself are grateful for your feedback and we hope you and your child experiences a smooth transition back to school.  Thank you!

1. Eye contact does not mean staring.  Eye contact is when you look at someone's eyes to show you are paying attention.  Staring means you are looking at something or someone without looking away, with wide eyes.

2. Staring makes people uncomfortable.  When we stare we are often not aware we are doing it; we may simply be trying to observe and gather information.  However other people find staring makes them uncomfortable because the intensity of staring makes them feel self-conscious.

3. You don't have to make constant eye contact.  If eye contact makes you uncomfortable you can always take a look at something else for a moment (practice making eye contact in the mirror with yourself, or with trusted people, and then looking away for a count of -2 seconds before making eye contact again).  Doing this is also a great way to avoid staring.

4. If you do not understand a joke or comment DO NOT pretend you understand it.  If you get caught by your peers when they make a follow-up comment to you, you run the risk of coming off as insincere or inattentive.  You can ask instead for an explanation; it's better to ask.

5. DO NOT MAKE JOKES OR COMMENTS ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE!  Even if what you're saying may be true or get laughs and attention from others, doing this is a great way to establish yourself as rude or mean.  You can also earn bullies and negative attention if the joke/comment backfires or is heard by the wrong person.

6. DO BE POLITE TO YOUR PEERS!  Making efforts to be polite, even some of the time, can be a great way to not only make friends, but also establish yourself as someone with a positive reputation.

7. Reputation DOES matter.  Unfortunately, especially in middle and high school, reputation i.e. what others think or believe about someone to be true, matters.  People with positive reputations often are more likely to avoid bullying and have more friends, while negative reputations often result in the opposite.  You can still be you and have friends even by just making the effort to be pleasant and yourself.

8. Social anxiety and taking a break.  If you are in a social situation at school, it's always ok to take a break and excuse yourself for a moment to regulate yourself.  You can excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, take a quick mental break, use a fidget for a sensory break, etc.  If the situation is overwhelming and you need an exit you can always excuse yourself with something like "I am going to class" or "I have some work to do" or come up with your own ideas.

9. Be aware of your enthusiasm and excitement.  Some of you may actually be looking forward to social situations and to making new friends.  Sometimes we may become excited and really into making efforts, however we may come across as pushy or overwhelming; believe it or not, people without autism can also be overwhelmed by intense displays of emotions.  Practice regulating these emotions with trusted individuals before school starts; they are great emotions yet they can override our impulse control and lead to us acting in ways we might not when we are calmer.

10. Interpret peer social cues as best you can.  You may not always get it right, however if a peer you are talking to (or want to talk to) says they have to go or they can't talk right now DON'T PUSH IT!  Give them their space and do not follow them or try to stop them in order to keep the conversation going.  If a peer responds to you with short answers or sounds like they are tired or they look tired (usually a sign of dis-interest) limit the social interaction and leave them alone.

11. It's ok to be nervous and scared.  When you own your feelings and are honest with yourself you can be more effective at coming up with solutions.  For example, you might carry a fidget or camouflage your stimm with different behavior.

12. It's ALWAYS OK to ask for advice.  You have cheerleaders in your corner and they, especially siblings and existing friends, can give you some great advice about being in social situations.  They want you to succeed!

May 11, 2021

Fun Ways To Understand And Experience Complex Feelings

 Hello Everyone,


I hope you have been well.  Thank you for your patience and understanding while I was taking a break from blogging to focus on personal matters.  This is going to be a simple and easy post about how you can help yourself and your child understand complex (difficult to understand) feelings.  

If you re-visit my last post on different emotions you may notice that although there are only about five emotions groups, there are many different feelings under each group.  You may also notice how each of these feelings can evolve in intensity, frequency, and can even change from one feeling to another in the same or different group.  You may notice that it is possible to experience several different feelings from several different groups at the same time depending on the situation that triggers them.  For example, if you are experiencing a re-adjustment to in-person work or class, you might experience happiness, worry, frustration, relief, and concern all at once!  

The following are just some creative ways that we can help ourselves and our kids be able to physically experience, by using the five senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing, how complex emotions exist and how we can learn to pick out and connect with individual emotions from out of the mess.  Please note that these suggestions involve multiple senses and are not organized by any specific sense.

There are many, many different ways to experience complex emotions in a fun and nurturing way.  These are just a few ideas to get you thinking.  Most important....have some fun!

Lego Mess (or Block Mess): Gather legos or blocks of different shapes, colors, and sizes.  Assign an emotion to each group based on size and/or color (for example red legos are for happiness).  Once all have been assigned, mix them all up!  You can then discuss an experience where you might have had mixed feelings and pull out individual colored legos/blocks and explore the feeling.  Hint: different sizes of the same color can represent intensity or different feelings within the group.

Make a Smoothie: Straightforward.  Gather ingredients to represent different feelings about an specific experience, or not, and make a smoothie.  Notice how everything is all mixed up and see if you can identify a specific flavor, which will represent one of the "feeling" ingredients e.g. tasting banana represents identifying frustration.  You can also use this activity to explore unknown emotions.  Unknown emotions are those which cannot be described and often don't fit the definition of the feelings we are aware of.

Soda Disgusting: If you dare...this is a great one for exploring negative emotions.  Assign different negative feelings to different sodas and mix them together.  This is supposed to taste bad.  The intensity of the mixed flavors may be really nasty, yet this is an excellent way of processing how you can have multiple negative feelings at the same time and how letting more and more build up can be worse than dealing with them when they occur.

Music Time: Assign different feelings to different musical instruments.  Practice just listening to the music without picking out an individual instrument and experience what its like hearing all that "emotional noise".  Then try focusing on a single instrument and just listening to that.  This can be a great exercise for practicing ignoring anxiety or negative head noise.  You can also try using music with a singer and having that singer represent you with all that background noise going on as if you are trying to hear yourself deal with the situation.

Recycling: Same concept and process as lego mess but you are assigning emotions to different recyclable products.

The Gray Zone: Great painting activity that can be made into a tactile experience by using finger paints.  Using different colors, mix them all together until you have a big gray/black blob.  This activity is very similar to smoothies or soda disgusting and is meant to help expose you to unknown feelings.  See if you can see little pieces of the original color (if you see some blue for happiness sticking out of the gray/black blob) and notice how even when you feel emotionally lost, it is still possible to find one to cling to, to begin the emotion exploring process

Cleaning Things: It's only a chore if you let it be one.  Cleaning dirty objects can be a metaphor for negative surface emotions, the ones we are aware of that often get triggered immediately during/after a negative event.  Think of a negative experience and assign a negative feeling such as "disgust" to the filth.  Then clean the object and notice what happens to the filth.  Often we will find that the object looks clean and different, as if there was something hidden underneath.  This symbolizes other deeper feelings we may have covered up such as fear, shame, or anything else.  Notice how easy it is to focus on the filth and not whats underneath.

Organizing Things: Another way to experience different emotional intensities.  You can take anything that has a uniform color and assign it an emotion e.g. yellow for calm.  Make sure you have multiple objects of the same color and different size and organize them to visualize how the feeling can change in intensity based on its growing or shrinking size.

Blowing Bubbles: The rainbows of colors in the bubble soap represent mixed emotions, which you can assign different ones to.  Blow bubbles of different sizes and quantities to visualize intensity.  Also notice that the bubbles pop, representing the fact that not matter how complex and challenging they may be, they don't last forever.




February 2, 2021

Emotional Literacy Poster And Handout

 Hello Everyone,


I hope you are well and having a pleasant winter so far.  I wanted to share a set of handouts that the social work intern, Juliette Levchenko, working with me produced for a recent talk we did on emotional literacy.  Please see my previous post about emotional literacy and anger to get more information about what emotional literacy means and why its important for us to have as a life skill.  Anyway, here they are and please let us know what you think!  Thank you for looking!
















December 1, 2020

Let's Learn About Anger! A Guide To Emotional Literacy

 Hello Everyone,

I hope you are well.  Sometimes just saying mad, sad, or happy, just doesn't cut it.  We're feeling an intense feeling that using those words does not effectively describe what is being experienced.  We need to be emotionally literate and aware of these other feeling states so we can either ask for help in managing them as well as understand and even help ourselves.

The "Anger Family" has been designed with that in mind by teaching what is called EMOTIONAL LITERACY.  -the ability to identify, understand, and mange more complex emotional states.  Emotional literacy requires an understanding that many feelings in the same "family" can exist at one time and move very quickly through different levels of intensity as you continue to experience more inputs and emotional triggers.  It is, therefore, important, to be able to know how to GRADUALLY work through different feelings to get to a more desired state of being.  These feelings can often seem like "being mad" and often share characteristics of it.  However, unlike garden variety mad, these states are different, with different levels of power, and require different tools to manage them and ways of understanding how they work.

HOW TO USE THIS GUIDE

1. Identify the feeling by observing the triggers of the feeling and its associated physical signs (movement, body language, language, physical behaviors, etc.) and their intensities.

2. Identify the power level of the feeling.

3. Identify which level of coping tools you need to use by comparing the identified feeling and its intensity with the coping tools list.

4. Use the identified tools at each level as you GRADUALLY work your way down to the lowest power level and a calmer emotional/energy state.

5. Process the incident with your child when you are both calm and able to engage each other without ramping back up.  Be sure to specifically name the feeling, its power level, and the associated skills you used.  Be sure to point out how feelings change and that no feeling stays around forever no matter how intense.  By reinforcing the use of the coping tools and validating your child's effort, you reinforce this message as well as helping build confidence in the self-management of new, intense feelings that they become aware of with increased emotional intensity.

A couple of notes for parents:

Hey Parents!  Remember that helpful tools like taking deep breaths and talking through feelings require calm, attention, and organization of thoughts.  Your child cannot use these low power tools when they are overwhelmed by the energy of high power feelings.

Tools for high and medium power feelings are there simply to reduce the dis-regulating intense energy and help you get to a calmer place.  then you can use the tools that teach more awareness and planning for future instances of experiencing any of the feelings on this handout.

You may note that there are a number of destructive outlets provided for the high power feelings on this handout.  These are designed to provide explosive, intense releases of intense energy and generate fatigue as well as a release valve to get energy out and begin the calming process.  If your child can get out the explosive energy without resorting to aggressive behaviors then DEFINITELY use those!!!

The destructive suggestions are provided simply to redirect violent and other destructive behavior (ie. property) to a "preferable" outlet as you continue to work towards desired expressions of feelings with your therapist.

When looking at the handout, you will notice that we deliberately left the picture boxes empty. Visual cues will be much more relevant and useful if you use your own visuals that trigger reminders regardless of what they are.

You will also notice that we deliberately left the triggers and feelings warning signs blank.  Again, everyone experiences these feelings differently; triggers and outward and inward expressions of these feelings will be different.  Work with your child (when calm) to explore how they know they are having these feelings; combine their observations with yours and write them here.





October 10, 2020

Stop Giving Yourself Crap During Challenging Times! Part 1: Should

 Hello Everyone,

       I hope you are well.  First off, here is a free "inspirational poster" done by myself and a kid with autism I work with to help him remember to not criticize/beat himself up for past negative behaviors by "saying he should have acted differently"


 This is going to be a post about "should", which sounds a lot like s*&t.  "Should" happens quite often when we have acted in a manner that we later evaluate as being wrong or somehow negative.  Whether it is snapping at our kids when they are too loud, or cursing out the driver that cuts you off, or anything else that we would not normally do when calm and rational for that matter, we may see negative behavior as saying something negative about ourselves as a human.  This holds especially true for people who already tend to think negatively about themselves.  When we beat ourselves up for what we have done by saying we "should have acted differently" we are "SHOULDING ON OURSELVES" which is basically the same thing as taking a giant negative mental "s*&t" of self-demeaning negative thoughts on our already sensitive self concepts.

"Should" like s*&t occurs in different quantities for different people.  However, "should" grows the most when we are under great deals of stress and experiencing feelings of not being in control.  When we experience these internal states, we are also at much higher risk to act impulsively as a result of being so emotionally on-edge (this is something that is happening a lot right now in our world).  We might yell at someone or cut someone off whilst driving or over react in general.  All of these impulsive actions (plus many others) are basically the equivalent of giving ourselves a GIANT high-fiber dose equivalent for massive 'SHOULDING".  We regret our actions and often experience shame about how we "should" have acted differently; "I should not have yelled at my kids"; I should not have cut the other driver off"; "I should not have yelled at the bus driver" and so on.  It gets worse the more the "should" keeps flowing in our minds and we can be setting ourselves up for further emotional and mental dis-regulation, which may lead to another impulsive outburst that will start the "should" cycle all over again.  So what do we do?

It takes more than a witty poster to stop "shoulding" on yourself.  Please note that all people are impacted by their own "shoulds" and those of people close to them, especially caregivers.  It is very important to remember that children and individuals with developmental diagnoses are especially susceptible to impulsive behavior due in part to the nature of the biological impacts of their diagnoses/age.  Parents need to be aware of how they talk with their children about their negative behavior by avoiding "should" when reprimanding or using experiences as teachable moments.  Doing so is critical to remaining supportive and empathic, while also keeping shame away from infecting the discussion as "should" often is used in conjunction with statement of values and beliefs of what is good and appropriate.

You, the parent, can model the following suggestions for your child when you experience your own "should" moments.  Doing so teaches your child how they can handle their own "should" while allowing you to remain a concrete example of a real human who experiences moments of negative self-appraisal.

Practice self-forgiveness: Tell yourself you understand the action was not appropriate and yet it was a natural, human response.  You are human and you make mistakes!

Practice acceptance: Ok, it happened, you did something and you are "shoulding".  "Shoulding" won't let you rewind to before the inappropriate behavior.  We don't have to like what we did and NOW it is time to start redirecting to self-forgiveness and self-validation so we stop the flow of "should".

Validate your feelings: It is ALWAYS OK to experience whatever feelings you have even when you act out.  This does NOT mean that your feelings justify your behavior.  For example "I was really angry when that other boy called me dumb.  I felt attacked"

YOU ARE NOT YOUR BEHAVIOR! Just because your behavior is inappropriate, you are not a bad person or have something horribly wrong with you.  For example, an adult who yells at someone who cuts them in line is not necessarily an "angry person".

Watch out for "should" and values statements: Often times we "should" on ourselves when our behavior contradicts a value or belief that is important to us.  For example "I should not have cut the other driver off because that was rude and not something people do".  We need to be careful not to pair these together because even though we did not say that cutting someone off was bad, it is implied.  Kids are very good at picking up on these kinds of statements so its important to avoid this "criticism trap".

Thank the "shoulding" incident: This sounds odd, but when we thank the incident we can give ourselves permission to find a learning opportunity, which allows us to get rid of the power of the "should" by turning it into a constructive rather than destructive experience.  For example "thank you for the opportunity to learn that I still want to work on not yelling at people who are disrespectful" or "thank you incident because I learned more about how much stress I can handle before I explode.  I want to work on increasing that tolderance".

Find the positive: What went right?  Believe it or not in every negative incident, there is something we did right and it deserves notice.  This does not mean that our behavior automatically is excusable and alright, more so we are taking note of where we started to experience functional decline so we can work on improvements for next time.  For example "I did a really good job of yelling at that other kid; I would have hit him if this had happened a while ago".

"Should" happens: We are all human and all humans will "should" from time to time.  We can practice not "shoulding" on ourselves, yet does it really make sense to "should" on ourselves for "shoulding" by saying we "shouldn't should on ourselves"?  That's like saying you can't take a s*&t if you have to.  This is a good time to practice acceptance of the "should" and self-forgiveness.

"Should replacement therapy": Replace "should with "want".  We can remove the negative aspects of values associations by taking ownership of our behaviors that we have and will do whether negative or positive.  When we take ownership, we can successfully remove that negative self-harming propaganda telling us what a screw-up we are and then turn the experience into one of learning.  For example instead of "I should really learn how to manage my anger around others" try "I want to learn how to manage my anger around others".  Replace "should with "want".

October 7, 2020

COVID Halloween Fun!

Hey Folks!


This is my first post here at JMR Counseling. Let me introduce myself! My name is Juliette. I received my BA focused in Psychology from McDaniel College. Currently, I am in my first year of my Masters of Social Work Program at University of Maryland, Baltimore. I am very excited to be a student intern with JMR Counseling and I look forward to engaging in this space with you all. 

For today’s blog post, I would to talk about the changing seasons, and the upcoming holidays including Halloween! For those who celebrate, you may have been wondering how celebrations could look different this year as we navigate life during Covid-19. Here are some ideas! Check out the links at the bottom of this post to learn more.


Here are just a few activities and ideas for celebrating Halloween safely this October. 


  1. Virtual costume parties

    1. This is a great way for you to engage socially with friends and family while at home. You can get creative with it! Because you won’t be outside, this may actually be a unique chance to show off you or your child’s costume without it being hidden under a coat.

  2. Netflix party

    1. Another idea in line with the virtual setting, can be to watch a festive movie with friends through the Netflix party extension. This enables you to chat live with friends as you watch the same movie. 

    2. Here is a link with instructions on how to download Netflix Party https://www.cnet.com/how-to/still-havent-tried-netflix-party-with-your-friends-heres-how-to-watch-movies-together-for-free/

  3. Carving or decorating pumpkins

    1. According to the CDC, lower risk activities include carving or decorating pumpkins outside and at safe distance with friends or neighbors! 

    2. An alternative to carving pumpkins can be decorating them with paint, stickers, or fun push-in additions (such as bat wings or arms like Mr. Potato head!). Target and Michaels typically have a variety of options, and so do many online stores including Amazon.


Let’s talk about masks! Masks are often a staple of Halloween costumes. How can we incorporate them in a safe way this holiday? If you opt for some physically-distanced Halloween and fall activities, wearing a festive mask could add a sense of style and fun, while keeping you and others safe. You could even find a design to match with a costume. Etsy.com, for example, has a wide variety of face masks, with tons of unique and halloween-themed designs. Do you have a friend or neighbor that makes masks? Maybe you can reach out and see who in your community could design some fun and festive masks.


As we transition to colder weather and continue to navigate life during a pandemic, let’s hold space for each other as we adjust and process our feelings that may arise during this time. I hope this post spreads some positivity your way.


Wishing you all a safe and Happy Halloween!


Check out some links below


https://paautism.org/resource/wearing-mask-social-story/

Wearing a mask social story. Image above 


https://www.etsy.com/listing/865495451/halloween-face-mask-christmas-face-mask?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=halloween+face+mask&ref=sc_gallery-1-1&plkey=2496be9f812ae5c6d54f043eac404c8cd71b36aa%3A865495451&pro=1&frs=1

Best seller, masks with various designs including pumpkins and skulls! Image above. 


https://www.etsy.com/listing/868115655/halloween-face-masks-vampire-teeth-mask?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=face+mask+vampire&ref=sr_gallery-1-4&organic_search_click=1&bes=1

Best seller masks that could match a costume. Images above. 


https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Halloween-COVID-Safety-Tips.aspx

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html

August 13, 2020

Bubble Packing Wrap Stress Relief

 Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are well and staying healthy.  Since COVID-19 started and physical distancing became a reality, many of us have turned to Amazon and other mail order services to get the things we need to keep our lives going and get them quickly.  As an added bonus, when the package comes, it often comes with another useful, yet often overlooked, freebie: BUBBLE PACKING WRAP!!!!!

      Some of you may be reading this and thinking, what the freak are you talking about?  Those bubble package things are bulky (they can be the size of small pillows sometimes), a pain in the butt to break down and throw out, AND they are bad for the environment!  Well, those points are valid, yet only if we close our minds to unlocking their true hidden potential....FREE AND QUICK STRESS RELIEF!!!  Wait....what?  Yes that's right!  Currently, and it is only going to get more so, we are under an unending waterfall of stressors whether it is the election, COVID-19, going into a new school year not knowing how online classes are going to work, having to balance childcare during the school day with working at home, worrying about the safety of loved ones, being stuck with more boredom, and the list goes on. 

      This post is going to explore ways that you can turn those free bubble package packets into quick, fun (HAVING A GOOD LAUGH IS ALWAYS GREAT STRESS RELIEF) and easy-to-use stress relievers.  Most important, the ideas in this post are meant to provide discussion and empathy building opportunities to discuss how you experience stress/anxiety and how you can work with it, not against it.  You won't have to spend a dollar on stress-relievers again; you only have to grab a packet and open your creative mind!!!!

      If you have packets lying around, yet not sure how to make them work for your stress-relieving needs, here some ideas that kids and adults I work with have come up with during our sessions:

-Please note, that unless otherwise stated, these activities are best suited to the rectangular/square shaped bubble packing packets and not traditional bubble wrap.

Slow-Pops-practice popping a packet very slowly by gradually (slowly) squeezing the packet harder and harder until it pops.  This one is great for building mindful awareness of your stress/anxiety, especially around tense physical energy and developing controlled release

Bubble Creator-take a large air packet and hold it in both hands at one end.  Slowly, squeeze the packet so that a bubble bulges at the other end of the packet.  Do not try to pop the packet-this is a great activity for people who don't like popping sounds

Bubble Pack Sandwich-take a air packet and put one hand either side of it's wides/longest sides.  Practice squeezing the packet as hard as you can; you will not be able to pop it.  This is great for deep pressure as well as practicing mindful transfer of anxious energy out from your body

Destructor-for those who have a great deal of aggressive energy to release, setting a timer and popping as many as possible before the timer goes off.  You can turn this into a fun competitive game with friends and family members

Pass The Squeeze-A fun activity for multiple people where you take turns squeezing the air packet firmly without trying to pop it.  Pass the squeezed air packet to the person sitting next to you and keep passing it around until it pops

The Whoopi Cushion Game-Take a couple of large air packets and try sitting on them without popping them.  Great for a laugh

Don't Let It Drop!-a fun game you can do by yourself or with others where you try to keep the air packet in the air without letting it touch the floor

Air Packet Pit-if you have a large box and lots of packets, you can full the box and let your kids play as if it were a ball pit.  For many kids, experiencing overload of any kind, having a sensory catered, safe environment that is private, is a must.  The air packets provide the sensory tactile and auditory needs, while the box symbolizes boundaries. Safety is a must!

Two People Push-this is a version of bubble-pack sandwich, except this one involves two people with each of them putting a hand on opposite sides of an air packet as described above.  At an agreed time, both people push on the packet and try to pop it without letting the other person push you.  This activity can be great for creating room for discussion around listening issues parent-child conflict (represented by the pushing)

Rolling Pops-for kids who are sensory seeking and enjoy loud sounds, you can take regular bubble wrap and lay it on the ground.  If you have a wheeled chair, sit in the chair and roll it over the the wrap.  You can also incorporate a more physical, body awareness aspect by having your child role over the wrap with their bodies

Traditional-use air packets to practice using calming tools you already have.  This provides a cheap stress-relief tool that can take the place of traditional stress relievers.

There are limitless possibilities!  As long as you have a supply of bubble package packets, imagination, and a way to guarantee consistent flow of supply (this is guaranteed if you order a lot from Amazon and other companies) you will have ALWAYS quick stress relief tools available.  Good luck and have fun!

July 11, 2020

Make Your Own Emotions Garden!

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are well and staying healthy and safe.  Our post this month will be all about gardening and feelings.  Being able to identify and understand emotions can be really hard, especially when you can't see them.  Being able to turn understanding of emotions into something more, like being able to safely experience them and having the tools to help create a safe environment in which to do so can be much harder.  For younger kids and especially those with developmental diagnoses, being able to understand and connect with their emotions can be much harder due to the added challenges of understanding abstract concepts while having a mind that does best when it has solid, actually visible things to aid in understanding.  Today we will be talking about how creating your own emotions garden with you child can hopefully provide a concrete visual aid to help them learn more about their emotions and how they can care for them.
      A brief note before we continue.  THIS ACTIVITY IS 100% ABOUT SOUL AND 0% ABOUT LOGIC!  Growing an emotions garden is designed to be a nurturing and supportive activity for the whole family so for it to work, parents and kids need to be able to connect with what speaks to them.  Use plants you like and that you find meaningful when you think about your feelings.  Get creative and focus on the process not the end result; metaphors never work if you cannot connect the idea to the visible thing in a way that your child will understand.  Our goal is to help create conscious awareness of ourselves!
      If you read my earlier post about creating a sensory garden, then you probably have an idea about the benefits of gardening.  Gardening can serve multiple purposes, especially around helping to reduce stress and worry.  For kids with developmental diagnoses, gardening can not only provide an outlet to address sensory and motor skills challenges, it provides an excellent opportunity to learn about caring for others.
      Gardening requires a person to take care of an other living object, which will rely on them for its survival.  Kids who have very concrete patterns of thinking and understanding will have the opportunity to visibly see their plants grow and thrive with their care.  In other words, taking care of plants is an excellent metaphor for  importance of creating empathic connections with others as well as for taking care of oneself.  Whether you are using plants as a metaphor for nurturing relationships or for understanding your feelings so you know how to care for them, taking care of them will provide you with a visible reward for your efforts, which you can connect to concepts your child is learning about in their social skills or therapy sessions.  Lastly, allowing your child to create and maintain their own emotions garden can be, whether your child has a developmental diagnosis or not, a very insightful tool for assessing their abilities to take care of something with more needs in the future such as a pet.
      Ok, so how do we turn a garden into an emotions garden?  What about this weather?  After all, we're in the high summer months and it's brutal outside.  To solve this challenge we will be focusing on plants that you and your child can grow indoors or in a simple window box that you can access from your home.  These plants are also being suggested for the wide range of colors they provide, which will be a critical component to creating our emotions garden.  There are many more types of equally useful plants to do this project so make sure you pick ones that speak out to you and your child.

First, you will need to find the plants you want to grow.  Here is a list of some very colorful plants that thrive indoors or in planters that are very colorful. 

African Violets-Easy to maintain and come in various shades of purples and pinks

Begonias-Makes many lovely, small flowers that come in purples, pinks, reds, yellows, whites

Bromiliads-Not flowers, these jungle plants are easy to care for and come in vivid reds, oranges, yellows, purples, and pinks; they also have a deep green body and leaves.

Christmas Cactus-Thrives on neglect so maybe use this one to illustrate the concept that you do need to be aware of your feelings, but that you can safely leave them alone for a while and still be ok!  Green fronds and bloom in bright magentas and fuscias during the winter

Chenile-A really fuzzy sensory plant with long fuzzy flowers, these come in reds and oranges

Kaffir Lilly-Thrives when placed in total dark for the night.  This plant can be an excellent metaphor for the triumph of the self during really hard times.  With its bright oranges, yellows, fuscias, and reds, it bursts out of the darkness that consumes it every night and still thriving.

Amaryllis- related to Kaffir Lillys and makes very bright blooms, especially when well looked after.  Comes in orangesyellowsfuscias, and reds, and some other colors I can't remember.

Peace Lillies-Low maintenance, calming deep green leaves and stem with a bright white and yellow bloom.  These plants can serve as a metaphor for when we are well-regulated, calm, and at peace.
 The more energy put into care of this plant results in a brighter bloom, which happens when we take care of ourselves.

Pansies-These are more suitable for planter boxes and come in a wide range of colors: pinks, oranges, blues, yellows, purples, whites, darks, and so on

Fireplants-More frequently sold as CELOSIA, these feathery flowering plants come in many colors: pinksorangesbluesyellowspurples, whites, darks, and so on.  Like pansies, they are best suited for window boxes outdoors.   I have used these to symbolize anger and the need to still take care of my anger even if I do not like experiencing this emotion; it is still real and cannot be ignored.

      Now, a note about the importance of colors.  A critical component of making an emotions garden is being able to make abstract concepts like emotions, visible.  This is where color comes in because the color will be the visual representation of the emotions.  For example, you may pick a red celosia because the red symbolizes embarrassment.  A blue pansie may symbolize sadness.
      For those of us who are not sure which types of plants we want to use for our emotions, the following may help.

Cool Colors Vs. Warm Colors

Cool colors are considered to be calmer, more subdued colors which when visualized have a more calming psychological impact on emotion and visual perception.  Traditionally these colors have been viewed as soothing and an apotheosis to warm colors.  The cool colors include:

Blues
Purples
Greens
Pinks
Whites
Blacks

Warm Colors are considered to be more vivid and attention getting.  Traditionally they have been associated with intense action, danger, more highly visible.  The warm colors include:

Reds
Yellows
Oranges
Fuscias
Any bright version of cool color

      Traditionally, when making associations between colors and emotions for the purpose of labeling and identifying feelings, warm colors are used for more intense positive AND negative feelings such as anger, excitement, terror, fear, rage, panic, danger, and so on.
      Cool colors, and the deeper shades of them, on the other hand, have been used to represent more calm, heavy, and deep emotions.  Examples include sadness, depression, calm, peaceful, relaxed, bored, apathy, and so on

REMEMBER!! It does not matter what color you use to represent your feelings as long as it makes sense to YOU!!

Once you have picked your emotions together with your child, take a moment to pick several of them that you want to focus more on.  For example: rage, depression, and calm.
Now pick the flowering plants and colors represent those feelings best for you.
      Per our example: Rage-Bright red fire plant colosia
                                  Depression-deep purple african violet
                                  Calm-yellow peace lilly 

In the interests of building emotional fluency and expanding knowledge beyond mad, happy, sad, you can use different colored flowers in different shades of the same color to create an association.  This can also really help for teaching your child about different emotions by giving them more vocabulary to use for when they experience a feeling that doesn't fit mad, sad, happy.  Here's an example:

You can use fireplants to represent different feelings in the anger family by picking ones that start out more muted and then become more intense as the intensity of the color grows.

Annoyed Fire Plant, Frustrated Fire Plant, Fed Up Fire Plant, Angry Fire Plant, Furious Fire Plant, Enraged Fire Plant

Plant your plants!  This is not something I am good at describing so watch this video  !  Watch this one if you are planting indoors

Now, remember to follow the care instructions that come with your plant.  This is the part where you are going to be tying in the work your child is doing in their therapies to caring for their plants.  Have conversations about the feeling they are experiencing when they care for each plant.  You can also try and identify the feeling for them if they don't seem to have a recallable emotion to use when you discuss them.  For example, if you are taking care of the peace lilly, you might talk about what helps you stay calm or when you get overwhelmed how do you get to a place of peace.  Another example, may be talking about what its like to experience anger and how to deal with it when caring for the fire plant or whatever plant you choose.  Be creative in your discussions and most of all, DO SHARE YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES of those feelings.  You are modeling healthy coping!!!!

GOOD LUCK AND HAVE FUN!!!!!

April 28, 2020

COVID19 Music For A Loss

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are doing well and staying safe.  Thank you all for the wonderful and supportive feedback you have given for our last playlist of inspirational songs to help cope with COVID19.  The guys in my men's group were so happy to hear that it was helpful.  During the time since we created that playlist, our group has been hit pretty hard by COVID19.  Several of the guys experienced the loss of a loved one who had COVID19, while several others learned that a family member had been diagnosed.  One of the guys revealed during our last meeting that he had been diagnosed as well a day before we had our virtual session.  This last piece of news hit the group a little bit closer to home as you can imagine.  It was not helped by the fact that he has several pre-existing health conditions and is at higher risk of not surviving.
      Given the sudden flood of negative news, we decided to create another playlist of songs to help cope with the loss of a loved one, or the possibility of future loss.  This time we agreed as a group to choose a word to represent our collective feeling and base our song choices on the thoughts and feelings inspired by that word.  The guys chose:
COMFORT
The songs on this list reflect their musical image of comfort during difficult times.  There is no correct order to play them in.  They sincerely hope that these songs may help you too in some way.  As always feedback is appreciated.  Thank you.

To Build A Home-The Cinematic Orchestra
Lazarus-Porcupine Tree
Afterlife-Arcade Fire
Staralfur-Sigur Ros
Njosnavelin-Sigur Ros
Your Hand In Mine-Explosions In The Sky
Wait-M83
I Am A Rock-Simon And Garfunkel
Knocking On Heaven's Door-Bob Dylan
Tears In Heaven-Eric Clapton
Down To The River To Pray-Allison Krauss and Union Station
Dust In The Wind-Kansas
How Can I Help You To Say Goodbye-Patty Loveless
Strangest Thing-The War On Drugs
The Promise-Tracy Chapman

April 14, 2020

COVID19 Music List

Hello Everyone,

I hope you are all well and staying safe and healthy.  Music can be tremendously helpful during very stressful times and the COVID19 Pandemic is no exception.  Music, has the ability to be really helpful as means of expression for people with developmental diagnoses.  Having someone be able to put your thoughts and feelings into words that send a message you would have a hard time sending can be extremely powerful. Having a playlist of songs that have personal meaning and provide inspiration are excellent miniature morale boosters.  When combining a bunch of them together in a longer playlist, inspirational songs can be a real game changer by providing enough of a boost to shift you out of despair and into proactive coping action.
      For people with developmental diagnoses whose lives function best in times of predicability and routine, the presence alone of the extended physical distancing rules without a known endpoint are extremely difficult.  Combining "stuck" thought loops about the disruptions they cannot control with a less flexible environment (by necessity of the efforts to limit the spread of the illness) adds further stressors that enhance coping difficulty, especially when facing boredom.  It's even harder to come up with solutions to a seemingly unsolvable problem, such as boredom avoidance, which requires cognitive flexibility and being able to think about finding different ways to achieve the desired outcome, when your mind is exhausted with the stress of trying to stay ok.
      That said, the guys in one of my social groups, for young men with developmental diagnoses, have been using sessions to discuss their favorite inspirational songs. Last session, the guys decided they wanted to share their most inspirational songs about uncertainty and staying strong by creating a playlist to share with the rest of the special needs community.  Here is a list of a few songs that each group member contributed to our recent sessions; we listened to each song and discussed what was inspirational to the contributor about staying strong during uncertainty.  This is a very eclectic collection and includes several pieces without words. Each piece holds a personal meaning so don't expect your typical song that you might expect to be here. The guys hope you enjoy their playlist and hope you take some inspiration from the songs they have chosen to create your own morale booster.  As always, we welcome feedback!


The Waiting   by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
I Won't Back Down  by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
Waiting On The World To Change  by John Mayer
Touch of Grey  by The Grateful Dead
Ripple  by The Grateful Dead
Iron Lion Zion  by Bob Marley
Three Little Birds  by Bob Marley
Rockin' In The Free World  by Neil Young
The Boys Are Back In Town  by Bad Company
Free Bird  by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Take It Easy  by The Eagles
Simple Man  by Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Boys Are Back  by Dropkick Murphys
We're Coming Back  by The Dead Pets
Like A Rolling Stone  by Bob Dylan
Like A Rock  by Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band
Whatever It Takes  by Imagine Dragons
Promised Land  by Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band
Hold My Hand  by Hootie And The Blowfish
Miracle Mile  by The Cold War Kids
Roll With The Changes  by REO Speedwagon
True To Myself  by Ziggy Marley
Why Worry  by Dire Straits
Man In The Mirror  by Michael Jackson
Bad  by Michael Jackson
Baba Yetu  by The Soweto Gospel Choir
Clair de Lune   by Claude Debussy
Blue Train  by John Coltrane
The Charlie Brown Theme Song  by Vince Guaraldi Trio

March 11, 2020

A Picker's Perspective On Self-Picking Behavior During The Corona Virus Pandemic

Hello Everyone,

      I hope you are all well and staying safe.  This month's post is intended as a follow-on from my previous post about how to fidget and 'get away with it", albeit with a twist to reflect the growing concern around the corona virus.  Quite understandably, there have been numerous articles with suggestions about how to limit being vulnerable to acquiring the illness, not to mention the hundreds about being a vector for the disease.  Many of these articles have a focus on limiting touching parts of the body, particularly the face, which are quite reasonable and valid.  While I fully support, and actively encourage these practices, as an inveterate self-picker, it is my hope that this month's post will provide A SELF-PICKER's PERSPECTIVE and bring some attention to some of the more significant challenges likely faced by self-pickers in their efforts to adapt their behavior to the demands of the times.   I also hope it will help increase empathy around this particularly physical fidgeting behavior.

      Before getting into suggestions for how to work with picking instead of against it, it may be helpful to explain it in "everyman" words.  Quite simply picking is a physical action where the hands are used to grab onto an object and by applying force in the opposite direction (pulling, tugging, rending, tearing, etc.) seek to remove the object from what it is attached to.  A self-picker, such as myself is someone who picks at their skin, hair, nose, or other part of the body.  Self-picking is considered to be a fidgeting behavior because of its repetitive motion and use during times of assumed discomfort.

      Historically, self-picking has been viewed as a very observable and destructive behavior with no foreseeable goal except futile repetition.  The idea of using one's hands to destroy their skin or hair has historically been viewed as aberrant ie. socially inappropriate to the point where those who picked at themselves were stereotyped as "spazzers" or having some form of severe mental defect.  While, self-picking may seem random and pointlessly repetitive, there are many reasons why we pick and even more so, why WE HAVE DELIBERATELY CHOSEN TO PICK, instead of utilizing other behavior alternatives.  You may end up being surprised at the complexity behind our behaviors

Why I and other self-pickers pick: NOTHING BETTER, EASY, QUICK, UNCONSCIOUS, A GREAT OUTLET, REWARDING, CONTROL

NOTHING BETTER-The vast majority of us self-pickers DO NOT PICK BECAUSE WE ENJOY PICKING AT OURSELVES.  We often do not believe we have suitable alternatives to picking; in fact most of us have relied on self-picking since a very young age.  We made the association early on between self-picking and relief from any number of symptoms that it was quickly reinforced.  I pick because it meets my sensory and mental/emotional regulatory needs during high stress/high energy times.  Self-picking has happened to be the most effective tool I have historically had available throughout my younger life, especially since behavior alternatives did not provide the necessary wrap-around relief to meet my different needs. 
Just like when behavior plans don't work, picking alternatives are most effective when they provide a way to get the same rewards while also meeting a goal.  Often times the alternatives to picking and fidgeting do not provide all the components of relief we get by engaging in self-picking.  For many of us, I myself included, self-picking ended up being the replacement behavior for more visibly obvious behaviors such as hitting, tantruming, making noises, random movements, etc. that often resulted in our shaming because of their social inappropriateness.  In a way you might say that a big (not all) aspect of self-picking, in all its ferocity, is a result of being driven to conceal what was the most effective way to release emotion.

IT IS EASY-first, foremost, and so far not acknowledged in any of the articles about encouraging less frequent face/body touching.  Self-picking does not require multiple steps to engage in as would be involved in reaching for a stress ball or other object.  We are our own source of relief, self-contained Swiss Army Knife of self-soothing.

IT IS QUICK-Many self-pickers struggle with impulsivity, often times because we also have some other diagnosis associated with picking behaviors such as severe ADHD, anxiety, and/or depression.  Our impulsivity is not only rewarded with a quick solution, but it gets reinforced, especially when we get such quick relief for the symptoms we are seeking to alleviate by picking.  This is especially true for us who perceive blemishes or "aberrant parts" that feed into illusions of control, when we perceive we have none, and need to be removed.

UNCONSCIOUS-I am usually not aware I am picking until I either hit some form of physical resistance or I happen to see myself picking.  Picking has been so ingrained into my brain that, even though I have effective alternatives now, I go to it first out of habit.

REWARDING (NOT NECESSARILY POSITIVE)-Self-picking provides sensory stimulation to many parts of the body, particularly to the parts doing the picking and those being picked.  Picking can be ruminative (repetitive) and as such not only the physical input we are receiving through our skin, but the repetition of the behavior creates a consistent and controllable flow of sensory input.  Also, it is a quick way to distract oneself or avoid negative emotions.  Self-picking is a repetitive cycle.

ILLUSION OF CONTROL-As a self-picker, with severe ADHD and social anxiety to boot, being out of control whether by anxiety or some other external situation outside of my control very dis-regulating, which itself can be extremely uncomfortable physically, emotionally, and mentally.  With picking I can control the speed, intensity, pressure, movements, and the physical sensations that come from picking.
Many of us also pick at ourselves when we are very anxious as a means of trying to control the disruptive anxiety that is coursing through us.  We may also engage in self-picking behaviors as an unconscious way of projecting our lack of control onto our physical selves to give the illusion that we have some control by how we interact with our bodies-picking and depression go hand in hand.

So what would self-picker me like for you to know when working with me and other self-pickers?  What do we want you to know about what's going on for us even though there is a pandemic being spread by transferring germs through touch?

DO NOT SHAME US! Self-picking may be largely unconscious but it is a behavior that most of us would not choose to have if we had other viable alternatives that actually worked.  Do not draw attention to our self-picking as if we are commenting a selfish crime fully knowing about how the corona virus is spread.  Again, many of us self-pick because we have been shamed into it from a very young age. 
With respect to getting us to become more "mindful" of our self-picking, paying attention to how many times we touch ourselves can serve the negative purpose of reinforcing that we are doing something wrong and that we have really weak self-control.  Not to mention the way negative terms like "impulsivity" and "lack of awareness" get roped into such self-examinations, there is the increased likelihood of identifying the behavior as "bad", and therefore a negative reflection on us.

CHANGE IS HARD!  It's all well and good to take into account how often we might touch ourselves, but actually doing something about it is extremely difficult.  Remember that self-pickers have had a life-time of learning that picking serves many purposes and meets many different needs.  It is impossible to simply decide that many years (in my case 34) can simply be pushed aside and overridden by adopting new techniques.  We need compassion and patience.  Even one less incident of picking on a less than consistent basis would be a victory, especially in the beginning, for a behavior that is as entrenched as it is.

PRIMARY NEEDS MUST BE MET FIRST!  When I get dis-regulated, whether by anxiety, or some other stressor, particularly those of a sensory nature, my first focus is going to be on getting myself back to center.  That does not mean that I have no regard for others or how my actions affect them.  Simply put, I am going to respond first to what is easiest and quickest to fix before going to the more complex stuff.  I am not capable of engaging higher level thought processes about cause and effect if my more basic biological needs are not met. 

PLEASE BE PATIENT!  The corona virus pandemic is very new to us and likely as anxiety/fear provoking for us as it is for you.  That will likely contribute to our becoming more dis-regulated and needing to utilize our self-picking as a regulating tool until we have found something that works as well and is more appropriate.  We are not self-picking to be willful or send a "screw you" message, despite what you might think after having told us a bunch of times to stop picking.  Remember we're being asked to change a particularly deep-seated behavior on short notice.

ALLOW US OUR FRUSTRATION!  We do want to comply.  We do not want to be targets for other peoples' negative reaction or bullied.  However, while we are working on changing the behavior and finding a replacement, we will get frustrated!  Allow us to experience it and share that experience.  You can rest assured that we will put ourselves under tremendous pressure to avoid further threats of shame.  We also want to be respectful and succeed despite the guaranteed numerous failures we will encounter along the way.  Those failures will contribute all the more to our own negative self-assessment; for those of us who already struggle with negative self-concept (which self-picking can be a strong indicator) these failures will be internalized and likely weaponized against ourselves.

REPLACEMENT ALTERNATIVES MUST MEET NEEDS!  As noted above the reasons why I pick are many and serve many important purposes simply beyond being an anxiety reducing behavior.  Replacement behaviors for self-picking need to be easy, quick to access, and capable of meeting not only extra energy needs, but sensory ones as well as emotional/mental needs.  For many of us, the underlying quilt of co-existing challenges requires us to utilize more than mindful meditation or another fidget.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.  I hope it provides some insight into what goes on behind the scenes for a self-picker and what we need in order to be able to make changes.  Please check back soon for my next post, which will focus on self-picker identified behavior alternatives for picking behavior! 

February 3, 2020

Understanding Face Expressions Is Hard: Featuring Darth Vader!

Hello Everyone,

    I hope you are well.  I wanted to a quick post in response to a challenge, one of the kids I work with, told me about in our last session: accurate interpretation of emotions based on facial expression.  I asked him what he thought was so difficult and he did not respond except to show me a picture of a birthday card, which said "Darth Vader's Emotions".  He then went on to explain that one of the biggest struggles he faces as a young man with autism is being able to understand others' emotions based on their facial expression.  Darth Vader, he said, is how he experiences attempts to understand visual signals, noting that to him the face looks largely the same and provides as much information as an unchanging mask.  The picture of Darth Vader was very simple and only contained a couple of emotions, along with no further information about what they meant.  To be fair, this was a greeting card, yet the client's connection was very clear.  Together we decided to create an expanded identification guide for emotions based on how he experienced them for sharing with his family and team of supporters.
      When you are looking at the "Darth Vader Facial Emotions Recognition Chart", I would like to encourage you to take a moment and consider what it must be like to be taught about, and expected to use, appropriate and congruent facial affect; to be taught and expected to do without being able to rely on yourself to interpret the correct result.  Also, please pay attention to the fact that there are a greater number of emotions identified (ones picked by the client according to their importance to him) and there are no definitions of what they mean, no definitions of situations where they can be encountered, and no definitions of nuance.  How would you define these emotions to someone who does not connect to them like we do?