Now What?

 

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.   7.31.20

As we watch events unfold, the questions seem to outnumber the answers every day.  Between the pandemic which seems to be a moving target, the ongoing protests, (and in some areas, violence and destruction), the partisan divide in our country, and the upcoming election, we as Americans are faced with daily news streams that bring little optimism.  With this over-arching cloud, it can be difficult to focus on here and now in our own lives.  In my recent post, Stress Management 101, I went through some ideas to help cope with stress.  Today, let’s continue with some ideas about how events can shape our stress, and what we can do about it.

Being outside more during the warm weather months, we can all use this time to reflect on nature.  In nature, there are certain patterns that we, and all living things on earth, come to expect.  Seasons, weather, life cycles.  When everything is going according to plan, and things remain predictable, nature just keeps moving. The birds keep flying in flocks and the fish swimming in schools.  Plants grow.  People go on about their routines in relative peace.  But when you throw stress and unpredictability into the mix, behaviors and outcomes change.  An early freeze is bad for our food supply – the fruit that was ready to pick and eat yesterday is now a frozen mess on the trees..  A oceanic predator breaks up a school of fish, causing them to frantically break formation and swim in all different directions.  A bird flying to look for food may be met by a drone, causing the bird to change course and reconsider where to find food.  And for people, when unpredictable stress is thrown into the mix, it can create challenges in how we cope and how we behave. Of course, in human behavior the stresses and the responses are much more complex.

On a daily basis we all have ups and downs and things that are not as predictable. Running out of your child’s favorite cereal can lead to a rough start to the day, but usually there are enough other consistent and predictable events throughout the day to balance things out.  Right now, the cloud of stress from national and world events really presents us with this ever-simmering sense of unpredictability.  So, even if your daily routines have settled in now with the COVID-19 restrictions, you still can’t really look down the road and imagine what things might be like this fall, or in the winter.  When can you take your next trip?  When can you go out without a mask?  What is going to happen with schools and colleges?  What is going to happen to the economy?   What about living in areas where there are upticks in violence – when will you feel safe again?  And the election coming up?  I don’t know anyone on either side of the political aisle who is not stressed about this election.  There is little long-term predicability in the big picture right now.

So, now what?

Predictability and consistency are nice things because they give us a sense of control.  It is a comfort to know what’s going to happen, and when it’s going to happen.  Even thrill-seekers who love to jump out of airplanes or free-climb probably get some comfort from knowing what to expect each day.  So the question to ask ourselves right now is what tools do we have to get that sense of predictability and control under the current circumstances?

First of all, really examine what you actually can control. I have talked about this in earlier posts – we can really stress ourselves out over things we can’t control in any way.  I like to describe it as having two types of worry:  Functional and Dysfunctional.  With functional worry, we can use this to change something.  For example, a functional worry might be something like driving in a heavy rainstorm.  You can use that worry to slow down, to stay further away from the car in front of you, or to pull over until the rain lightens up.  You can actually do something about it.  If you did not have that worry, you would be putting yourself in danger. So functional worry is actually a good thing.  On the other side, dysfunctional worry, you worry about things completely out of your control.  For example, if you are worried that you won’t get the job you just interviewed for, this is now out of your control and the worry becomes dysfunctional.

Put this idea into the perspective of today’s stresses.  What can you do about the things that are less predictable now?  Are there positive actions you can take to make changes that will improve your outcomes?  Are there some circumstances right now that are beyond your scope of control?  If you can take positive action, go ahead and do so.  If circumstances are beyond your control, work on letting your worry go by distracting yourself with more uplifting or productive ideas, activities, and interactions.

One big stress that a lot of families are facing right now is whether to send kids back to school.  In most areas of the country, there seems to be a general trend towards remote schooling, a hybrid model, or giving families a choice to let their kids attend school or do remote schooling.  So for families, this is an area where you do have a good deal of control.  It s stressful to make the choice for some people, but if you look at all the facts you can make a good and informed decision.  If you live in an area with low numbers of COVID-19 cases, it might be easier to decide to send your kids to school.  If you or someone in your household is at higher risk for complications, you may make the decision to let your child work from home.  For many families, keeping kids home is not a good option and in these cases taking all the possible precautions, (wearing masks to school, encouraging social distancing and sending your kids to school with hand sanitizer every day), will be the best way for you to assume some control over the situation.  Above all, think things through, talk to people you trust, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  We will get through this.

 

Stress Management 101

 

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.    6.24.20

It just keeps building up, the stress of 2020.  It’s hard to look at social media or the news without sensing an instant rise in your stress level, with fresh new things to worry about every day.  You can, in some cases, take action to deal with things going on in the world, whether it is contributing to a cause, getting involved in politics, or staying up-to-date with needed precautions against Covid-19,  But even when you are able to take action, there is still a feeling of powerlessness, of hopelessness, when everything seems to be bad news.

For those who have been home with children for the past few months, trying to balance their own work with becoming surrogate teachers, this stress can be even worse because there is already a level of exhaustion that has set in every day.  People who work in health care and other impacted industries may also be experiencing stress levels that are higher and different from others.  During these seemingly unprecedented difficult times, it is important to remember 2 things: Perspective and Self-Care.

Perspective.  Yes, it feels like the world is on fire.  It feels like things will never be the same regarding illness, germs and feeling safe in public settings.  It feels like there are more difficult questions than there are good and useful answers.  But despite the fact that many of us have not experienced this level of turmoil in the world all at once, this is certainly not the first time that there has been extreme social unrest or pandemic disease.  Remember that we often learn best from history.  We have the advantage of being able to look back at past events and view them through the lens of what went well and what didn’t go so well.  For example, a lot of health experts have been reflecting on the 1918 flu pandemic, with a sharp eye on which communities fared the best and which ones had worse outcomes.  By looking at choices those communities made, we can have more informed decisions about how to manage transmission rates now, 100 years later.  Health experts are also using history to drive clinical decision making.  With a brand new virus, hard facts have been sparse.  But by looking at other similar germs, outbreaks, treatments, and vaccines, health professionals and scientists are best able to make informed decisions as they work hard to get this under control.

When it comes to social unrest and politics, we also have history to lean on for guidance. As human beings living in societies around the world, many people are better off than their ancestors.  This is largely due to social and political changes over time.  Some of these needed changes happened peacefully while others came with the cost of human suffering and many lives lost.  Looking at history, let the past be our guide about how to promote necessary social changes in our world in the most peaceful manner possible. And to keep things in perspective, use history to realize that our best chance to move forward is to recognize each others’ humanity, and to do this without prejudice to promote positive change.  Do what you are able and willing to do – for some this may mean organizing events or putting up signs, for others it may mean writing to your government representatives and leaders, and for others it may just mean having conversations with your own children.

Self-Care.  How can you even begin to manage your stress these days?  We’re home with restless kids.  The rules about going out keep changing.  We still don’t know enough about this illness to feel safe but we are so sick of being restricted.  Summer plans have had to change.  The world outside our doors is falling apart.  Political discourse is at an extreme low.  Nothing feels right.  Although it is hard to imagine, this is actually a recipe for us to prioritize self-care.  Without managing your stress, you risk getting yourself into a mind space where you just can’t see past the negatives. So what are some things you can do?

  1.  Stop looking at the news and your social media so much.  Allow yourself a small amount of time each day to catch up on developments with Covid-19, with politics, with world events, with local news.  After that set amount of time, turn it off and live your own life for the rest of that day.  A good balance might be 15-20 minutes in the morning and 15-20 minutes at night.  Or, even better, just once a day.
  2. Pick one thing you enjoy and carve out time to do it each day, even if only for a short time.  Work on a puzzle, read a book, watch a show, do some yoga.  Any of these things can be done for a short or a longer period of time, so you can tailor it to your own needs and your own schedule.
  3. Move your body.  There is overwhelming evidence for the positive effect of exercise on stress.  Even moderate activity makes a difference.  Take a walk, a bike ride, or do an exercise class online. Just like the activity you enjoy above, these can all be done according to your own time frame and schedule.
  4. Breathe.  When you start to notice your stress level rising for any reason at all, stop and breathe.  Slow, deep breaths can do wonders for your immediate stress level.  And it only takes a minute.
  5. Talk.  By engaging in conversation, you can reduce your stress in a few ways.  If you are able to talk to people about your stress, you may find compassion and shared concerns, which can be helpful.  If you talk to people about other things, this can be a nice distraction from your stress.  Finally, if you talk to people for feedback, you might get some good ideas for problem-solving and coping.
  6. Rest.  Try to develop good sleep routines.  If you have been having a hard time sleeping, take a good look at your routine.  Are you doing or thinking about something stressful right before bed?  Are you using a laptop, tablet or phone right before bed, which can affect sleep? Are you going to bed around the same time every night?  All of these things can affect your sleep, and your sleep can affect your stress.
  7. Use structure at home to build a sense of stability.  Summer days can be chaotic with kids, and maybe even more so in places where activities are still limited. Try to develop some routines and structures in your home to help you and your family cope with this unique and unusual summer we’re having.
  8. Remember what they tell you on the airplane. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.  When you neglect your own basic needs and self-care, you are less able to make a difference to others.

 

Things are opening up. What is ok for you and your family?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.        6.2.20

The information keeps flooding us, day after day more news and conflicting information about coronavirus.  In my last post I talked about doing what you can each day.  This time I will be turning the focus a bit back to children, and coping with the next phase of the pandemic when you have kids at home.

It seems to me that the new challenge for many of us will be deciding what to do.  As restrictions start to loosen up in many states, the decisions about how to proceed with venturing back into the social world will be up to each of us, individually.  Some may look to their  family for guidance, or follow the lead of trusted friends.  Others will do what they want or what they think is best based on what os happening in their area, or within their own family.

For people who have been home with their children for over two months, it will be tempting to jump back into life as usual as much and as soon as possible.  There may also be some pressure for allowing playdates and other friend interactions,  This pressure may come from your own children or it may come from their friends, or both.  How will you navigate this next phase of the global pandemic?

As with many difficult decisions and tasks, it might be helpful to break these questions down a bit before you decide anything.  Each thing you and your family do going forward will be based on your own personal calculation of the risks involved.  What are some things to consider?

Most importantly, consider your family health risk.  Are you or anyone in your family at greater risk for complications based on current health conditions?  Do you care for someone who is at greater risk?  If the answer to any of these is yes, it might be in your best interest to continue to stay home as much as possible and limit contact with others who are re-integrating into the world.

If you are at low or average risk for complications due to COVID, think about some basic common-sense measures you can take to protect yourself, your family, and others.

  • Social Bubbles.  This is a concept based on the idea that it is safe to spend time with other people who have been practicing the same level of safe behavior as yourself.  Do you have friends and family who have been working from home, rigorously distancing themselves from others, wearing masks out in public, and avoiding gatherings?  If you have set a certain standard for yourself these past few months, and you know others with the same standards, they are likely safe to be with now.  Here are a couple of recent articles on forming your own Social Bubble:
  • Maintaining your own social distancing rules.  Do you have friends or family who have been less careful than you?  Do you know others who have had to go into a public work environment?  As states ease restrictions and you want to see these friends, consider social-distancing gatherings.  Sit on a deck or a patio, stay 6 feet away, bring your own food and drink.
  • Be careful in public.  Yes, I know we still have mixed information on masks and how long the virus lives in the air and on surfaces.  We – the public – do not know a lot more now than we did when this all started.  But some studies are definitely showing a benefit to universal masks to reduce transmission if worn correctly.  This means you •put it on • stop touching it • don’t touch your face • still maintain a safe distance from others • continue to wash or sanitize your hands after touching things in public • leave the mask on to talk, sneeze, cough (I actually heard about a woman in New York who was seen pulling her own mask down to cough into the air then putting it back on.  True story.).  The masks do not universally protect you.  But used correctly, along with maintaining all the other recommended safety measures will certainly not hurt and will likely help.
  • Now for the tricky part.  Think about your own kids.  How will they do with maintaining boundaries?  Are they able to keep a safe distance?  Will they be able to keep their hands clean?  Some older kids can actually do well with this.  Other kids who are younger or who have behavioral or social difficulties may be more challenged with these safety measures.  If you have one or more children who will struggle with maintaining safe standards, it will be up to you to decide what other people they can spend time with now.  Will you let them play with other kids who have maintained the same level of caution as you have?  The Social Bubble idea might be particularly relevant to families with young kids or kids with special needs.
  • For children, teens, and even young adults on the autism spectrum, this might be especially challenging.  For one thing, if you have a child with autism and you have been at home with limited support, you may be tempted to take support and opportunities for your child to have time with others as quickly as possible, with less concern about the possible risks involved because basically, you have had enough.  For another thing, people with autism may be less aware of how to maintain boundaries, and in some cases may have less social awareness and control to help them navigate interactions using distancing and other healthy precautions such as not touching their faces.   The thing to remember is that you have choices.  Using the Social Bubbles may help you with this, and it also applies to caregivers and support personnel, such as ABA providers or other therapists. If you allow your child to spend time with peers, do the best you can to make sure the peers and their families are following the same guidelines that you are.  It may also help you to find caregiver support through ABA and other therapists, as well as local babysitters or respite providers who you trust to use precautions around you and your family.
  • Keep an eye on trends in your own area.  As things open back up, how do the numbers look near you?  Are things continuing to look better, or are the numbers going back up?  You can decide how to handle your own safety measures based on what is happening where you live.  Stay informed by the data to help guide your decisions, one day at a time.
  • If you really aren’t sure what is ok and what isn’t for you and your family, reach out to health experts in your area for guidance.  This may include family doctors or local health officials who have been carefully following the trends with this outbreak.  While it is good to be cautious, it is also important to balance caution with common sense measures you can take to help move back to some normal daily experiences.

 

Coping with the information, one day at a time.

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.     5.15.20

We’ve been isolating ourselves as much as possible for a bit over 2 full months now.  At the beginning, there was so much information coming in from sources around the world that it was hard to keep up with everything. Now, it may be a little less of on onslaught, but there is still a lot to process.  One of the big questions now is re-entry.  How do we gradually move back to life as we knew at? Can we do this in the near future?

For many people, there is an overarching sense of anxiety now.  What is going to happen in the world?  What is going to happen with the economy?  What about the food chain? What if we go back out and people start getting the virus in large numbers?  What if my parents or kids get sick?  What if I get sick?  The questions still overwhelm the answers  in many respects.  And if you are a parent with kids at home, it can be challenging to answer questions about what’s next.  If you have kids at home on the autism spectrum, your challenge is further increased because there is little sense of long-term predictability, which can be a problem.

Reflecting back on these past few weeks and the ever-changing information along with fears and worries that come with the unknown, something that has been helpful is to focus on what I do know, and what I can control.  What is that right now?

  • My daily routine.
  • My weekly list of tasks.
  • My level of (remote) social engagement.
  • My sanity activities (getting outside, doing yoga or meditation, reading, watching a good movie).
  • Who I spend time with in-person and how to do that safely.
  • How much I go out and how I prepare for that.
  • How much I look at the media.

What can I not control?

  • Medical progress with the virus.
  • Changing information about the virus.
  • The behavior of other people when it comes to safety and distancing.
  • The decisions of leaders in government at every level.
  • The decisions of businesses starting to re-open with different rules everywhere.
  • The media (but remember, you can control what you read).

It takes some thought to put together your list of what you can and can’t control right now.  If you have kids at home (with or without special needs) who are feeling tired of being home or showing signs of anxiety about the situation,  this is a good time to teach them about what we have the power to control.  This is much easier if you start with the smallest picture, which is today.  What can we do today to make it the best day possible?  How much structure do we want today?  For some kids, it will be helpful to have a good plan every day, while others will manage well with looser structures and routines.  One of the most important things will be to focus on what can and should be done today and this week, instead of spending too much time thinking about what may or may not happen in 2 weeks, 2 months, or even a year.  This is especially true right now, because we just don’t know how things will look in our town, our state, our country or even our world.   Is it possible that schools in your area won’t start again in September?  Yes, it is possible.  But mostly we don’t know.  Letting yourself or your kids spend a lot of time and energy worrying about this will only prevent happiness and productivity right now.

Take another look at the list I made of what I can control right now.  Do any of those concepts apply to you?  Do any of those translate to action for your kids at home? How can you wrap your arms around the things that are in your control to help yourself and your family move forward in the midst of endless information but not a lot of concrete answers?  Focus on here.  Focus on now.  Don’t worry to much about re-inventing yourself or your family, just do the best you can with what you know and what you have in front of you, today.

So ask yourself, and ask your kids, what can we control right now?  What can we do with the things that are in our control to make the absolute best of each day?  What can we do to try not to put a lot of our energy into predicting or worrying about the future?  Make lists, make visuals, and celebrate the things that go well every day.

New Normal: Different for Everyone

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA   4.15.20

The entire world is experiencing the effect of this global pandemic.  We have been paralyzed by a silent, invisible, stealthy threat that has crept its way to every corner of the earth on one way or another.  Some of the changes in the world around us are affecting a majority of people in similar ways.  Our new normal, nearly across the board, includes being more cautious when out in public and maintaining more distance between ourselves and others.  Most people are washing or sanitizing their hands more frequently and more thoroughly.  Most people have a greater awareness of trying not to touch their faces.  Most people have had to sacrifice time with friends and loved ones.  Most people are worried, at least on some level, about the state of the economy and the future for our country and our world.  Most people are grieving over the losses being experienced broadly.

While there are many additional common-ground new normals, there are plenty of new normals that are different from person to person and place to place.  The new normal for a health care provider in an overwhelmed city hospital is very different from the new normal for a small-town grocery store clerk who is trying to keep up with demands from anxious and occasionally rude customers.  The new normal for parents who are trying to work form home while figuring out how to help their kids manage school from home is different from the new normal for retired grandparents who can no longer see or hug their grandchildren. People in cities with high numbers of infections are looking out their windows to eerily empty streets.  People in smaller towns and more rural areas might not have the same dramatic visual effect when they look out their windows, but they are experiencing a difference with how they get their groceries and what they are allowed to do.  Right now we are in an acute phase of adjusting to extreme circumstances, and the conditions are not the same for everyone. For some people these conditions may change every day.   What is true is that everyone is affected, everywhere, in some way.

Much of what we are experiencing is very difficult.  From the most extreme cases of hardship to people who have simply worked from home and not been able to get out and do things as much, it has been, for most, difficult.  We miss our families and friends.  We miss being able to have the freedom to walk into a store without worrying about wearing a mask, putting on gloves, sanitizing our hands incessantly.  We miss being able to rely on finding toilet paper in a store when we run out, without a worry.  It really is a dystopian world right now.

Let’s not forget though, that there are some positive things we can focus on right now, during this acute phase of unbelievable circumstances.  People have found ways to stay connected.  Remember Italians stranded in their apartments singing from their balconies?  Here in the States we are Zoom meeting like crazy for work and for fun. Online resources for shared interaction abound.  We have seen a surge of support for critical workers, and a lot of people searching for ways to help in their own communities with jeopardizing themselves or others.  People have been intentionally seeking ways to support local businesses and restaurants by using takeout, curbside and delivery options.  Even our governments – federal, state and local – are providing unprecedented resources to help individuals and businesses through this crisis.

The big question is: How much of all these new normals will stay normal, and for how long?

I’m not going to try to predict the timeline here.  Although I have been tracking the charts and found myself remarkably interested in epidemiology the past 8 weeks, predictions about when things will start to resume some semblance of life before COVID-19 is way beyond my expertise.  As for what to expect regarding interactions and behavior,  a lot of this will depend on what is happening in the medical field.  Without highly effective treatments, a vaccine, or general herd immunity, it is likely that our public and social interactions will change.  I would imagine that large gatherings will be less appealing, and therefore, less large.  While returns to small gatherings with close friends, going to local restaurants and smaller venues could return sooner,  it’s possible that people will be more cautious with distancing even in those space.  Hand-washing and face-touching habits will hopefully improve for the better.  People may wear masks out in public for a long time.

If there are big advances for treatment options that work well, our fear will go down quite a bit. If we have an effective vaccine, our fear will go down dramatically.  However, even with good prevention (vaccine) or intervention (medications), it is possible and perhaps likely that as a result of this profound experience we may maintain a sense of caution over the long term. This could play out by being a little more distanced in general, a little more careful around others, and a little more compulsive about washing our hands. It could also mean greater efforts at preparedness – storing extra food and essentials, getting better at saving money for a crisis, or following the news more closely when there are various disease outbreaks even on the other side of the world.

Whatever the next weeks and months bring, let us hope together that we will be able to  acknowledge and accept the multiple shared experiences of coping with a global pandemic, while recognizing that the new normals of today are not the same for everyone.

 

 

 

Information overload

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.   3.19.20

How quickly things can change.  Within the past week we have gone from being on alert for potential changes in our country while watching other countries struggle with this pandemic, to being in full-scale crisis mode.  This is especially true in certain areas of our country that are particularly hard-hit by COVID-19 and are scrambling to contain the situation.  The amount of information out there is completely overwhelming and ever-changing.

Resources are popping up everywhere to give people help and support during this challenging time.  I have seen great ideas being shared about how to help parents suddenly needing to have their kids at home and do their schooling from home, and in some cases including online schooling.  There are resources for how to work remotely, how to social distance, how to stay healthy, how to prepare your home for a period of isolation, how much you need to isolate to protect others and yourself.  Some are posting ideas on self care and finding peace in the midst of turmoil.  It is wonderful to see so many minds sharing ideas on how to cope with this surreal situation.

But it is also just overwhelming.

So, this post is not going to link you to a thousand great resources.  It is not going to tell you what to watch and what to read and what to ignore.  Instead, this post will give you my own take on what to do now.  For yourself, for your family, and for your community.

 

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For Yourself.

Breathe.  Every day you will wake up with some sense of unrest.  What will be in the news today?  What is the status in my own community? Am I healthy?  Are my loved ones healthy?  The potential for overarching fear and anxiety is through the roof.  So, remember to breathe.  I am not talking about just a deep breath here and there, I am talking about intentionally taking moments throughout your day to stop and take at least 5 focused, quiet deep breaths.  Stop thinking for a few minutes and focus on the air you are breathing in and the air you are breathing out.  Breathe in slowly through your nose and out slowly through your mouth.  Let some of the anxiety go out with your breath each time.

Make a list.  What are all the things you wanted to have time to do, but never made the time?  Being stuck at home, this is a good time to look at some of those projects, and spend some time with those.  How you do this is up to you.  Maybe you say, I am going to spend one hour per day working on project x, or catching up on miscellaneous tasks.  Or maybe you jump in wholeheartedly to one big project that you have been putting off for a long time.  Whatever you do is up to you and will depend on your own schedule and circumstances.  But many people in the United States and around the world are finding themselves with a bit more downtime right now.

Share enjoyment.  Can’t get out to socialize as much as you want?  Set something up online.  Of course it is not the same as person-to-person contact, but it is better than not seeing people you like.  You can use any number of technologies, from FaceTime to Facebook video to Google Hangouts or Zoom.  I have seen posts for musicians doing virtual living room concerts you can livestream and hear good music.  You can also use Netflix, who has set up a way to watch movies with friends.

Get some fresh air.  If you live somewhere where you can get outside without being near a lot of people, a daily walk is refreshing and good for your health.  If you can’t leave your building without rubbing elbows with people on the elevator, open your window and let in some fresh air.

Workout from home.  You do not need a home gym to work out from home.  Not only are there loads of resources for using bodyweight exercises to get full body workouts, some gyms are now posting exercise classes online for you to livestream or view.  They are doing this with the understanding that people do not have equipment at home, so you can do the classes from your own place.

Stay the course.  If everyone does their part to flatten the curve and keep this pandemic in check, we will be back to normal sooner.  Remember that this feels awful right now, but we will get through it and we will be back to normal.

For your family

Implement structure now.  If you have kids or teenagers at home, start out by setting up a structure for the days.  Most kids still have school work, and college students are finishing up their courses online.  Have your family set up times for work and leisure every day.  Implementing and maintaining structure can reduce stress.

Schedule family time.  More time with family always sounds great, it feels like the right thing to wish for, but in reality being cooped up with your family for weeks can be a bit difficult.  So make sure individual family members are getting their own space as much as possible, but also set aside time regularly, even daily, to do something fun as a family. Movies, games, puzzles, making video journals of your time in isolation, cooking and baking are all good ideas.  All you need to do to get ideas is search online for things to do in quarantine and you will find a lot of recent posts and articles.

Stay positive.  By taking good care of your own needs, as noted above, you will be able to stay more positive for your family members.  And remember, this will pass.  We can do this.

For your community.

Stop the spread!  This is my most important advice right now.  Not to get too much on a soap box about this, but we all have to do our part to stop this now. The horses are already out of the barn, so to speak, but it is up to us now to slow them down.  Because our testing is way behind in this country, the advice from experts is to assume that everyone has it.  That’s right.  Assume that everyone has it.  Including yourself.  So this means you are isolating yourself as much as possible.  Staying in your home, working from home, socializing only remotely, OR only with people you know are also being very strict about their interactions.  When you do go out you are distancing from everyone.  You are washing your hands much more than usual.  If you think you may have been exposed, even if you don’t have symptoms, stay home.  **If you are a young adult or you know a young adult, tell them to stop attending social events and gatherings!**  Because they often don’t show symptoms but are contagious anyway, they are super-vectors for this disease.  And even if they are lucky enough to not get really ill, they could easily give it to someone who isn’t so lucky.  All you have to do is read about Europe right now to see that if we don’t slow down now it will soon be mandated, but not before lots of vulnerable people get really, really sick.  Stop doing things.  Just stop.

Help local service organizations.  There are a lot of people who shouldn’t be going out at all.  Community organizations everywhere are setting up delivery services for vulnerable people take them food, groceries, medications, and household needs.  If you are healthy – and if you can follow all the precautions to protect others – contact local groups to see how you can help.

Donate to food pantries.  Food pantries are going to see a growing need for supplies as people lose hours at work and need more help.  If you are able, drop off food and necessities (toilet paper for example!) at a local food pantry.  Every bit helps and they will need it.

Donate to charities.  If you are financially secure  through this crisis, consider directing some of your charitable contributions to organizations who are going to struggle.  This would include shelters, soup kitchens, churches, and volunteer agencies who help those in need.  Also consider helping community businesses who may struggle during this time.

This is a time when we need to reflect as individuals and as a society who we really are.  Let’s take care of ourselves and each other, and let’s try to breathe through this and remember that only with each others’ support will we come out on the other side of this as whole and as together as possible.

 

Start Making Sense

 

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA. 2.18.20

What makes sense to you?

In a world of constant access to information, it can be difficult to make sense of anything.  What’s true and what’s not true?  Who are the best people to follow?  Which resources can you trust?  While some of what we see out there is obviously reliable, or obviously NOT reliable, there is a mountain of information in the middle that needs to be sorted through and navigated.  It is so easy to get pulled into a world of bad information, and it is hard to know how to make sense of everything we have available.

For example, look up any newsworthy topic.  You will find pages of hits on that topic, and if you read any of the articles, they will likely have additional links to follow.  And it all looks real and legitimate.  But unless you are a news aficionado, you may give the same value to every single article that shows up for that topic, even though the odds are that some of that info is faulty.

All this is part of our lives now, every day.  And we individually figure out how we are going to handle filtering the information.  But for some situations, we need to know how to make sense of what’s there, what to believe and not believe.

Let’s take autism as an example of a topic with lots of information to be found.  If you search it, you will find a number of legitimate sites that describe autism.  You will also find self-help and screening quizzes from all kinds of websites, information about the vaccine-autism connection, with some saying vaccines cause it and others noting that there is no evidence for this, and sites blaming the increase in autism to everything including vaccines, environmental problems, and diet.  Causes for autism are also highlighted using these same ideas, and also including things like not using prenatal vitamins, hormones in food, and genetics.

Even though you can find websites to tell you all kinds of things about what causes autism, the only sound research shows some genetic component, although it is unclear what this might be.

And while autism has had a large increase, it is not an alarming epidemic as some would have you believe.  Many people don’t realize that in the 1990’s the diagnostic criteria for autism changed it for being a very specific set of symptoms to more of a spectrum disorder.  So all of the sudden, thousands of people who would not have been diagnosed as having autism became eligible for that diagnosis.  This itself sparked a surge in diagnoses.

At the same time, the autism awareness movement started to take hold, with new organizations popping up to help raise awareness and provide support for people with autism.  Schools started offering extra accommodations and guarantees of support if a student had an autism diagnosis.  Autism awareness has its own symbol (puzzle ribbon), its own month (April), and an endless stream of events, fundraisers and activities to support autism awareness.  We have also seen an increase of awareness in our entertainment industry:  People with autism are represented in movies and popular TV shows as well as books.  There are podcasts about autism.  There are newsletters just for autism. With greater awareness, more and more parents are taking kids in for screening when they see signs of autism.  Additionally, professionals including pediatricians and teachers are recommending screening for autism when warranted, based largely on the increased awareness that has been build for the past 25 years.

(PS, now that we have the awareness well-covered, the next challenge a lot of people see is autism acceptance, but that is a post for another day).

Now that I have made some points about common misperceptions about the causes for autism and its recent increase, let’s try to make some sense of what to do if you or someone you love has autism.

Become informed of what’s available in your area.  There are excellent Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) service providers in many of our communities in the United States.  Since early intervention is vital to help children with autism overcome some communication and behavioral challenges, this is a good first step.

Learn about local and state laws regarding insurance coverage for autism services.  Many states have laws in place to ensure coverage for ABA services.

Learn about local and state laws for education.  Education systems provide certain accommodations and supports specifically to help students on the autism spectrum.

Learn about local and state laws for providing support to adults with autism and other needs, as well as finding out what organizations provide support for adults.

Meet with professionals who understand autism to get guidance, support, and professional services (speech, occupational therapy, behavior therapy, etc.).

Become involved in local support groups and advocacy groups for autism.  Parents who have been through the process are some of the best people to talk to about doing what’s possible  for your child.

Finally, find strength through optimism.  With so much awareness, therapy, and ongoing support, autism does not have to be viewed as a dark path of confusion.  Instead, focus on what’s there to help light the path, see the sense, and accept the support.

What exactly is outside the box?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.      1.15.20

We love it.  That phrase, “Think outside the box”.  It makes us think of creativity, progress, innovation, independence.  Thing is, there is so much creativity and innovation on display out there, and it is so easy to find now with the internet and social media.  It kind of makes us wonder, now that everything seems to be being done, what is outside the box anymore?

Well, let’s just take a look at our own lives, and what might be outside our own boxes.  Whether it’s looking at yourself and your own personal habits, or looking at your role at work, or looking at how you approach parenting, there might be some ways you have trapped yourself into a box.  So it’s time to ask yourself, what are your own boxes, and what is on the outside?

We all have habits we would like to change both personally and work.  Maybe you get stuck in the same routines?  Maybe you have a hard time keeping up with your list of things to do?  Maybe you have some difficulties with interpersonal relationships, and the things you’re trying to do to make this better aren’t working?  This is where your personal outside-the- box thinking can jump in and help you out.  There is that famous saying about doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity (apparently Einstein is NOT actually the one who said this).  But even though it is over-used and mis-referenced, it does make a good point.  Think a little about your past week, and how many should-haves and would-haves you can count.  Now, think about how you might have approached those things just a little bit differently to have had better outcomes.

Try making a list of what consistently works for you to give you the outcomes you need.  Setting reminders, using good coping skills, going to the gym, etc.  Now, make a list of the common habits you have that get in your way of having positive outcomes.  Some of these habits may be things you do or don’t do, and some of them may be things you think or don’t think.  I can tell you that sitting in my warm car outside the gym when it’s nasty outside can trigger some pretty compelling thoughts about why I don’t really need to go into the gym. These are not good thought habits.  So my list would have to include that particular thought habit – talking myself out of doing something I know will be good because in that one moment it seems just a little.too.demanding.  Thinking outside my box here will require me to stop and reconsider that habit.

Now let’s apply this to our interactions with other people.  If you’re a parent, you may struggle with managing difficult behaviors form your kids – some common things would include kids not cleaning up after themselves, not listening to instructions, or not putting their devices or video games away when asked.  What are you doing right now to deal with common difficulties you have as a parent?

Most of my posts include specific information for special needs or autism, but in this case the outside-the-box tools apply to all parents, and really to all relationships.  Think about what is difficult about one of your relationships, be it with a friend, a sibling, a spouse, or a child.  Answer the question about what you are doing to manage those difficulties right now.  What is working consistently?  What isn’t really working at all?  Make your lists and evaluate what kind of thinking you need to do to process these relationships and situations more effectively.  It is always best to build on what has been working, and think about letting go of the tools that are just not working at all.

So what is outside the box for you?

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next post!

 

New Year, New Ideas

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA.     1.3.20

Time for a new year, a new decade.  Time for making resolutions you may or may not keep, and making plans for all things to come in 2020.  It’s a great idea to look at the new year as a blank page, a time to think about what you can do differently, what you can do better, what you can do more and what you can do less.  It is a good time to take stock of the things that have been going well and the things that have brought joy in the past year, to build on those things to move forward and a positive and productive way.

New Year’s resolutions date back nearly 4000 years, with ancient Babylonians making sacrifice and promises to the gods for the coming year.  This also happened in ancient Rome 2000 years ago with feasts and celebrations welcoming the new year with promises to the god Janus.  In the Middle Ages, the knights would renew their vows as part of the incoming new year ceremonies.  Modern New Year’s resolutions became popular in the early 1800’s, with people making personal commitments to themselves for improvement in the coming year.  These days, 45% of Americans report making resolutions for the new year, but only 8% complete them.

New Ideas

Some say that the best way to keep your New Year’s resolution – or any resolution – is to keep it simple, realistic and specific.  For example, a fitness goal might be to go to the gym 2 times a week or to walk 10,000 steps a day at least 5 days a week.  A social goal might be to do something with a friend outside work once a week, even if it’s just coffee, lunch or a walk.

While I believe that personal specific resolutions are a wonderful thing, and encourage everyone to try to make and accomplish them, this year I’ve been wondering about how many people make resolutions for giving back to their communities. I’m not talking about charitable donations, but about time and energy.  Because one of my primary interests professionally has been supporting people with different needs, I have seen a lot of positive changes with how much more accepting people and communities are of those who have different needs.  But, there is still room for improvement.  Some of this improvement may need to happen with the support of mental health professionals, educators, and policy makers.  But some things can change with a little effort from everyone else, too.

What if every single person in the country made a resolution to do one thing to help someone with a special need, or a group of people with special needs?  Imagine the impact that would have.

My simple, realistic and specific resolution:  Do one thing this year outside work to make a difference for special needs in my community.

You may wonder how to even connect with communities and groups, or how to do one thing in the coming year to make a difference.  You could start by looking into local organizations who support people with special needs, including local Autism Society chapters, Down Syndrome Association chapters,  and other organizations who support special needs on a local level.  There are also lots of national organizations who do good work for special needs.  You could help out by volunteering one time, participating in a fundraiser, or running in a 5K to support these groups.  They always need help, and they would welcome any time you are able to give.  Here are some great national organizations who do wonderful things to help people with special needs.  Consider adding a resolution this year to make a difference, even just one time, to make a difference to people who will always need a little extra support!

  1.  Autism Society of America
  2. Special Olympics
  3. National Down Syndrome Association
  4. Tim Tebow Foundation Night to Shine
  5. Easter Seals
  6. Ventures Travel (help people with special needs with travel adventures)
  7. The Arc
  8. National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth
  9. United Cerebral Palsy
  10. Friendship Circle
  11. Goodwill International
  12. Wounded Warrior Project (to support our veterans who have sustained physical/cognitive impairment serving our country)

Holiday Stress?

snow NYKaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA.    12.4.19

Yay!  It’s that time of year!  This is the time when people get ready to share joy with family and friends, to engage in generosity and gift-giving, and prepare and eat everyone’s favorite foods for celebration.

But…it’s also that time of year that sneaks up on people.  All of a sudden they have to get ready for all this celebration, family, friends, gifts and other merry-making.

It is actually extremely stressful for many people.

(For some people, this can be a downright depressing time of year, whether it’s because they can’t be with loved ones, they have financial stress, or they are generally socially isolated and feel more left out than usual).

When we think about the stress that is associated with holidays, a lot of this comes from the feeling that there is a lot to do in a relatively short amount of time.  For people with autism and other sensory or social challenges, this can be particularly anxiety-provoking.  For an individual with autism, there will be multiple changes in routine, unexpected events, excitement, and possibly extra people around.  Families and friends who love and support individuals on the autism spectrum, it is important to approach the holidays with this in mind.  Consider that your own stress and the frenzy of the season will be magnified for someone with autism.  Also consider that people with autism are more prone to social isolation, which could lead to a host of difficult responses during the holiday season.

How can we help ourselves and the people we care about get through this time of year and enjoy it to its fullest?  As always, I do happen to have some tips!

For yourself:

  1.  It’s easy to say be organized and effective with your time management, but it can be hard to do this in reality.  Try making a list of everything that needs to be done over the next few weeks, assign an approximate time frame to each task, and pick one or more tasks to do each day, depending on the time frame.
  2. Put your tasks on a calendar!  Add reminders if you think that will help you stay focused.
  3. Don’t try to do too much.  If you look at the list and realize that you don’t have the time budget or the money budget, you may need to let some of those things go this year.
  4. Enlist help.  Even if you are particular, and you like to do things your way, if you are strapped for time ask someone in the family to help with certain tasks. (If they don’t do it “right”, you can work on accepting change gracefully, or just fix it and it still saves you time).
  5. Give yourself a break.  When you make that calendar, include time for what you need to reduce stress.  Think of the things that help you relax and pepper those things into your schedule.
  6. ENJOY your time with family and friends!  With the work and effort you are putting in to making a nice time for yourself and everyone else, don’t forget to stop thinking, stop working, and enjoy the moments with the people you love.

For helping people with autism:

  1. Help yourself.  See list above.  If you maintain low levels of stress and frenzy, this will help your loved ones, all of them, and especially someone with autism.
  2. Try to maintain predictability.  Even with a lot of variation to schedules and routines, you can still provide predictability by giving visuals to prepare for differences.  For example, make a new visual every day to help prepare for what to expect that day.
  3. Provide support and reinforcement for someone who has a difficult time with changes by giving positive feedback and other small rewards for when they manage change well, or better than usual.
  4. Be aware of the person’s limits.  If you know that someone you love who has autism can’t handle large gatherings very well, give that person lots of opportunities for breaks, a quiet place to go when needed, sensory items to help cope, and encourage positive communication.  For example, if you are going to a family party, make sure you prepare by taking your child, teen or young adult with autism to a quiet place to show them where they can go for a break from the crowd.  Encourage him or her to use words and other communication to express needs (“I need a break”, “I need to go outside”, or “I really need to go home”).
  5. Watch for warning signs.  If you see indications that things are about to get tricky (change in voice volume, facial expressions, body language), try offering breaks or other support before the stress level gets too high for that person.
  6. Limit your expectations to what is realistic for the individual with autism.  Are you asking them to handle something that they really don’t have the skills yet to handle effectively?  If so, make a different plan.
  7. For kids, teens and adults with autism who may feel socially isolated, do what you can to not only include them in your own activities (this also means let them help you with all your own tasks), but also to help them reach out to friends or acquaintances.  Encourage small activities with friends, like going to see Christmas lights, getting a special snack or treat at a cafe, or attending a holiday-themed event at a local library.
  8. Focus on the positive!  Having a child or teen with autism may make your holiday experience different from what you had in mind, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Think about the things that bring you joy, the things you have to be thankful for, and embrace the fullness of what your family has to offer, even if it’s a little bit different.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next post!