autism · behavior · brain · children · learning · mental health · Nature · play · school

Outdoor Play Helps Improve Autistic Symptoms

Reposting this from a fantastic blog Free Range Kids, run by Lenore Skenazy, a huge advocate for letting children be children and just playing, especially outdoors:

Readers — In our desperation to create “smarter” kids, we have practically pinned them to their desks. Now educators are realizing this may be just the opposite of what is best for kids — including those with special needs, as Andrea Gordon writes in Toronto’s TheStar.com (a paper run by my favorite editor-in-chief from back when he and I were at the NY Daily News, Michael Cooke). – L.

It was a crisp March day outside Blaydon Public School when teachers discovered that 4-year-old Alex Wong could spell his name.There were no pencils or paper in sight. Everyone was bundled in winter jackets. Alex, who has autism, was in the outdoor classroom where his special-needs class played and explored for at least an hour every day, alongside 25 kids from the mainstream kindergarten class.

Teacher Sue Cooper noticed Alex march over to a pile of wood, put three sticks in a small wheelbarrow and push it to a spot on the pavement. One by one, he placed the sticks on the ground, forming the letter A. He made three more trips and came back with sticks to make three more letters, which he placed in a row: L, E and X.

Cooper’s jaw dropped. The teachers ran for a camera.

Alex is non-verbal and for a long time, his only interactions had been to throw things or hit. But in the fresh air, day after day, something started to change. Over several months Alex had watched the other children making structures. And that March morning, he was ready to take his turn.

The teachers say his is one example of how daily outdoor time is changing the way their young students — including those autism and other special needs — learn and behave.

Full post.

Obviously more research needs to be done, but there has been strong correlations drawn between outdoor time and decreasing of ADD and dementia symptoms, so it makes sense that putting humans in our natural surroundings would also help other mental disabilities and ailments.

There are a growing number of outdoor preschools, and I’d argue that there should be more outdoor elementary and even middle schools.

architecture · autism · behavior · brain · design · environment · happiness · mental health · play

Researcher Designs Schoolyard for Children with Autism

Every kid can get overwhelmed playing on the playground. But imagine that for you, or your child, it happens way, way too easily.

Play is usually beneficial, not just for exercise and fun but for learning and therapy. So it’s interesting to see how people are using play, and playgrounds, to help kids who can often get overwhelmed in normal play situations.

A Kansas State University graduate student is creating a schoolyard that can become a therapeutic landscape for children with autism.

Chelsey King, master’s student in landscape architecture, St. Peters, Mo., is working with Katie Kingery-Page, assistant professor of landscape architecture, to envision a place where elementary school children with autism could feel comfortable and included.

“My main goal was to provide different opportunities for children with autism to be able to interact in their environment without being segregated from the rest of the school,” King said. “I didn’t want that separation to occur.”

The schoolyard can be an inviting place for children with autism, King said, if it provides several aspects: clear boundaries, a variety of activities and activity level spaces, places where the child can go when overstimulated, opportunities for a variety of sensory input without being overwhelming and a variety of ways to foster communication between peers.

“The biggest issue with traditional schoolyards is that they are completely open but also busy and crowded in specific areas,” King said. “This can be too overstimulating for a person with autism.”

King researched ways that she could create an environment where children with autism would be able to interact with their surroundings and their peers, but where they could also get away from overstimulation until they felt more comfortable and could re-enter the activities.

More at http://www.autism-society.org/news/a-place-to-play-researcher.html.

For so long playgrounds have been designed to be “safe,” but now they’re being designed and adapted to be “inclusive” to kids with all sorts of limitations, which I think is a much better focus, especially since it reintroduces play equipment like…wait for it…dirt! Or more specifically, gardens:

King designed her schoolyard with both traditional aspects — such as a central play area — and additional elements that would appeal to children with autism, including:

  • A music garden where children can play with outdoor musical instruments to help with sensory aspects.
  • An edible garden/greenhouse that allows hands-on interaction with nature and opportunities for horticulture therapy.
  • A sensory playground, which uses different panels to help children build tolerances to difference sensory stimulation.
  • A butterfly garden to encourage nature-oriented learning in a quiet place.
  • A variety of alcoves, which provide children with a place to get away when they feel overwhelmed and want to regain control.

Unfortunately there are currently no plans to actually build this playground, since these sensory elements are beneficial to all kids (and grown-ups). Where do you see this kind of design being the most welcome? In schools, city parks? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

autism · behavior · brain · children · emotion · learning · Mental · psychology · robotics · Social

AP News: Kaspar the friendly robot helps autistic kids

I have heard of this kind of therapy before, how autistic kids tend to respond better to robots teaching them emotions and proper social responses; the robot acts as a sort of bridge, or neutral third party for the kid:

STEVENAGE, England (AP) – Eden Sawczenko used to recoil when other little girls held her hand and turned stiff when they hugged her. This year, the 4-year-old autistic girl began playing with a robot that teaches about emotions and physical contact – and now she hugs everyone.

“She’s a lot more affectionate with her friends now and will even initiate the embrace,” said Claire Sawczenko, Eden’s mother.

The girl attends a pre-school for autistic children in Stevenage, north of London, where researchers bring in a human-looking, child-sized robot once a week for a supervised session. The children, whose autism ranges from mild to severe, play with the robot for up to 10 minutes alongside a scientist who controls the robot with a remote control.

The robot, named Kaspar, is programmed to do things like smile, frown, laugh, blink and wave his arms. He has shaggy black hair, a baseball cap, a few wires protruding from his neck, and striped red socks. He was built by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire at a cost of about 1,300 pounds (US$2,118).

http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_6418/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=X0CCVnY5

It’s also nice to hear a story about robots helping people, rather than the usual scenarios we hear and see like from Matrix and Terminator.

Mental · Social · technology

The New Face of Autism Therapy | Popular Science

I found this really interesting, since 2D interactions don’t seem to teach kids to teach kids how to empathize and be more social beings. However, a 3D robot seems to do the trick…

via The New Face of Autism Therapy | Popular Science.

A robotic therapist teaches kids how to read emotions

With one in 110 children diagnosed with autism, and therapists in short supply, researchers are developing humanoids to fill the gaps. But can robots help patients forge stronger bonds with people?

…There is increasing evidence that kids with autism respond more naturally to machines than they do to people. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, along with other autism experts, believes that robots, computers and electronic gadgets may be appealing because they are predictable, unlike people. You can pretty much guess what a computer is going to do next about 90 percent of the time, but human interactions obey very few entirely predictable laws. And this, Baron-Cohen explains, is difficult for children with autism. “They find unlawful situations toxic,” he says. “They can’t cope. So they turn away from people and turn to the world of objects.”

More…

autism · cognition · language · psychology · youtube

Power of communication: "In My Language"

This video, which I found on the blog neuroanthropology, was created by a woman who is severely autistic. The first three minutes show the woman interacting with her environment, and then the woman, through typing on the computer, provides a translation of what she describes as her native language. She is severely critical of people who do not understand and appreciate how she views the world and who call her non-communicative.

This video is fascinating to me on so many levels (warning: possible spoilers). Watching her behavior from a psychologists’ standpoint is interesting with observing her self-stimulating behavior and how her mind is processing all this. But it also from a visual anthropology perspective. She chose to include these specific examples of her language in the movie, and even though she explicitly says they do not symbolize anything in particular, I wonder why these were chosen. Why did she choose to use a visual format to explain herself? Was this video made originally for Youtube, or some other audience? There is obvious editing, and not so much a storyline but definite parts to the movie. How did she decide on this structure, and who helped her, if anyone? Did anyone else film her (from what I can tell I don’t think so). How was she aided in this project? She gives credits at the end of her film, but they’re all thanks as opposed to assigned jobs.

From a communication studies and linguistics perspective, she’s challenging the definition of language. She argues that she has a discourse (several, actually) with her environment, with the objects in her house; they even get a credit at the end of the film. She also uses the “dominant language,” as she describes it, to explain herself and language and berate those who do not appreciate hers for what it is.

She also points out that most of us would probably not look at her on the street, or deliberately look away, which is absolutely correct, which makes a great statement about humans’ fear of the different, “disabled,” and unknown.
(end spoilers)

So a really interesting video on many levels, and I’m sorry my visual anthropology class is essentially over this quarter because I think it’d be great to show to the class and have them discuss it.