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Benjamin Orbach: Don't Judge a Millennial By Her Cover

My new favorite website is http://autism-tj.weebly.com/. It belongs to IRODA, Tajikistan's only center for autism. The main page has a gallery of 10 portraits, from a girl with pompadourish big hair who smiles defiantly to a teacher's aide gently brushing noses with a grinning boy. The website doesn't have pyrotechnics, but the photos pull you in, and the organization's mission and programs are clear.

Still, what's the big deal?

This website was put together by Britta Nippert and Okxana Cordova-Hoyos, undergraduate students from New Jersey. They volunteered this summer at IRODA, creating this website, researching grant opportunities and playing with the children.

IRODA was founded by a group of parents who seek an alternative to institutionalization for their children. While IRODA relies on foreign funding support, they did not have a website in Tajik or Russian, much less English until a few weeks ago. By creating a basic yet attractive site, Britta and Okxana filled a gap and met a priority identified by IRODA's leadership. At the same time, for a community in Dushanbe that has little or no direct interaction with America, Britta and Okxana represented an America that reached beyond its borders in a compassionate and useful way.

As Lola Nassriddinov, IRODA's Director, remarked, "It is amazing that people from so far could come and integrate themselves with the children. They have such a good connection with the kids, acting like they had known them for years since their first day. All of the staff asks, 'Where can we find volunteers like this is Tajikistan?'"

Britta and Okxana are indeed special, but their volunteer service is not unique. Over the last couple of years, more than 40 undergraduate and graduate students have volunteered with us through our summer service internship program in four different countries.

Millenials get a bad rap. Studies show that they don't vote in high enough numbers compared to other age groups and that they don't volunteer as much as my fellow Generation Xers. I can't account for national trends, but on an anecdotal level, it has been fascinating to watch Millennials become some of America's best 'unofficial ambassadors.'

Three years ago, when we launched this initiative, my idea was (and remains) to increase the number of Americans who volunteer for a week to a year in the Muslim World and then share that experience through blog posts and community presentations. To date, the vast majority of our unofficial ambassadors have been 20-something women.

I've found two remarkable things about working with the millennial subset. First, 20-somethings bring so much passion to this effort and so little baggage. Most of these young people threw themselves into their volunteer mission out of a commitment to a cause bigger than themselves and a desire to help others who they'd never met before. As Britta explained, "Traveling simply as a tourist is unsatisfying to me....It is important that I learn exactly where I am in the world and to try and expand my compassion as much and as far as possible."

I marvel at how anything seems possible, with daily actions reflecting a willingness to confront failure. Neither Britta nor Okxana designed a website before launching IRODA's site. Phoebe Shelor of Cedar Park, Texas spent the summer teaching French in a one-room school house to children in a shepherding village in Morocco's mid-Atlas mountains. She studies French but had never taught it before. Similarly, Liselot Koenen of Chicago took science classes at Georgetown, but she had never taught chemistry. Liselot was supposed to teach English in a Zanzibari public school this summer, but taught chemistry after that teacher took maternity leave and her classes were left without a substitute.

They and others faced tasks beyond their comfort zone and figured it out. Alessandra Testa, also of New Jersey, taught English to young people in Morocco, reflected, "During my time here, I have been in more challenging and uncomfortable situations than I can count, but each one has taught me invaluable lessons about embracing change, accepting and adjusting to the unexpected."

Which brings me to the second point I've noticed while working with millennial volunteers: a desire to build professional experience and skills. Millenials hear repeatedly that the job market is terrible and that they have to differentiate themselves with real skills. Almost all of our unofficial ambassadors self-funded their experiences -- through savings and grants -- in part to build skills and experience.

Sarah Wall of Indiana set-up a monitoring and evaluation plan for a women's health organization in Indonesia. She explained the investment in herself, "My goal after finishing my master's program is to work in international development. Whether I work abroad or in a domestic position, the experience of learning first-hand what it is like to work in an NGO in the developing world -- the resources, limitations, work culture and pressures they face from both the government and society -- will be invaluable to me in the future."

Just 22 percent of Millenials volunteered last year. That's disappointing, but those numbers don't reflect the depth, impact and scope of how some of these young women and men are investing their time and money. There are websites in Tajikistan and global citizens in the small towns of New Jersey, Indiana and Texas who are reasons for optimism.

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Kristi Rieger Campbell: The Land of Empathy and Wonder

I'd like to live in The Land of Empathy and Wonder.

I'd like to live in a land where my son Tucker is one of many and the many have a variety of differences. None of those differences are considered afflictions, disabilities, special needs or delays. In this land, everybody's quirks and uniquenesses and differences are celebrated. They're not noticed because they are not important.

The only thing important in my imagined land is a person's heart. And his empathy. And his ability to find wonder.

To find joy in blowing bubbles on a breezy spring day rather than worrying about a job, a disease, a bill, a blog...

A place where every resident is able to abandon her phone to follow her son on his quest to best imitate a butterfly. To experience wonder. To celebrate it.

I'd like for you to accept my son.

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I'd like to live in a land where skin color matters as much as the color of a person's underpants. Where couples that fall in love ARE a family without having to lobby for the right to be legally recognized as one by a government. Where a person's actions toward others is noticed and the cost of her handbag is not.

I'd like to live in a world where I can take my son to the playground and the fact that he's playing amazingly well with an unknown younger friend is what's noticed rather than the fact that his new friend is miles above him in language. In knowing how to play. In, well, everything.

I'd like for all of us, including yours truly, to simply "aaaahhh" at the joy on two boy's faces bonding over finding an abandoned ball.

To be.

To be. Ahh... can you imagine?

I can.

I see that joy and wonder in my little boy's face every single day. He sees magic.

I want to get back to seeing the magic.

This land of mine would allow me to see my son's recent school photo and not analyze it. It would allow me to remain in the belly-laugh moment my husband and I shared when we first saw it and thought, "Oh my... he looks so mischievous! So grown up! And so funny!"

Instead, I returned to it later and wondered whether his photo looks like autism. Whether Tucker's beautiful eyes all squinted up as if he's hiding something meant instead that he was at his "I need a break" point. That he may have been scared or intimidated or overwhelmed and didn't have the words to say so.

I'd like to live in the land where empathy and wonder rule.

Where our differences don't.

The best part? This land exists.

It exists right now in some of you, if only ideally. We, my friends, have the power to transform our worlds, our ideal places and our homes into The Land of Empathy and Wonder.

It starts with you. With me. With our children. With how we choose to spend the next five minutes. With being able, tomorrow, when we're stressed out and overwhelmed and busy and annoyed, to be able to take a moment to NOT look away. To try and make eye contact with the boy who makes you uncomfortable. To say hi. To give his tired mom a smile.

To give her a smile that conveys the message that we're all in this together.

And that there is empathy and wonder. Everywhere.

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Caroline Presno: The Special Way DWTS ' Tony Dovolani Embraces Fatherhood and Raising His Autistic Son

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Tony Dovolani of ABC's Dancing With the Stars puts his family above all else: "Love your family more than anything else in the world. If you treat your family the way they should be treated, then your family will always, always be there for you -- through your successes, your failures, through everything." He feels if he can impart this value to his three children, then he will have been a successful dad.

Dovolani, who is a native of Kosovo, and immigrated to the U.S. as a political refugee, has been married to his wife Lina for 14 years. They have an eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old twins Adrian and Ariana. In fact, Dovolani was in rehearsals for the seventh season of Dancing With the Stars with partner Susan Lucci when he got the call that his wife was in labor with the twins.

Tony has been part of Dancing With the Stars since the second season and is returning this fall. The show premieres Monday, September 15 on ABC. Some of his celebrity partners from previous seasons include: Stacy Keibler, Leeza Gibbons, Jayne Seymour, Susan Lucci, Kathy Ireland, Audrina Patridge, Chynna Phillips, Wynonna Judd, Leah Remini, and NeNe Leakes. During season 15, Dovolani and Melissa Rycroft won the Mirror Ball Trophy.

Behind the scenes, when Dovolani's son Adrian was about nine-months-old, Lina was the first one to notice that he wasn't developing the same way as his twin sister. At 18 months, Adrian was diagnosed with autism. Tony remembers their reaction: "We thought, 'Okay we are going to be a great family.' We have always done work with special needs and the fact that this happened in our family, we were like, 'Alright, we are prepared for it.'"

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In a poignant and uplifting interview, Dovolani shared his thoughts and feelings on fatherhood and raising a child with special needs.

Coping and Learning From Children With Special Needs

Currently, the CDC estimates that one in 68 children in the U.S. were identified with autism spectrum disorder (ADS) and the number continues to rise. ADS is a developmental disorder that encompasses a wide range of symptoms which can vary in intensity including problems communicating and interacting with others, intellectual disability, deficits in motor coordination, as well as repetitive behaviors.

Dovolani's son, Adrian exhibits these types of behaviors such as self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stemming -- he tends to run in a circle. He also repeats himself often and frequently obsesses over things.

Dovolani and his wife view their son's special needs in a positive and meaningful way, which is undeniably why they have coped so well with the diagnosis. "It's funny because a lot of the times parents feel sorry for themselves and we didn't feel sorry for ourselves once. We were like, 'Alright, this is what it is and let's find the best help for him. Let's see what we can learn from him.' With every case of autism, there are amazing kids; amazing people and you learn so much from each one of them. We thought, 'Let's see what field he can excel in.' It has been very educational so far," says, Dovolani.

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A Cohesive and Active Family

Dovolani also discusses the importance of the state assistance they are receiving. "We live in the great state of Connecticut where they have a program, where they send people to your home that help you with speech therapy, motor skills and everything else. It is part of the reason I live in Connecticut."

Adrian goes to elementary school as well and takes advantage of about everything that school offers. Tony adds, that he does physical therapy, "but no medicine, it's a personal choice. Our focus is just on him developing."

Interestingly, one of the methods the family uses with Adrian is to not stick to routines in order to free him from his obsessive need for routine.

Dovolani can't emphasize enough that they don't treat Adrian differently than their two daughters: We try to put him on the same schedule as them; we all eat together, we all hang out together, we play together. He does not get excluded from anything and I think that is the most important thing for any child with special needs; is not to exclude them.

And of course, all three of the children dance. "We're always active, we're always dancing, we're always doing something that has to do with activity -- whether it be a trampoline or swing sets or running or playing tag or rollerblading, ice skating, skiing, bike riding. You name it, we do it," says Dovolani.

I brought up the fact that sometimes in families who have children with special needs; there is a dynamic where the siblings feel they are not getting as much attention as the child with special needs. Tony is clear that they all get equal attention, "It depends on who needs the attention. As a parent you try to divide and make sure you give every single child attention, but we have been blessed with some really great daughters that are very sensitive to my son and they are helpful in every aspect, especially his twin sister. I call my wife my queen because she takes care of everything in such a wonderful way."

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A Blessing

One of the main things that Dovolani wants people to know about having an autistic child or any child with special needs is that it's a blessing. "You can learn so much from an autistic kid. You start realizing that a lot of the petty stuff that you might have paid attention to that consumed your life, it's not important anymore. You see things for what they are; they are not judging you or anything. It's such a beautiful way to look at the world. Anybody that has an autistic child or has one in their family, should take some time to get to know them because their life will be enriched by it," says Dovolani.

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Lisa R. Petty: Prettier Than John Stamos

Even though I spent over $300 to buy two front row tickets to the Beach Boys concert at the state fair, I still roll my eyes at the Beach Boys' music. I'm a head banger from the '80s. I don't want to hear a bunch of geriatric men harmonize over surfing and bikini-clad girls. They would probably all need hip surgery if they tried to surf. The only reason I sold my soul to the Stub Hub devil and bought those tickets was because John Stamos, my number one fake boyfriend, was joining them on tour.

Now, being the mom of a musician, I didn't go to see if John Stamos was a great drummer or guitarist (he plays both instruments, believe it or not). I went to the Beach Boys concert because John/Uncle Jesse/Blackie Parish is not just eye candy; he is the equivalent of Belgian truffles for the eye. The man is beautiful. I really do think he bathes in the blood of kittens. He must. While he doesn't seem to be the sharpest block of cheddar in the dairy case, John is so visually perfect that it pains me that he does not have children. He needs to make babies now while he's still too young to star in Viagra commercials.

So, in short, I'm a shallow middle-aged woman with a girl boner for John Stamos. There's got to be a 12-step meeting somewhere for people like me. While I did enjoy staring at the yogurt god, and taking pictures from the front row, it wasn't the coolest thing that happened at the concert.

Before John and the Beach Boys hit the stage, I was sitting there, singing and chair dancing to "A Horse with No Name," by the first band on stage, America. I was in heaven, sitting right up front, eating a very large hot pretzel with a super bad for me Diet Coke, just waiting for the Greek god to take the stage. Then, I met the young man who sat next to me with his father. At least, I'm pretty sure it was his father. I didn't ask.

This young man was about 16 or 18, 6 feet tall, and autistic. He came in two songs into America's set, and then sat by me for about half of the show. The other half, he was on the floor next to the stage, or walking around, or lying on his father. He was wearing a Beach Boys shirt, and, during the brief intermission, his father explained that he took him to any Beach Boys show within driving distance. They had driven down from Michigan, three hours away, for this show.

The Beach Boys had met him, and knew he would be right up front. They waved to the young man from the stage. Most of the time, he didn't really see them, but that didn't stop them from trying. Once or twice, he really focused on them, and smiled. I had just met the boy, but that smile brought tears to my eyes.

I don't know his name, or his father's name, or if that man even was his father. I do know that the man, father or not, has the patience of a saint. I know that he will do anything for the young man. I know that like a lot of parents, or caregivers, or friends, he will drive for hours just to see the young fellow smile.

That, my dear readers, is what is really beautiful in this world. Don't get me wrong. John Stamos is still the best looking man on the planet, and I will continue to buy his yogurt and anything else he sells. The truth is though, that physical beauty will never be more beautiful than real love.

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Shanell Mouland: A Punk-Rock, Gender-Bending, Rockstar Haircut Fit For a Little Girl Ninja With Autism

It was time to get Kate's haircut and we decided to get that old hair out of her way and give her the punk rock, gender-bending haircut our little rock star deserves. Do you like it? Wait, don't answer that, because it doesn't matter. She loves it. That matters. She is happy. That matters. It is far easier to fight bad guys without all that hair in the way. Did you know how much of a sensory experience a haircut is? Do you know how difficult it is for some children with autism to sit through a haircut? You did it, Kate!

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This little girl doesn't care about or conform to stereotypical gender roles. It is her autism? Who knows. It is one of the most special things about her and we could all learn a lesson or two.

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Rock on Kate!

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