Going on eight years ago, Special-Ism began as a small personal blog entitled, Our Journey Thru Autism. About five years ago, the name changed to Special-Ism to cover a wider range of isms – what we refer to as challenges. Special-Ism has grown over the years into a wonderful resource covering many isms to educate, to support, to provide solutions, to raise awareness and to generate acceptance.
Editorial Director, Tiffani Lawton, states, “Going on seven and a half years ago, I connected with a wonderful woman named Joanna Keating-Velasco who published a book entitled, A is for Autism, F is for Friend. Little did I know at the time, Joanna, would be one of my longest standing connections on this amazing journey.”
As a paraprofessional working intimately with children with various isms, Joanna has shared immensely valuable insights to our readers over the years.
World Autism Awareness > Autism Acceptance
Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day. A is for Autism, F is for Friend. Yes, friend. As Haley Moss, another Special-Ism writer shares, “we need to move beyond awareness and move into acceptance”. If you become more accepting of the differences in others, you may just find a very good friend. Joanna’s overall mission has been to educate beyond awareness and to inspire us all to a place of complete and total acceptance.
Inspiration behind A is for Autism
Joanna was inspired to write A is for Autism, F is for Friend by many of her students, past and present. Joanna works daily with students with autism. Her students are diagnosed on the more severe side of the spectrum and are effectively non-verbal. Joanna shares, “Working one-on-one with each student, I have discovered unique ways to communicate with each of my students. At the time of writing the book, I felt that each and every one of my students had a story to share with no way to share it.”
Joanna dedicated A is for Autism, F is for Friend to one special relationship she developed with a former student named Jon. “Jon helped me to realize that if we take the time to get to know a person with autism on a personal level, that individual will open up to you in a unique and rewarding way.”
A Rainbow of Friends – Goal of Acceptance
In thinking about the word “spectrum” and contemplating kid friendly language, Joanna imagined a rainbow. Joanna recalls some lovely rainbows she has seen in nature. Joanna shares, “Each rainbow I have seen creates a unique experience and a special memory. Rainbows remind me of how unique and memorable each child with autism is.
A rainbow is a spectrum of colors and this book takes it a step further to represent the rainbow of friends. When Joanna does book signings, she inscribes, “Friends are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I hope you will join my rainbow of friends.”
Facilitating Discussion – Creating Acceptance
In this little book designed for children, you will find a multitude of take-aways to help facilitate friendships between typical children and children with autism. One take-away is the Talk Time discussion points found at the end of each chapter. Joanna shares, “Including the end of chapter Talk Time was vital to the main goal of the book. The main goal is to teach typical peers more about autism. Talk Time helps any reader, teacher, community leader, scout leader or whomever easily facilitate a group discussion.”
Joanna firmly believes that through discussion, “typical kids can see how much more similar they are to their peers with autism than they are different.” Joanna’s goal was to “bring autism out into the open and unveil the mystery behind all the behaviors and “oddities” that children might see on a playground or in the community.”
Joanna finds that kids are pretty smart and are quite inventive on discovering better ways to interact with their peers on the spectrum. Joanna shares one such experience, “One time I shared the book with a class of sixth graders. The discussion about autism was so interactive that they didn’t want me to leave after being there over two hours. It was amazing!”
Unveiling the Mystery of Autism to Generate Acceptance
A is for Autism, F is for Friend discusses the “oddities” she just mentioned. Using “kid speak”, Joanna discusses the five senses and refers to the senses in her book as “Sensing the Differences”. Joanna stayed limited to five of the eight senses to avoid confusing the young reader. However, when speaking, Joanna does touch on the other senses using “kid speak”.
Explaining the Vestibular Sense
Joanna describes the vestibular sense as “knowing where your body is in relation to the earth.” An example she often provides is “You know when you just step off a dock on to a boat without holding on and you have to adjust where your body is in the boat to get the balance?”. Joanna continues to explain “that it’s almost like their physical body is in one place and that they actually feel like their body is in another place – not in sync. For kids with vestibular challenges, they might feel kind of out of balance like when you step onto that boat. For kids to feel in balance, they might spin, rock or flap to get the feeling of balance or calm.”
Clarifying the Proprioceptive Sense
Joanna describes the proprioceptive senses as “where a certain body part is and how it is moving.” She elaborates, “A child challenged with this sense might appear clumsy or might play aggressively. This child has trouble fully controlling the actions of their body.” To exemplify this to the kids, Joanna states, “I have a student who presses down so hard when he writes, he needs to sharpen his pencil every page. He is not able to achieve a regular pressure on his pencil. He is unable to use a pencil for an entire assignment. Another student likes to be squeezed between the floor and a beanbag chair because that helps her feel the position of her body within herself and helps her relax when she is feeling anxious.”
Joanna is surrounded by visual thinkers and has learned to adapt her way of communicating to meet the needs of her students. She smiles calmly when a new staff member tries asking a student the same thing over and over. Joanna walks over and draws a quick little cartoon about what was being asked of the student, pairs it with direct language and “voila” – a positive response. Joanna shares, “I didn’t need to use any words, but we, as educators, need to pair the words with the picture to help our words make sense.”
The Comedy of Idioms
Idioms is something that Joanna finds interesting. One experience with a 15 year-old student occurred while riding the bus. This student tends to have echolalic moments that get louder on the bus. Joanna turned around and sweetly said, “Zip it, buddy.” What happened? Well, this student swiftly zipped his hoody.
Joanna took it a step further and practiced combining the words “zip it” while she modeled herself lightly squeezing her lips. For a few days, this student closed his lips while zipping his jacket. Now, when he hears someone say, “zip it”, he closes his mouth, if only for a few seconds.
Patient Processing Time
One of the highlights of Joanna’s career is a time she sat patiently awaiting a student who was processing whatever was going on in his mind to be able to make a verbal request. After several minutes, the request came, “I want swing, please, Joanna.” Joanna waited months “going from picture cards, to combining words with pictures, to the final reward – the student requested to swing and requested it from me personally.”
Another memorable moment involved a substitute teacher. Joanna was already aware that repeating requests or questions does not always elicit a response when there are auditory processing issues at play. She encourages the substitute to instead dramatically slow down the request and wait – up to a minute of quiet – to watch a student process your request. Joanna shares, “It is always amazing to see the answer form and leave the lips of my students. Our students are more often than not, the teachers. They teach us to wait. They teach us to listen. They teach us patience. And they reward us.”
The Confidentiality Blockade – Preventing Acceptance
Joanna recalls the days when she would be on the playground at a typical elementary school. At the time, she was working in a Special Day Class with younger students who had severe autism. One of her roles was to help integrate her students with typical peers on the playground while playing handball, tetherball, or climbing on the jungle gym. Joanna observed the challenge that her students experienced while trying to integrate. Her students demonstrated “odd” behaviors such as hand-flapping, echolalia, aversion to eye contact or spinning around. As an employee, she was not permitted to explain these behaviors to the student’s typical peers due to confidentiality rules.
Joanna felt at the time that if she was able to explain these behaviors to her student’s typical peers, it would make sense and the typical children could then move forward in helping her students have a little fun on the playground. Joanna called this scenario, “the confidentiality blockade”.
Joanna decided that a book with a fictional character could alleviate this blockade and open up the playground to far better interactive experience for all involved. She named the main character of A is for Autism, F is for Friend, Chelsea. Everything in the book is explained from Chelsea’s perspective.
Resources for A is for Autism – Understanding Leads to Acceptance
Joanna poured over books and articles written by individuals with autism. She took her own classroom experiences along with the challenges she noted on the playground. Joanna states, “I really felt covering these behaviors using kid speak was vital. More often than not, it’s these misunderstood behaviors that put a physical barricade between kids with autism and typical peers. With some pretty basic explanations, these barriers can be overcome.”
Joanna developed a huge library of books that she devoured in her quest to learn as much as she could about autism. She was most inspired by personal perspective writings of Temple Grandin, Stephen Shore, Haley Moss and Zosia Zaks. The insider perspectives that each of these writers has shared offer priceless information.
Joanna’s Recommendations to Foster Acceptance
One of Joanna’s most favorite books is More Than Little Professors, edited by Lisa Barrett Mann. This book contains over 200 pages of quotes, poems and illustrations created by children with Asperger’s Syndrome. Joanna states, “I just love seeing their perspective on so many different things. It really tickles me.”
A favorite movie is the HBO release, Temple Grandin. Joanna elaborates, “I think they did a fabulous job attempting to illustrate the mind of autism through Temple’s life story. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Temple, albeit briefly. I felt like the producers really captured some of her essence.
“Although I am slightly biased, I highly recommend my publisher’s website, AAPC Publishing. I truly feel that AAPC offers a wealth of resources available for all ages. They are truly motivated to continue to provide resources for a wide array of topics related to autism.”
An ultimate goal of creating a more welcoming and accepting community for children on the spectrum, Joanna’s dream is that A is for Autism, F is for Friend will continue to serve as a go to resource to spring board discussions amongst typical children. By sharing A is for Autism, F is for Friend with primary, elementary and middle school youth, autism can be demystified and any lingering barriers towards total acceptance can be removed.
Be sure to explore the 65 articles here at Special-Ism that Joanna has shared with our readers over the last seven and a half years. Thank you Joanna – your ongoing contribution to Special-Ism and your love and passion for all things in support of autism raises the bar towards a much more accepting world. We, your rainbow of friends at Special-Ism, are extremely grateful for your valuable insights!