You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize that music has an effect on your mood. Music has been linked to improving memory, altering the response to stress, inspiring creativity, strengthening social bonding, and enhancing mood, focus and motivation. Research even shows that music can boost immunity and support physical health. For many children with special needs, music has been shown to improve concentration, help manage impulse control, enhance language development, and ease tension.

How Music, Stress and Well-being are Related

First, let’s understand the relationship between stress, health and music. Stress can play a role in the behavior of all children (and grown-ups!), not just those with special needs such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders. Stress raises the level of the hormone cortisol in the bloodstream; too much cortisol not only deteriorates the immune response (which makes a person more prone to illness), it interferes with our ability to cope. Listening to your favorite music has the power to calm the mind and body enough to lower levels of cortisol while also raising the hormones associated with relaxation, which is conducive to a healthy mind and body.

What Kind of Music is Best?

Because musical preference is such a personal matter, it’s difficult to study all the different styles and the effect on individuals. Based on research that has been done with special needs children, listening to certain classical musical pieces has been shown to reduce tension, improve focus, and enhance social interactions. So, you might try these songs:

  • Beethoven Concerto for Piano No. 5 
  • Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor
  • Bach Brandenburg Concertos
  • Handel Water Music
  • Brahm Concerto for Violin, D Major
  • Vivaldi The Four Seasons
  • Tchaikovsky Concerto for Piano No. 1
  • Pachelbel Canon in D

Free Download: Music for Healthy ADHD Brains

Also visit Additude Magazine for additional song suggestions.

If classical isn’t the vibe for your child, you can do your own research: Experiment with the types of music your child is listening to and record the results. Measure heart rate and blood pressure before, during and after listening. If that’s not possible, observe your child’s breathing: Is it relaxed and even, or short and choppy? Record the results in a journal, noting how your child's behavior changes with different types of music. From here, you can create a great playlist that specifically meets your child’s needs.

Will Your Child Benefit from Seeing a Professional Music Therapist?

A certified music therapist provides a more in-depth approach and analysis of how music can benefit your child. He or she designs a customized program that uses clinical and evidence-based therapeutic interventions that use music to improve health, social functioning, communication and cognitive skills. To achieve these goals, the therapist works with a child beyond just listening to music. Sessions with a music therapist can include lyric development, active listening, improvisation, music and imagery, song writing, and performance according to individual needs and abilities. Music therapists must provide ongoing evaluation, planning, and follow-up on these interventions.

A professional music therapist must meet certain education and training qualifications as well as abide by a code of ethics, including but not limited to:

  • Bachelor’s Degree or higher in music therapy from one of the American Music Therapy Association approved college or university programs;
  • Beyond the academic coursework, 1200 hours of clinical training (including an internship) are required;
  • Professional Competencies identify the minimum entry level skills for a therapist who has completed the minimum education requirements in music therapy. This includes clinical practice and research.

A music therapist who holds a professional designation – ACMT, CMT, or RMT – will be listed on the National Music Therapy Registry. You can learn more by calling (301) 562-9330. To find a music therapist in your state and local area, use the AMTA Directory Search. Also, ask your child’s pediatrician or therapy team for a referral. Music therapists can work in private practice, clinics, hospitals, treatment centers, and schools. 


Chandra, ML. & Levitin, DJ., “The Neurochemistry of Music.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, (April 2013) 17:4. Accessed 4 May 2017:

“What Music Works Best for Autism?”

 “Music Therapy in ADHD: The 8 Best Songs.” Attitude Magazine online:  

“Music for Your ADHAD Ears”  Psychology Today online: 

Goldstein, B. “The Secret Language of the Heart: How to Use Music, Sound, and Vibration as Tools for Healing and Personal Transformation.” (2016) Hierophant Publishing. “Science Watch: Music as Medicine.” Posted by Amy Novotney; (Nov 2013 44:10). Accessed on 4 May 2017:

American Music Therapy Association. “Selected Bibliography on Music Therapy and Mental Health.”  Accessed 4 May 2017:

Ryback, R., “Music’s Power Explained.” .” (posted Mar 2016). Psychology Today Online. Accessed 4 May 2017:

Bergland, C., “Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1.” (posted Jan 2013). Psychology Today Online. Accessed 4 May 2017:

Sloboda, J.A. and O’Neill, S.A. “Emotions in everyday listening to music.” In Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (Juslin, P.N. and Sloboda, J.A., eds) (2001)  pp. 415–429, Oxford University Press. Accessed 4 May 2017:

Rickard, N.S. “Intense emotional responses to music: a test of the physiological arousal hypothesis.” Psychol. Music (2004) 32, 371–388.

Brown,S.etal, “Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems.” NeuroReport (2004)15, 2033–2037.

Davis, W.B. and Thaut, M.H. “The influence of preferred relaxing music on measures of state anxiety, relaxation, and physiological responses.” J. Music Ther (1989). 26, 168–187.

Khalfa, S. et al., “Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress.” Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. (2003) 999, 374–376. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018 16:58

Family Cruising with Food Allergies

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When the weather outside is frightful, many families will consider a cruise on the warmer, open seas ever so delightful. For families who have to manage food allergies, considering even just a weekend cruise can trigger a flurry of panic-laden questions. This leads many families to assume a cruise is not a realistic option for them.

“That could not be further from the truth about today’s cruise lines,” says Jennifer Trinidad, travel agent with Modern Travel Professionals, LLC. “Many cruise lines have designated ships and itineraries that focus on families; this goes beyond offering a child rate on an adult cruise.”   

Common concerns families have about cruising include meal preparation; managing nut, wheat and dairy allergies (among others); and the crew’s readiness to handle an anaphylactic emergency. 

“There are several things for families to think about when researching a cruise,” states Trinidad, who has years of experience planning vacations for clients who have food allergies, including her own school-age child who has several food allergies.

“All of these factors will weigh differently, depending on the age of the child, the extent of the allergies, and the family’s willingness to go a few extra steps in making sure their needs will be met.”

  • Cruise Lines that Focus on Family. Cruise lines such as Disney, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival are all family-friendly, with a wide range of activities for the kids and teenagers. Royal Caribbean is also an Autism Friendly Certified Cruise Line, so if your family includes a child with autism and dietary needs, they may be an excellent option to consider. 
  • Allergy Friendly Itineraries. Allergens exist not only on the ship, but in port as well. For example, if you have contact or respiratory nut (peanut, tree nut, including coconut) allergies), an itinerary that includes ports where nut-based foods are dietary staples (e.g., Southeast Asia, certain islands) is not an optimal choice. You know your family’s allergies and reactions best, so wherever you intend to travel, ask your agent about these things.
  • Get a Copy of the Food Allergy Policy. Most cruise lines have a policy for how and when passengers must provide food or nutritional requirements (e.g., during the booking and/or pre-deployment). Comply with those guidelines because a cruise ship at sea is not going to be able to receive an emergency airdrop from Amazon. Ask your travel agent to help you obtain the most current policy. 

“If you need an EpiPen, make sure you have a doctor’s note and any cruise line specific paperwork completed before you say Bon Voyage,” explains Trinidad. “Remember, not all cruise line staff are qualified to administer prescriptions, including EpiPens, so knowing who, when and where in advance will ease your stress level significantly.” 

Questions for the Travel Agent—Before Your Book

Having an agent who understands food allergies is important as they will be more thorough in navigating the pre-deployment and on-board policies that apply to you. Ask the agent about their experience booking trips for families with food allergies. Look for a “full service” agent who will be there to support you throughout the planning process, not just the booking process. 

Other questions to ask:

  • Does the ship have an on-board nurse or other medical staff?
  • What is the policy for on-board allergy emergencies?
  • Do the children’s areas have designated nut-free play and eating spaces?
  • Who is the on-board “go to person” if there is a problem with dietary accommodation?

“Whether you’re in the dining room or at the pool deck, never hesitate to ask the serving staff for assistance,” explains Trinidad. “Most staff are more than willing to help in any way possible. If there is a situation that doesn’t seem to be handled properly, ask for the Manager of that dining venue or head to Guest Services for assistance.” 

Don’t Say Bon Voyage without These Items in Hand

  • Passports for All Travel Party Members. Even if your cruise destination does not require a passport, it’s in your best interest that everyone in your party has a passport that is valid for 6 months or more after the end of your trip. This is critical in the event of a medical emergency. If you need to leave the cruise early and receive treatment outside of the United States, you won’t be able to gain re-entry to the country without a passport.
  • Travel Insurance. Travel insurance can save more than your sanity; the right policy can also save you tens of thousands of dollars and prevent many sleepless nights. You can learn more about the benefits of having travel insurance here.
  • Medical Records and Medications. Documents that provide detailed information about your family member’s allergies, dietary needs, and any medications should be kept on your person at all times, plus a copy in your room safe and on file with the ship’s medical staff, if applicable.

For additional information, see our related blog articles about "Stress-free Holiday Travel with an Autistic Family Member" and "Vacation Planning Services for Families with ASD and Other Special Needs".

Resources “What you Need to Know about Cruising with Food Allergies” 

Modern Travel Professionals: “How to Cruise with Food Allergies”


There are potential benefits for the use of Essential Oils (EO) for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The right oil or combination of oils can be a supportive, less invasive supplemental therapeutic strategy for some kids. Certain oils can bring about a calming mood or help a child focus. Emerging clinical research on this topic aims to identify the oil(s) that are proven most helpful (see info at end of article). This research is important because some oils can cause an allergic reaction, or even a seizure.

It’s important for caregivers and parents to have a basic understanding about essential oils, so they—alongside the child’s therapy team—can make an informed decision about how to use this centuries-old herbal remedy.

Let’s focus on 3 important questions:

  • What is an essential oil? 
  • How does an essential oil work?
  • Do essential oils have a proven health benefits for children with Autism?

Keep in mind, even with the basic information we’re sharing here, it’s wise to consult with a certified clinical aromatherapist or naturopathic physician experienced with using essential oils with children who have ASD.

What is an Essential Oil?

An essential oil (EO) is the natural fragrant essence extracted from different parts of a plant: flowers, leaves, bark, roots, fruit peel, and berries. The oil is the most concentrated and potent of plant extracts—up to 75-100 times more than dried herbs. 

A single essential oil contains hundreds of chemical components, each one having unique properties of its own. In short, essential oils are very complex substances whose integrity and purity are affected by the time of harvest, method of harvesting, extraction process, and storage process—even before the product is bottled and shipped for retail sale.

Essential oils have been used for centuries throughout the world for everything from skin care to treatment for serious health conditions. In Europe, where standards for EO are much stricter than in the U.S., EO are used in both spa and medical treatments. In the U.S., EO use has had exponential growth as over-the-counter herbal remedies. It’s important to note that in the U.S., the FDA does not regulate EO for medicinal use the way it does other medicines, but it does regulate the claims an EO manufacturing company can make about an EO.

How does an essential oil work?

The therapeutic benefit of EO lies in the power of the sense of smell. Scent, by way of the olfactory nerve, can trigger emotions and memories. For example, the smell of fresh baked apple pie brings up a holiday memory. The neural receptors for scent are linked to areas of the brain strongly associated with emotion and memory—both positive and negative. 

The potency of the scent of an individual or combination of EO can trigger an emotional or physical response, such as:

  • becoming more relaxed, 
  • being better able to focus on a task, or 
  • feeling more energized.

However, different people can react differently to the same oil. Frankincense can make one person feel relaxed, and another person feel agitated or nauseous.

These effects on mood or mental state occur in two ways: either though inhaling the oil’s scent through a diffuser or being applied in diluted form directly to the skin, usually on pulse points or in bath water.

Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without a carrier oil or lotion for dilution (for example, mixing a certain number of drops of peppermint oil with Jojoba oil). Direct application can cause a rash or more serious reactions. An EO should never be taken internally in food or beverage unless under supervision of a licensed healthcare practitioner. 

Do Essential Oils have Proven Health Benefit for Children with Autism?

In the last few years, blogs have exploded with testimonials about the benefits of EO for children with Autism. Overall, these personal case reports indicate that certain oils such as lavender, peppermint, and chamomile have positive effects. But case reports are only the first step. Every child is different; what seems beneficial for one child could be life-threatening for another. Clinical research is vitally important to the understanding how any new therapeutic approach for whom and in what circumstances.

The short answer to the question about whether or not EO are beneficial for children with Autism is “maybe.” It depends upon factors such as:

  • the child’s age, symptoms, known allergies, medications in use, etc.
  • the oil or oils being used and the quality of those oils, and
  • the reason for use (the desired benefit).

The more questions we ask, and the more care we take in investigating answers, the more likely we are likely to find safe, effective natural remedies to complement treatment for children with Autism. Below is one example of an ongoing clinical trail that is doing just that.

Clinical Research: Do Essential Oils Improve Sleep in Children with Autism?

Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center set out to discover if EO can help children with Autism get to sleep. The ongoing study uses all the “gold standards” for clinical research. The study aims to find out if EO increase relaxation prior to bedtime and improve the quality of sleep for children with ASD (A very specific research question!). Researchers are comparing the safety and effectiveness of two mixtures of 18 essential oils. Mixture A is being tested in the first 3 months. A topical solution will be applied to the back of the neck and feet before school and at 20 minutes before bedtime the mixture will be diffused in the child’s bedroom and continue through the night. Some children will wear a watch-style recording device to measure sleep quality and movement during sleep. There will be a one-month break, then the research protocol will be repeated with Mixture B for another 3 months. If you’d like to get involved, contact the study director through this link.

The place to go, if you want to do your own research, is the U.S. medical research database, PubMed., and the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Database. Gold Standard Research uses a comparison group, controls for extraneous factors (such as playing music while giving an essential oil bath); and uses standardized tools.

Some examples of keyword searches are:

“essential oils (or aromatherapy) to improve sleep with children with Autism.” “peppermint essential oil, autism and focus on a performing a task”

“lavender essential oil effect on mood in children with Autism”

“essential oil side effects, children, Autism”

You can usually download a PDF of the article and share a copy with your child’s clinician to determine if the information applies to your child.


Essential Oils for Autism Treatment: Interview with Dr. Hollway of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. 

Best Essential Oils for Autism and ADHD—The Ultimate Guide.

Williams, Tim I. (2006) “Evaluating Effects of Aromatherapy Massage on Sleep in Children with Autism: A Pilot Study.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, (3)3, 373–377. PMC. Web. 28 Nov. 2017.

National Library of Medicine. PubMed Health. Essential Oils

Levy, S. E., & Hyman, S. L. (2008). “Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatments for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 17(4), 803–ix. 

Essential Oils Information Guide from Neal’s Yard Remedies

Professional Aromatherapy Associations

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

Alliance of International Aromatherapists

Find a Naturopathic Doctor

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 

In the yoga community, children with special needs are described differently. All children are recognized as special with some children having additional needs that require unique approaches to interaction, communication, and learning. It’s a “Zen-sational” way of viewing a child who is on the Autism Spectrum, lives with ADHD, or is developing differently due to behavioral, emotional, or sensorimotor challenges. This is exactly the perspective you should look for in anyone who offers to teach yoga to any child, but especially someone with additional needs. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits yoga can bring to children and, more importantly, the preferred qualities and qualifications of a yoga teacher or yoga program for children with additional, special needs.

How Yoga Benefits Children.

There are many ways in which yoga can benefit all children and these benefits are particularly helpful to children with additional needs. Benefits can and will vary based on each child’s unique needs, the special challenges they live with, and how long they participate in a yoga program. In general, the benefits of yoga for children include:

  • Enhanced awareness of, and better control of their body
  • Greater ease connecting to other people and to their surroundings
  • Confidence and improved self-esteem/ self-efficacy
  • The ability to experience relaxation and learn how to access this state of being outside of yoga class.
  • Enhanced ability to focus and to self-regulate behavior or emotion
  • Improved physical skills such as balance, coordination, agility, sense of direction
  • Enhanced emotional control (e.g., improvement in anxiety, depression, or agitation)

Teaching Yoga from a Zen-sational Perspective.

A yoga teacher must be able to see the child who is right before them and begin with that child where they are in that moment. What does that mean? Very simply, that the teacher has a class structure but is able to let go of a preconceived plan to move with the rhythm and energy of the children as they are at that time in class. It also means that the teacher has let go of any expectations for where a child should be, what they are supposed to do, or how some book says they need to execute a yoga pose. A teacher who can truly be present for a child right where they are and as they are will be able to help that child gradually achieve a sense of fulfillment and self-efficacy in yoga. It then becomes possible to carry that sense of “I can do it” or “I did it” from the yoga mat and into other areas of the child’s life.

Integrated Yoga Class vs. Special Yoga Class?

This is a bit similar to the question of sending a child to a regular public school or day care center versus a facility that is specifically designed for their needs. Yes, children with additional needs can participate in a class with more able bodied and typically developing peers. A typical yoga class with young children (age 3-9) moves quickly and can be very high energy. This can feel overwhelming to a child who has low body awareness or whose additional needs limit their ability to imitate movement. Consequently, when a child with additional needs is placed in a typical yoga class, that class will require two teachers: A teacher who leads the class as a whole and a teacher/parent/aide who stays with the child who has additional needs. The second person along side the child ensures that the child receives the attention and care necessary to benefit from the class. 

On the other hand, a special-child yoga class may be more appropriate for children who are highly sensitive, who function better in a smaller group, or whose physical limitations require more hands-on help from an experienced teacher. Often, someone who has had in-depth training with children who have additional needs would teach these classes.

Teacher Qualifications

At a minimum, the person who teaches yoga for children with special or additional needs has completed a 200 hour Yoga Alliance approved teacher training and has had educational or practical/life experience with differently-abled children. Ideally, you would want the instructor to have obtained CEUs or certification in teaching yoga for children. For instructors who are teaching classes specifically and only for special children, they should have some advanced training or education that qualifies them for such a role. You may sometimes find occupational therapists or physical therapists teaching these classes after they’ve attended relevant yoga training. The most important step you can take before signing up for a class is to ask questions about a teacher’s experience and certification, to observe a class and see the range of children who are being taught, and to trust your own intuition about whether or not a class or a teacher is a good fit for your child.



  • Yoga for the Special Child - Sonia Sumar (she also teaches yoga for the special child teacher trainings).
  • Yoga for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders – Dion E. Betts and Stacey W Betts. 
  • Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs - Louise Goldberg


“Yoga Generates Huge Benefits for Children with Autism.” Posted by “Yoga offers benefits for people with special needs” posted 14 March 2012.

“Say Yes to Yoga for Kids with ADHD” 

“6 Benefits of Yoga for Kids with Autism” 

“Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature.” Pediatric Physical Therapy:  Spring 2008 - Volume 20 - Issue 1 - pp 66-80, doi: 10.1097/PEP.0b013e31815f1208. 

You often don’t give a second thought to biting into an ice cream sandwich, riding a bicycle, or watching a movie. For children who have difficulty with sensory processing these activities, become insurmountable hurdles that result in what most people see as inexplicable and out of control response from their child, including tantrums, anxiety, excessive clumsiness, carelessness, and academic failure.

What’s happening?

The child could very likely be having difficulty integrating information that comes in from their senses, primarily sound, touch, and sight. Commonly known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), the condition affects approximately 1 in 6 children in ways that are significant enough to detrimentally affect daily activities and healthy functioning. For these children, the brain and nervous system encounter a glitch in receiving messages from the senses, interpreting them, and converting them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Children can be affected in one sense or across multiple senses. One child may over-respond while another may under-respond to the same sensory stimuli.

There are many theories about the causes of SPD, but no single factor is responsible. While more research is needed, studies to date indicate that a complex interaction of genetics and environment determine how symptoms of SPD develop for any particular child.

What does Bone Conduction have to do with Sensory Processing?

An innovative system for addressing SPD is the Integrative Listening System (iLs), a multi-sensory system that integrates music, movement, and language exercises to help improve brain function. The premise behind iLs is that stimulation of movement, balance, vision, and auditory pathways are vital to the ability to pay attention, process information, coordinate movement, learn and respond. The key components of iLs are air and bone conduction, conveyed through headphones, along with visual and motor input.

Bone conduction and air conduction are the two ways we hear sound. If you’ve ever heard your voice on an audio recording and said, “that doesn’t sound like me” it’s because you’re only hearing the air conduction of your voice. When you speak, your voice is projected over both air and bone conduction, which happens over the mastoid bone just behind your ear. That’s also why, when you have your hearing checked, a vibrator is place on that mastoid bone—it is a test of bone conduction responsiveness and it is crucial in the processing of sensory stimuli.

How does the Integrated Listening System Help a Child?

Integrative Listening Systems uses different frequencies and different levels of sound filtration to selectively train parts of a child’s auditory spectrum. This helps improve learning-related abilities such as sound decoding and auditory memory. The muscles of the inner ear are also trained through a process that triggers patterns of relaxation and response. As the muscle patterns become stronger, the child’s ability for focused listening and attention to tasks can improve.

As lower-level processing tasks strengthen, higher-level processing activities are introduced. These higher-level tasks, such as expressive language training and complex cognitive activities influence the neurological pathways that relay and process sensory information, helping to release the “glitch” that had kept the child entangled in a snare of sensorimotor stimuli.

The results of a successful iLs program for a child with sensory processing challenges can include:

  • accelerating a child’s developmental growth patterns
  • calming a child, which enhances the time spent in therapeutic session
  • behavior improvement at home/school
  • improvement in learning new tasks, regulating emotion, and maintaining focus
  • improvement in body awareness, motor ability, and sleep patterns

Using the iLs program usually begins with intense sessions with a child’s occupational therapist. The program is also easy to use at home and is often recommended to maintain progress.


“Arousal Study Indicates Integrated Listening Systems Is an Effective Behavioral Solution for Children With Sensory Processing Challenges” Jl of Occupational Therapy, Schools & Early Intervention (2015) 8:3.

Understanding Sensory Processing Issues

The Science Underlying Integrated Listening Systems

Parents who care for special needs children face unique circumstances when it comes to finding childcare services that are consistent, compassionate, and of high quality. You have more to consider to insure that your child’s needs are addressed and proper communication occurs between you, your child’s medical team, and the childcare provider. You have to research thoroughly and prepare specific types of questions to find the arrangements that best suit your family situation and your child’s medical, developmental, or behavioral special needs.

Whether you are returning to work after being at-home with your child or you have a school-age child who has recently been diagnosed with a special need, a few of the most crucial aspects of childcare you will want to look for include:

  • Experience with your child’s particular health, behavioral, developmental, dietary and other needs
  • Understanding of the challenges of working with special children
  • Knowledge and experience of adaptive strategies for working with special children
  • Experience recording data that may be important to your child’s therapeutic care plan

Character traits in your care provider, such as compassion, patience, trustworthy and a loving presence are equally as important as their skills and experience. 

Type of Care: At-Home or Special Needs Childcare Center?

The decision about providing care at home or bringing your child to a facility outside the home is based on several factors, some of which are:

  • Logistics: driving distance to/from a care center, home and work
  • Cost of at-home versus facility care
  • Traditional daycare facility or special needs facility
  • Availability of qualified in-home care providers

While all daycare centers must admit children regardless of disability, a special needs daycare center may be able to better service children with complex needs or those who require special resources/equipment or individualized care. A specialized nanny or at-home care provider may be the right choice for children who have complex disabilities and require one-to-one care. Cost and logistics are something that each family has to assess for themselves. No doubt, you want to strive for the best care at the most affordable price for your budget. Whether you choose at home care or a daycare facility, you’ll want to do your homework.

Researching Care Options for a Special Needs Child

Before you jump on Google to research childcare options, there are important questions you need to answer about your family situation and your child. 

  • What are your most important logistical needs for work/family balance?
  • What is a reasonable commuting distance from home/work to the facility?
  • What is your family budget for childcare?
  • What are your child’s most crucial needs (consider social, behavioral, developmental, physical, emotional components)?
  • On a daily basis, what does your child do well? What does your child struggle with?
  • Overall, what are your child’s strengths? Their weaknesses?
  • How well can your child communicate with others, individually and in groups?
  • In what environments does your child thrive (feel safe, able to engage)?
  • What is needed in a given environment to support your child when they withdraw?

Answering these types of self-assessment questions (see Resources below for more) combined with discussion with your child’s therapeutic team will help you do good research and make the best choice for your family and child. This also provides you with good information that you’ll need when you start talking to care providers. 

Questions to Ask Care Providers

A variety of resources are available online and from national agencies to help you plan the types of questions to ask a care provider, be it an at-home agency /provider service such as or or a childcare facility near your home. The specific questions you ask will be relevant to your self-assessment and your child’s special needs. Some of the more important topics to inquire about include questions about 

  • staff training including on-going training 
  • emergency procedures and site safety
  • communication plan between the provider, the family, and the child’s medical team
  • developmentally appropriate engagement
  • methods of encouragement that aligns with your child’s diagnosis and socialization level

 A good resource for questions and checklists and the types of information that should be shared with caregivers has been created by the Maryland Family Network for Inclusive Child Care. The Directions resource from the State of Connecticut provides information about how to organize your child’s health information and includes everyday childcare options that you may need to think about for your child.

Once you’ve done your research, checked references, and have narrowed down your options, ask if there is a “trial day” or “trial week” available. Observe your child’s response to the care provided. Does your child respond to the providers and the new experience in ways that are typical for them? Or, is there an unexpected escalation in problem behavior? There will always be a challenge when a special needs child encounters a change in routine; you are looking for evidence that the childcare service can provide an atmosphere within which your child can thrive in response to the level of care that is required of her or his special need.


In addition to these resources, Google “special needs childcare providers in (your town or county)”. 

Special Needs Resources Connecticut via provides listings and a wide variety of information about government and non-profit resources, commercial and national resources. Sub-categories for different needs (i.e., Autism, assistive technology, family support)

CT Department of Public Health has a Child Development Infoline and care coordinator, brochures, respite/emergency funding resources, and materials to help you plan and coordinate care.

Directions is a CT Public Health guide to help you plan and coordinate care for your child or adolescent with special health care needs.   In Directions you will find:  ways to organize your child’s health information; information about caring for your child’s special needs; resources; and tips from other parents of children with special health care needs. Interactive Childcare Safety Checklist

Respite Care for Children with Special Needs is a resource to help a caregiver take much needed “personal time” while entrusting their special needs family member to the care of a qualified individual. It explains why respite care is important for full-time caregivers, how to access funding, and how to select a respite caregiver. ** 

**The Talcott Center Blog will feature an article about this topic in the near future.

Most pet owners know, cuddling up to a furry friend can improve one’s sense of well-being. And that’s the primary reason we so frequently see therapy animals in schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes. Children with a range of disabilities, medical conditions, and developmental or behavioral needs have benefitted from both animal interaction and companionship. Would a therapy pet or animal assisted therapy benefit your special needs child?

To answer that question it’s important to understand these key factors before reaching out to a therapy dog association about a pet for your child: 

First, learn about how these animals are trained. Second, communicate with your health practitioner to assess your child’s level of readiness for either an in-home therapeutic animal partner, or a pet-assisted therapy program, in which a pet is present during therapeutic sessions but is not the child’s at-home companion animal. Finally, call and visit a reputable companion animal or assisted therapy animal training facility to identify the appropriate companion for your child. For the first and last items, we provide some general information in this article, and you can learn more at the websites listed below in the Resources.

Therapy Animal Certification Basics

Not just any animal can become a therapy companion. The general certification process for dogs, for example, is long and rigorous—including obedience training, good citizenship training, and an animal behavior evaluation that assess how the dog handles unpredictable circumstances and settings. There is also a process for assessing an animals’ fit for a particular client and their special need—be it emotional, developmental, physical, or a medical need. Additional training may be required for an animal to become certified to work with different situations or health conditions. These requirements may vary by organization, which is why it is important to work with your child’s health practitioners and the certifying organization in order to find the best fit.

Companion Therapy Animal or Animal-Assisted Therapy

Be it a dog, rabbit, or other furry four-legged friend, a companion animal for a special needs child is as much a responsibility for the child (and your family) as it is for the animal who will provide unconditional support, protection, and trust. The family, and ultimately the child to the extent of her or his abilities, will be responsible for the care of the animal. 

If your child is able to accept that responsibility consistently, and meets the qualifications of the therapy animal agency, then he or she may be a candidate for an at-home companion animal. The benefits of a live-in companion animal for a special needs child include:

  • the ability to sense and interrupt disruptive behaviors, meltdowns, seizures, etc.;
  • the ability to protect the child, comfort the child, and locate a child who has wandered off;
  • giving the child a sense of purpose, security, confidence, and so forth;
  • providing opportunities for play and to learn and even teach other family members;
  • helping give both the caregivers and the child more freedom because the animal is trained to “supervise”;
  • helping a child deal with difficult emotions, with loss or grief;
  • helping a child ease into new social situations.

When thinking about companion animals, don’t assume a dog is your only option. Cats, rabbit, and even fish can provide many of the same benefits. They also may be a great first-step toward a companion animal that requires more responsibility.

If a companion animal at-home is not a suitable match for your child, animal assisted therapy could be an option. Studies have consistently shown that exposure to animals in therapy improves communications, reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and can bolster self-esteem and communication. (And, many of the above listed benefits also apply). Animal therapies can augment typical occupation, physical or even speech therapy. Animal assisted therapy not only requires a specially trained service animal, but also a uniquely trained animal handler or therapist. You will want to inquire about the training of both the animal and it’s handler when considering animal assisted therapeutic programs.

Next Steps

As you are starting the discussion about animal therapy options with your family and your health provider, and researching options in your local area, you can also take these next steps with your child:

  • Visit an animal shelter—observe and even video record your child’s response to different animals.
  • Visit a service dog organization, meet with trainers, and see if there are programs available for your child.
  • Watch how your child reacts to different types of animals, both those owned by friends/family and those encountered elsewhere such as at the park.
  • Read books and watch videos that show the role different animals have in people’s lives—include nonfiction, documentaries, and fiction in your selection. Notice how your child responds and, if possible, discuss the stories. Include a variety of animals and roles they can have in helping people with special needs.
  • Keep talking with your child about animals, responsibility for care, and overall feelings toward different animals.
  • Narrow a list of animals that your child seems comfortable with and continue to focus on resources for bringing one of those animals into your child’s life.


Learn More About Therapy Dog Training at Therapy Dog International

Animal Assisted Therapy by Tails-U-Win in Connecticut

Therapy Dog Training by Tails of Joy in Connecticut

Connecticut Therapy Animals

Soul Friends Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of CT includes dogs, horses, rabbits, and other animals.

Merlin’s Kids

4 Paws for Ability Autism Assistance Dog Program

Dalien, S. “Animal Therapy for children with Special Needs.”  At 

Benefits of Pet Ownership for Children with Special Needs. 

Animal Assisted therapy for Special Needs by

Book:  A Friend Like Henry:  The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog that Unlocked His World by Nuala Gardner. 

Children with special needs, particularly older children and children whose special need is “invisible” to others, may have more of a struggle with the transition back to school. Children entering intermediate or middle school (grades 4-7) are likely to be moving into a new school building, merging with students from other schools in the district, and dealing with the social and emotional development challenges that come with the pre-teen years. This—in addition to living with attention deficit, Autism spectrum, or other learning disorders that are not visible to others the way physical disabilities are—can create a perfect storm of developmental chaos at the start of a new school year.

Whether you child is transitioning to a new school, a new grade level or both, there are steps you can take to ease the back-to-school burden for your child.

1. Plan Ahead with P.E.P.  There are three main areas to address in planning your special child for the transition:
People: Before school starts, make arrangements for your child to meet with the people she or he will spend most of the day with: teachers, guidance staff, administrative staff, principal, school nurse and if applicable, the bus driver. Help your child understand who is the “go to person” for different concerns or questions that may arise.

Environment: The guidance or front office staff should be able to arrange a tour of the grounds—buildings, classrooms, recess/gym area, parking areas, restrooms, and the routes leading to and from the school building. Make note of areas that are off limits to students and explain why. If construction is taking place around the school, let your child know what to expect.

Personal Needs: Meet with instructors before school starts or during the first week to go over your child’s triggers/stressors, IEP, behavior plans and communication strategy between home and school.

2. Share Data. If anything has changed since the end of the previous school year, update your records and share this information with the school nurse, counselor or educators who will work most closely with your child. For example, coping strategies that may have worked during fifth grade but have changed in the months leading up to grade six. If there is any new testing data for your child, bring that to the school rather than relying on your healthcare team to fax it over.

3. Establish Goals. You may have long-term goals for your child (e.g., graduating middle school), but even typically developing teens don’t take the long-term view of what they need to accomplish and why. Break large goals into small, manageable objectives and celebrate their achievements along the way. Help your child connect objectives to the bigger goal by reminding them of how they are related. This can be done for each subject/class or for sports they enjoy. For example: Math homework may seem like busy work and pointless to your student. Help them understand how multiplying larger numbers will help them solve real problems like how many jerseys to order for 17 players who each need two jerseys in two different colors. 

4. Share Personal Experience. Grown-ups forget what it was like to be an adolescent. Sure times may have been different, and we tend to see our past through rose-colored glasses. If you think about it long enough, you’ll recall experiences where you struggled, failed, overcame a challenge, etc. Even if you grew-up without the challenge of learning or other developmental challenge, you can find experiences to relate to you child to convey that you empathize and have, even walked in similar shoes as they are in now. 

5. Make a Transition Book. During your meetings with teachers, take pictures of the rooms, hallways, and exterior of the school grounds. Work with your child to create a book with these pictures, label each area and what typically takes place there. Use a school map to reinforce special event procedures such as assembly, dances, and fire drills. 

6. Review the Routine. Once your child has a schedule, review the routine for each day the night before. This is especially helpful if your child has a rotating A-B schedule, and changes classrooms/teachers during the day. Use the school map to label the location of classrooms, teacher’s name, etc. 

7. Arrange Peer Socials. Before school starts and during the school year, arrange social outings so that your child can connect with friends they will be going to school with as well as friends from their old school. These can be simple get-togethers at the mall, movie night, meeting for an ice cream, or having a pizza at your home. 

8. Go Digital; but Keep Hard Copies. Keep up to date print copies of IEPs, emergency procedures and other important documents on hand for times when you can’t access digital data. This also is a good idea for your child’s homework.

9. Expect Mistakes. Every child is going to forget homework, bring home a poor test grade, and struggle with peer relationships. Every situation has to be examined individually and determined if it’s an isolated event versus part of a bigger pattern. Yelling rarely works with any teenager. Talk through what did or did not happen that resulted in the situation. For example, did your child not study for the test? Did they express something in an inappropriate way? Were they caught in the crossfire with other kids? ~ Schools and teachers are going to make mistakes as well. Keep calm, be diplomatic, gather the facts, and know what you expect to happen before you show up at school with demands.

10. Reward Success. When your child (or their teacher or other school personnel) does something well, let your child know how you feel about their achievement—even if its as simple as bringing up a grade by few points or winning an essay contest. Point out specific things about their achievement that really stand out to you. Likewise, when the school is doing things right, they need to hear from you. 


How to Prepare Your Child With Special Needs for the Back-to-School Transition (

Easing the Back-To-School Transition for Kids with Special Needs (

Tips for Helping kids with Special Needs Change Schools (

School Transitions for the Elementary Grades (

We hope it never happens to us, but the reality we all live with is the threat of a natural disaster or terrorist attack that could devastate the place we call home. For families with special needs children, emergency preparedness becomes even more critical because there is so much more that you have to mobilize to ensure the safety and care of your child.

A variety of resources are available to help you prepare in the event of a disaster. But there isn’t one plan for every family because of the great range in resources required for children with different types of special needs. We’ve outlined key steps you should focus on in preparing for your child’s special needs. You’ll also find more in depth resources listed at the end of this article.

Assess Your Family Situation

Think about what kinds of supplies, medicines and assistance your family needs on an ordinary day. In the event of a disaster, you’ll need those resources ready to go and in place for at least 3 days on your own before rescue workers may be able to reach you. A few key questions to think about: 

  • Depending on the nature of the disaster and personal needs, will you shelter-in-place at your home; go to a public shelter; or somewhere else? Plan for all possibilities. Consult with your child’s care providers to be sure your plan meets their most urgent needs.
  • How will family members communicate, if separated, and local phone service is unavailable? 
  • Have you pre-registered with 2-1-1 if help will be needed to evacuate? 
  • Are there medical supplies that need refrigeration? 
  • Is there equipment that requires electricity? Have I notified the utility company? 
  • Do you need a back-up generator? 
  • What supplies for service animals or family pets are needed? By law, service animals must be allowed in public shelters.
  • Have you discussed emergency situations with your child’s school? Ask for the emergency plan at your child’s school or child care facility. Plan with them how your child will get the care they need in an emergency.

Gather Information about Disaster Response Services

Part of your assessment of family needs is to learn as much as you can about local disaster response services. Some states and municipalities have a registration system for individuals with disabilities and intricate medical needs. Some local organizations you can call are:

  • American Red Cross Chapter
  • Local Emergency Response Management Office
  • Local fire or police registration program
  • Your medical provider or preferred hospital or insurance company
  • Smart 911 is a free service that allows families to create a safety profile for their household that includes any information they want 9-1-1 to have in the event of an emergency.

Make an Emergency Supply Kit & Create an Action Plan

In addition to survival basics  such as food, water, emergency lighting and radio, first aid, and tools – you will likely need:

  • An Emergency Information Form with a list of your child’s current doctors, pharmacy and phone numbers 
  • Obtain a medical alert and/or identification bracelet for your child. Some organizations sell decals that can be put on the home or car to alert responders that there is a child with special needs
  • A list and 2 week supply of all current prescription and non-prescription medicines, or as much as possible 
  • 2 weeks of medical supplies such oxygen, syringes, catheters, formula and other nutritional products 
  • Pack smaller “to go” kits for use in an evacuation. Store them in multiple places such as your car, at work and at school.
  • Store important documents like medical records, health insurance cards, prescriptions and personal identification on a CD, flash drive, or phone app. Keep paper copies in a waterproof bag. 
  • Extra batteries and/or chargers for hearing aids, wheelchairs, and other essentials 
  • Personal hygiene items 
  • Items to calm and entertain your child 
  • Have you shared a copy of your plan with family, close friends and medical provider?

Create a Support Network for your Family

A personal support network goes beyond your immediate family and neighbors. In a disaster situation, you may not be able to reach them. It includes local associations specific to your family member’s special needs, medical providers, and personal care attendants. Cast a wide net so that in an emergency situation you can reach someone in your network. Even more importantly, these people will know how to reach you and look for you based on your evacuation and emergency care plan.

  • Ask your pharmacist how long the medicine can last and storage needs of the medicines.
  • Keep a two-week supply of medical care items such as needles, nasal cannulas, bandages, etc.
  • Keep a cooler and chemical ice packs for storing medications that must be kept cold.
  • Keep prescription information in your wallet, survival kit and car that includes the name, location and phone number of an out of town pharmacy.

Review your plans at least once a year; twice if you live an area more prone to natural disasters or other type of -risk threat. Also, remember to:

  • Update supplies yearly 
  • Replace water every six months 
  • Update emergency contact and medical forms as needed

Disaster can strike at anytime. None of us are out of range of threat and we all need to be prepared.


Emergency Preparedness for Children with Special Needs. Center for Children with Special Needs: 

Resources for Emergency Preparedness and How to Organize Your Child’s Information

CT Department of Public Health: Resources for preparing young children and those with disabilities: 

Connecticut Resource Guide for Including People with Disabilities in Disaster Preparedness Planning: 

Emergency Preparedness for Children with Special Needs Emergency Preparedness for Children with Special Needs (2013). 

Red Cross: Disaster Safety for People with Disabilities: 

Checklist for Children with Special Nutrition Needs: Disasters and Emergencies: Keeping Children and Youth Safe: 

The day a family first learns about their child being diagnosed with Autism or ADHD can be one of mixed emotions, ranging from anxiety to sadness over the implications this news has for the child and the family. Amid the overwhelm, you may even experience relief in finally “knowing” what’s happening with your child’s social and emotional development. By adopting a mindful perspective and following a few essential tips, you can help empower everyone in your family to learn how to manage and live with a special needs behavioral diagnosis.

  1. The diagnosis does not define your child. Your child is the sum of more than his or her behavior. Your child is more than the diagnosis and it is up to all those who love a special needs child to separate who the child is from the challenging behaviors he or she displays. As your family learns what triggers bring on your child symptoms, you will be able to have more moments that emphasize your child’s amazing qualities. Your child may be funny, creative, compassionate, skilled with their hands. These are the qualities that define a person, not the diagnoses.
  2. You must take care of yourself. Parenting a typically developing child is tough as it is; raising a child with special needs can be even more exhausting. You can experience guilt, doubt, frustration, and feel overly-committed to your child’s needs. The best way to manage your emotions is to make time each day to take care of your emotional and physical health. This can include exercise, journaling, art, yoga, going to a support group, eating healthfully, getting quality sleep, and maintaining open lines of communication with family and the healthcare team. 
  3. Slow Down. Everything about the world we live in is immediate. We don’t even realize the speed of our own thoughts, speech, and emotions. We mindlessly multitask ourselves into exhaustion. When caring for a child on the spectrum,  you need to slow way down. Once you start to pay attention to the pace at which you are doing things, you will become more mindful of how the “rush” affects you and your child. Out of that awareness, you can make changes that will benefit both of you.
  4. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to caring for a special needs child. As you attend support groups, read, and observe other families who have a special needs child, you will hear about many types of therapies that ‘work.’ This illustrates the unique needs of different children even though they may have the same diagnosis. Always work with your child’s healthcare team to discover and implement the treatment approaches that will best suit your child and your family.
  5. Learn how to advocate for your child. You will not be able to escape the stereotypes that exist about Autism or attention deficit disorders. By educating yourself and coming to know and appreciate your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you will be in a position to advocate for your child. Many support groups offer workshops that can help you develop confidence and the skills necessary to engage with counselors, teachers, and even public figures on behalf of your child. 
  6. Look for the positive, the up-lifiting, and the inspiring in every day. When you focus on what is going well, you can see the great potential that exists within your child and you can help them express that potential. When they sense your positive expectations of them, your child will feel empowered to bring out their very best. Also, focusing on the positive can help you better navigate challenges and get through the days when everything is going according to Murphy’s Law.
  7. Observe and embrace what motivates your child. Rather than imparting what you think your child should be interested in, identify what interests her and explore the topic from different angles. For example, if your child is interested in animals, you can explore different groups of animals through books, video, apps, and a trip to the pet store or the zoo. Narrow that broad interest to specific types of animals that captivate your child and help them create projects that will teach them in more in depth ways. Your keen observations and intuition about your child is the best guide for helping them unearth their talents and abilities.
  8. Communicate on their level, and mindfully. It’s important with all children, but even more so for a child with ADHD or Autism that you make eye contact when you communicate with them. This ensures that you are both paying attention to one another. And, because many kids on the spectrum tend to be visually and feeling-oriented, getting “on their level” to communicate conveys a sense of safety and structure to them. Also, be mindful of your tone and body language. Your child is likely to be sensitive to even subtle changes in your emotional tone and gestures. By making changes in how you communicate, you can help your child thrive in how they communicate.
  9. Minimize the complexity of how you communicate. Simple instruction may allow your child to better follow directions. Focus your instructions on immediate tasks, delivered in an even tone (not hastily), and use simple phrases. Rather than, “After you eat, brush teeth, brush your hair and get your shoes on” you will need to go step-by-step:  “Eat breakfast, when you’re done let me know.” When that task is done, “Please brush teeth now.” And, so on. 
  10. Show your child love and acceptance every day. When you are with your child, speak and act intentionally and from the heart. This conveys acceptance and love that your child will sense. 

Special needs children are special not just because their behavior or development makes them different. They are special because of what they are capable of teaching us about ourselves, about how we view the world, and ultimately about how we behave. 


Advice of Parents of Newly Diagnosed Children with Autism (2014) Psychology Today

Advice for Parents of Young Autistic Children (2012, Part 1 & 2) Autism Research Institute

Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive 

100 Day Kit for Families of Children Newly Diagnosed with Autism

Your ADHD Child:  Easy Parenting Techniques

My Child was just Diagnosed with ADHD. Now What?

When a child is delayed in development of fine motor skills, learning to print, let alone write in script, can be a tiresome and frustrating task. Working through the frustration to help a child learn to print, and then write their name to the best of their ability has many positive outcomes:

  • It teaches the child how to persevere, develop patience, and pay attention to directions.
  • The child experiences the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult task.
  • The child feels empowered by creating and seeing their own name in print. 
  • The hand skills developed lay the foundation for other ways of communicating such as typing on a keyboard or other device.

Common Challenges in Learning to Write

If a child has a health condition that affects their nerves and muscles, or if there is a learning disorder, it’s easy to understand why it is difficult with learning to write. Handwriting requires communication between the brain and the coordinated effort of the eyes and the muscles of the hand, fingers, wrist, and forearm. The child must be able to develop the strength and dexterity necessary for holding a pen or pencil while keeping the hand steady even as it moves across the page and makes micro-movements to form letters. Add to all of that while sitting still at a desk or table.

For special needs children, including those who have dyslexia, autism, or ADHD, learning to write requires an enormous amount of energy, focus, and practice. It’s good to keep in mind that even children who do not have physical or learning disorders have a difficult time with handwriting—it takes time, patience, and practice for them as well. In fact, many schools use the Handwriting without Tears® curriculum for all children.

Other common challenges in learning handwriting include:

  • Attention span
  • Tolerance for fatigue
  • Grip strength
  • Visual-Spatial skills (the abilty to distinguish between figure-ground, discriminate fine details and shapes, such as between the letter b and the letter p)
  • Over-practicing, leading to frustration and stress.

How to Positively Reinforce Handwriting Skills

If your child is enrolled in a skills class or occupational therapy program that teaches handwriting, you will want to follow the therapist’s instructions for handwriting practice at home. If you are working with your child independently, keep the following things in mind:

  1. Start early. From the moment your child shows interest in pens and other writing tools, encourage their scribbles and make connections between the patterns they make on paper with letters of the alphabet. 
  2. Use a handwriting teaching system. Ideally, you want one that includes workbooks and online tools to include exercises that enhance dexterity and letter formation for both print and cursive. A system gives you a framework from which to teach at home and provides consistency in instruction. In addition to Handwriting without Tears, there are other approaches your child’s therapist can customize to her or his needs. These include a task-oriented approach, a sensorimotor approach, and a multisensory approach, among others.
  3. Have your child say letters (and words) as they write. This auditory feedback helps a child stay focused. 
  4. Reinforce consistency and legibility, not perfection. Letter formation does not have to be perfect or even precise. You should be able to look at the letters and easily determine what they are. Use visual imagery and examples to help your child understand letter formation. For example, letters should not “float like a balloon above the line” or “sink below the surface line.”
  5. Use raised line paper. One of the benefits of raised line paper is that it helps a child write within the lines. It’s also commonly used when a child is transitioning from print to script writing. Ask your child’s therapist about using it for different levels of writing readiness. 
  6. Use comfort grip writing instruments. Pen or pencil or crayon, a comfortable grip helps lesson fatigue and places the child’s fingers where they should be. A variety of comfort grip tools are available; check with your health practitioner for the best option for your child.
  7. Fine tune those fine motor skills and build hand strength. There are many interactive tools and fun toys that can help build strength and dexterity. You might have some of these items at home already, including peg boards, child safe-scissors, and play dough/modeling clay or therapy putty. Cutting paper and thicker materials; pulling pieces off and pushing them into place; playing a round of thumb wrestling; molding and sculpting are al creative ways to enhance fine motor skills and strengthen the hands. 

When a child writes their own name for the very first time, to them it feels like their name is up in lights! Celebrate and reward your child in meaningful ways. Recognize that exercise and practice can help improve these skills but struggle is par for the course. Your child may never write perfectly, but that’s not the goal. Rather, the goal is to be able to communicate as clearly as possible in their own unique handwriting, and establish motor patterns that will be useful in other forms of communication. 


The ABCs of Handwriting for Children with Special Needs.

Improving Handwriting in Children with Autism 

When it Comes to Handwriting, Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect.

Sound City Handwriting Readiness Curriculum

Handwriting Programs: Summary and Bibliography

Handwriting and Letter Formation (Tips for a multisensory approach for all children, some tips may apply to children with special needs.)

Hand Strength and Dexterity Tools & Toys  eSpecialNeeds store

Do you get overwhelmed when choosing a vacation destination that is suitable for your special needs child and exciting for other family members?

You’ll be glad to know there are travel planning services and vacation destinations that are gaining  recognition for specialized services for families with special needs, including ASD and ADHD. For example, cruise lines, and destinations can acquire an Autism Certificate (e.g., Beaches resorts). Another option is for a service, destination or program to receive recognition or designation from one of the national organizations or research centers that specialize in ASD or other special needs, including:

  • SEED (Social Enrichment and Educational Development) Autism Center – for Beaches Resorts 
  • CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disabilities) – centers in different states, for resorts 
  • Autism on the Seas – for cruises
  • Local chapters of national “cause” organizations relevant to your family’s health

To receive the designation as Autism-friendly, the resort or service has to meet certain standards. This usually includes specialized training for employees who assist guests with travel before, during, and after their trip.

While there isn’t a travel industry certification specifically for agents, many who specialize in travel services for special needs do so because they have experience with a special needs child or adult in their family. Some agents may be eligible to acquire an Autism Certificate from a credentialing organization. Others have established a strong network with practitioners, national/regional/state organizations, and support groups.

Tips for Travel Resources and Planning for Special Needs Families

To help you sort through the choices and planning that goes into traveling with your special needs child and their siblings, we brought FAQs to travel specialist Jennifer Trinidad of Majestic Palms Travel, an agent of Modern Travel Professionals. Jennifer is the parent of a sensory hypersensitive child. She and her husband Christian specialize in travel services around the world for families who have children with a wide range of needs, from food allergies to developmental and sensory conditions. They have helped families navigate travel to Disney, Europe, the Far East, Canada, the Caribbean, Hawaii and mainland U.S., as well as cruises.

What are good questions to ask a potential travel agent, to help determine if the agent is a best fit for their family’s needs? 

Take the time to do an initial phone call with the agent(s).  Five basic questions to ask are:

  • How long have they been booking travel?
  • Do they have experience in working with families with differing health needs, as well as your specific concerns?
  • What are their specialty destinations?  
  • Can they provide relevant references?
  • Do they work alone, or are they part of a broader agency? An agent with a support and resource network is incredibly valuable to you as a client.

Keep in mind that the right travel planner for your family may or may not be in your back yard. Many travel planners will work with clients regardless of where they live.

When you speak to an agent, be honest and up front about your concerns, interests, and needs. If the thought of planning the trip, and the “list of all of the possible things that could go wrong” that your brain decides to play on loop makes you want to run for the hills and hide, say so. Every family comes from a different place, mindset and experience level. If your agent knows where you’re really coming from, they’ll be better able to help guide you through the quoting and booking process, and the planning process to follow.  

What types questions should travelers expect the travel planner to ask of them, to make sure they are going to receive the best possible service from that agent?

The goal of any questions an agent will ask should be to generate a conversation so that your needs and what is truly important to you and your family are brought to the surface during the initial quoting. A more directed initial quoting process benefits everyone. For us, we have a set of baseline questions for our clients during the initial conversations. These help us know where to dig further to make sure we look at the destinations that may best suit the family.  

Some of the questions we may ask:

  • What is most important to you and your family in this trip?
  • Are there any destinations or resorts that you definitely are not interested in?
  • Are there any dietary needs within your travel party?  
  • Are there special health needs or conditions within your travel party? (additional questions specific to health needs will follow)
  • What is your family’s activity level?  Do you like to be active and on the go the entire time?  Do you like to sit by the pool or beach all day?  A combination of both?

Which destinations are exceptional in the service and amenities they provide for special needs families?

Families traveling with special needs have a variety of options, and those options will depend on your specific situation, interests, and comfort level:  

For those looking for an all-inclusive option, our favorite for families with special needs of all types are the Beaches resorts in Turks & Caicos and Jamaica. Custom kids programming, experienced staff, a culinary concierge program to support dietary needs and an all-inclusive environment gives everyone a well-deserved break (that means you too, parents and caregivers). 

If you prefer to stay stateside, Tradewinds in St. Petersburg, FL has received an Autism Friendly Certification. Also consider:

  • Myrtle Beach, SC
  • Ocean City, MD
  • Galveston, TX
  • Hampton Beach, NH 
  • Maine coast (York to Bar Harbor, or Acadia National Park) 
  • Southern California area from Anaheim to San Diego.  

Rental homes are available throughout these areas, in addition to hotels.  In Southern California, of course, are the three resorts located on-site at Disneyland in Anaheim.

Of course, there is Walt Disney World in Orlando, which we absolutely love for the many ways the parks accommodate for special needs. We also like Universal Orlando Resort. Universal Orlando is consolidated in size compared to the Disney parks. You can take an accessible walkway from any of the five (soon to be six) resorts to the entrance of Universal CityWalk under 20 minutes. Depending on your on-property resort choice, you’ll also be able to take an accessible water taxi or bus. With advance notice, special dining considerations can be met at many of the full-service restaurants. Universal Orlando’s private and small-group tour guides provide a add-on VIP experiences that may provide the personalized attention some families require. Also, express passes help families avoid congested and long waiting lines. Many rides at Universal Orlando theme parks also have a Family Waiting Room, providing a safe and sheltered place for those not riding to await those that are.  

Many of the U.S. National Parks have accessible trails and activities, as do some states’ parks (check with your specific state).  Depending on your specific situation, there are also cabin rentals in many parks across the country, such as Allegheny State Park on the NY/PA border, as well as RV parking/camping areas. Amtrak vacations are also a nice way to enjoy both the journey and the destination.

For more adventurous or globetrotting families, we recommend Adventures by Disney tours.  With over 40 land and river cruise itineraries around the world (including the U.S and Canada), Adventures by Disney is different from other “group tour” companies.  Aside from many immersive and unique “backstage” experiences included in your package (such as private, after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel in Rome), each tour is led by two Adventure Guides who specialize in the locations and can work with their guests on activity levels and other needs.  While not every itinerary can be customized to every need, Adventures by Disney will have those discussions with travel agents and guests during both the booking process and planning process (so you don’t deposit a trip your family won’t be able to do).

Cruise lines have also take up the mantle of accessible accommodations.  Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line have been recognized for their support of children and adults with Autism and other disabilities; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have received formal Autism Friendly Cruise Line certification. All can accommodate several dietary needs. If accessibility is needed, work with your travel agent to assist you with securing an accessible room and onboard accessibility devices from approved partner vendors. 

Final tips to help families make a choice for travel destination? 

Destination choices generally come down two core considerations: 

  • Your family’s specific situation. Beaches Resorts are phenomenal, but if a plane ride, sun, sand, and ocean are not an environment compatible with your family’s situation, don’t book it. It sounds like common sense, but there are families out there who have booked something not in line with their needs hoping it will all work out, only to find themselves very unhappy. Kids can surprise you and enjoy something you never imagined they would. Make trip planning a family affair—include everyone in the planning process before and after you select a travel planner.
  • Value. I say “value” rather than “budget,” because while there are sometimes amazing deals and discounts, “you get what you pay for” rings true more often than not in the travel industry. A good example of this could be your resort room category. If you need a room in a quieter area of a resort rather than in a more active location, it could be a more expensive room than you expected. It may or may not be worth the expense, but make sure to consider all aspects. 

Keep in mind that the right travel planner for your family may or may not be at the agency in your hometown or the one owned by your cousin Sally. Search online and research agents and their services as much as you can. Many travel planners will work with clients regardless of where they live. Finally, allow your travel planner to help you think through where it makes the most sense to allocate your hard-earned travel investment in alignment with your family’s needs. 


Special Needs Vacation Spots (list provided by

Allergy-Friendly Travel Resources (provided by Majestic Palm Travel Agency)

Cruise Planners: Easy Access Travel; “Autism on the High Seas”

ASD Vacations and Special Needs Travel

World Travel Excursions – Agencies specializing in family and group travel around the globe; list provided by

CARD Center for Autism Disorders find locations and then visit the. If you don’t see resort/vacation designations for a state, call the center for assistance.

SEED (Social Enrichment and Educational Development) Autism Center 

Wednesday, 31 May 2017 14:53

Physical Activity Benefits Autism

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For children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a sedentary lifestyle (including too much time on electronic devices), can worsen ASD symptoms and contribute to additional health problems such as obesity, motor impairment, and isolation. It’s been reported that as many as 40% of children age 10-17, who have autism are overweight or obese. Other studies indicate that among children age 2-19 who have autism, up to 36% are at risk for being overweight. The primary reason for these higher rates among ASD children is insufficient physical activity—the very activity that can enhance their quality of life.

Children on the Spectrum benefit from physical activity just as much, and perhaps more, than typically developing children.

In addition to boosting cardiovascular fitness and strength, children on the Spectrum who participate in regular physical activity and/or organized sports and fitness programs can make great improvement in their

  • balance and coordination
  • fine motor skills
  • overall motor function
  • self-control 
  • ability to focus on a task
  • auditory, visual, and tactile skills

Even beyond these physical benefits, participation in regular sports or fitness programs can enhance the child’s emotional wellbeing, boost self-esteem, and improve social skills. So what’s keeping kids on the Spectrum from being involved in an exercise or sports program?

Why aren’t Children with Autism More Physically Active?

Ironically, many of the benefits of physical activity tie into the reasons why caregivers are hesitant to enroll a Spectrum child in a fitness program or to allow them to play outdoors regularly. It’s true, there are challenges:  Spectrum children can have limitations in motor skills. They may not be able to plan ahead, anticipate, and respond in ways that allow for success at a task. Children with autism can become overwhelmed by the increased auditory, visual, and sensory stimuli in a sports or fitness setting. However, if a program is planned and executed properly, all of these challenges can be managed and physical activity can be an appropriate intervention activity that helps kids on the Spectrum thrive.

How to Help a Child with Autism be More Physically Active

First, speak with your child’s care team—psychologist, physical therapist, or physician—to assess your child’s level of readiness and to customize a program. Some children may begin with visits to a playground at a quiet time when they can be slowly introduced to appropriate equipment. Also, daily walks for increasing lengths of time and over different terrain (hills, wooded, city streets) can be a great beginning on the path to physical fitness. Others might join a small fitness class with children who have similar abilities/limits. For some children, the best first step may be learning at home by exploring different size balls from different types of sports, learning about the sports, and over time exploring the skills for a particular sport or activity of interest.

Swimming is a wonderful activity for children who do not have a sensory issue with water. Many towns and private aquatic facilities offer swim lessons for special needs children. Local yoga studios offer programs specifically designed for differing abilities. There is even a special certification for working with children who have autism and other special developmental needs. Another avenue to introduce fitness to your child is to bring her/him to observe other children involved in sports programs. Discuss how the children follow the coach’s instruction and work together toward a goal. Point out how the children are of different sizes and abilities. Your healthcare team can guide you to the right first steps or to organized programs that best suit your child’s needs.

What to Look for in a Physical Fitness Program for Children with Autism

Ask your child’s healthcare providers for referrals. Your child’s behavior specialist may even teach programs at their facility. Inquire with support groups, YMCA or JCC, and non-profit organizations that provide services for special needs children.

Once you’ve made a list of possible programs: Visit facilities and meet with instructors to discuss your child’s needs. Be sure to observe classes. Ask for a trial class or a trial week.

Instructors should be trained to understand and teach to the needs of children with ASD. They may have degrees in adaptive physical education or exercise science with a specialization in developmental disorders. The instructor should demonstrate understanding of the physical, emotional, and sensory needs of your child. By observing a class, you should be able to see how the instructor breaks down specific exercises/physical tasks, helps children set goals, and provides positive behavior support as well as appropriate correction. 

By getting your child involved with a regular program of physical activity, you are giving them an opportunity to challenge themself within appropriate boundaries, enhance their physical and emotional well being, and to move beyond the perceptions of what children with ASD can or cannot do.

Autism Friendly Fitness Centers in Connecticut:

The ASD Fitness Center

Autism Speaks List of Recreation Activities (provides a searchable database by state) 

Yoga Movement Therapy in Central Connecticut


Obesity takes heavy toll on children with autism. (10 Sept 2015). post by Jessica Wright. Accessed 8 May 2017: (website and book by Eric Chessen). (free e-book available)

Sports, Exercise, and the Benefits of PHsyical Acitivitty for Individuals with Autism. (9 Feb 2009) : 

Autism and Swimming:  children with Autism can Benefit from Physical Activity.  

Physical Exercise and Autism. Edelson, Stephen. Autism Research Institute: 

Jones, R. A., Downing, K., Rinehart, N. J., Barnett, L. M., et. al., (2017). Physical activity, sedentary behavior and their correlates in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A systematic review. PLoS ONE, 12(2), e0172482. 


Dillon, S. R., Adams, D., Goudy, L., Bittner, M., & McNamara, S. (2016). Evaluating Exercise as Evidence-Based Practice for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 290.


Bandini, L. G., Gleason, J., Curtin, C., Lividini, K., Anderson, S. E., Cermak, S. A., Maslin, M., & Must, A. (2013). Comparison of physical activity between children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. Autism, 17(1), 44–54. doi:10.1177/1362361312437416

Broder-Fingert, S., Brazauskas, K., Lindgren, K., Iannuzzi, D., & Van Cleave, J. (2014). Prevalence of overweight and obesity in a large clinical sample of children with autism. Academic Pediatrics, 14(4), 408–414. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2014.04.004

Saturday, 06 May 2017 11:53

Diet and ADHD

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The ADHD – Diet Connection

Diet and nutrition can play a crucial role in helping manage symptoms of ADHD. Recently, a lot of attention is being given to the amount of processed foods in the diet because these foods often contain additives and preservatives that are not natural to the food supply, and surely not natural to our bodies. 

Some experts recommend people with ADHD avoid these substances:

  • Food Dyes/Artificial Food Colors (AFCs)
  • Food additives such as aspartame, MSG (monosodium glutamate), and nitrites.
  • BHA and BHT, food preservatives that affect food flavor, color, and odor and can reduce nutrient quality. Both have caused cancer in lab mice.

AFCs are widely used by manufacturers across the globe to make food more colorful and enticing. Food dyes are most commonly found in foods marketed for children, but even adults are attracted to brightly colored foods. The amount of dyes used in foods has increased 500 % since the 1950s, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

These artificial molecules can bond to food or body protein, which means they can “hide in the body” and disrupt the immune system. This can have significant consequences that affect gastrointestinal function, auto-immunity and even brain and behavior. For some children, ADHD can be triggered and worsened by these synthetic colors, flavors and preservatives. 

What is an Elimination Diet?

An elimination diet simply means certain foods and/or food additives are removed from a person’s diet in order to see if symptoms improve. Things may get mildly better, improve drastically or not at all, depending on the person. Dietary change can be tricky because what and when we eat are intricately tied to physical cues, social setting, mood, and the kind of food that is available and affordable. Elimination diets have been around since the 1970’s, pioneered by Benjamin Feingold, M.D. who studied the effect of food chemicals and the role of nutrition in addressing learning and behavior disorders in children.

Over the decades, many studies in Europe and the U.S. have tested Feingold’s approach and other types of elimination diets. While traditional research finds little support for radical restriction diets, evidence does indicate elimination diets have value and can bring about a change in ADHD symptoms in some children. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics now agrees that eliminating preservatives and food colorings from the diet is a reasonable option for children with ADHD. 

In addition to eliminating AFCs, BHA, and BHT from the diet, some children may still require other support. This can include educational adjustments, behavior modification, life skills training, stress management, psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and prescription medication. Like any medical or behavioral intervention, treatment benefits will vary based on a many factors such as when a child is diagnosed, the type of ADHD symptoms present, and co-occurrence of other medical conditions.

Elimination Diets are Easier than You May Think

Parents often worry that following an elimination diet or other special diet will be expensive and/or difficult—that children will dislike the changes required. But that’s usually not the case. A quick search online brings up a variety of ADHD-diet friendly recipes and shopping tips to help families make it easy to incorporate the changes into their meal planning and still enjoy a variety of delicious foods. If the whole family gets onboard with the diet, the child feels supported and the health of the whole family can improve, too.

  • Don’t make a big deal about the change
  • Make small changes, first, where your child may be least likely to notice (e.g., baking homemade cookies – you control the ingredients – instead of buying boxed)
  • Keep a variety of whole, fresh foods available
  • Reduce your visits to fast food restaurants
  • If you’re child is old enough, involve them in grocery shopping and making wise choices
  • Involve your child in food prep and cooking—make it fun!

Just remember, dietary change and behavior is a complex area of study, and while research has not established a direct cause-and-effect, it may be worthwhile to talk with your child’s doctor or a nutritionist about the connection between what they’re eating and their behavior. 

What is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a multi-faceted condition that can be triggered by varying environmental, behavioral, and biological factors. A child with ADHD shows an inability to focus and/or impulsivity that is not developmentally typical for her or his age. Symptoms of ADHD fall on a spectrum from predominantly inattentive on one end to predominantly hyperactive at the other end. To be diagnosed with ADHD, a child must have a cluster of symptoms present for 6 or more months that is significantly different from other kids the same age. The symptoms must affect the child’s ability to thrive in at least two environments—usually, home and school.


“Seeing Red: Time for Action on Food Dyes” (Jan 2016) Center for Science in the Public Interest

“FDA Probes Link Between Food Dye, Kids’ Behavior: NPR” by April Fulton (2011) 

Nigg, Joel T., & Holton, K. “Restriction and Elimination Diets in ADHD Treatment.” Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America 23.4 (2014), p. 937–953. PMC. 

Diet & Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” Harvard Health Newsletter. 

“Should  You be Worried about Food Dyes?” by Anna Medaris Miller (March 2016) US News and World Reports 

Diet & ADHD Research Studies. 

Lyon, M. & Murray, T., “ADHD.”as cited in Pizzorno, J. E. & Murray, M.T. Textbook of Natural Medicine: 4th Ed. (2013) Chapter 150, p. 1252-1259. 

Verlaet AAJ, Noriega DB, et al., “Nutrition, immunological mechanisms and dietary immunomodulation in ADHD.” European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2014 Jul) 23:7, p. 519-29. doi: 10.1007/s00787-014-0522-2. 

“Two Preservatives to Avoid”

“The ADHD Food Fix” by Sandy Newmark, M.D.,

“ADHD Diets” WebMD 

Bell, C.C. A Comparison of Daily Consumption of Artificial Dye-containing Foods by American Children and Adults.  (2013, March) Master’s Thesis Eastern Michigan University. 

Vojdani & Vojdani, “Immune reactivity to food coloring.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (2011) 21 Suppl, p. 1:52-62. 

Stevens, L.J. et al., “Amounts of artificial food dyes and added sugars in foods and sweets commonly consumed by children.” Clinical Pediatrics (2014 Apr 24), p. 1-13. Accessed 9 April 2017: 

Choosing a summer camp for a child with autism or other special needs can quickly becoming overwhelming. Our summer camp planning tips will help you gather and organize information so you can make the best camp choice for your child. 

In any geographic area, but particularly in our corner of Southern New England, there are myriad traditional and specialty camps designed for every age and ability. Some camps will run the entire summer while others offer shorter sessions (1-2 weeks). Traditional camps may accommodate for certain special needs, and may be a suitable option. Or, you may prefer a camp that exclusively works with specific needs such as autism or learning disabilities. The best way to narrow down your options is to focus on the objectives you have for your child’s camp experience, the camp’s capabilities and operations, and your budget.

Set Objectives.

Think about the purpose behind sending your child to camp: 

  • Do you want them to enhance social skills, play sports, get more depth in academic subjects, or just have fun exploring new horizons? 
  • Would you like them to go to day camp or residential?
  • Would they do best in a boys/girls only or a co-ed camp?
  • Do they require a special needs only camp or an traditional mixed ability camp?
  • What about camp size… a sprawling woodlands campus, urban setting or something smaller and closer to home?
  • What activities interest your child? What new experiences could enhance her development? Many special needs camps include physical activities, such as climbing, swimming, or field sports. They often include arts activities such as music, drama, and fine arts. Outdoor activities are usually a staple of traditional and special needs camps; children learn to safely explore and learn about nature and work as part of a team. Academics can be another camp focus, including STEM programs, and diving deeper into literature, writing, communication skills, speech and language acquisition, and independent living skills.

Unless your child’s interests are highly specific or they have highly specific needs, the first time away at any camp, you may want to consider a camp that offers an array of experiences. You’ll want to balance that with your child's level of readiness to move outside their comfort zone, something that should be discussed with your child’s healthcare team.

How ready is your child for the camp experience? Once you’ve thought about objective for your child’s camp experience, consult with their healthcare team, teachers, and therapists. They can help you determine if your objectives are realistic. You should discuss your child’s level of readiness for a particular experience, if it is time to nudge them toward a new experience, and how to best prepare your child. As you continue with your research, you’ll likely revisit this conversation with your child’s team.

Do Your Camp Homework

If you can, tour any camp of interest the year before you send your child. This gives you a chance to see how the camp operates while in session with registered campers. Certainly plan to attend camp fairs where you can gather info on a variety of camps in your region. Most camps offer a preview day so you and your child can experience a day of camp life. There are many regional and state camp directories on line to facilitate your research. (See Resources at end of article).

Interview the camp director and head counselors by phone or in person. Key questions to ask:

Camp Operations Questions

  • How long has the camp been operating?
  • Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association?
  • What is the camper-to-counselor ratio? 
  • What’s the counselor-to-camper ratio and what’s the staff turnover rate? 
  • What  background checks are made? 
  • How many counselors per campers work at the camp?  
  • What type of specialized training do counselors complete, or do they have credentials and experience working with special needs children?
  • How is the staff selected? 
  • Will the camp provide references of other families who have attended the camp?
  • What percentage of campers return each year?
  • What are the special needs camp’s philosophy and goals? 
  • How does the camp communicate with families and how often?

Daily Camp Life

  • What are the health and safety policies, and is the camp equipped for emergency situations?
  • Who prepares the food, and does the camp take into account the food allergies or specifications of each child?
  • What medical care is available? Can they maintain your child’s therapeutic schedule and accommodate special diets?
  • For traditional camps, is there any therapeutic programming? 
  • How does the camp handle homesickness? 
  • How structured is the daily schedule? Can campers choose which activities to participate in?
  • Is it possible to arrange for a one-to-one buddy? For residential camps, what’s the level of overnight supervision?
  • How are large groups of children managed? What are the small group activities?
  • How accessible are buildings, trails, pools and waterfront, transportation?


  • Are there additional costs for certain activities? What is the total cost of the special needs / traditional camp? Is there a refund policy in case the individual must leave early or cancel before attending camp?
  • Do they work with insurance reimbursement? Scholarships or financial aid?

Be honest with the camp about your child. You not only want to interview the camp, you want the camp to show a vested interest in learning about your child. What questions do they ask about your child? What paperwork do they keep on file? Do they communicate with your healthcare team on an as needed basis (with your consent)?

Be honest about your child’s needs, strengths and areas for development. Be forthcoming about their limitations socially, emotionally, and physically. For example, if your child needs assistance to get the day started but by afternoon is more independent and energetic, let the counselors know this so your child’s daily schedule can be adjusted accordingly. If your child has behavior issues, let the camp know.

Prepare your child for camp

If this will be your child’s first time at any camp, plan extended period of time that they are apart from you. Arrange long day trips with friends or family so your child gets use to being apart from you for the day. Especially for residential camp prep, arrange a sleepover with a so they can get used to being away from home. Begin with one night and progress to three nights for a more immersive test experience. 

When the time for camp arrives, pack a photo album or other reminders of the family in their bag. If they use digital devices at camp, record messages from family and store photos and favorite songs on it. It may also help to alert counselors to comforting routines for meals or bedtime. You and your care team also should talk with your child about homesickness. You can share your personal experiences and let them know it is just temporary to feel homesick.

You’ll make a great camp choice if you do your homework, consult with the child’s care team, and focus on where your child will thrive in the camp experience, and be able to partake in activities that interest her/him while addressing their special needs.

To get started exploring your options, learn more about Talcott’s Summer Camp Programs…so many adventures await for your child!


Disability info Camp Directories: An index of special needs camps searchable by state.

Summer Fun Camp Guide, Federation for Children with Special Needs

Online and downloadable guide that organizes camps by category (e.g., autism, learning disability, metabolic condition, physical condition, etc)

The Camp Page

Connecticut Special Needs Camp Directory 2017

Asperger/Autism Network:  Choosing a Summer Camp

Autism Consortium:  Time for Summer Planning

Special Needs Alliance: Choosing a Summer Camp for Kids with Special Needs 

Special  “How to Choose a Summer Camp”

Monday, 13 February 2017 14:09

Interfering or Inappropriate Behaviors in Autism

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We all have behaviors that can get in the way of being our best self at home, school or at work. We might lose our cool and want to scream at a co-worker. We can get stressed and want to hit something. But, we don’t. The executive thinking center of the brain doesn’t let us exhibit a behavior that will, ultimately interfere with our well-being. And that ability—to not scream, to not hit—is not easy for children on the Autism spectrum. 

Some behaviors displayed by children on the Autism spectrum would challenge the patience of angels. (Perhaps this is why parents of ASD children are often referred to as angels!) These challenging behaviors are often referred to as interfering behavior. In essence, these behaviors disrupt positive interactions with others and within certain settings such as home, school, or public places. When not managed effectively, Interfering Behavior (IB) has a detrimental effect on the social, emotional, and/or physical wellbeing of the child, his or her family, and peers.

What are Interfering Behaviors?

Interfering behavior varies among children with Autism and can range from mild, periodic vocal outbursts to inappropriate sexual touching. These behaviors disrupt the child’s day-to-day activities and prevent positive interactions with other people.

Interfering Behaviors commonly seen in Autism include, but are not limited to:

  • A tantrum that appears uncontrollable
  • Refusal to cooperate to perform a task (eat, get dressed, play a game, do homework)
  • Running from the authority figure at home, in public, at school
  • Hiding under the table
  • Eating non-edible items such as paper, erasers, soap
  • Making loud noises when quiet is expected
  • Laughing at inappropriate social times (e.g., at a funeral)
  • Destroying property
  • Being aggressive or threatening aggression
  • Banging one’s head on a wall, desk, etc. and other self-harming actions

What Causes Interfering Behavior in Autism?

Deficiencies in verbal and written communication skills, deficits in interpersonal interaction, sensory sensitivity, and difficulties with higher-level thinking and judgment are factors that underlie IB. The inappropriate behavior can result from the deficit in the skill needed to communicate feelings, needs and wants, or to successfully complete a task.

Here are a few examples:

Suri does not have language skills to communicate she wants to go outside. She throws a doll at the window to indicate this. She doesn’t know what else to do. 

Ian has limitations with hand coordination that may make playing a game hard for him. Out of frustration he throws a temper tantrum. 

A big part of healthy social functioning is linked to understanding the rules of social behavior. We listen to others when they speak. We shake hands or wave good-bye at appropriate times. Most children with Autism don’t understand the basic rules that govern how to develop friendships, how to ask for help, or when they should or shouldn’t share their private thoughts or physical bodies with others. 

John pushes a child in class because he wants to play but they aren’t paying attention to him. Pushing gets the other child’s attention, just not in a way desired or socially accepted.

Children with autism expect routine in order to feel secure in their surroundings. When routine is broken, they may have an outburst. The outburst disrupts their activity and the activity of those around them, but that is not the reason for the outburst. The outburst is their way of expressing the stress they feel and a lack of a healthy way to cope. 

Keep in mind that a behavior is a learned process. The first time a child learns that throwing the toy (rather than going to to the adult to indicate help is needed) gets attention and gets the problem resolved, the behavior is reinforced; the child will use it again and again. While behavior is typically learned over time, it can be reinforced in as little as one instance.

  • Behavior is performed to serve a need or a purpose.
  • When a child’s behavior results in a need being met, the behavior is reinforced. 
  • A behavior that is reinforced (achieves the desired outcome) will be repeated.

It’s also very important to remember that there is no one purpose or set of reasons why a given behavior develops. Two children who both have Autism may use the same IB for very different purposes.

How are Interfering Behaviors Managed?

Understanding how behavior is learned (a.k.a. the learning process) and the need it meets helps clinicians and parents identify how to manage the IB.  

In Autism research, a variety of Applied Behavior Analytic (ABA) methods have been shown to be effective for managing IB. Some of these methods/strategies are: Functional Communication Training (FCT), Visual Supports, Extinction, and Differential Reinforcement. 

Managing IB involves a variety of steps that will be unique to each child and family, and perhaps even to different settings in which the behavior can occur. The strategies used to change IB aim to 

  • nurture respect for the child and the situations in which they live, learn, and play;
  • provide a positive approach to prevent the behavior from occurring in the first place; and
  • identify ways to change the IB or replace it with appropriate behavior.

These strategies can result in significant improvement in the child’s behavior and enhance quality of life at home, school, and in the community.


Boyd, B. A., McDonough, S. G., & Bodfish, J. W. (2012). Evidence-Based Behavioral Interventions for Repetitive Behaviors in Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(6), 1236–1248.

Dunlap G. and Phil Strain.  Challenging Behaviors, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Prevent- Teach-Reinforce.  Presentation Accessed 7 Feb 2017:  “Family Services: Challenging Behavior Toolkit.” Accessed 7 Feb 2017: 

Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence. “Behaviors and ASD” Accessed 7 Feb 2017: 

As a parent or caregiver to a child who has Autism, it’s quite likely you’ll be asked to participate in a treatment approach called Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. It may sound intimidating but it’s really a quite simple, thorough and effective approach to helping a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. ABA has been used in schools, child development programs, clinical treatment programs, and even in fitness, healthcare, and sports programs among many other settings.

What is ABA?

Applied Behavior Analysis is a systematic approach that applies psychological principles of how people learn to help change an undesired behavior. It is also used to help someone learn and maintain new behaviors that facilitate healthy functioning in real life situations. Essentially, if a behavior can be observed and measured, then ABA principles can be used to either increase or decrease the frequency and/or intensity of that behavior.

In treating Autism Spectrum Disorders, ABA aims to improve socially significant behaviors such as communication skills, gross and fine motor skills, eating and food preparation, personal hygiene and self-care, and work and academic skills. Therapists routinely assess strategies to ensure that improvement in a behavior can be directly attributed to the ABA plan.

How ABA Supports a Person with Autism

  • increases desirable behaviors using positive reinforcement for performing a specific behavior (e.g., teeth-brushing, eating with utensils, completing homework)
  • teaches new skills using systematic instruction and reinforcement strategies to help establish functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills
  • teaches self control and self-monitoring strategies so a person can be productive at home, and/or in academic, work and social settings
  • generalizes a behavior or skill from one situation to another (e.g., not making an outburst at home as well as at school or while at a restaurant).
  • adjusts situations that may trigger unacceptable behaviors to occur (e.g., removing toys during homework time)
  • reduces interfering behaviors such as self-injury (hitting one’s head on the wall out of frustration), destroying property, or other physical/ emotional outbursts.

Getting Started with ABA

If ABA has been recommended for your family member with Autism, the first thing to take place is an in-depth analysis of the child’s current behaviors and how those behaviors meet certain needs in a particular environment. An ABA trained clinician will identify and discuss these behaviors and why they occur in certain settings (but maybe not in others). The objective is to determine ways to modify the behavior by looking at a variety of factors:

  • the physical environment in which the behavior occurs
  • any triggers within the physical environment that contribute to the frequency or intensity of the behavior

The clinician will work with you and your child to determine new skills that can be taught to appropriately change behavior while improving health, safety, functional skills, social relationships, and independence for your child. 

What Makes ABA Different?

There are no “canned programs” in ABA; goals are always individualized to meet the unique needs of each child. How long ABA takes “to work” depends upon the child, family involvement and use of ABA strategies at home, and the behavior(s) that need to be changed or enhanced. Success is rewarded with positive reinforcement to maintain high motivation for improvement and maintenance of expected behavior. More so than many other types of interventions, clinicians track progress on specific strategies and behavior through collection and evaluation of data. 

The Parent’s Role in ABA Treatment

Parents have a critical role in the child’s success in an ABA program. Your insights about your child’s daily activities, preferences, and her or his disposition can help guide the ABA program. Parental participation is necessary to effectively reinforce the child’s progress through the behavior change process. Parents also record and track ABA data in the home, school and community settings in which a child is involved. This information is vital in helping the clinician assess “the what and the why” of specific behaviors in a variety of contexts the clinical does not see outside the office. Without exception, active parental involvement in the ABA program helps a child make steady progress and ensures he or she experiences success.


“Getting to Know ABA”  

Applied Behavior Strategies website describes ABA, practical applications and parent roles when ABA is used in treatment programs.

Applied Behavior Analysis: A Parents Guide extensive information from AutismSpeaks

ABA Resources from Center for Autism and Related Disorders

Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Myers, Scott M., MD, (October 2007), American Academy of Pediatrics.

Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism, and Occupational Therapy: A Search for Understanding, Christie D. Welch; H. J. Polatajko, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, May 2016, Vol. 70.

Whether it’s summer vacation or holiday season travel, preparing a child or adult family member with autism for long-distance travel is a major undertaking. From packing to getting on the road, there are a few key steps you that can help make travel less stressful and more comfortable for your family.

There are two important differences between holiday travel and vacation destination travel. First, with winter holiday travel such as during Hanukkah and Christmas, your purpose is typically to see family and friends. In all likelihood, your family will be staying at the home of someone you know and trust, and with whom you can easily take steps to help acclimate your special needs family member. Even if you stay at a nearby hotel, your visit will revolve around activities with family and friends. That’s very different from staying at a resort or theme park destination, where you plan to “see and do” with much less control over your surroundings.

The second issue with holiday season travel is volume. More people are on the road during the holidays. Lines are longer, space is more congested, there’s more noise and lights, and security is heightened. You can opt to travel at times when crowds are predicted to be less heavy, but those tickets might not fit the family budget or schedule. 

Whether by plane or train, the following tips can help you manage traveling with an autistic family member with greater peace-of-mind:

Pre-departure Preparation

Once you’ve chosen your mode of travel, you want to help your family member deal with fear of the unknown, If you’ve chosen airline or train travel, slowly introduce the process to your child until you can execute a practice day prior to your departure date. 

  • Read books about traveling by plane or train
  • Watch videos (YouTube has several; watch movies that feature air/train travel)
  • Share stories and photos about your travel experiences. 
  • Make it educational: For higher functioning children, you can teach them to read a map, marking your departure and arrival destinations, and also have them navigate the airport, noting interesting things along the way to your gate.

Finally, schedule a few rides to the airport or train station. First, just drive there. A few days later drive there, park the car, and walk in. To further help you with the familiarization process, call your travel agent (if you’ve used one) about scheduling an orientation for your child. Also, search online for a Wings for Autism program near you and call the TSA Cares helpline. Both have programs for autistic passengers. Many airlines, airports and train stations also have their own programs and tours for children with special needs.


A quick Google search will reveal dozens of different ways to pack your bags. The most important thing is to make sure you have medications and your child’s favorite snacks packed in your carry on bag. If you are flying, it’s also a good idea to place one or two outfits for your special needs family member in more than one suitcase. This way, if one bag gets lost, you still have outfits your child is comfortable wearing.  Also, have your child pick one or two small plush toys to bring on board. You might have to explain why they can’t bring their big blanket on board, but maybe you can ask grandma to keep one just like it at her house. 

Pre-departure Jitters

Even if all the preparation was done well, your child may still have a meltdown. If you are concerned about being separated from your child, have a temporary safety tattoo made and placed on their forearm. Alternatively, you can have a purchase a Medical ID bracelet or a safety alert t-shirt. 

In the event that your child becomes anxious just as you begin to board the train or plane, you may want to have medication on hand to calm their nerves. Speak with your child’s physician about this a well before your trip. 

Checked-in, On Board & Underway

Once on board, you will want to have tools to help your child feel less overwhelm from the hustle all around them. Your “kid’s pack” might include noise-cancelling headphones, music and games, dark sunglasses, books, and anything handheld that will keep her engaged. If you were able to reserve a window seat, that may be a great option for your child.

Phew! You’ve made it through the trip and arrived safely at your family’s holiday destination. Hopefully, you’ve read books or watched videos about your destination and shown pictures of unfamiliar family members to  your child—maybe even had a few Skype calls. To make your family holiday time merry, make sure to brief the family members you’ll be visiting about what to expect and how to interact with your child


Ten Strategies for Traveling with a Child with Autism – Autism Speaks

Wings for Autism program to help prepare children for air travel.

TSA Cares Helpline:  1-855-787-2227 

Amtrak reservations for persons with a disability 

Holiday Travel First Aid Check List – 

Specialized Travel Services for Persons with Special Needs 

Autistic Traveler – information source and services for travel with autistic children.

Autistic Globetrotting – a resource for international travel with an autistic family member

For a child on the autism spectrum, the shimmery swish of tinsel and flashing holiday lights can cause a meltdown of epic proportion. There are several things you can do to manage sensory overstimulation and help your special needs child thrive during the holiday hustle.

Parents and caregivers need to be aware of their child’s tolerance level for different types of stimulation and the duration for which they can handle it. Some kids on the spectrum will have an immediate reaction to any kind of stimuli, especially unfamiliar situations, sights, and sounds. Other children may tolerate hours or even days of excitement leading up to your family’s day of merriment—until they reach a tipping point. You can help your child maintain equilibrium by incorporating some of the following tips in your holiday plans.

Plan to be Prepared. Experienced parents of special needs children have learned that preparation is the first and most important step. While you won’t be able to prepare for everything, you can plan ahead in ways that will ease your child, yourself and any family members into the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays.

Here are few planning pointers:

  • Share the meaning of the season with your child. Use props or visual aids to introduce them to the sights, sounds, and smells they may encounter during the holidays. If suitable for your child, begin sharing information and visual resources (books, pictures, lights, candle scents, ornaments, etc.) a few weeks before the holiday hoopla gets into full swing.
  • Recognize when to remove holiday décor. Your favorite caramel scented candle might send your child into a tailspin. There’s a lot you won’t know about how your child will respond, which is why it is important to pace holiday decorating. There will always be something that you never expected to upset your child. Remove it without making an issue of it. Keep a list of these items so you’ll remember for next year.
  • Plan “cushion time” into your scheduled activities. Periods of stimulation need to be bookended with periods of rest. If you know your child’s limit for excitement is 90 minutes, add a buffer of 15 minutes before and after that time so you both can get acclimated and, after the event, settle down before getting into the car to go home.

Create Consistent Traditions. Every child likes to count on something special every holiday and your special needs child may need that more than other kids. Whatever it is—new holiday pajamas, making a specific type of cookie, hanging stockings in a certain place—find what helps your child connect with the holiday and repeat that meaningful activity each year.

Keep Family Informed. This is especially important for extended family that do not live with or near you but with whom you will celebrate. Let them know what to expect from your child and remind them of the range of stimuli—including holiday hugging—that may overwhelm your child. Ask them to respect boundaries and to take no offense if you have to leave the party early.

Create a Retreat Space. In your own home, and to the extent possible in the homes you will visit, identify a quiet space where you can retreat with your child.

Yes, Your Can Visit Santa! Go when the lines are shortest and the mall is quietest. Some shopping centers designate a specific date/time for special needs children to visit with Santa, often called a “Sensitive Santa Program” (see Resources list at end of article).

Rest & Recovery Days. You’ll feel pressure to see and do it all during the holidays. Most of us who don’t have special needs feel like we need the energy of a triathlete to get through it all. Even if your child appears to be handling things terrifically, schedule “rest and recovery days” where you stay at home and disengage from dashing about town. 

Partner with other Families. Connect with other special needs families in your community. You will find support and wisdom from those who have more experience and who can help guide you to find what will work for your child and your family.

Give Gifts that Matter to Your Child. You’ll drive yourself crazy shopping for age appropriate gifts that may not necessarily be suitable for a spectrum child. Your child may have her or his heart set on a toy that makes no sense to you. But it resonates with your kid on some level. Where possible, include these gifts that your child is drawn to. It may also help to make a holiday gift list to share with other family members who will shop for your child.  

Take Care of Yourself. You are your child’s world. If you are burnt out, they will sense that and it will discomfort them. Take time to care for your physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. This also means forgiving yourself when things don’t go as planned.

The holiday season for a special needs child and their family can be just as joyous as any other family’s celebration. Perhaps, even more so as you create simple traditions that fill everyone’s heart with all that truly matters.


Information on various holiday preparations: 

Downloadable guide for ages birth and up; covers gift giving, family preparation, Santa visits, Hanukkah. Holiday Survival Guide for Families with Special Needs Children 

Sensory Friendly Santa Programs:

Parenting Special Needs Magazine “Surviving the Holidays” by Donna B. Wexler

Travel, Photo, Shopping  & Activity Tips: 

Autism Speaks Downloadable PDF for Reducing Holiday Stress: 

Enjoying the Holidays with an Autistic Child:

12 Holiday Tips from the Autism Society

Personal Interviews with parents of special needs children.

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