Do you want to do something to help give people with different needs an opportunity to be more socially included in your community? Look into volunteer opportunities at Best Buddies, Autism Society of America, or Down Sydrome Foundation (October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month!). Or do a search for local groups who promote friendship for people with different needs, such as All Friends Network in Florida, or Positive Community Connections on Long Island.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD 10.14.21
Community inclusion has long been a goal for people with different needs and those who support them. An overview of disabilities by the CDC shows that 26% of the adult population in the United States has some form of disability. That is 61 million people in all. Of these, 13.7% have a mobility impairment, 10.8% have cognitive impairments, 5.9% have hearing impairments and 4.6% have vision impairments. 6.8% have difficulty with independent living and 3.7% have difficulty with basic self-care skills.
Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of progress within our systems to promote inclusion, such as less reliance on segregated classrooms in the school, better workplace opportunities for people who don’t fit into a certain employment box, and better accessibility features in public spaces. All of the work that has been done by people with different needs along with those who support them has been fantastic, and our world today is a much better place for inclusion than it was 30 years ago.
In addition to increased opportunities, we have seen significant changes in community awareness and acceptance for individuals with different needs. Across the country we have organizations whose focus is to promote awareness and inclusion, such as Autism Speaks, The National Down Syndrome Society, and The Arc. There are movies and television series that showcase life with different needs, including Love on the Spectrum, Born This Way, Raising Tourette’s, and Atypical. Placing these shows in the mainstream helps to create awareness and acceptance in our communities.
Despite these improvements and increased awareness, people with diverse abilities often continue to struggle to fit into the world comfortably. What are some things that we, as members of our communities, can be doing to help improve opportunities for inclusion?
Start by looking at the gifts you have in your own life – gifts of time, gifts of talent, gifts of financial resources. How do you use these gifts? For the most part, people use these gifts regularly to help themselves and their families, prioritizing the people closest to themselves. For example, if you have a gift of some free time, you will likely use that time to do something you enjoy, with family, friends, or time to yourself. Enjoying and appreciating what you have in the way of time, talent, and money is vital to your well-being and to help you stay connected to those who are important to you in your life. While I strongly encourage everyone to do more to use their gifts to improve their own lives and the lives of those close to them, I would also challenge people to look at some ways they can give back for the sake of others in the community.
With so many people in need and so many causes, each of us has a multitude of ways to give back to our communities. I could easily go through the attributes of a number of causes, but today our focus is inclusion for people with different needs, specifically, those with intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. These individuals are often left out socially, and have a much higher rate of unemployment than the general population. In addition, social isolation is a chronic problem. 24% of adults who have intellectual and neurodevelopmental differences state that they do not feel that they have people they can confide in comfortably.
So, what can you do?
Start with your gifts of time and talent. If you were to carve out even one hour a week to either spend time with someone who has different needs, or to volunteer at a local organization who supports people with different needs, you could make a big difference. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer at larger events also, including fundraisers, social events and other activities. Some examples include Night to Shine, a red-carpet event that takes place once a year in towns and cities around the world for people with different needs, and Els for Autism events that take place throughout the year. Consider also how some of your own skills and talents may be used to help – are you good at organization? If so, helping with fundraisers may the the thing for you. Are you confident with your social skills and could you help someone with issues related to friendship? Maybe spending time with people who are socially isolated is where you can best use your talent to help with inclusion.
Now, think about your gifts of financial and material resources. With this, the most obvious thing is to find a good organization or foundation who supports community inclusion and opportunities for people with unique needs. There are hundreds of these organizations in our country to choose from – some with a national focus and others that have more impact on local experiences. Other ways to use financial and material gifts to help with inclusion may include investing resources into providing more opportunities for people. For example, if you own or manage a business, perhaps you could consider committing to hiring one or more people with different needs to help out in your business. Not only do you help by providing a chance for gainful employment, but you also provide opportunities for social engagement and interaction that can be severely lacking for many people with different needs.
So if you are looking to make a difference in our ever-changing and complex world, take some time to consider making a difference for some people who still need our help and support to be meaningfully included in our communities. You may find yourself amazed at the impact you can have for the benefit of others.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 7.28.21
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am sure that this is true. After all, there are things that are beautiful to some people but not to others. We all have basic preferences for color, shapes and design. We also have preferences for beauty in the form of landscapes, animals, and other people. In many cases, we may come to appreciate beauty where we had not seen it before.
When it comes to other people, there can be tendencies as part of human nature to make judgments based on appearances. Sometimes these judgments are purely about attraction – do I like how that person looks as a potential romantic partner? Other times these judgments are more complex, looking at someone and thinking you may know them because of the outward appearance you see. Clothing, hairstyle, skin color – these are all things that can affect our judgment, often leading to inaccurate representations or poor outcomes.
In the field of psychology, we strive to understand and predict human behavior to help build better success for people with regard to personal interactions. It is often disappointing to see negative patterns of behavior repeat themselves – with individual people we know, with ourselves, and with society. In my specific experience, spending my entire career working with and advocating for the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens – those with autism, developmental needs and diverse abilities – I have challenged others to look for beauty and strength in people where it might not be as obvious to society. We have come a long way in the past 20 years towards increased acceptance and community inclusion, but we still have a long way to go. It doesn’t seem like we can fix things in any easy fashion, but looking at where we are today, it seems that one thing we can all do is look for and find beauty.
In others. In ourselves. In our communities.
How good are you at looking for an finding beauty in others? Not just physical beauty, but inner beauty, positive qualities and attributes? Do you look for the best in others, or do you focus on the things you don’t like, or the things that make you uncomfortable?
We often see the negatives more than the positives. In doing this, I can promise you that if you look for a negative quality in another person, or look for fault in what that person says or does, you will find it. This also holds true for the opposite – if you really apply yourself to looking for the best quality in another person you will find it. I believe that there is beauty somewhere inside all people, with very few exceptions.
In addition, it is important for us all to remember that we have each only really walked in our own shoes. Do any of us really know what it feels like to be someone else? Someone who was rude to you at the store? Someone who has a different skin color than your own, or who comes from a different culture? Someone who has been born with a disability that affects every day life in ways you might not be able to imagine?
Try to imagine – only just imagine – that each person you come into contact with today is honestly just doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. If you can even imagine that, your outlook may become more balanced. This may also result in more positive interactions and less frustrations throughout your day.
While I do think that in general, we tend to be too hard on other people, I also think that we tend to be hard on ourselves. It is so easy to slip into negative thinking about ourselves, our skills, our looks, our interactions. Have you ever second-guessed a conversation after it happened and thought about what you could have or should have said differently or better? Have you ever looked in the mirror or at a picture of yourself and really focused in on the things you don’t like about your looks? Have you ever talked yourself out of trying something because you think you won’t be good enough?
Simone Biles, bright, beautiful, and possibly the best female gymnast of all time, just stepped down from the Olympic team competition to let her team compete without her because she wasn’t sure she had it in her to live up to the world’s expectations in that moment. She, who from an outsider’s perspective with her incredible talent and should have every reason to believe in herself, was wrought with doubt this week. The world was shocked. We look at her as someone who is flawless, perfect in her sport, the epitome of strength and perseverance. But even Simone Biles has her moments of self-doubt, and if she does, it is no wonder that we all do. Simone Biles had the courage to say to the world that she needed a break for herself, and I hope that in doing so she is able to search and find that strength, beauty and brightness once again.
How can we face our doubts and not lose sight of our own beauty and brightness? Maybe it means sometimes hitting the pause button to give yourself some grace for a time. Maybe it also means looking at yourself in a more balanced way – you may challenge yourself constantly to overcome weaknesses and things that get in your way, but it is important to not let this dominate your thoughts about yourself. For every weakness or challenge you seek to improve within yourself, look for one thing you are proud of, one thing you like about yourself, one thing you know other people like about you. Balance yourself with positive thoughts about yourself while you strive for self-improvement.
In our communities.
Boy oh boy, is it easy to find fault in our communities, isn’t it? Do they do enough of this, that or the other thing that we think is important? Probably not. But like the balanced perspectives we can strive for regarding others and ourselves, we have to do this with our communities as well. Like people, communities are not perfect. How could they be? They are made up of imperfect people, after all. That is the nature of life. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t advocate for our communities to do better in things that could be improved, but it is to say let’s think about them in a more balanced way.
When you consider your own community, including our collective state and national community, do you see more things that you like or more things that you don’t like? Is it easy to criticize local, state or federal organizations and governing agencies for everything they do wrong? It is, I think, very easy to find fault with organizations and systems. And there are things that need to be improved, without a doubt. This is true for things that affect lives of people in a multitude of ways. Does your community do enough to support people in financial need? Does it do enough to support and include people with different needs and abilities? Does it do enough to provide opportunities for positive interaction and productive debate? Does it do enough overall to support diversity and inclusion for all people?
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But, I would venture to say that all our communities have qualities and strengths that we may take for granted. While you consider the things you wish would be better within your own community – or even on a broader scale with state and federal organizations or governments – also consider the things you value in these area. What does your community do well? Look for the beauty.
If we start from a place with a focus on what is bright and beautiful, it will make it easier to tackle the challenges that we face with others, with ourselves, and with our communities.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA. 12.9.20
2020 has been a year to remember for everyone on the planet. Without getting into the details or repeating the same laments that we have all been sharing for months, I’ll just acknowledge that for many people, the holidays are feeling just a little but different this year. Who would have imagined that deciding whether or not to visit family would be a difficult and complicated decision? This is coupled with changes in our communities including restaurants and small businesses struggling every day to stay open and maintain hope.
So this year, it’s not too late to think about some ways to make your shopping more meaningful. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are over, so why not turn now to looking local to support your neighbors and community businesses? Here are some ideas to give back to your community while giving gifts to your friends and families.
- For anyone who follows me, you know that one thing near and dear to my heart is supporting people with diverse abilities. Has anyone noticed an increase in businesses that specifically and intentionally support people with diverse abilities? I have! Here are some examples:
- Bitty and Beau’s Coffee. I had the incredible pleasure a couple years ago of walking into the absolutely beautiful Bitty and Beau’s shop in Charleston, SC without knowing anything about it. While waiting in line for my coffee, I learned about the company by looking around and reading some of the signs. Bitty and Beau’s was started by a family who has 2 children with Down Syndrome. They employ people with all kinds of unique needs and their mission is to promote full community inclusion. The have 4 locations: Charleston, SC – Wilmington, NC – Savannah, GA – Annapolis, MD. If you live near any of these consider stopping by and getting your loved ones gift cards. Or, you can go to their online shop and order coffee beans or check out their merch. They have everything from care packages to clothing with their logo to awareness items such as the #notbroken and the Radically Inclusive shirts and hats. A great way to support a business with a mission and find great gifts this holiday season.
- John’s Crazy Socks. You will love this shop. This is a father-son business, with John, who has Down Syndrome, and his Dad, Mark. Look at their story for some real inspiration! They started selling fun and crazy socks online in 2016 and have gained a huge following. They have the best socks – fun, funny, colorful, crazy socks. They also sell a variety of awareness socks along with monthly subscriptions and are currently carrying a variety of face masks. Half of their employees have differing abilities. So, if you are looking for some fun gifts this is a good option for supporting community inclusion while checking off some boxes on your gift list.
- We Are Lions. What a great idea this website is! They showcase items made by people with differing needs from all over the world. The site has categories for everyone, including clothing, home and bath, and accessories. All items will give you an artist profile so you can see exactly whose day you will be making a little bit better by buying their product.
- Online specialty stores that showcase and sell items made and produced by people with differing needs. The websites are beautiful and they have fabulous products. Some of them include Purely Patrick, specializing in gourmet food from Vermont; Special Sparkle, offering lovely handmade bracelets, Two Blind Brothers, a site that gives you options of how much to spend and then sends you a box (you are blind to what you will get until it arrives, but they promise you that you will love it), and all profits go to the Foundation Fighting Blindness. There are many similar sites you can find by searching for special needs businesses online, and all your purchases from these places will support community inclusion and opportunity for these ambitious and creative individuals.
- Local shops who focus on supporting special needs. This may include employment opportunities or showcasing products. Some examples include No Label at the Table in Indianapolis, One for All Gifts on Long Island, South Fork Bakery on Long Island, Just Goods Gifts in West Michigan, Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolate in Fairfax, VA. There are way too many to list but if you look in your community you will likely find some businesses that are either run by people with diverse abilities, or who mindfully employ those with diverse abilities.
2. Shop small, shop local. This Small Business Saturday movement started in 2010 with the support of American Express. The idea is to support small, local businesses by dedicating a day to shopping at small businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving – right after the Black Friday madness. This year, it is even more important to consider local purchases. What about Covid, though, and being out in the community? Well, many small shops have set up online experiences to allow you to shop online and pick up your items curbside or right inside the store to limit crowds. The website gives information about local small businesses in your area by using the interactive map. Clicking the dot for any business on the map will give you easy access to the address of the business and the website.
3. Give the gift of local services. We all know how much the restaurant and entertainment businesses have been affected by the pandemic. There are so many choices for local gifts in every area of the country. When it comes to gift certificates and gift cards, nothing would make your favorite local spots happier than to have people buy gifts to use and enjoy. You could consider any range of gifts, including restaurants, bakeries, car washes, spa and salon services, coffee shops, pet grooming, design services, art classes, fitness or yoga classes, or memberships to local museums. Not only does this support the local service industry, but it is a gift that keeps on giving after the holiday season, giving your friends and family something to look forward to in the coming weeks and months.
This time of year can be wonderful and difficult for all of us, on any given year. This year, let’s use it to give ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities an infusion of support and hope to push us into 2021 with a renewed sense of optimism.
Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA
After several months of lighter restrictions, along with outdoor activity options that gave all of us more opportunities for safe socializing, now we are seeing tighter restrictions in many states and communities as the pandemic hits a second wave. In much of the country, it is getting colder outside, making it more difficult to find safe places to socialize outside the family home.
This is really challenging for all of us. We miss the easy get-togethers, being able to see friends and family without a second thought. Many of us have made changes to holiday plans and traditions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. As much as we are struggling with the new social normal, it is especially challenging for kids and teens, and even more challenging for kids and teens with autism and other different needs.
One of my biggest interests is and always has been to help kids, teens and adults who have different needs to find friendship and social inclusion at school and in the community. We have come a long way in the past 20 years with schools, colleges and communities establishing many resources and opportunities for people with different needs to be involved, and to find friends. Now, with the pandemic, many of these opportunities are not available. This leaves us searching for options to help kids and teens find ways to stay connected and social in a healthy and fulfilling way. These ideas and resources will be helpful for anyone who is looking for ways to help their children with positive and fun social interaction, safely.
The following ideas are just a few suggestions for possibilities to help with socialization – please make sure as a parent that you screen and monitor anything you allow your child participate in virtually. These ideas could be beneficial for kids and teens with and without different needs.
- Tik Tok. Just kidding! This will not help.
- Many of you already know about Kahoot, but if not, check it out. Not only does ot have educational activities, but it can also be used to set up interactive games online with friends or family.
- Interactive game apps. One good one that is free to use is Psych, which users download then play together using a code. The app can be found on Apple or Google Play. There are some paid in-app options as well for extra game decks.
- Watching movies together remotely. One way to do this is through Teleparty (previously called Netflix party). Users are able to watch a movie at the same time, with an option to chat while watching.
- Try some online extra-curricular activities with Outschool. This website has thousands of classes for students that focus primarily on health and wellness. If you type in the search bar for you will find quite a few classes with a focus on socialization. You can also search by age, day, format, length of class, etc. These classes will have a fee, and the prices vary depending on the class.
- Local resources. Our communities are scrambling to move things to virtual and online formats to accommodate a variety of needs. This ranges from curbside pickup for local boutiques who have updated websites to provide more shopping options, to expanded takeout food options, to virtual or parking lot church services, to a tremendous increase in the use of virtual meeting platforms for businesses. Within your own community, look to places like libraries, churches, parks and recreation departments, and community centers to see what social activities are available virtually.
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.
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.