Squidalicious Reviews

Liking Myself, & The Mouse, The Monster, and Me
November 1, 2009, 7:15 am
Filed under: books, review | Tags: , , , , ,

Liking Myself and The Mouse, The Monster, and Me are two very sweet self-help books for kids by Pat Palmer. They are full of good advice and exercises for children who need help strengthening their identity and self-awareness. I imagine they’d be especially nice for conversational kids with autism, but they’d be appropriate for any child whose self-esteem is affected by social challenges.

My youngest, almost-five Mali, appreciated the emotional permission granted by Liking Myself and its simple yet important messages such as “Anger is an OK feeling” and “It is okay to like yourself and be your own good friend.” She did not notice that these messages were gently reinforced and repeated in several different formats — she just liked that Liking Myself had games, and encouraged her to draw and write right in the book.


Children who can read Liking Myself on their own should definitely do so, but I recommend reading Liking Myself with your child, at least once. Mali was much more willing to talk about her feelings when questions were posed “by the book.” And many of her responses were surprising — I think of her as a confident and content child, but when “the book” asked her what she liked about herself, she shrugged. Eventually she said, “I like that I have a great Mommy” (awww) but that was not an answer about herself. So we continued reading, and went over the book’s descriptions of nice traits some people have. She was then able to identify several excellent points about her excellent self. I don’t think the concept of “liking herself” had been posed to her before, and was glad to see her explore it. If you’d like to see her explore Liking Myself, click on either video clip:

The Mouse, the Monster, and Me is for older kids like Mali’s ten-year-old sister Izzy, and deals with thornier topics like assertiveness, handling criticism, and the difference between compliments and flattery. It reinforces its lessons with exercises and checklists. It is right up Izzy’s alley.

Both books are small, floppy, workbook-format paperbacks.  They are printed in black and white, and hand-lettered with homespun illustrations. I wonder if this lets them slide down more easily than the bright-colored, gender-based, and task-oriented American Girls self-help series. I certainly found them more self-friendly, if such a term exists — they focus less on finding solutions to common social problems, and more on helping children know, accept, and better themselves so they can be more confident and caring social beings in the first place.

If you’re looking for material to enable your child’s self-acceptance and social awareness, and especially if your child likes scripts or tends towards perseveration, I really do recommend Liking Myself and The Mouse, the Monster, and Me.


Compensation disclosure: I received one free review copy of each book. I so heart free books!


Dr. Bridget Taylor: Interview, Webinars on Autism & Problem Behaviors
The amazing behavioralist Supervisor M has been leading Leo’s ABA therapy team since he was two, but not every child with autism has my son’s luck. ABA therapy can be expensive, school districts can be resistant, and qualified therapists can be elusive.
How lovely that Dr. Bridget Taylor has become the senior clinical advisor for Rethink Autism, the online ABA Therapy curriculum resource. I know am not the only parent who, upon hearing that ABA therapy could actually make a difference for my child, daydreamed about having Dr. Taylor on his ABA therapy team. Dr. Taylor is the ABA therapist and researcher who helped Let Me Hear Your Voice author Catherine Maurice’s children lose their autism diagnoses. She also co-founded New Jersey’s center for learners with autism, the Alpine Learning Group. Thanks to Rethink Autism, she can now be part of any ABA therapy team with internet access.
The Rethink Autism team is aware that not everyone can afford their monthly subscription rate, so they have engaged Dr. Taylor to conduct free webinars, both tomorrow, Wednesday, October 20, and Monday, October 26, in which participants can discuss autism and behavioral problems with her, via live chat. Here is Rethink Autism’s summary of the webinars:
For many parents and families with children on the autism spectrum problem behavior can be challenging. That’s why this month’s free live webinar focuses on the best problem behavior treatment and prevention strategies available. You’ll learn how to begin immediately applying these techniques with your child and have a chance to ask questions via live chat with autism expert Dr. Bridget Taylor, a leader in the field of autism treatment and research, and rethink autism’s senior clinical adviser.
Register for a webinar session now by clicking a date below:

For those who can’t participate in the webinars, read on — Dr. Taylor agreed to answer a few of my and Supervisor M’s questions about autism, managing problem behaviors, the role of the internet in the autism community, and the most important things parents should be focusing on at various stages in their children’s lives:
What has drawn you, personally, to the Rethink Autism online and webinar model?
As a clinician working in the field of autism treatment for over twenty years, I am very excited about being involved in an innovative company that has the potential to reach many families of children with autism. I have always been committed to translating complex concepts and teaching techniques for families so that they can be empowered to teach their children. Rethink Autism’s video-based curriculum presents teaching techniques in a simple step-by-step manner so that families can see how to teach their children.
Do you plan to have your Rethink Autism curriculum contributions about managing problem behaviors at home, etc., evolve with your research findings at the Alpine Learning Group, for example reducing too-rapid eating by use of a pager prompt?

All of the Rethink Autism’s teaching techniques and procedures are based on research that has been conducted in the field of applied behavior analysis. The techniques that I will discuss about managing challenging behavior are based on general principles of learning, and how challenging behavior is usually a result of the interaction between environment and behavior. That is, behavior occurs in relationship to certain events occurring in the environment. If we can identify those events and determine the reason for the challenging behavior, we can change behavior for the better. The pager prompt study is one example of how you can teach an individual with autism to attend to specific cues in the environment in order to reduce a behavior of concern. In this case eating too quickly.

Some children with autism engage in problem behaviors due to skill deficits and; a general lack of self-management skills; they do not yet have a rich repertoire of independent play, leisure, and self-care skills (and so must always be engaged by an adult). In addition to teaching independence, what are some ways school staff and families can manage these problems without promoting problem behaviors (e.g. excessive repetetive/stimulatory behaviors, prolonged dependence on adults?
Yes, many children engage in behavior because they lack skills in specific areas. So, teaching children with autism play and leisure skills can replace some repetitive behavior. Teaching children with autism for example to follow photographic activity schedules can help to keep children stay engaged without constant prompts from adults. Research in the use of activity schedules has shown that children can sustain engagement by attending to photo cues that serve as prompts to engage in play and leisure activities. In addition, teaching other functional skills such as how to ask for a break when demands are too difficult or how to wait for a preferred activity can be helpful to reduce challenging behavior associated with these contexts.
What are some suggestions to include the family member with autism in general family activities? Day to day living?
Make activities very predictable and start with short realistic activities. For example, if you are going to a restaurant, begin with one that does not require a long wait (e.g., a fast food restaurant), and bring your child’s preferred activities to engage in during the waiting period. In general, help the child with autism know what is expected of him / her in during the activity (e.g., first we are going to the store and then we are going to Grandma’s house). Pictures can serve as cues for children as to what will take place during the activity and the general sequence of the activities.
In terms of general family routines such as eating at the dinner table together, start with a short duration of sitting and use timers to help the child know how long he will have to sit. For other family activities the child may need an incentive or a reward to participate. For example, if you want the child to sit and watch a TV show with his sibling, intermittent rewards such as access to a preferred snack while he is watching the show, may motivate him to participate in the activity the next time. Over time, you can fade the snack out. In general, the more you practice family activities and make these activities very predictable, the more the child will learn about what is expected and it will become easier over time.
How can parents assist the teams they collaborate with? 
Parents are clinicians’ best allies. They can assist in many ways. For example, they can help clinicians identify important goals to work on (e.g., cooperating in haircuts, attending religious services, playing with siblings), they can help in transferring skills learned during teaching sessions to every day, real-life activities, and they can support the intervention by implementing the interventions in daily life. In addition, since they truly know their child best, they can provide essential information to team members about the child (e.g., likes, dislikes, general patterns of behavior, etc).
What is the one suggestion that you would make to a parent of a newly diagnosed child? 
Access interventions based on applied behavior analysis as soon as you can.
What would be your one suggestion to a parent whose child is ten years old? 
This is a good time to reevaluate the goals you are working on. Ask yourself, “will he need this skill when he is twenty years old?” How often will this skill be needed in daily life? How is this skill going to help him be as independent as possible?
How about for a parent of a child who is transition age? 
Identify agencies and supports in the community that your child can be part of for the long term. Identify agencies that have multiple program components such as career planning, residential planning, and recreation and leisure activities.
What is one piece of advice you would give all parents? 
No one knows your child better than you – you will be your child’s strongest and most passionate advocate. You are after all the architect of your child’s future and as you collaborate with professionals help them to learn as much as they can about your child and your vision for your child’s future.
What is one thing you would suggest that parents avoid? 
Avoid interventions that are not grounded in sound scientific research.
What are your thoughts with regards to the internet and the role it plays in the autism community? 
The internet can be a great resource to families in terms of learning about treatment, accessing services, and gaining support from other families. Unfortunately, it can also lead families down the wrong path to a treatment that does not have a lot of research supporting it. When parents google “autism and treatment” they are confronted with hundreds of options, this can be daunting for families. But, the internet allows families to learn about effective, science-based interventions such as applied behavior analysis. Rethink autism’s innovate web-based curriculum is one such example of how the internet can potentially change lives.

Review: Wonder Rotunda
October 12, 2009, 8:03 am
Filed under: education, geography, history, review, Wonder Rotunda

Today is my 40th birthday. If I were the type who considered such milestones opportunities to dwell upon unachieved dreams, I would moan bitterly about the very cool new kids’ educational online world, Wonder Rotunda, and gripe bout why I should have been the one to create it given that I and my two Geography degrees have been creating and improving upon that which used to be called “edutainment,” for almost fifteen years.

Instead, I’ll pause to appreciate all the loveliness in my life, remark that contract gigs combining geography, education, and interactivity are my very favorite kind of paid endeavor, and commence with the review.

Wonder Rotunda is an online, exploration-based learning environment for kids age seven – twelvish who want to learn more about the world around them, or whose parents would like them to learn more and understand that game-like environments are very good carrots. Specifically:

“The Wonder Rotunda is a virtual, educational theme park designed to open the eyes of youngsters to the wonders of our world, much the way world’s fairs and expos did for prior generations. It is designed to get kids thinking about our world, finding things that they’re passionate about, and exploring how they might make their mark some day.

“Set on an island in New York Harbor, the Wonder Rotunda’s fifteen, interactive, animated adventures cover topics as diverse as tropical rainforests, African wildlife, marine life, the human body’s digestive system, money and business, American government, nutrition, globalization, film making, classical music, performing and visual arts, space exploration and, making a difference in the world. The adventures move briskly and with excitement, while affording youngsters the option of probing more deeply where they have the interest.”

The kids explore Wonder Rotunda’s many exhibits via self-created avatars (mind you, kids used to Rock Band avatars might be a bit option-underwhelmed). There’s a bit of standard kid-game looking for gold coins and Wonder Dollars to keep the avatars supplied with “healthy choices” from the Wonder Rotunda food stands, or to let them shop for souvenirs, but otherwise players are free to explore the many educational exhibits and adventures, in as much detail as they like.

Parents worried about Webkinz or Club Penguin-like unmonitored social environments will be pleased with Wonder Rotunda. Though it’s web-based, there are no social networking or commercial options, no advertising. And there are considerable parental controls, such as requiring parents to create their own, administrative account before the child’s account can be created, allowing parents to create their own avatar so they can tag along with their kids (the Wonder Rotunda folks liken it to visiting a museum together), and the ability to browse your child’s Wonder Rotunda’s trail, to see where they have been spending the most time — so you can tell what subjects they’re most interested in, and encourage them to pursue them.

I have to admit, given Wonder Rotunda’s squeaky-clean appearance, its earnest goals, and the home page’s tour, I have not felt the need to monitor my ten-year-old Iz as she explores Wonder Rotunda. She finds WR’s subject matter motivating, and has been tearing around all by herself, popping out occasionally to blurt newly acquired facts:”iguanas can fall from a height of 40 feet without getting hurt!” and decry the occasional factual error: “Thomas Jefferson was the third U.S. President, not the second, tell them that right now, Mommy!” (To their credit, the Wonder Rotunda staff fixed the error immediately. Gotta love online content.)

The graphics are nicely done, the content has depth (always a concern, Iz gets bored quickly), and — most tellingly — I had to rip Iz away from the screen so she could do her homework. This led to a debate about my priorities — did I want to send her brain chasing after the new facts, systems, and synergies Wonder Rotunda offered, or did I want it to stagnate in revisiting concepts and worksheets it had already mastered? I recommend that you avoid such scenarios by requiring that your children finish their homework before they get to “play” with Wonder Rotunda.

I approve of Wonder Rotunda‘s mission wholeheartedly. I would likely have purchased it for my kids independently, but we were gifted a one month unlimited access pass worth $12. (Unlimited access for one year is $45, and can be renewed each year for $35). If you have the kind of kids who love The Magic Schoolbus and The Discovery Channel — or are looking to nudge your kids in that direction — Wonder Rotunda is a safe, mentally enriching, fun place to send them.

The Horse Boy Author Rupert Isaacson: Reading Oct 16th
October 7, 2009, 12:22 am
Filed under: autism, hippotherapy, NCEFT, Rupert Isaacson, The Horse Boy

**TIME CHANGE!** Now 12:00 – 1:30 

A free local autism and hippotherapy event is coming up next Friday. Author Rupert Isaacson will be coming to speak about his book The Horse Boy, and talk about his family’s journey to heal their son’s autism through hippotherapy. I am particularly interested in hearing what Mr. Isaacson has to say after reading this quote about him:

“He told us he didn’t want a cure for autism. He wants healing. Isaacson said that he doesn’t want his son to suffer, but that he wants him to keep his personality – that is what makes him special.”

Here’s some official information about the event, which I am hoping to attend:

The National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy (NCEFT) of Woodside is proud to welcome Rupert Isaacson, author of the best selling book and award winning documentary film The Horse Boy on Friday October 16, 2009.

Mr. Isaacson will be reading from his book and discussing the benefits of equine assisted therapy, his son’s autism, and his family’s personal, spirtual, healing, horse-centric journey. He will be available to sign copies of his best seller after the presentation.

NCEFT, a non-profit Woodside Hippotherapy center
Mounted Patrol Grounds
521 Kings Mountain Road
Woodside, CA

Friday October 16, 2009

10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

For more information please visit our website at www.nceft.org

DonorsChoose: Help Bay Area Classrooms in Need
October 2, 2009, 8:50 am
Filed under: BlogHer, DonorsChoose, fundraising, social media, special education

Dear altruistic, amazing readers and friends:

It is your continuously generous support, fundraising, and activism that inspired me to participate in the BlogHer DonorsChoose campaign — which kicked off today, and will be running for the month of October. To quote the inimitable Denise Tanton:

DonorsChoose is an online charity that makes it easy for everyone to help fund educational projects around the country. During the Social Media Challenge bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, (and BlogHers) will come together to raise money that goes straight to the place it’s needed the most – the classroom. Last year, bloggers raised more than $275,000 and helped fund projects in 65,000 public schools.

I helped select Bay Area classroom projects supporting students with special needs or affected by poverty (unfortunately, it’s not too hard to find dual-purpose classrooms in our area). I hope you find them compelling enough to help out, because there are so many options for supporting this challenge:

I am a particular fan of the Classroom Rug project, which describes the many ways in which a Word Map rug would enrich a local kindergarten classroom’s learning experience. I am a geographer, I have a kindergartener, and I happen to know that the school in question has an established program for including a special ed child in every single classroom.

All the DonorChoose projects are worthy of your attention. Please help us fund as many programs as we can, by the end of October, even if it’s just by spreading the word.

Rethink Autism: Behind the Scenes
September 21, 2009, 5:11 pm
Filed under: ABA therapy, autism, content production, interview, Rethink Autism, website production

If you read this blog and my posts on BlogHer, you know I consider Rethink Autism‘s “web-based autism treatment platform for parents and professionals” an incredibly useful and long-needed addition to the autism and education fields.

What you may not know is that I am a former software producer, and so am floored by the scale of Rethink Autism’s production effort, and its resulting product quality. I could tell that Rethink Autism is a truly content-rich, dynamic, and flexible learning resource for autism families and professionals, but I wanted to know more about the process and philosophy behind the site: How was it developed, and why? How does the team decide what kind of lessons to include? Who are they planning to reach, and how will they make it more accessible to families with financial and language concerns?

Fortunately for me and for you, Jamie Pagliaro from Rethink Autism agreed to answer these questions, and more. Please do leave a comment if you have a question of your own, or would like clarification.

Can you tell us, briefly, why Rethink Autism was founded? Who was the primary team? What are your primary goals? Who are you trying to reach?

The mission of rethink autism is to offer parents and educators immediate access to effective and affordable Applied Behavior Analysis-based intervention tools for the growing population affected by autism spectrum disorders. Our core team has expertise in three main areas: clinical, technology, and filmmaking.

I have personally worked in the field of autism education for the past fifteen years, most recently as Executive Director of a public charter for children with autism in New York (the New York Center for Autism Charter School). During that time, I have been faced with many desperate parents trying to gain access to services, and many educators struggling to appropriately meet the needs of children with autism. With growing numbers of newly diagnosed children, the task ahead for policy makers and the professional community is even more daunting. For parents, this means longer wait lists, more diluted funds, and limited access to experts. What compelled me to join Rethink Autism was the idea of making research-based treatment tools accessible to everyone — not just a select few — in a cost-effective way.

Simply put, our goal is reach as many children with autism [as we can] through parent and organizational subscribers. We currently have individual parent subscribers around the globe. Some are in rural areas working with limited access to professional support, while others have professional support and are using the system to coordinate treatment across team members. We also have a number of organizational users across the country, including public school districts, early intervention providers, and nonprofit service agencies. They are using our platform to enhance their staff training, curriculum planning, and outcome monitoring. We are committed to keeping all of our users on the cutting edge of autism treatment research.

Can you tell us the scale of the Rethink Autism effort, and how long it took to build content and develop the site?

The entire site and its content were developed in one year. This was a tremendous undertaking that took a team of committed professionals on the clinical, technology, and filmmaking fronts. On the clinical side, we worked with about forty families in NYC who brought their children with autism in for filming sessions with our therapists on a weekly basis. During the year, we filmed thousands of hours of therapeutic sessions, each one carefully planned to help us create our 400+ training and lesson videos.

Our clinical team was also fully integrated into the filmmaking aspect, working with our production team to coordinate shoots, and edit each session. In fact, each lesson video was reviewed for clinical integrity by at least three separate clinicians. Our senior clinical advisor, Dr. Bridget Taylor, personally worked with our therapists to plan each lesson before filming, and reviewed each lesson for clinical integrity as a final checkpoint before adding it to our library.

In parallel, we designed the website interface to be aesthetically pleasing and incredibly user friendly. The families that we worked with also helped us test the interface at every step of development. For this reason, we are proud to say it has been parent tested and approved! It is also worth noting that thanks to their insights and suggestions for improvements on the design, using the website requires no formal training, explanation, or manual once you log on.

Do you plan to keep expanding the content and curriculum? If so, via existing plans or community feedback?

Absolutely! One of the aspects of this project that attracted me was the opportunity to continuously evolve and develop new content. And because we are web-based, this happens seamlessly for our users (i.e., they don’t need to buy or download anything new — it’s added automatically!).

We are creating new content in our production studio every week. The ideas come from parent requests for specific lessons, suggestions from our scientific advisors, and plans that we have developed internally for curriculum expansion. For example, a few weeks ago a parent asked us about getting her son to tolerate wearing a band-aid. We developed a lesson to teach this, filmed it, and within two weeks added the lesson to our site. We also spent some time with one of our scientific advisors earlier this summer, Dr. Peter Gerhardt from the Organization for Autism Research, and he worked with us on developing new content for adolescents (e.g., pre-vocational and self-care skills) and higher functioning children with autism.

Sections of the site are freely available/not password protected, e.g., the sections on general autism information and advice. Do you have plans to expand those sections as well?

Yes — in fact this September we rolled out a series of free back-to-school webinars, which included live chat with our senior clinical advisor, Dr. Bridget Taylor. There was also a free back-to-school tips video that accompanied the webinar. The response to this was overwhelmingly positive, so we will be doing additional free “tips” videos and live webinars on a monthly basis. Coming soon is Participating in Social Events, and later this fall we will have two special webinars on Managing Problem Behavior at Home and an Orientation to Parents of Newly Diagnosed Children. The later we are doing in conjunction with our friends at Autism Speaks.

How does email support work? Do you have behavioralists on staff to answer email queries, a professional customer support staff, or a combination?

We have a team of committed clinicians on staff to respond to parent questions regarding use of our curriculum. They are led by a PhD-level Behavior Analyst, and all of them have significant experience working with children with autism at home and in school programs. We want to be clear that we cannot offer formal clinical recommendations to families, as we do not come out to directly observe or work with your child. However, the Curriculum Support we offer has been an invaluable resource to many families working with limited or no professional support at home. All of the Curriculum Support is done via email, and we always respond within 24 hours during the week.

Rethink Autism is currently available in English. Do you have plans to translate the site and content into other languages? (As a former software producer for content-heavy products like world atlases, I understand the massive scale of a localization effort. But I also live in California, and constantly see families affected by autism falling through the cracks due to language barriers.)

Our goal is to begin translating into Spanish next year (2010). We recognize the need for translation, and have already had requests from individual families and organizations throughout the world. Once we have a critical mass of English-speaking users, we hope to deploy more resources into this international dissemination effort. As you have noted, this is a massive undertaking due to the amount of video content we currently have, and would therefore need to translate.

Do you plan to offer a sliding scale or scholarships for families and institutions in need? The $100/month personal subscription exceeds many autism families’ budgets, especially during current financial tough times.

We fully recognize that there are many families in need, and our commitment is to making Rethink Autism accessible and affordable to as many of those families as possible. One of our goals is to be a self-sustaining company that keeps the cost of a monthly subscription at a level roughly equivalent to one hour of professional consultation. In the future, as our company grows we hope to offer subscription assistance to low income families, and have started to engage local and national nonprofit organizations about this. We have already donated free content to a number of these organizations as a way to support them in the short-term.

Rethink Autism has already hosted webinars, as well as live chats with professionals like Dr. Bridget Taylor. Are there any plans to host live, IRL seminars or conferences?

We are actively considering many different options, including live seminars. We already attend and exhibit at a number of national conferences in an effort to raise awareness about Rethink Autism. In the coming months we will be exhibiting at:

  • Autism NJ conference in Atlantic City, NJ (Oct. 8-10)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics conference in Washington, D.C. (Oct. 16-18)
  • Organization for Autism Research conference in Arlington, VA (Oct. 22-24)
  • NY State Association for Behavior Analysis conference in Albany, NY (Nov. 4-6)
  • National Autism Association conference in Weston, FL (Nov. 12-13), 
  • OCALI conference in Columbus, OH (Nov. 17-19). 

 Needless to say, I’m hoping my family will recognize me by Thanksgiving!

We are also continuing with the Free Live Webinars this fall, and will be sure to keep you posted!

Fetchingly Familiar Fistful
September 11, 2009, 1:05 am
Filed under: A Fistful of Sky, books, Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I finally polished off the novel Badger gave me,  A Fistful of Sky. I enjoyed it thoroughly, have passed it to a delighted Iz, and recommend it with many exclamation points. (!!!!!!!)

The cover art and blurbs are silly and misleading, so ignore them — this is not a book about an ugly duckling who transcends her misfit ways, so let’s pause for a nose-thumb to crappy and insulting stereotypes. Rather, it’s about a confident young woman, Gypsum, who is happy with her non-mainstream appearance despite the disapproval of her conventionally beautiful, trim, stylish mother and her (literally) charming ways. Gypsum’s struggle has little to do with her outward self, but instead concerns her status as the only non-magical kid among five siblings.

I love the book’s exploration of style and girlyness and body size through unpredictable magicks, and the way those factors are handled with humor and empathy, yet with few judgments and certainly no concessions to the what the author calls “girl torture.” There are a couple of elements some parents may object to; in one scene Gympum sees two two people “going at it” behind some bushes, and there is also a mention of rape, but neither of these are explicit enough to deem it unsuitable for Iz’s sixth grade peers, at least in my opinion.

I have to write, I am totally freaked out by how many similar themes run through A Fistful of Sky and my own unfinished story manuscript. (I usually wouldn’t mention anything I was working on unless it was in a state worth mentioning, but feel I should record my freaked-outedness now — because if I ever do finish my story, I don’t want Nina Kiriki Hoffman to sue me.) So many eerie parallels with regards to how magical families might live amongst the rest of us in contemporary California, the traditions and rules such families might uphold, and the importance of training one’s kids in potential post-apocalyptic community survival skills. Too weird. But so beautifully told. If I produce something even half as creative and moving, I’ll be content.