The gut-brain connection

Do you remember learning about the systems of the human body? It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it – all the biological, chemical and physical processes going on so that we can move, think, and do what we do.

For instance, when our digestive system does its job, our body gets the energy and raw materials to make all these processes happen. Yup, that’s all our digestive system does … OR IS IT??

Increasingly, scientists have been researching the two-way communication between the brain and the gut. That’s right: two way. Not only does our bossy brain send signals to our intestines; what’s going on in the gut can influence what’s going on in our noggin.

“Well sure,” you might say. “When I have intestinal distress, I get cranky and worried.”

Point taken. But we’re talking about an influence extending much beyond those times of woe.

In a further surprise, many researchers are focusing not on the actual intestines, but what’s living inside them.

From what I see being reported lately, the focus is on the bacteria in our gut – something like 40 trillion of the little darlings, according to this article in Medical News Today. While 30 to 40 species of bacterial beasties typically occupy human intestines, there can be any of 1,000 varieties.

Instead of calling them out one by one (now that would be a long blog post!) let’s refer to the bacteria collectively as the microbiome. The main point is that imbalances in the composition of the microbiome have been linked to anxiety, depression, memory functioning, hyperactivity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism.

(Regarding autism, here’s a quote from the Medical News Today article: “Children with autism often have abnormal and less diverse communities of bacteria in their gut.” Wow.)

Furthermore, early indications are that changing the composition of the microbiome can lessen some adverse mental traits.

The studies most often involve lab mice – depressed or anxious mice, or mice that have learned something and then have their microbiome messed with. (Laboratory mice: we salute your service!) You can read about some of the experiments here. For instance, bacteria transplanted from a daredevil mouse to a chronically anxious mouse makes the anxious mouse braver.

A mouse reading this news is bound to be fascinated or very concerned, but of course the real point of these experiments is whether we can get the same results in humans. Limited studies with people have shown promise so far.

Even so, we are probably years away from this kind of therapy being readily available. A Science News article talks about what stands in the way:

Figuring out what’s being said in this body-microbe exchange, and how to shift the tone in a way that improves mental health, won’t be easy. For starters, no one knows the exact ingredients for a healthy microbial community, and the recipe probably differs from person to person. And it’s not always simple to deliver microbes to the gut and persuade them to stay. Nor is it clear how messages travel between microbes and brain, though scientists have some ideas.

Scientists do know that certain species of gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters that influence mood and behavior, as shown in a table in the Science News article. The vagus nerve, which connects the gut and the brain, seems to play a part in the communication. The immune system could also be a player. We need to understand more before we start mucking about with widespread treatments.

You might ask, what exactly would be done to change the microbiome in a human body for the better?  One medical procedure that I’ve seen discussed is not at all pleasant to think about. Two words: fecal transplant. Yuck!

If you managed to keep reading past that last paragraph, you’ll be happy to know that the microbiome can also be changed by what we ingest. You’ve probably seen products that boast of containing probiotics, or good bacteria. These include particular types of yogurt, kefir, and supplements containing probiotics.

One of the scientists doing research in this area is Mark Lyte, at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Abilene, Texas. Read his poignant but cautionary quote from an article in the New York Times:

‘‘My main fear is the hype is running ahead of the science.’’ He knew that parents emailing him for answers meant they had exhausted every option offered by modern medicine. ‘‘It’s the Wild West out there,’’ he said. ‘‘You can go online and buy any amount of probiotics for any number of conditions now, and my paper is one of those cited. I never said go out and take probiotics.’’ He added, ‘‘We really need a lot more research done before we actually have people trying therapies out.’’

To make potentially beneficial changes to gut bacteria, one could also add more foods with prebiotic properties to the diet. Such foods encourage the growth or activity of good bacteria (probiotics). Foods that are notable sources of prebiotics include garlic, onion, asparagus, leeks, dandelion greens, and wheat bran.

Rounding out my literature review of the topic is this article from Psychology Today. The whole article is interesting, but it has a few passages that may apply in particular to our neurodiverse kiddos. See what you think:

In addition to influencing daily functioning, there is also growing evidence that there are particular “windows” during development of the nervous system when its very threshold of responsiveness is set by the diversity of bacteria that make up the microbiome. Those periods—pre- and perinatal development and again at adolescence—may be especially critical in creating susceptibility to or resilience to stress throughout the lifetime.

***

Antibiotic treatment of infection, consumption of a poor diet, and stress have all been shown to disrupt composition of the gut bacteria, affecting the substances such bacteria produce and the signals they send. But it may be that diet, antibiotics, and stress also change the function of the gut in ways that activate immune cells, which, by stirring inflammation in the brain, induces psychiatric symptoms.

Adolescence is a period when brain connectivity undergoes major change. It is also a time when many psychiatric disorders first appear. According to neurovirologist Robert Yolken, adolescents may be especially susceptible to the psychiatric effects of gut-bacteria shifts resulting from antibiotic use. Infection prevention and control, in fact, may be the next frontier of mental illness treatment.

What? You mean we parents shouldn’t have given our kids all those rounds of antibiotics prescribed for ear infections and the like?

Let’s all try not to sink into a puddle of guilt over possible neuropsych disruption caused by what in our house was called “pink medicine.” It’s uncertain what’s really causing all these brain-gut relationships. Is the brain in charge, or is the bacteria, or is it both sometimes, or do they ever trade? So much is still unknown.

I’m interested to see where the findings will lead. No one should be making any promises yet, but if our struggling neurodiverse kids are willing to get more probiotic or prebiotic foods in their diet, it seems like doing so may turn out to have brain benefits as well as general health benefits.

 

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John Elder Robison and TMS therapy

John Elder Robison is and has been many things: author, autism advocate, educator, creator of special effects for rock concerts, parent, engineer for Milton Bradley, government advisor. He is also a thought-provoking and entertaining public speaker, as I learned at a recent presentation.

He spoke on the campus of University of California, Riverside, at the invitation of its SEARCH Center. (“[T]he mission of SEARCH is to provide support, education, advocacy, resources, community and hope to families who have loved ones on the autism spectrum.”)

I first became aware of Mr. Robison several years ago when an acquaintance who has a son with Asperger’s recommended reading Robison’s book Look Me in the Eye. In it, Robison describes his turbulent childhood, teen, and young adult years with undiagnosed Asperger’s.

One of Robison’s current pursuits is advocating for the autism community to unite, find their voice, and stand up against discrimination and negative media coverage. He began his talk at UCR by describing the parallels he sees between the harsh treatment people with autism face and the discrimination Jews, blacks, and the LGBT communities have faced. Society became more accepting of those groups once they organized and became vocal about not being lesser humans. People with autism must do the same.

Robison said that by the time people on the spectrum reach young adult years, they’ve repeatedly absorbed the message (through words, actions, or reactions) that they are failures. As a result, their motivation to engage in the world is very low. Thus we have a generation of people with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) “hanging out in the basement,” with their talents and gifts untapped. In Robison’s view, organizing a movement to increase society’s acceptance is the way to break this cycle.

He shared that some researchers believe that the brains of people with autism have more plasticity than is found in neurotypical brains. In the extreme, this plasticity may account for the abilities of savants, It also leads to the exceptional skill many people with autism develop in fields that interest them. However, researchers speculate that the flip side of this increased plasticity is emotional blindness.

At this point in the talk, Robison reminded the audience that his memoirs document how he was chronically oblivious to the emotions of everyone else. Then he asked us, why would someone like that invest his time to advocate for others, as he’s doing now?

He credits his increase in empathy to having received experimental TMS treatments beginning eight years ago – the topic of his newest book Switched On.

TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, targets specific areas of the brain with magnetic pulses to increase function. It’s noninvasive and has few side effects. So far in the US, the FDA has approved its use in treating depression that has been unresponsive to medication. Robison was part of a clinical trial to see if TMS can alleviate the emotional blindness of people on the spectrum.

After his first session, he was disappointed that his ability to interpret emotions from facial expressions (as tested by the researchers) had not improved. However, other things did change. The first thing he noticed was the extreme clarity with which he heard and appreciated every element of familiar music recordings. The researchers told him this was a side effect.

With continued sessions, he experienced other effects related to emotions – not all of them having welcome outcomes:

  • For the first time in his life, he became emotional about tragedies that befell people in other parts of the world.
  • His wife’s depression, which had never bothered him before, affected him so much that they had to divorce.
  • He can’t go to movies, because their emotional impact causes him to cry a lot.
  • He realized that most neurotypical people, far from being the happy, fulfilled, caring people he’d imagined them to be, walk around burdened with sadness, fear, anger, and greed.
  • He almost became suicidal. The clinical staff pointed out to Robison that unlike most people, he hadn’t had a lifetime to adjust to feeling emotions.
  • He can now collaborate successfully with others. Before, his successes had only resulted from creating things on his own.

***

If you’d like to read more about the potential of treating autism symptoms with TMS, here’s a clear, cautious article written by Lindsay Oberman, a TMS researcher at Brown University. This report from NPR also emphasizes caution in interpreting the results of the few trials that have been conducted to date.

Overall, there’s widespread agreement that more studies are needed, to investigate concerns such as which parts of the brain to treat, how frequently, with what dose, and at what age. Those interested in participating in a study of TMS therapy for autism symptoms can check out the US National Institutes of Health Clinical Trials website.

TMS is also being studied in relieving disorders such as anxiety, addiction cravings, adult ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. If studies on these or other disorders are of interest, you can change the search term on the Clinical Trials webpage to see if any are being conducted in your area.

***

Going back to Mr. Robison’s talk: he summarized by saying that TMS has the promise of an emerging technology. As with other types of therapy, it’s not for everyone, but it’s probably good for some.

And while we all welcome the expansion of the toolkit for treating problems associated with autism, Robison believes the most powerful way to improve the situation of people on the spectrum is through forming an active, vocal community.

 

 

Small successes

This summer I took a new job in a new profession. The whole process of applying for, transitioning to, and now learning the job has gone really well, but leaves me with little “bandwidth” to create blog posts! From here on out, posts will most likely be less frequent, or written by guest writers, or reposted from other blogs, or written by me but with less research behind them.

The subtitle of Climbing the Cinder Cone is “Resources for atypical young people.” At present, I don’t have anything to share about programs, therapies, or approaches to try; today, I can only offer small stories of the progress we’ve seen in our older son Nathan. In a way, these kinds of stories are a resource, since they may provide you with Hope – and that can be a Very Important Resource indeed.

Over the last year or so, I’ve shared that Nathan (now in his mid-20s) has been ready to find part-time work. That in itself is huge!

This past spring, he went on his first-ever job interview. After submitting many applications with no result, he was excited about finally getting to the next step.

The opening, at a big home improvement store, included stocking shelves (which is the type of job he wanted) but also customer service (not a good idea). We hoped that during the interview he could talk about his unique character traits and see if, for him, they might adjust the duties to primarily stocking shelves.

We offered to rehearse job interview questions with Nathan, but he declined. He did accept our advice on what to wear. Unfortunately, since he had just cut his own hair, he was sporting a couple of bald patches.

Another concern was making sure he knew how to get to the store. We would be out of town at a funeral on the day of the interview, but Nathan didn’t mind walking the two miles to the store.

On Interview Day, Nathan called us several times; luckily, the calls occurred between events at the funeral. Most critically, right before the interview itself the store had him re-enter almost all of the information from his application. Nathan hadn’t brought the piece of paper where he’s got those kind of details written down, so Mom and Dad had to dictate the answers to him (including spelling).

He called us one last time (between the interment and the reception) to tell us the interview had gone poorly. They’d spoken with him and another candidate at the same time, asking a lot of hypothetical questions about problems with customers and coworkers. He realized at the time he wasn’t answering the questions well.

While Nathan was disappointed to have missed out on that job, he didn’t go into a downward spiral. We told him it was great that he had followed through and had given it his best, despite the difficulties.

A few months and a couple of applications later, Nathan got called to interview for stocking shelves after hours at a large toy store: a good fit for him!

Several things went better this time:

  • He put aside his sensory issues and, for the first time in years, allowed his dad to cut his hair (and afterwards said the process doesn’t bother him any more!)
  • Unbeknownst to us, Nathan had been practicing interview questions and answers on his own.
  • The interview started with a group of applicants being instructed to cooperate in work-like tasks while the HR people observed. Three red flags: it was a surprise to Nathan; he’s never liked group work; and he doesn’t do well with strangers. Despite all that, afterward he reported being surprised with how well he handled himself.
  • He felt good about his performance in the interview.

The last time we can remember Nathan saying he felt good about something he’d done? Maybe at the start of middle school, but probably elementary school – and it was rare even then.

Nathan didn’t get the toy store job either. I’m not sure he’ll be able to land a job without the support of an agency that helps people with disabilities. He runs hot and cold on signing up for help, but is OK with submitting more applications, at his own pace.

He isn’t frustrated, and neither are we. Anyone who has a loved one with a history like Nathan’s will know what it means to see improvements in persistence, grooming, people skills, frustration tolerance, handling unwelcome surprises, and positive self-appraisal.

Five years ago we certainly wouldn’t have believed it possible, but now we dare to have hope for his future.

Transition tools

The contents of this post come to you courtesy of Mary Mazzoni, who has put together the tremendously helpful blog Life After IEPs. And yes, there is life after IEPs and special education, even as many of the institutional supports available during the K-12 years go away after the student finishes school.

Being prepared for the issues faced during transition to adult life can make a big difference for you and your kiddo. One way to prepare is by soaking up the tips and wisdom found in sources like Life After IEPs.

Recently Mary sent blog subscribers a letter with links to updated versions of the most popular posts on Life After IEPs. She agreed to let me share an excerpt of the letter with you. That’s what you’ll find below!

School buses will soon be rolling again – and you’ll want access to key resources for your teen’s self determination and transition planning.
I’ve updated the following popular posts so that you can easily link directly to free tools and strategies that will get the school year off to a great start!
Six Strategies for a Positive School Year:
Transition Portfolios:
Free Transition Tool Shop:
The Tool Shop connects to many posts that describe and link to a wide variety of free transition tools. Please note – The schools, universities and agencies that created these tools sometimes change their links.
If a link within a post is no longer working – you can:
 – try to “Google” the tool named in the post – or,
 – email me and I can find the new link and update my post.
Keeping links current is a never-ending job! Please contact me if you have any questions!
Take Some Time to Consider – What Matters Most
Our time is limited – we can’t do everything.
As the new school year begins – lets take time to reflect. We want to build daily, weekly, and monthly routines around the activities and goals that matter most to us – and to our kids. This is what it means to live a full, self determined life.
As you and your teen consider how you would like to structure your school year routines and your plans for the future – these posts may help:-
– A Good Day Plan – http://lifeafterieps.com/a-good-day/
– Taking Time to Grow What Matters –
May this be the start of the best school year ever for you and your teen!

SSI Continuing Disability Review: our experience

Have you read the post from 2013 titled “When SSI benefits might be terminated“? Not surprising if you haven’t – it hasn’t gotten many views. Heck, I scarcely remembered it, and I wrote the dang thing! But this year I sure reread it a few times after the Social Security Administration (SSA) put Nathan’s case under review.

The old post was written from research and talked in generalities. Which is fine, but it lacked the details of a first-person account. Now, you’ll get to read what happened at each step in the Continuing Disability Review for Nathan’s SSI.

For the last few years we’d been sailing along without much interaction with SSA. In early December a notice would come about the increase in SSI benefits (or not) in the upcoming year. In the spring of every year I’d file the requested Representative Payee Report.

In mid-January this year, out of the blue (unless it was because Nathan had been receiving SSI benefits for exactly five years), we got a Notice of Continuing Disability Review. The letter gave an appointment date and time in mid-February to come in and discuss Nathan’s situation: his health, ability to work, work history, medications, and treatment history in the previous 12 months. The meeting wasn’t going to be at the SSA office where Nathan’s SSI case manager works; a contact person was not specified.

We also received a 13-page form, titled “Continuing Disability Review Report.” Luckily, several parts didn’t apply to Nathan, so the task of completing it wasn’t as daunting as it first appeared. If the SSI recipient isn’t capable of filling out the form, someone who knows the recipient well is allowed to do so. In our case, I filled it out on Nathan’s behalf.

The notice suggested that I telephone soon if I had a conflict. Not responding and not showing up could trigger a loss of benefits. The notice didn’t say whether Nathan himself had to go to the appointment. I opted to go without him.

Report in hand and rehearsing my arguments for keeping the benefits coming, I arrived at the SSA office ten minutes before the appointment – and saw a long, barely-moving line outside the door. No way I’d be sitting inside at the designated time!

When I mentioned this to others at the end of the line, one of them was sure that people with an appointment could bypass the line. Yes!

Even after jumping to the front, I had to get through the metal detector and purse search (where the youthful security guard made fun of my old-school iPod) and then stand in a long line just to get to the check-in kiosk.

Although I finally sat down in the waiting area several minutes after the scheduled time, I needn’t have worried: it was another hour before I was called to a desk.

The gal flipped through the report and said, “Normally, I’d have you answer follow-up questions while I input the information on this form. But since we’re so backlogged today, I’ll just take the report and input it later. Thanks for coming in.”

All that waiting just to submit a document! Would it be enough to convince them?

No. A few weeks later Nathan received a packet from the California Dept. of Social Services. SSA had forwarded the claim to them for review, and they had decided more information was needed.

The packet was sent and addressed only to Nathan, and contained an eight-page “Function Report – Adult – Third Party,” to be submitted in ten days. The cover letter included the following paragraph:

“When we evaluate a claim for disability, we must determine how the claimant’s impairment(s) affects his/her ability to function in normal daily activities. Your name was provided by the claimant as a source of this type of information. Therefore, your assistance in completing the enclosed daily activities form is requested.”

But … wasn’t Nathan the claimant? How could he complete a third-party report when he is the first party?

I called the analyst who sent the packet for clarification. She cheerfully explained that Nathan was supposed to give the report to someone who knows him well.

“So … that could be me?” I asked.

“Oh, absolutely!” she replied. “We’d prefer that, actually. You probably know him better than anyone.”

“Okaaay,” I said, wondering why they hadn’t sent it to me in the first place! Or why the letter didn’t tell the recipient to give the form to someone else.

Almost all sections of this form consisted of multipart essay questions. Topics include: the claimant’s mental/physical condition, daily activities, personal care, meals, house and yard work, getting around, shopping, money, hobbies and interests, social activities, and general abilities.

Remembering the advice we’d heard when submitting/appealing Nathan’s SSI application – “bombard them with documentation!” – I gave detailed answers to every question, using the “Remarks” section to complete earlier answers where I’d run out of room. It took several hours over several days to finish.

“This better be enough to convince them!” I thought as I faxed the report on Day 10.

It wasn’t. In mid-April Nathan received a notice that he needed to be examined by a mental health professional chosen by the Dept. of Social Services.

The appointment, at no cost to us, was scheduled for mid-May. Again, failure to show up might result in SSI benefits being terminated. Nathan had to sign and mail or fax a short form confirming the appointment and authorizing the results to be shared with his doctor.

By this time, Nathan was getting concerned that his benefits might be cut off. Although his willingness to try employment has improved, none of us believe he could tolerate working enough hours to support himself. His depression, ADHD, and Aspergers and/or Schizoid Personality Disorder still present large obstacles to holding a job.

On the day of the appointment, Nathan mentioned that his mind was foggy. We got there a few minutes early, and he was given a form to fill out.

He’s never been speedy at writing answers to questions, but on this day he labored over each word. “How do you spell ‘suicidal depression’?”  “Who was my last doctor?” And so forth.

He was called back before finishing. The exam only took ten minutes; then he came back out to the waiting room and slowly completed the rest of the form. Afterwards, Nathan lamented that he hadn’t explained himself clearly to the examiner. “I just couldn’t come up with the right words. I think I blew it.”

Silently, I reflected that not expressing himself well may have helped the cause.

In the days and weeks that followed we braced for the decision, or for the next request for information. Reviewing the 2013 blog post, I saw that SSI benefits are hardly ever terminated due to the recipient no longer qualifying as “disabled.” Was this still true?

The letter came to Nathan in mid-June, stating that “…you will continue to receive Supplemental Security Income payments if you still meet all the other eligibility requirements. This is because you are still disabled under our rules.”

Whew!

The letter also included this paragraph:

“The doctors and other trained staff who decided that you are still disabled believe that your health may improve. Therefore, we will review your case again in about 3 years. We will send you a letter before we start the review.”

What can other atypical young adults on SSI take away from our experience?

  • The likelihood of the case being reviewed might increase at the five-year mark.
  • The SSA and its cooperating agencies may be more persistent in their review than you anticipate.
  • The review process can take months from start to finish.
  • When information is requested, do not be a slacker!

 

 

A sampling of work training programs

The information in this post comes to you courtesy of Jackie Martin of Vocational Steps. She’s always on the lookout for ways to provide atypical young people with job training and opportunities, and had sent me a list of several programs already in place around the US.

As Jackie told me in an email, “…the different programs/companies [in the list] actually came from different people who would email and say, ‘I found this link and it sounds interesting’ and then I researched each one to get their information.  I wanted to be able to show people here in CA that there are programs for our young people – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to duplicate it! …[T]he more people know about successful employment models, the quicker we can start duplicating them in our own cities and be able to have more of our young people employed.”

Jackie is now “working with a new company called ‘CoNNect’ (connectproductsandpeople.com).  It is based in Murrieta CA with the main warehouse there, a small one in Colton and now one in Corona.  The oversimplified description is that the CEO–Jonathon Mills–wants to help people with disabilities (and veterans) get some work experience and then help them find a job out in the community.” The jobs have included things like office work and sorting recycled plastics, with more possibilities on the horizon.

What follows is the list of particular programs in California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. If you live near one of them, you might want to check it out. For the rest of us, learning about these programs may help us figure out what can be done in our own communities.

EXCEPTIONAL MINDS – Sherman Oaks, CA

A non-profit vocational center, animation and working studio for young adults on the Autism Spectrum.

  • Accredited certificate from Adobe Flash Systems (Programs taught: Flash, Photoshop, Dream Weaver or Mocha Pro)
  • 3 year Program (10 months per year, 5 days per week)
  • Vocational center and working studio
  • Visually-gifted ASD individuals
  • Graphic Arts
  • Animation
  • Web Design
  • Visual Effects
  • Rotoscoping

Offer:

  • Full-Time Program: 3 yrs., 5 days per week, 10 months per year
  • Private Lessons: To prepare individuals for the Accredited Program
  • Summer Workshops: 6 weeks, 3 sessions available:
  • Animator
  • Video Game Creation
  • Movie Magic-Visual Effects

Exceptional Minds  – 13400 Riverside Drive, Suite 211, Sherman Oaks, CA  91423

(818) 387-8811

exceptionalmindsstudio.org

 

EXTRAORDINARY VENTURES – Chapel Hill, NC

Non-profit organization that creates and nurtures self-sustaining small businesses designed around the skills of the young adults with autism and developmental disabilities that serve as its workforce.  They currently employ 40 people.  Some work 2 hours per, 2 days per week and others work 30—40 hours per week.   “EV” operates six (6) ‘ventures’:

  • A full laundry service (laundry and dry cleaning)
  • Office services (collating, stapling, stuffing envelopes, etc.)
  • Candles and gifts, sold in their gift shop (they make their own candles and scents)
  • Cleaning and maintenance service for city buses
  • An event center that rents space for meetings and conferences, and they staff the event
  • Parking at football games for the University of North Carolina

 Extraordinary Ventures  – 200 South Elliot Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Phone: 919-967-1100                            

extraordinaryventures.org

 

PATHFINDER REGIONAL  VOCATIONAL—TECHNICAL   HIGH   SCHOOL – Palmer, MA

Vocationally-based, hands-on high school offering academics and vocational training to students who qualify.

  • Serves students in grades 9-12 who, if they qualify, attend from nine surrounding cities
  • Information night for potential candidates is offered to 5th—8th graders at their respective schools
  • Offer 14 “shops”:
  • Collision Repair
  • Automotive Technician
  • Carpentry
  • Machine
  • Electronics
  • Electrician
  • Horticulture
  • Health Assisting
  • Food Management
  • Cosmetology
  • Business Technology
  • Programming & Web Design
  • HVAC-R (Heat, Vent, A/C & Refr)
  • CAD (Computer-Aided Drafting)
  • Each “shop” is a total hands-on learning experience (e.g. Students build a house every year)
  • Co-op program: Second semester of junior and senior years, students alternate working at a business for one week and studying at school the next week.  They are paid by the employer.
  • Very strict selection criteria
  • They provide for students with special needs and have had Life Skills students in their program

Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School  – 240 Sykes Street Palmer, MA 01069
1-413-283-9701

pathfindertech.org  

 

MINDSPARK – Santa Monica, CA

Socially Responsible Outsourcing

Many U.S. companies outsource their software testing to offshore companies in India or China, which has many drawbacks due to the time zone and cultural differences. This leads to communication inefficiencies that may increase the effective cost of these services. The software industry is already entrenched in a model where the software testing services are not performed at the customer’s location. In effect, MindSpark will also be an outsourced IT company, but instead of customers outsourcing to companies in India or China, they can outsource to a socially conscious company in America offering high quality services at competitive rates. Any company that chooses to outsource their software testing work to MindSpark can feel satisfaction that they are employing people in America and providing opportunities for individuals with specialized abilities to be gainfully employed.

Core Commitment to Social Purpose

Consistent with its socially responsible mission, MindSpark Inc. was incorporated as a benefit corporation in the state of California in May 2013. A benefit corporation, legal in California since January 1, 2012, allows entrepreneurs and investors to organize corporations that can pursue economic and social objectives simultaneously. The benefit corporation has a core commitment to social purpose embedded in its organizational structure, with an additional commitment to full transparency and accurate assessment and reporting of its social, environmental, and financial performance and impact.

The MindSpark Training Academy (MTA) was incorporated as a non-profit organization in June 2013.  In late 2014, MTA will attain 501(c)(3) status and will become eligible for funding from foundations that support organizations with tax-exempt status. A higher level of funding will allow MTA to offer more deserving young adults the opportunity to obtain the training required for employment as software testers.

The principal owners of MindSpark Inc. are working without compensation to launch and manage the enterprise. Growing the business will enable MindSpark to train and hire increasing numbers of qualified and deserving employees. As a vital and socially conscious benefit corporation, MindSpark will provide profits to be distributed to its employees in the future.

MindSpark Training Academy

The MindSpark Training Academy was created to provide vocational training to talented and qualified individuals with specialized abilities, particularly young adults on the autism spectrum. The customized training will enable these individuals to use their interest in technology, keen eye for detail, and sustained focus to earn a living. Attention to detail and sustained focus are highly valued in the field of software testing, which can be enjoyable for people with an aptitude for finding patterns and irregularities, and highly satisfying when problems are identified in the software that is being tested.

Candidates who are interested in the training program will be asked to fill out an application form and an assessment checklist prior to being invited for an interview and further assessment. Only those candidates with a high likelihood of completing the program will be accepted for training.

The MindSpark Training Academy plans to offer four 11-week training sessions per year, and may also offer accelerated 6-week training sessions. Training is offered free of charge. After completing a training session, qualified trainees will be offered a 3-month paid apprenticeship with MindSpark Inc., which subsequently leads to employment as a paid software testing analyst. In collaboration with Square One and MindSpark, we have a team of trainers and experienced test leads who will provide a supportive, safe and respectful environment.

Our MTA Manager of Training and Development, Judy Metz, has a doctorate in Psychology, a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology, and twenty years of experience developing and implementing software solutions. Our trainees will have an understanding teacher with real-world experience to guide them towards their new careers.

Process

Application

Interview and Assessment

11-Week Classroom Training with Certificate of Completion

3-Month Paid Apprenticeship

MindSpark  – 2525 Main Street Ste. 214, Santa Monica, CA 90405

310-396-9292

http://www.mindsparktech.com/

 

GREEN BRIDGE GROWERS – South Bend, IN

What We Do

We provide skill-matched employment to underserved young adults on the autism spectrum using an innovative highly-productive agricultural method, aquaponics.

Skill-Matched Employment for the Autism Spectrum

Green Bridge Growers is a venture with a strong social mission, and sustainable practices are at our core.  With 90% of adults with autism experiencing unemployment, Green Bridges leverages new jobs for those with autism in our community – using aquaponics to grow vegetables productively throughout the year.

The Other 90% Problem

Unbelievably, 90% of the food we eat in Indiana is grown out-of-state, despite the skyrocketing demand for locally grown food.  We thought, why not connect this 90% problem with the lack of employment for those on the autism spectrum and develop a solution that also contributes to our local community?  Green Bridge Growers was created from this solution-oriented way of thinking.

Our growing practices are the very best.  We use organic growing methods and materials, grow year-round, and employ the innovative new farming method, aquaponics, into our system.  Within this system, fish and plants grow in harmony, producing faster growing rates and much less waste.  Our customers include high-end restaurants and grocery stores, and we’ve begun exploring a future relationship with Notre Dame Food Services.

As part of our professional development goals, we’ll further engage our workforce through leadership training, active participation, and team building, allowing our autistic employees to accumulate integral new skills and competencies.

 How We Do It

The innovative aquaponic method of farming that we use in our venture has the unique ability to grow fish and vegetables in tandem.  Fish grow in tanks in a closed-loop ecosystem, where fish effluent is filtered and fertilizes the plants we grow.  The plants then cleanse the water for the fish.  Aquaponics uses 90% less water than conventional farming, and has the additional benefit of reducing time to harvest by one-third.  Plant growth is greatly accelerated by aquaponics!

When we learned of aquaponics several years ago, we began attending intensive training sessions to learn hands-on practical skills and concepts.  Aquaponics is such a phenomenal outlet for our own interests and skill sets, but it also is an outstanding match for the skills of those with autism.  We’ve learned from the best in the field, and maintain membership to the US Aquaponics Association.

We manage other installations, such as the Century Center Skywalk in Sound Bend, that feature year-round growing using soil enriched by organic materials like worm castings and coconut coir.  Incorporating great organic nutrients into our soil and our aquaponic system helps us raise plants that are productive, healthy, and of the highest taste and quality for our customers.  We take tremendous pride in providing jobs for the underserved of our community, while keeping our products fresh, organic, and as close to the customers as possible!

Green Bridge Growers

Innovation Park Notre Dame  – 1400 E. Angela Blvd. #148, South Bend, IN  46617

574-310-8190

greenbridgegrowers.org

 

Anxiety disorders – Part 1: Overview

Anxiety – about bad things that might happen, or not being accepted by others, or not being able to handle what’s expected of us – we’ve probably all been there at times. But the teenage/young adult time of life, when the overarching concern is Finding One’s Place in the World, is especially ripe for worry.

In this unfair world of ours, atypical young people are even more prone to anxiety than their peers. So not only do they have to try to cope with neurologically-based difficulties in learning, staying on-task, and socializing – they have to deal with the anxiety about not measuring up. And the ways anxiety impacts them can be as challenging for these young people as their other diagnoses.

Since anxiety is so common in neurodiverse young people, whatever their diagnosis, it’s a topic worth exploring here on the Cinder Cone. As it turns out, I found such a large amount of anxiety-related information worth sharing that it needs to be spread over at least two posts.

We’ll start with some interesting factoids and a look at the types of anxiety disorders.

When seeking an overview, I learned a lot from this Wikipedia article. Here are some excerpts:

Anxiety disorders are a category of mental disorders characterized by feelings of anxiety and fear,[2] where anxiety is a worry about future events and fear is a reaction to current events.

Anxiety disorders are partly genetic….

They often occur with other mental disorders, particularly major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, certain personality disorders, and eating disorders. The term anxiety covers four aspects of experiences that an individual may have: mental apprehension, physical tension, physical symptoms and dissociative anxiety.[5] The emotions present in anxiety disorders range from simple nervousness to bouts of terror.[6]

[B]etween 10 and 20 percent of all children will develop a full-fledged anxiety disorder prior to the age of 18,[122] making anxiety the most common mental health issue in young people.

Anxiety in children has a variety of causes; sometimes anxiety is rooted in biology, and may be a product of another existing condition, such as Autism or Asperger’s Disorder.[124] Gifted children are also often more prone to excessive anxiety than non-gifted children.[125] Other cases of anxiety arise from the child having experienced a traumatic event of some kind, and in some cases, the cause of the child’s anxiety cannot be pinpointed.[126]

Anxiety among adolescents and young adults is common due to the stresses of social interaction, evaluation, and body image.

Anxiety and depression can be caused by alcohol abuse, which in most cases improves with prolonged abstinence. Even moderate, sustained alcohol use may increase anxiety levels in some individuals.[32] Caffeine, alcohol and benzodiazepine dependence can worsen or cause anxiety and panic attacks.[33]

See? That’s interesting stuff, isn’t it?

The experience of “having anxiety” varies – not just in intensity, but in what triggers the unease. For the following summary of types of anxiety disorders, my sources here are Wikipedia (again), this article from HelpGuide.org, and this article about childhood anxiety disorders. See if any of these conditions are familiar in yourself or someone you know:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: People with GAD are chronic worrywarts, to the point where it distracts them from everyday activities. The worries are “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic.” Sufferers often have unfounded foreboding that disaster is in store. GAD is more common in women, and the risk is highest from childhood to middle age. “Children with GAD tend to be very hard on themselves and strive for perfection. They may also seek constant approval or reassurance from others.” [I assume the same is true of teens.]

Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia: Panic disorder involves repeated, unexpected panic attacks. People who suffer these attacks also live in fear of having more panic attacks. Panic disorder typically develops in early adulthood, with women again more prone to suffering this form of anxiety. Agoraphobia is included here because many people with panic disorder avoid places or situations where previous panic attacks occurred, such as crowded public places where it may be hard to escape – including air travel.

Phobia: Sufferers experience overwhelming fear or anxiety when confronted with a specific thing or situation. Most phobias arise unexpectedly during the teen years or early adulthood; that is, before the phobia took hold, the phobic person hadn’t been bothered much by the feared object. People with a phobia usually understand that their reaction is out of proportion to the risk, but they are still overwhelmed and often rearrange their daily activity to avoid the trigger.

Social Anxiety Disorder: This is an intense fear of negative social interactions or public embarrassment. It usually begins in childhood or adolescence, especially the early teen years. Performance anxiety (such as speaking in public) is one form of SAD. A person who actively tries to avoid feeling this type of anxiety may end up in partial or complete social isolation.

The article about childhood anxiety disorders lists selective mutism as a separate category, but it’s related to social anxiety. This is where the individual (usually a child) refuses to speak in situations where talking is expected or necessary. The individual may be talkative in other settings but will not communicate in certain situations (like school). Our son Nathan exhibited selective mutism during his high school years, when he was at his most miserable. Teachers, counselors, and other adults could not get much out of him.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: Obsessions are persistent, intrusive, distressing thoughts. Compulsions are urges to repeatedly perform certain acts, often as a way of dealing with the obsessive thoughts (since the house might get broken into, I’ll keep rechecking whether the door is locked). People with OCD usually recognize how irrational they are being, but they feel powerless to stop. Children with OCD are often diagnosed around the age of ten. Boys tend to develop the condition sooner, while for girls the onset is more likely in adolescence.

Separation Anxiety Disorder: This involves an exaggerated level of worry about bad things happening when separated from a person or place. I always thought of this as purely a childhood phenomenon, but Wikipedia says it affects 7% of adults (maybe some cases of homesickness fall in this category?). However, children who suffer from separation anxiety usually have a more severe experience of it than adults – probably because they are so dependent on their parent or caregiver.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD results from exposure to an extreme negative situation (especially violence), or chronic exposure to a severe stressful occurrence. (Note that Wikipedia includes bullying as one potential cause of PTSD.) Symptoms include flashbacks or nightmares; hypervigilance; avoidance of people or similar situations; and depression, irritability, or emotional numbness. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD after surviving a traumatic event. I’ve read elsewhere that parents of special-needs children may develop PTSD.

 

The effects of anxiety can be significant. It can skew interactions with others and impede the ability to focus and get things done. It may also contribute to physical woes like digestive system problems, headaches, fatigue, and insomnia. And those problems can in turn trigger worries ….

Anxiety can diminish our quality of life, damage relationships, and even impact our physical well-being. Young people who are affected by anxiety often turn down fulfilling opportunities that they would otherwise gobble up. When you’re in the process of becoming an adult, avoidance behavior can really derail the course your life takes!

What can be done? I’m glad you asked! In the future, we’ll look at ways to cope with anxiety symptoms and to subdue the troublesome thoughts themselves.

 

 

 

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