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!

Person-Centered: What does this really mean?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA  10.30.19

Let’s think about what we envision when it comes to planning out our lives. How do we make big decisions?  What supports have we had to help us get to where we want to be, or what supports could we have used that we didn’t have?  For people who don’t have unique needs, finding the right path can be a challenge.  But for people who do have some extra needs, finding the right path can be daunting.

Imagine if, during the early phases of your adult life, you had a bunch of people who cared about you sit down for coffee and cake to just talk about you and how they could help you accomplish your goals and dreams for the future.  That is what Person-Centered Planning (PCP) is all about.  For people who have different sets of needs and require more support, the goal of PCP is to gather others who care into a group to discuss what the goals are and who will be able to help.  Ideally, this gathering occurs in a comfortable place with people who are friends, family, community members, and paid staff to help put together ideas and visions with an individual who has unique needs.  This is done by creating visual maps to guide the planning process.

There was a time not long ago when students with special needs were placed on a path by professionals who deemed what would be best for those students.  For many this may have included sheltered workshops, large residential facilities, and limited opportunity for true social inclusion.  With the movement toward person-centered rather than system-centered planning, we have seen tremendous growth in our communities for providing opportunities and acceptance for those with different abilities.

If you are seeking PCP for yourself or someone in your life, make sure you are fully engaged in the process.  To make sure the process is working to provide optimal outcomes, consider these 5 Essential Outcomes for Person-Centered Planning (from Kincaid 1996):

  1.  Community Membership:  To be a member of the community through involvement in various organized activities, especially those that occur on a regular basis.
  2. Relationships:  That relationships with others occur not only in settings with paid staff members but also in the community, with friends, with family, and with other acquaintances.
  3. Choice:  That the individual is at the core of the decision-making process when it comes to his or her life, including friendships, activities, jobs and other community involvement.
  4. Respected roles:  To be able to have roles and responsibilities that will be respected by others.
  5. Skills:  To provide opportunities to learn and foster skills that are needed for a high quality of life.

While many of these outcomes may seem self-evident, for many people who need support there is a process to helping them find and follow this path.  Even with the major advances in our society for people with different needs, there are still thousands of young adults who don’t have direction or support to go after they life they want.

How can you help someone you care about come up with a a plan for life that is person centered?

For people who are still in school, most schools do some form of this as part of transition planning, but they may not always include actual visual maps as part of the process.  If you want to use a broader, more visual process, you may need to look locally to find an outside facilitator.

First, check out local supports that may be available to give you services or provide guidance. Each community has different resources, and the resources available will depend on the needs of the person seeking help.  For example, for people who have autism, there are numerous support groups across the country, some that are independent and some that are part of a bigger national organization, such as the Autism Society of America.  There are also organizations to support other disabilities. The National Down Syndrome Society has independent, local support chapters throughout the country.  The ARC is another national organization with chapters in hundreds of communities.  These resources can help you and your family find out more about what’s available in your own community for building support.  For additional resources and support, try the National Parent Center on Transition and Employment.

Also, connect with other local families who have been through this process and have found some support and success.  Sometimes it can be difficult to navigate the educational and service worlds.  Other families may have valuable insights and experiences to share with you.  You may find it easier to connect with other families by engaging with the organizations noted above, or you may meet them through schools or extracurricular activities.

No matter how you approach the person-centered design the outcome of finding the right path will be worth the effort you put into the process.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more posts!



What about when my child has an outburst in public?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA.      10.2.19

Most parents of young children have been there at least once. You’re in a shop or a restaurant and your child decides to get upset about something.  You have firmly, rightly and innocently said “No” to something, or you have told them it’s time to put their shoe back on their foot.  All of a sudden, the sky is falling and your child is crying and yelling, you are trying to retain some sense of dignity while you debate between coercing your child or dragging him or her out of the restaurant kicking and screaming, with the irrational fear that someone is about to call the authorities on you for being a bad parent. You may also be thinking about how other people are basically judging both you and your child, scornfully looking at you and wondering what you did wrong, why your child is such a terror.

First of all, you are not a bad parent.  This happens with children no matter how great you are at parenting.  Secondly, unless you are physically harming your child, chances are that no one is calling the authorities.  And finally, while other people might get irritated or even alarmed by a child having a tantrum in public, many will not judge you and those who do judge are not your problem.

What can be done about the situation?  The very best thing is to develop some proactive tricks to try to prevent these things from happening.  If you know your child is tired and grumpy and won’t be able to handle the weekly trip to the grocery store, you may consider postponing the trip, making it a shorter trip this time, offering a reward for good behavior in the store (before they have a tantrum, not during or after), or providing your child with plenty of distraction, snacks, and interaction while you’re shopping.  Depending on the situation and your own child, there are things you can do to help prepare kids for what to expect and how to behave in public situations.

Say you’re going out to eat, and you kind of know your child doesn’t love restaurants where you have to wait for your food.  Yet you hope every time that this will be the night that everything goes well, you have this nice relaxing meal with your child sitting there coloring while you chat and sip a drink before your food comes to the table.  To try to help make sure that you will get to have this experience, be prepared. Before you even go into the restaurant, go over expectations for good behavior and remind your child of things he or she can do to enjoy the time more.  You may consider using rewards, such as letting kids have dessert after dinner if they meet certain behavioral expectations during the meal. Choose family friendly restaurants with quick service.  Bring things to distract and entertain.  And if your child has sensory processing issues, choose a quieter restaurant with comfortable lighting and corner booths or tables that are tucked away from the crowd.

But you don’t always know when there *might* be a problem, and you aren’t necessarily always going to be as proactive as possible.  So when the meltdown starts, what can you do?

  • Stay focused on your response.  Notice how you feel when you first hear or see the starting of a meltdown, especially in public.  Are you getting tense?  Can you feel yourself frowning, or gritting your teeth?  Are you noticing changes with your breathing or your heart starting to pound?  What are you thinking about?
  • Use your own simple calming techniques for yourself. Pause, take a few deep breaths, count to 10.
  • Once you are aware of your immediate natural response, focus on what the best outcome can be in that moment.  Think about what power you have to try to get that outcome.  What tone of voice works with your child?  What calming strategies have been helpful in the past?  What is it your child wants in that moment?  Is it worth the battle?  For example, if your child is starting to meltdown over not wearing shoes in the store while sitting in a grocery cart or stroller, that battle might not be worth continuing – you can encourage him or her to just ask nicely.  But if your child has asked for a toy or treat and you said no, don’t give in to the tantrum.  You don’t want them to think they can always get things they want for acting out.
  • If you happen to have a child with autism or other special needs who has a more difficult time in public, consider carrying around some disability awareness information cards about the special need.  These can be great for helping other people understand that what is happening and can reduce their tendency to judge.  This by itself may ease your ind as well as possibly give you extra support when things don’t go well.
  • In situations where your child just continues with the meltdown no matter what techniques you try to prevent it or turn it around, there is never shame in leaving the situation, even if it means carrying your child out of the environment.
  • If you are experiencing repeated outbursts in public, you may consider speaking to a behavior therapist to get some individualized strategies to help meet the needs of yourself and your child.


Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more posts soon!

Trouble sleeping?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA   9.18.19

Ahhhh, sleep.  This is one of the most basic needs for all living creatures, and often is seen as a preferred activity.  Not only does it feel good to fall asleep, and to get a good amount if sleep, it is actually critical to our biological, cognitive and emotional functioning.

There are many people who have a hard time with sleeping.  Sleep problems can range from having a hard time falling asleep, waking up during the night, and sleeping too much.  All sleep issues can impact well-being.

Research shows that people need a certain amount of sleep each night.  The amount you need depends largely on your age group.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following guidelines should be followed regarding sleep:


Age Group Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day
Newborn 0–3 months 14–17 hours (National Sleep Foundation)
No recommendation (American Academy of Sleep Medicine)
Infant 4–12 months 12–16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
Toddler 1–2 years 11–14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
Preschool 3–5 years 10–13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
School Age 6–12 years 9–12 hours per 24 hours
Teen 13–18 years 8–10 hours per 24 hours
Adult 18–60 years 7 or more hours per night
61–64 years 7–9 hours
65 years and older 7–8 hours

When people don’t get enough sleep, they don’t feel as good.  Studies have consistently shown that inadequate sleep can lead to poor cognitive functioning,  depressed mood, anxiety, and ADHD.  For some of these issues, there may be a connection where the symptoms of the disorder lead to decreased sleep, and then decreased sleep can exaggerate the problem further. * Poor sleep can also cause physical ailments.  Diabetes and obesity have both been linked to insufficient sleep.  Sleep apnea can also be connected to poor cardiovascular health.

Improving sleep is important for anyone who is struggling with getting a good amount of sleep.  This holds true for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities as well.  So how can we address it when we our someone we care for is having sleep issues?

  1.  Look at evening routines.  What is going on to help you or someone else wind down in the evening?  For kids, it is important to have a bedtime routine.  This will help establish a pattern to help bodies and minds quiet down in preparation for falling asleep.  A common and healthy bedtime routine for kids may include a small snack, a bath or shower, quiet reading time, and soft music.  For adults, it is important to slow down at the end of the day also.  Cardio exercise or housework right before bed might not work well if you are having a hard time sleeping.
  2. Try to go to bed at about the same time every night, and to wake up at about the same time every morning.  Your body will get used to this routine and this can help sleep quite a bit.
  3. Eating and drinking before bed.  A small snack or sip of water is ok, but avoid eating or drinking things with sugar or caffeine, and eating too much of anything can keep you awake.  Try not to drink too much liquid before bed as this may cause you to wake up in the night (and possibly have a hard time falling asleep).
  4. Screens.  We just can’t say enough about how screens affect our sleep.  All studies point to poor effects of screens on sleep cycles.  Not only can it make it harder to fall asleep if you have been looking at a device or a laptop right before bed, the blue light from these devices can actually affect your sleep cycles during the night even after you’ve fallen asleep.  On top of that, looking at screens is kind of addictive.  If you are watching something on your device, it’s easy to keep watching or just watch a few minutes of the next show, or the next thing that pops up on YouTube.  Experts recommend turning off screens at least an hour before bed to help your brain get ready to sleep.  By the way, plain e-readers without the blue light are fine before bed.
  5. Use relaxation techniques.  This can include things like slow, deep breaths and progressive muscle relaxation.
  6. Try slowing your mind down with meditation.  There are numerous meditation apps that will guide you through a relaxing meditation that will help slow your thoughts down and let you fall asleep. • I know!  I just said to turn off screens before bed!  For meditation apps you would only be listening, not looking.  Turn off the screen while you listen.  It’s the blue light from the screens that affects sleep.•
  7. Environmental support.  Make sure your room is as dark as you like it and a good temperature for sleeping.  Also, some people like to listen to soft music or use nature sounds/white noise machines to help with sleep.  Further enhance relaxation with a lavender eye pillow or an essential oil diffuser.
  8. Supplements.  There are some studies showing that melatonin and valerian root MAY help with insomnia, although the research is limited and some studies are inconclusive.  Seek medical advice before starting any supplement.
  9. Finally, if you or someone you are caring for continues to struggle with insomnia, consider a sleep study.  These interventions look at sleep patterns throughout the night to help determine potential factors affecting sleep, including more significant sleep disorders.


*There has been some attention lately to controlled sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression.  This post is not meant to address sleep deprivation as a treatment but to look at ways to help improve sleep.

Coping skills for anxiety

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA. 7.30.19

Anxiety and issues related to anxiety can overlap with many other different needs, including autism.  What exactly is anxiety?  And what can you do when it happens to you or someone you love?

Anxiety and worry are part of every day life for most people.  We can all identify things that cause us stress on a daily basis, and most people have things they worry about on a regular basis.  Most people are able to keep these stresses and worries under control on their own, but there are many who need extra support for managing anxiety.

Anxiety becomes more of a problem when it begins to interfere with daily life, having a significant impact on work, leisure and personal relationships.  We all have things that cause anxiety, but we are able to process, cope, and carry on with our days regardless.  With more significant anxiety, this is not possible.

People with autism often have features of anxiety, some of which are more prevalent with autism spectrum disorders.  For example, many individual with autism become highly anxious when there is a change in routine or when things don’t go as planned.  To figure out when anxiety has reached a point needing extra support for someone with autism, ask the following questions:

  • Does the anxiety stop me or someone I love from doing things we enjoy?
  • Does the anxiety interfere with relationships?
  • Does the anxiety lead to more difficult behaviors, such as verbal or physical outbursts?
  • Does the anxiety lead to other maladaptive behaviors, such as self-injury?
  • Does the anxiety lead to misuse of substances, such as alcohol?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you or your loved one may be able to benefit from some strategies to help cope more effectively with anxiety.  There are plenty of tools available to support people with difficulty managing stress and anxiety.  Here are a few of the tops:

  • Stress ball
  • Squishy
  • Fidget items (Fidget cube, Koosh ball, Infinity Cube, Thinking Putty)
  • Talk to a trusted individual.
  • Take a break from the situation.
  • Classic and effective!  Taking slow, deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth).
  • Progressive relaxation.
  • Physical exercise.
  • Distraction techniques – anything from reading to watching a show to playing a video game to drawing or coloring – each person should have a list of effective distractions to help reduce anxiety.

For some people, a skilled therapist who understands autism and anxiety can provide more individualized ideas and supports for coping with stress.  Most importantly, make sure you remain positive and optimistic about dealing with anxiety.

Thanks for reading and check back in soon for more posts!

What about parents?

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Dr. Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA.      6-19-19

Making Time for Yourself This Summer!

We have so many options for things our kids can do over the summer.  As I wrote about in my last post, there are activities in every community, for kids both with and without different needs.  These activities can include things for all ages, interests and budgets.  Setting up these activities, and managing the logistics of them, is a lot of work.  Put this together with the regular daily demands of work, home care, and making sure everyone eats and you may find that there is no time or energy left for yourself at the end of the day.

Although it might not be something parents pay as much attention to while they are raising kids in a busy world, there are many things available in our communities to help adults with their work-family-self balancing act.  Before we get into some of those ideas, let’s spend a minute to consider why it is important to fit time for yourself into the agenda.

We have all heard that you can’t take care of other people unless you take care of yourself.  As common-sense as this is, often busy parents put this on the back burner or ignore this logic.  Think about going on an airplane.  One of the first things they say to you during the essential safety lesson is that if the oxygen masks are needed the adult needs to put on his or her oxygen before helping a child with the mask.  Why?  Because if you run out of oxygen, you can’t help your child.  In daily life it isn’t as dramatic or critical, but it is the same concept.  If you run yourself ragged, you aren’t going to be the parent you want to be.  By taking time for yourself,  you may essentially reduce your own stress so you can be more effective in your parenting, you may be more likely to take better care of your health by doing things for yourself, and you are being a good role model for your kids by showing them a positive work-family-self balance.  If you think about your kids 20 years down the road, do you want them to continue to make time for themselves?  Show them how to do that by doing it yourself.

Here are 10 ideas to help you make time for yourselves. You may choose solo activities, doing things with friends, or sharing time out as a couple.  If you have a hard time finding child care to make time for yourself, consider a babysitter, respite service, a family member, or a mother’s helper to give you a break.  In some cases you may need to take some time to yourself only at the end of the day when the kids are in bed, but even on these days it is important to make the most of the little bit of quiet time in the evening.

  1.  Treat yourself to a coffee, meal, or glass of wine with a friend.  A little bit of adult conversation can go a long way!
  2. Exercise.  Go for walks or hikes, take a run, go to the gym, sign up for a yoga class.  Any physical activity will benefit your body, mind and spirit.
  3. Look for adult classes in the community.  There are numerous free or low-cost classes, including art classes, cooking classes, and library programs to meet every interest.
  4. Take some time just for yourself.  Read a book for 30 minutes a day, or watch an episode of your favorite show, or just enjoy the sunshine with a few minutes outside.
  5. Plan a date night to help both parents rejuvenate and reconnect.
  6. Plan a game night or cookout with another family.  This will give your kids time to interact with peers while you socialize with your friends.
  7. Consider something to pamper yourself – a manicure/pedicure, a facial or a massage.  These types of activities can reduce stress and help you re-energize.
  8. Join a parent group, especially if you have kids with difficult behaviors or special needs.  Connecting with other parents who have similar challenges can be affirming and helpful.
  9. Indulge in one of your favorite treats – some nice chocolate, ice cream. or other special item you don’t normally let yourself enjoy.
  10. Journal.  Sometimes writing down the things that happen during the day can be a therapeutic tool for processing everything that happens in our busy lives.  For some people, journaling can help plan and organize thoughts for the upcoming days and can also let off steam about frustrating events or situations.  Journaling can also be used to help us remember the things that have gone well, the things we are thankful for, and the things our kids have done to give us joy.