Squidalicious Reviews

Take Action: Ask Michelle Obama to Help Create an Autism Corps
July 10, 2009, 9:38 pm
Filed under: action, autism, autism corps, Michelle Obama, services, support, Teach for America
Jennyalice and I have taken the Autism Corps idea one step further: We have created a petition asking Michelle Obama to meet with us, to discuss creating an Autism Corps based on the Teach for America Model.

We welcome feedback from all families affected by autism, and from autistics themselves. Would four to fourteen hours of one-to-one support make a difference in your life? You can comment below, or even better leave a comment next to your signature on the petition.

Petition excerpts:

“We would like to propose that Michelle Obama meet with Shannon Des Roches Rosa and Jennifer Byde Myers, two parents representing two different autism families’ perspectives, and Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg and Lindsey Nebeker, two adults on the autism spectrum, to discuss creating an Autism Corps so as to address one of the most pressing needs of autism families and adult autistics: one-to-one in-home support.

“We would like to discuss taking those three factors and combining them into a nationwide organization dedicated to training volunteers to aid kids and adults with autism: an Autism Corps based on the Teach For America urgent action model, with the goal of providing autism families as well as adult autistics in need with between four and fourteen hours of weekly care.”

Please forward this post to anyone who might be interested.

The Autism Corps
July 7, 2009, 7:21 am
Filed under: autism, autism corps, Michelle Obama, science, service

UPDATE: I have tweaked the argument below to center on the Teach for America Model rather than the Peace Corps model, and created a petition which I encourage you to sign.

If I had an opportunity to discuss autism with First Lady Michelle Obama, here’s what I’d want to talk about:

We need an Autism Corps, modeled after the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

There are hundreds of thousands of children and adults with autism diagnoses who need day-to-day support now, and their ranks are swelling. There aren’t enough trained professionals to serve them all, and even if there were, many families can’t afford them. I can’t imagine how those families go it alone, managing their lives without external support — especially those whose children have moderate to severe diagnoses. Mine is one of the luckiest autism families around; we have access to and funding for the highest quality services, yet we still have plenty of scorched-earth days.

Michelle and Barack Obama have launched a campaign to encourage service, while millions of energetic and idealistic young adults want to work but can’t find jobs, and our president has said that he “…believes we must work to guarantee that Americans with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] can live independent and fully productive lives and to assure that their families understand and are able to support a loved one with ASD.”

Let’s put that all together. Let’s create a federally-funded organization dedicated to training volunteers to work with kids and adults with autism. Autism Corps workers could help individuals with autism gain skills and independence, and have recreation opportunities. They could give their families — all autism families, not just those who can pay for or know how to get services — some sorely-needed respite. They could make it possible for parents who would otherwise be full-time caretakers to work outside the home. They could supply balance to families who never thought they’d find it. They could make a real difference for families approaching the breaking point.

This is not to downplay the importance of autism discussion, approaches, and research. But those are already on White House and Federal radars. “The Autism Society has invited First Lady Michelle Obama to participate in [their annual conference’s] July 24 keynote panel on public policy and autism.” This is good news for autism awaress in general, and I hope the panel will be recorded. President Obama has welcomed science back to the White House, which hopefully translates into good news for evidenced-based autism treatments. And the US Dept of Health & Human Resources has publicly released its Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research, which bodes well for future autism research, and answers.

While autism and people with autism shouldn’t be demonized, we need to be frank: having a child with autism is more stress than some families can handle. Those families have needs that take precedence over panels and promises and research; they need help getting through the day. They need an Autism Corps. I would hope our First Lady (and her husband) could both recognize and support this idea.

New BlogHer Post: Identifying and Avoiding Autism Cults
July 1, 2009, 6:36 pm
Filed under: autism, autism blog, critical thinking, hype, skepticism

New autism parents need to invest in critical thinking, and avoid hype-based organizations that foster autism fear & loathing. If you fall for an autism cult, you might never trust your own judgment again.


An excerpt:

The best investment you can make in your autistic child’s future is a commitment to intense scrutinization of treatment options. Does an approach make sense, or do you just really, really want to believe it will help? Are there real risks and only possible benefits? Do data and studies support it? If so, are they from independent sources or biased ones? New autism parents need to work past their fear and confusion, and embrace their critical reasoning skills. (If you need a skeptical thinking refresher, Michael Shermer’s “Baloney Detection Kit” lists ten criteria for evaluating questionable claims.)

Mother Warriors: The Extended Review
June 26, 2009, 6:30 am
Filed under: autism, autism blog, Jenny McCarthy, misinformation, Mother Warriors

This is a long post, but one I hope you’ll pass on to help debunk the image of Jenny McCarthy as a reliable source of general autism information and support, while spreading the word about hope and resources for ALL autism families.

“But vaccinations cause autism. Sure, science says otherwise, but Jenny McCarthy has some real convincing anecdotes.” –The Onion

Jenny McCarthy’s son was not only diagnosed with autism, but had severe, life-threatening seizures. Through medical intervention, applied behavioral analysis (ABA), and other therapies, he is now doing much so much better that his mother describes him as “recovered” from autism and calls him a “poster child for hope.” When she went on Oprah and described the symptoms of autism, parents across the country were able to give their quirky children’s behaviors a name, and start getting those kids help.

I am grateful to her for helping those families, and I am glad for her and her son — as are most autism families I know, because we crave success stories and the hope they bring as much as we crave our children’s happiness. Parenting these kids we love so much is rewarding, but it can also be devilishly challenging, and we need role models to replenish our hope reservoirs, frequently.

Ms. McCarthy could have been autism’s true hope-bearer. She could have used her visibility to create and promote books full of resources and ideas for helping all families with autism, telling us to never give up hope, to focus on loving our kids whether they respond to therapies or not, while including a chapter or two about alternative treatments that seem to work for her son and some of his peers.

Instead, she produces books like Mother Warriors, about how she and other parents rescued their kids from autism using expensive and time-consuming biomedical diet and supplement methods that won’t help most kids on the spectrum, portrays pre-“recovered” children in a very negative light, and gives parents of newly diagnosed autistic children false hopes of recovery. Not real hope. False hope. That, and misinformation, are what Mother Warriors is full of, among other things.

Reading Mother Warriors is like listening to a college sophomore try to recruit campus freshman to Earth-First!-style environmental activism. Yes, she is sincere. Yes, the stories that keep her going are heartbreaking. Yes, we need to challenge some industry professionals to change their thinking. Yes, she is walking the walk, and taking action.

Yes, she is totally naive, in thrall to extremists, making a good cause look bad, and could possibly get people hurt.

Ms. McCarthy believes that her version of autism is reality, but instead of supplying any kind of non-testimonial documentation, she uses emotional manipulation, pop psychology, ratings numbers, and bullying — not evidence — to support her assertions. She shouts, “[My child] is my science!” when confronted with contradictory evidence, considers being on Oprah the ultimate validation of her “truth,” declares that The Secret helps her to be a better autism parent, and thinks that yelling the loudest is an appropriate debate technique.

She also insists, as do many of the parents in this book, that she saw her child disappear and regress after his vaccinations. None of the parents in this book will consider that their child’s regression and the timing of the vaccinations might be a coincidence:

“Yet, speculation that shots cause autism continues to stick in parents’ minds. Why? One big reason is because we have all heard reports of kids suddenly “got” autism just a week or two after shots.

“In fact, one of the scariest characteristics of autism is that it can suddenly afflict a child who seems developmentally normal. But, is it possible that this sudden problem right after shots is just a coincidence? Absolutely, yes! Every day, serious and amazing things occur, purely by chance. Think of it this way, in a large country like the US, a one-in-a-million coincidence happens 300 times a day.

“Approximately 24,000 children are diagnosed with autism every year and in about 1/3 of those cases (8000/year…150/w) normally developing kids show abrupt deterioration (so called “regressive” autism). Regression usually appears between a child’s 1st and 3rd birthdays, a period during which they get shots 4 separate times. Do the calculations and you quickly realize that, every year, over 600 children will spiral into autism during the four 1-week periods that follow these 4 shot visits… just by pure, utter, random chance.”

-Harvey Karp: Cracking the Autism Riddle: “Vaccine Theory” Fades as a New Idea Emerges

All Ms. McCarthy had to do to give this book some legitimacy was to state, upfront, that some kids diagnosed with autism have other medical conditions that need addressing, and that when some of these kids become healthy, they seem to lose their autism diagnoses. She should have had a front-and-center checklist of symptoms to watch out for, if children are to be candidates for biomedical approaches: uncontrollable diarrhea, severe insomnia, adverse vaccine reactions, etc.

She should have said, on the first page of the first chapter, that even though she has encountered many success stories, the biomedical approach doesn’t work for most families with autism: information she acknowledges but buries, in one paragraph on page eleven, and another on page 140. All the other pages of the book are dedicated to telling us how all kids with autism — not those who have serious illnesses coupled with an autism diagnoses, but all kids with autism — should at least try the biomedical approach.

The children in this book are not like most of the autistic kids I know, kids who did not regress into autism, many of whom are almost supernaturally physically healthy (my own son used to be a barfer, but that was due to intolerance of the antibiotics for his frequent ear infections. Once he got ear tubes put in and the antibiotics stopped, so did the barfing). Our kids contrast with the children featured in Mother Warriors, who all have gastrointestinal disorders, seizure disorders, family histories of immune disorders, or bad reactions to vaccinations.

I do believe that successfully treating these illnesses might lessen children’s autism-like symptoms. Adults with conditions like ulcerative colitis, a large intestine disease similar to the leaky gut syndrome cited by several Mother Warriors parents, say that their pain can be excruciating, and leads to extreme irritability and mood swings. Intense pain could cause autistic-like symptoms and developmental delays in a baby or very young child. It is also a condition that is helped by trial-and-error dietary modification, in some cases a gluten-free, casein-free diet.

The one Mother Warriors child who didn’t seem ill is a girl whose developmental trajectory mimicked that of Catherine Maurice’s daughter in the classic story of autism recovery, Let Me Hear Your Voice. You know, the girl who regressed into autism and was recovered by ABA therapy while using goldfish crackers as reinforcers? It is difficult to take biomedical and wheat-free dairy-free diet claims seriously in that warrior mom’s case. (Of course, almost every last kid in Warrior Mothers also had ABA therapy, but ABA is infrequently mentioned as a contributing recovery factor.)

The author skews her book in other non-inclusive ways. She lists no resources other than a directory of DAN! doctors, a few things that she wants you to buy: her DVDs, hyperbaric oxygen tanks, infrared saunas, etc., and a page about her and Jim Carrey’s cult-like autism organization, Generation Rescue. Why doesn’t she list any ABA resources, non-DAN! developmental pediatricians, autism research & support agencies, parent organizations? There are so many places online to send autism parents for help and support, but no one looking to this book as a source of general autism information would know that.

Specific instances of additional skew:

  • She lets Dr. Jay N. Gordon, who wrote the introduction, embarrass himself by citing the continuously-debunked vaccines-causes-autism myth and alluding to the not-autism Hannah Poling vaccine injury compensation case.
  • She lets a father justify the use of the anti-viral Valtrex on his autistic child by describing studies of post-viral autism-like regression in adults, without a single footnote or citation to back up his claims.
  • She lets another parent describe how vaccinations stole her child’s words, then later contradict herself entirely by talking about that same child’s severe apraxia of speech, a motor planning disorder that is either present at birth or the result of stroke, tumor, or other brain injury.
  • Several of the parents blame mercury in vaccines for their children’s autism, without bothering to make a distinction between the non-bioaccumulating ethylmercury that used to be in vaccines, and the Minamata-disease-causing methylmercury everyone thinks the parents are talking about.
  • She states that “No one ever talks about the [autism] siblings.” Right. She’s the first person who ever thought of them! Except no, no, no, and no.
  • Eighty percent of autism parents’ marriages end in divorce. Also a no.
  • No one is studying biomedical approaches to autism, or vaccine-autism links! Absolutely untrue.

This massing of misinformation is so intense that Mother Warriors stops being a book and becomes a crusade. Fact-checkers must have either fallen on their swords, or were not invited along. And I sometimes suspect that our author did not graduate at the top of her class at The University of Google.

Other areas of the book go beyond faulty research or bad judgment, and into irresponsibility. By including the story of a family whose child died from a possible adverse vaccine reaction, Ms. McCarthy is stooping to emotional exploitation. No one can deny that bad vaccine reactions do happen; they are the reason the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) exists. But whereas this family’s poignant story should be used to educate parents and doctors about exercising caution after adverse vaccine reactions — the child had a severe seizure after a vaccination, but was vaccinated again, and had another bad reaction — instead the author places the story in a biomedical context and has likely scared untold numbers of parents out of immunizing their kids. Do you know what happens kids stop getting vaccinating? They start to get sick, and some of them die. Just like the child in the story.

But facts and statistics aren’t going to terrify new recruits into joining Ms. McCarthy’s cause. So of course she’s not going to say that it’s much more risky to put your baby in a car seat and drive them down the street than it is to vaccinate them. In the past 20 years, U.S. families have filed 11,970 vaccine injury and 1,006 vaccine-related death claims (note that these are for adults as well as children, and are for claims filed, not claims verified and compensated). In one year, 2005, car crashes injured 184,000 children under 14 and killed 1,335. If your child has an adverse reaction to a vaccine, then you should devote your energy to investigating why, getting answers, blocking decisions you’re not comfortable with, and encouraging other parents to vaccinate their kids, so herd immunity will keep your vaccine-averse child healthy.

Another distressing book theme is the assumption that parents who are truly dedicated advocates for their children will be able to somehow pay for all of the approaches this book recommends. Biomed is pricey and time-intensive, even if you just go for the GFCF diet and a few supplements. If are convinced you need go for the Mother Warriors gold standards, the DAN! doctor and resulting multiple supplements, medications, possible even chelation, and add on the hyperbaric oxygen treatments that every other person in the book cites as miraculous, no wonder you have parents in this book stating that they’d sell their houses, go into debt, don’t care, need to recover their kid at any cost. But what about people who don’t have a house to sell, or who are already in debt? Where is the resource section for the desperate parents who want to listen to Ms. McCarthy, but can’t afford what she’s selling?

Mother Warriors would not deserve this kind of drubbing if its author wasn’t smacking down naysayers at every opportunity, unwittingly or knowingly spreading falsehoods, or had been guided by a clearer head. But, on top of all its other failings, this book is so badly organized that the best information (e.g., her p. 141 recognition that some kids don’t recover and their parents are okay with that, and some recover with ABA therapy alone, but some kids are sick and those are the ones she’s trying to reach) is buried. A good editor and one week’s work could have transformed this book into one ten times more useful. And surely someone at Dutton could have spent a day at Ms. McCarthy’s own online alma mater, and realized how much of the book’s information doesn’t hold up?

Even though the damage Ms. McCarthy is wreaking on my son’s peers, their potential, and their families irritates me, I cringe when people take potshots at her because of her background as a TV personality and Playboy playmate. Her former career has no bearing on her experience as a mother and an autism activist. But she can be criticized for her lack of critical thinking skills and unwillingness to help the kids whose families don’t or can’t buy into her largely spurious autism recovery campaign.


P.S. One veteran mother talks frankly about her adult autistic son having adult sexual needs, a topic which needs more open discussion. However, that mother takes care of her son’s needs by providing sex workers (a practice I am neither addressing nor condemning). That mother needs to give her son the benefit of the doubt, and learn more about autism and adult relationships.

Friends Don’t Let Autism Families Read Jenny McCarthy’s Mother Warriors

A friend with a child on the spectrum recently tweeted her dismay in seeing numerous parents at her child’s ball game reading Jenny McCarthy books. I understand, because I read Ms. McCarthy’s Mother Warriors, and am myself distressed by how misinformed the author and her featured parents are regarding legitimate autism research, treatments, and literature.

Mother Warriors is not a book new autism families should be reading, so please don’t recommend it to them. Parents and caregivers who don’t know any better — or whose libraries aren’t stocking any other autism books — are going to be stuck with a pitifully skewed, and largely unhelpful take on autism treatments and possibilities.

The main problem is that Mother Warriors is a compilation of testimonials. Ms. McCarthy really does believe what she’s saying, and so do the other parents featured in her book. But if this was a book we could take seriously, someone would have edited the self-contradictory statements and omitted the factual errors that riddle its pages. If this was a legitimate information source for autism families, it would list resources besides the ones the author is promoting.

Trusting Jenny McCarthy with your autistic child’s welfare and future is like asking an American who spent a couple of years working in an Israeli Red Sea Resort — and thinks that’s all the experience she needs — to guide you through Gaza. She might be passionately dedicated, she may have even even weathered an attack or two. But she simply will not have the background or breadth of experience to speak for all of the people involved, or to guide you through areas of severest conflict. If you rely on her, there’s a good chance you’re going to be very, very sorry.

This is not to compare autism to a war zone, but to reiterate that new autism “recruits” are best served by veterans with extensive experience. This is especially true for families whose children are not as high-functioning as Jenny’s son.

Autism families, you want better than Mother Warriors. Your autistic child deserves better. Please spread the word.

Update: My extended review of Mother Warriors elaborates on the statements above.


Seymour suggested that we blog and RT books that families of autistic children should be reading instead. Here are my top six:

Autism From Autistics’ Perspectives:

Autism From a Parent’s Perspective:

Autism Approaches and Therapeutic Techniques:

Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium With Your Child With Autism

Last week I took Leo to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My son is a huge fan, and would visit every day if he could; but the Aquarium is a very popular and often crowded place, and so not always the ideal environment for a child with autism. Not for my active, vocal, unpredictable, and easily overwhelmed boy with autism, anyhow.

We are fortunate to live nearby and visit frequently. After many, many successful visits and a few catastrophic ones, I now know what helps my son have The Best Visit Ever. Here’s what I recommend for Aquarium-bound families like ours.

Locals: Buy a Membership
At $120 for one year, the basic family membership pays for our family of five on the first visit. Every visit after that is essentially free. As members, we have never had to wait more than two minutes to get in, which really helps squirmy boys who are still learning to stand in line. (Note: our current membership expires at the end of this month, but I’m not going to renew it until September because we don’t visit during seethingly-crowded July & August.)

Out-of-Towners: Buy Your Tickets Ahead of Time
Leo doesn’t like to wait in line, and neither do most of his friends. Plus the ticket lines for the Aquarium can be quite long. If we weren’t members, I’d buy my tickets online so we could walk right in.

Go Early
We arrive the moment the doors open, 9:30AM during summer and 10:00AM the rest of the year. Timely arrival makes the difference between Leo getting to bliss out and commune with the jellies in relative solitude:

… and Leo fighting his way through jellyfish-ensorcelled mobs one hour after opening:

Since our recent visit was technically during summer (i.e., after Memorial Day) even though many local schools are not yet out, I knew we wouldn’t get primo viewing or access to all of Leo’s favorite exhibits. We had to make some choices. After the jellies, my son is most obsessed by the Outer Bay tank and its sharks, so we went there second. (And fifth. And seventh. And ninth.)

Sometimes, if the main Outer Bay viewing area’s crowds aren’t too tightly packed, we can shoehorn ourselves between a wall and one of the tank’s corners, where Leo’s spinning and glee and squawks only elicit questioning glances from one side.

Other times we turn around and head upstairs to the tank’s viewing balcony. This last time, Leo was content to sit in the dark on the balcony for a good thirty minutes, while I bounced him in my lap and sang to him and gave him my full attention. This was possible because — for the first time — it was just the two of us. No sisters, no friends, no helpers. I had thirty precious minutes of uninterrupted joy with my son. I think there’s a MasterCard commercial to be made from our experience.

During really bustling times, we head downstairs to the Outer Bay tank’s ground floor viewing area, which is tucked away in the Vanishing Species exhibit between Wild About Otters and The Secret Lives of Seahorses. Few visitors seem to know about this alternate viewing area, which is nice for families like ours. The experience is not as immersive nor as dark as it is upstairs, but you get even closer views of the rays (that’s *Mr. Ray* to Nemo-loving kids like Leo) and hammerheads. And Leo loves all the levers on the adjacent displays.

Cut Your Losses
We managed to get into the excellent new exhibit, The Secret Lives of Seahorses, but it got too bustling for us very quickly. So I kept us back from many of the tanks, as Leo’s unpredictable behavior makes me leery of close quarters with strangers and their tiny children.

Both of us thought the seahorses were a trip, and Leo enjoyed the tactile experience provided by the giant seahorse statue. Next visit we will hit this exhibit first, so we can spend more time wondering at the seahorses and their hemispheric aquarium habitats.

Eat Early
We staked out the self-service cafeteria so we could get in right when the doors opened (11AM on weekdays, 10 AM on weekends). Otherwise, the chaotic mass of perplexed food-seekers in the slightly confusing kitchen area couldn’t be more overwhelming for a child who dislikes noise, disorder, and crowds. Should you choose to brave the cafeteria during peak hours, note that grab-and-go beer and wine are also available.

Early diners also get the best seats in the cafeteria’s dining area, with views of seals and cormorants, boats and divers, and sometimes even kayakers. Later diners can’t always find a place to sit down, one of my worst-nightmare scenarios for an outing with Leo because he doesn’t understand why we can’t just eat all the food on the tray I’m holding right where we’re standing.

If the cafeteria doesn’t work for you, or if your kids aren’t going to eat that early, you can bring your own food to the main amphitheater outside the cafeteria dining room, or the exterior amphitheater just past the Groups & Will Call entrance. You’re not supposed to eat in any non-restaurant/cafeteria areas inside the Aquarium.

If you really, really don’t want to worry about where you’re going to eat, and your child can tolerate a waiter-service restaurant meal, the Aquarium’s swanky reservation-taking restaurant is open from 11 to 3 (its bar is open until 5:30, which is good news for those who’ve had a grueling visit and are accompanied by a designated driver).

Make Use of Bolt-Holes
Like many kids with autism, Leo craves small enclosed spaces. There are several throughout the Aquarium. I prefer the two pictured below (exterior of the Wave Tunnel pool, Wild About Otters), because they are small — Leo is not going to get overwhelmed by jostling kids — and they’re shallow enough that if need be I can easily reach in and yank him out.

A Small Safe Place for Otters, and Autistic Boys

Pre-Entry Bathrooms
Unless you’re visiting on a really slow day, you’re going to have a long walk between your car and the Aquarium. If you’ve also had a long drive, and your child is still mastering bathroom skills, you might be anxious about ticketing areas delays impeding a critical pit stop. Please know that the Aquarium thoughtfully provides *outside* bathrooms opposite the Groups & Will Call entrance.

Take Breaks
Even on busy days, the Aquarium has many underused areas to take overwhelmed children who need to chill out. We like the area outside the Touch Pools (pictured, see if you can find Leo), but the benches between the Skywalk and the Anchovy Dome entrance to the Jellies Gallery are also rarely used. On slower days, the decks past the Splash Zone slide or opposite the Outer Bay/Jellies Gallery are good places to exhale.

Make It a Learning Opportunity
Leo likes the Aquarium so much that it qualifies as a motivator, and we’ve incorporated it into his learning. I made him this simple sight-reading grid in Gimp, and then laminated it so we can bring it on our visits.

At home, I’ve turned the grid into a two-sided sight-reading and matching game. He can match pictures to the picture and word, or just word to word — but either way he stays engaged, because he’s looking at pictures and words from one of his favorite places.

Leo thinks the Aquarium is a magical place. There are few other places he can have so many self-guided positive sensory and engaging experiences. He can commune with the “Nemo” fish in the Splash Zone coral reef tunnel indefinitely, he would dance in the Wave Tunnel forever. Though I am usually an impatient sort, when I see my son having the kind of fun the Aquarium provides, I surrender. I’ll stay with him as long as he wants, doing whatever he wants. And I’ll keep bringing him back.

Please note that the Aquarium has its own list of tips for visitors, including disability access. For families that need accommodation, and with two weeks’ advance notice, the Aquarium will arrange special tours.

Bay Area Hikes With Children With Autism

Summer has officially started, not because Leelo’s last day of school was five days ago, but because at this moment all three kids are swimming in the pool while I watch them over the rim of my laptop and wipe drops of chlorinated water from its screen.

Leelo and I have already started our daily summer excursions, to help exorcise his “this is not my usual routine!” tantrums, and keep his summertime soul intact. Today we did a three-mile trek through the forbidding poison oak groves of otherwise much-loved Edgewood County Park. It was just the two of us as the girls have a few more days in school.

Leelo is often at his best as a 1:1 boy, and was at his truly very best today. I decided to experiment with not letting him have new straws or snacks on the trail (he has been obsessing over both recently), and he not only resigned himself to being denied, but asked for kisses and hugs instead. He was a cheerful, happy, engaged boy for the entire hike. He didn’t complain or dawdle, not once.

It was one of the best mornings we’ve ever had together. Positively blissful. His Superman shirt and forehead curl didn’t exactly curb my adoration.

Leo Hiking Edgewood County Park

Leelo and I hike a lot. A lot a lot. Sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, and sometimes as a dynamic duo. We both need the exercise, and he needs an outlet for his excess energy. If we put in real mileage, it makes us both more cheerful.

We’ve spent so many hours trekking through so many Bay Area parks and preserves; it’s time to formalize our opinions about the best San Francisco Bay Area trails for kids like Leelo. Note that every one of these parks has a bathroom in the parking lot or at the trailhead.


Families With Small Children: Summer
Little Butano Creek Trail, Butano State Park

Leelo on the Trail

Little Butano Creek Trail, in Butano State Park, is an ideal hike for kids with autism or adhd, and toddlers. It is a 1.5 mile (3 miles return), easily followed trail with plenty for kids to look at (banana slugs, caves, shallow creeks, bridges, boardwalks). It is mostly flat, shady, and surrounded by my favorite kind of Redwood splendor.

Be mindful: There is much to tempt children who love to play with water.


Families With Small Children: Winter
Crystal Springs Cross Country Course, Belmont

Family Hike

Not great for families with members in wheelchairs because at the moment you have to squeeze through the bike barriers to access these trails, but otherwise excellent for winter trekking. We don’t go during the summer because it is on an exposed ridge, with not one tree. Lots of gently sloped trails that turn back on themselves, so you can hike for as little or as much as you want to.

Be mindful: Do not go during a cross country event!


Families Who Like to Clamber
Castle Rock State Park, above Saratoga

Miles & Zelly: Happy Bouldering

Bouldering opportunities and the small enclosed spaces so beloved by my son and his friends abound. It’s a popular site for rock climbers, so if you want to avoid most other people, go early or on a weekday. It’s an uphill, half-mile hike to get to the bouldering area.

Be mindful: Keep an eye on your kids, even if you think they have common sense (none of mine do; not really, not yet). There are quite a few drop offs on the backsides of the boulder clusters.


Families With Kids Who Never Run Out of Energy
Sweeney Ridge from Sneath Lane Trailhead, San Bruno


This is a history-rich trail that just keeps going up, up, and up. You can even bring dogs, if you keep them on-leash. The clear-day views are fantastic.

Be mindful: Not for the easily winded.


Families With Kids in Wheelchairs
Sonoma Coast State Beach Vista Trail, near Jenner

Accessible Picnic Tables

A fully-accessible trail with cut-out picnic tables, mostly level trails, fabulous views, and accessible bathrooms. Note that this trail is north of Jenner, and so not a casual outing for most Bay Area residents.

Be mindful: It can be windy, so make sure everyone brings layers.


Families Who Like Tidepools and Sensory Soothing
Bean Hollow/Pebble Beach, Año Nuevo State Park

Leelo at Bean Hollow


This one gets two pictures. Pebble Beach at Bean Hollow is one of our all-time favorite places for Leelo to indulge in sensory play. The smooth pebbles that make up this beach feel so good on his hands and feet; he will dig in them indefinitely.

There are tidepools at the north end of the beach, and the very easy trail at the south end of the parking lot leads to even more of them. Great exploring for nimble children accompanied by watchful parents.

Be mindful: The water is cold, the waves unpredictable, and the submerged rocks plentiful. Stay on the upper part of the beach, and do not turn your back on the ocean. Beaches are not even remotely wheelchair-accessible.


Families Whose Children Like to Play in the Water
Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunitas

India Nymphing it up at Samuel P Taylor State Park

Lovely place to take small children. On warm days, you can let them splash in the shallower areas of the creek, which is accessible from the outer rim of the plentiful picnic areas/parking lot. Wide, level trails (converted from rails) make for easy hiking, offshoot trails head up hills and into redwood groves. Mostly shady even in summer, and very picturesque.

Be Mindful: Cultivate mutual respect with visible cyclists, as you will be sharing trails with them.