New hobbies cultivate creativity and foster well-being

Sparking one’s imagination and putting hands to work can be calming and empowering. Whether it is dancing or drawing, running or writing, active ways of expressing oneself can be beneficial for the mind and body.

A seven-year-old Melbourne boy with Autism has found a special way to express his creativity. He weaves colorful 3D loom bracelets and shares his work with friends and family. Jake Grima was taught how to make loom bracelets from a friend at school, but initially became frustrated when he attempted to make his own. In an effort to persevere, he started watching YouTube videos, where he cultivated his hobby and learned how to make complex 3D structures.

In an interview with Australia’s 9News, Jake’s mother, Jennifer, describes his excitement of his newfound talent: “He sits on his iPad and teaches himself to make them which may take him 8-10 hours over two to three days…he has such a passion for them and is so proud of himself.” With the access to technology and commitment to his art form, Jake has gained pride and ownership of this creative aspect of his life.  Jake has worked on making loom bracelets for about four months, and has found his “happy place,” a balance of improving his behavior and exercising creativity. The hours he spends on creating the vibrant and complicated bracelets has also improved his hand coordination.

Food in 3D-loom band form!

Jennifer says Jake’s mood and confidence have taken a positive turn since he started his hobby. She attests that Jake’s life is happy and bright, as well as those of the people around him. “He is such a tranquil, pleasant, and witty person… He has made our lives more interesting and he’s taught me more in seven years than anything else in my whole life… I feel gifted to have a son with such a special gift and wouldn’t change it for the world.”

By bridging gaps of art and technology, creative outlets like loom bracelets can bring to life one’s imagination. For children with Autism, finding healthy ways of expression can make all the difference in improving behavior, mood, and confidence. Jake and his colorful creations speak to the notion that everyone can create. Loom bracelets may not be a prevalent form of artistic expression, but they certainly are a big part of this child’s unique world.

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Seeing Autism Through a New Lens

Prominent photographer Bruce Hall’s work has been featured in global media outlets, such as National Geographic magazine. The work he values most are the photographs of his family, including his twin teenage sons, Jack and John, who both have Autism. Hall differs from many professional photographers as he is legally blind and can only see people and things a few inches away from his face. Photography is not only his outlet and profession, but a way for him to connect and interact with the important people in his life.

Jack and James are both nonverbal. Hall strives to connect with his sons by photographing them- once he snaps a picture, he blows it up on his computer screen and sees his kids in a way he was not able to at the time the photo was taken. In an interview with The Mighty, Hall describes how he does this to look at his kids. “I just started chasing them and gave up control. I followed them into their space, and these chance encounters opened up an entirely new perspective on my photography and this project. So much of what’s gone on over the last 14 years has been so chaotic, so photography has been a way to look at them and gaze into their eyes.”

For the first 10 years of his sons’ lives, Hall took close to 150,000 pictures. Sifting through the images, Bruce and his wife, Valerie Hall started to collaborate on a book project, weaving Valerie’s narrative pieces of writing with Hall’s photographs. Valerie Hall holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles, and began writing captions for some of Bruce’s photographs. The images, descriptions, and feelings became a 265-page book, Immersed: Our Experience With Autism.

“Sometimes it seems like James belongs on another planet . . . Someplace with a completely different reality, where all the rules follow an alternative form of logic, and everything is perceived and interpreted according to physical laws that defy our own. And he may be wired perfectly for that other world. But he is not wired for this world. The traits we consider most human are exactly the ones that are alien to him. Language, mutual experience, relationships, empathy, a desire to create and express ideas, to achieve potential . . . Everything we may remember and value from our time on Earth and James seems to live outside of it.” — Valerie Hall (from “Immersed: Our Experience With Autism”)

“They are reflections on specific events or reactions to some aspect of living with autism, the effects on us as parents and on our neuro-typical daughter, and the far-reaching repercussions and implications of autism in general,” Hall told The Mighty. “As a whole, the narrative describes the journey our family took during the early years of the boys’ lives, from the time before the diagnosis to their 10th birthday.  It honestly describes the struggles and sorrows, as well as the courage and laughter, that accompanied those most difficult years.”

The Hall family strives to make an impact on the way individuals with Autism are perceived in society and represented in media. The parents seek to give people like their sons a voice in the discussion. The Halls are currently working with non-profit R.Morgan Corp., and the Regional Center of Orange County to assist in the development of housing opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. “For the people who are struggling and going through this, we want them to know they’re not alone,” Hall says. “Most of the people who are going through tough situations often don’t want to talk about it, and they don’t want to ask for help. It’s hard enough to ask friends and family for help, and it’s even harder to ask strangers. Even tough situations can figure a way through-you just keep doing what you can to help your family.”

Photography has the capability to provide us with a different perspective, whether it is personal or published. For the Hall family, Bruce’s photography is only one aspect of their exciting- sometimes challenging- lives with Autism.

“As James lies still, with his ears underwater, he reflects a kind of peace and focus that I see in him at no other time. Maybe he likes it just because the worldly sounds are soothingly dampened. But his expression seems so intent and thoughtful that I could almost believe he is actually listening to something in the water. Maybe his questions about the world are answered there. Answers he cannot get from us.” — Valerie Hall (from “Immersed: Our Experience With Autism”)

For more of Bruce Hall’s photography, visit his Facebook page and website.

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D.C. Coffeeshop to Train Students with Autism

Washington D.C. –

As of June 2014, only 16.8% of adult individuals with disabilities were employed. Independent Grounds Coffee House is taking steps to improve those odds, by instilling a vocational training program from teenagers with Autism.

Washington’s Top News’ Rachel Nania describes the goals and initiatives of Executive Director Laura Pickard. Laura has worked as a principal in the special education system in the D.C. area, where she experiences the needs and struggles of high school students and their families.

She explains how, in school, students are immersed in a “really structured and set environment,” but after they graduate, they lose that support.

“There really is a huge need for transitioning students in a systematic way to a less-structured environment with on-the-spot, real-time feedback.”

Pickard says students on the Autism Spectrum ought to receive more help with professional skills, such as how to apply for a position, how to dress appropriately for work, and how to interact with customers.

“All of these things can be worked on in a school setting, but it’s really hard to generalize into a workplace environment in a real-time, fast-paced job.” Students could use extra assistance in the transition from the school environment to the workplace. The statistics aren’t a reflection of individuals’ capabilities, but that lack of support measures in place.

Pickard founded Independent Grounds in 2014, with the intention of creating a space for students where they can practice general skills that can be applied to other work environments as well as gain experience in food and beverage.

“There are really a lot of interesting opportunities in a coffee shop to really expand on a variety of skills that the students might be able to use later on.”

Depending on their individual interests, some students may focus on bookkeeping, while others try their hand at marketing. Pickard sees Independent Grounds as part of school vocational programming, where interns will work a few days during off-peak hours. She hopes that with a couple days a week in the real-world job setting, students will be more prepared to jump into the workforce once they graduate high school.

Pickard plans for Independent Grounds to be a fully functioning coffeeshop, but will focus on designing it to cater to students’ needs. For example, there will be a “cool down area” in case the students get overly excited, and there will be clearly marked visual supports throughout the cafe.

As of this month, Pickard does not have a location scouted or an opening date planned, but she has plans for Independent Grounds to be in the district and has received a lot of support from the local community.

She has started a crowdfunding campaign to receive funding, and is now working on securing grants. “Behind every coffee pot and grinder and espresso machine that’s purchased is a student that will have a more secure future,” she says.

Pickard has researched comparable ideas, such as a bakery in Miami that employs adults with Autism. The need in D.C for something similar is great. By taking steps to improve workplace confidence and comfortability for individuals with Autism, people like Laura Pickard can make a difference for the Autism community and for all of us.

“I have so many parents that reach out to me and write me personal emails, asking to please be put on the waiting list, please give them more information about how their student can get enrolled, so I think that people see a real opportunity here to change their children’s lives.”





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College to Implement Program for Students with Autism

Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa is beginning to accept student applications for the Fall 2016 semester for the new Connections Academy program. A four-year program, Connections Academy integrates students with Autism into a college classroom with other students. The program assists these students in working through the multifaceted college experience of both social and academic endeavors.

Iowa’s local news channel KCRG describes the catalyzing initiative taken by Loras College. Faculty at Loras College describe how the increase in children diagnosed with Autism has inspired them to start this program.

“Years ago students who have Autism were told they weren’t college material,” Connections Academy director Lynn Gallagher said.

When the program starts next Fall, students will be assigned a peer mentor and a faculty advisor. They will earn two credits a semester while gaining skills in college life and etiquette as well as social skills.

“A lot of times students who have that diagnosis are very knowledge in specific subjects and they’re very willing to share, so something they don’t know when to stop talking and when to stop asking questions,” said Gallagher.

The institution has taken specific measures to ensure a smooth transition for students with Autism. These individuals have the option of living in a single dorm room rather than having a roommate. At the beginning of the school year, they may move into their dorms two days earlier than the rest of the student body, in order to avoid the hectic atmosphere of move-in day.

“A lot of students have sensory issues…There is a lot of change. It’s difficult. If they move in early you are going to eliminate all of that unneeded stress,” Gallagher said.

She says that the initiative to provide students with Autism the opportunity for higher education will provide students with tools and a skill set to become successful professionals.

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Red Tomato Farm: A New Initiative for Adults with Autism

When it comes to providing creative, meaningful outlets for individuals with Autism, new initiatives are constantly on the rise. Red Tomato Farm, located in Newville, Pennsylvania, gives adults with Autism the chance to gain social skills and realize their full potentials by engaging in farm-related work.

In an article in The Sentinel, Red Tomato Development Officer Deborah Shaffer describes how “Red Tomato Farm is a great place for our individuals on the Autism Spectrum,” as it “provides them with work through farm tasks and it creates opportunities to interact with the general community. It is a new concept as far as adult training facilities go. They get the opportunity to work with gardening, towing, and with animals.” Rather than learning skills in a more traditional workplace, the program design encapsulates sustainability, volunteerism, and ecology, to provide applicable, skill-enhancing opportunities for people with Special Needs as well as the local community.

Farm work is constant, and relatively demanding; participants have set work schedules throughout the seven-day week all year long. Whether they have the enriching opportunities of planting seeds in the greenhouse, tending the gardens, harvesting, maintaining farm equipment, or feeding and caring for animals, participants not only gain practical skills, but attain feelings of accomplishment, determination, teamwork, and self-sufficiency.

Because the Autism Spectrum is based on a level of individualization in terms of the impact of a disorder, every experience is unique and involves each individual’s specific needs and characteristics. A variety of different outlets in the farm environment can provide adults with ways to combat anxiety, stress, and avoidance associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Depending on an individual’s personal interest and unique experience, he or she might excel in certain activities over others. The farm is an ideal location to explore these specific outlets.

“Unfortunately, as a person ages, services are more limited,” says local psychologist Dr. Bernadette Cachara. “Although services exist, the adult then must work to initiate services; however, because of their avoidance (and) difficulty of social interaction, this becomes very difficult and overwhelming for the individual. Many times, these adults do not present for services but rather isolate themselves.”

By having these types of opportunities in their local communities, adults with Autism have the capacity to hone in on beneficial life skills and cultivate new relationships with their peers.

“A lot of friendships are made (at the Red Tomato Farm),” Shaffer says. “There is a huge social aspect to it. I think it’s a great opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities because it allows them the opportunity to work and it also provides them an opportunity for physical activity and exercise. They can sleep better at night.”

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