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Child Artist With Autism Expresses Herself With The Help Of Her Therapy Cat

There's nothing quite like the unspoken bond between the best of friends.

And that bond in particular means even more to Iris Grace Halmshaw, a 5-year-old British girl who was diagnosed with autism in 2011, reported ABC News. Her disorder prevents her from speaking like so many kids her age, so through the encouragement of her parents, she learned how to express her emotions through painting instead.

Her works of art are nothing short of incredible, and her family sells them for hundreds of dollars each, using the money to pay for her therapy treatments and art supplies, and to raise awareness about autism, according to their Facebook page.

While Iris has been painting for more than 18 months now, a new friend joined her family just before Valentine's Day this year, who has helped make all the difference in her ability and desire to communicate with the outside world. Iris took to Thula, her sweet and intelligent Maine Coon, relatively quickly and gained confidence with her speaking in trying to tell her what to do. She also found inspiration for her painting in the therapy cat, reported The Independent.

iris and thula

"She has been at Iris’s side since she arrived and slept in her arms during her first night here," Iris' mother, Arabella Carter-Johnson, wrote on their website soon after getting Thula. "It seemed like they were old friends as I watched them on the sofa, the kitten attentively looking at the iPad screen with Iris."

iris and thula

"Thula’s constant presence and gentle nature is having a remarkable effect upon Iris who is nonverbal most of the time," Carter-Johnson continued to write. "I am hearing more words. Iris is giving instructions to Thula ... Iris says it with such authority that the kitten obediently sits down with her striped legs neatly together. Unlike most children of Iris’ age, she doesn’t maul, stroke or pick up the kitten constantly. Their relationship is based upon companionship."

iris and thula

iris and thula

"When Thula first came to us, Iris wouldn’t stroke her very much, if the kitten's body touched Iris’s bare tummy she would move, so that they were just side by side," wrote Carter-Johnson. "Thula was persistent and her everlasting loving company caught Iris’ attention. There has always been an undeniably strong connection between them right from the beginning, but now I am seeing a change in Iris’ behavior toward her."

iris and thula

iris and thula

To learn more about Iris and to see her beautiful masterpieces, visit her website.

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Jenny Darroch: Marketing to Women, or Should I Say Marketing to People With a Female (or Male) Brain?

I wrote about marketing to women and feminism in a recent post called "Avoid Gender Washing: Making Sense of Marketing to Women by Understanding the Three Waves of Feminism." In that post, I argued that marketing moves between the second wave of feminism (i.e., differences between men and women) and the third wave of feminism (i.e., differences between women). Research on differences can range from demographic differences such as race, ethnicity and sexual orientation to different needs women have for which products and services might be a solution.

In this post, I am going to address the gender angle somewhat differently by considering the "male" vs. "female" brain. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University (yes, he is related to Sacha Baron Cohen; they're cousins) has done considerable groundbreaking work on the brain, especially in relation to autism.

Using Baron-Cohen's ideas, I want you to imagine a continuum, anchored at one end by an extreme "male" brain and at the other end by an extreme "female" brain. An extreme "male" brain has hyperdeveloped systematizing, whereas an extreme "female" brain has hyperdeveloped empathizing. In between these two extremes is a "male" brain where systematizing is developed more than empathizing, and a "female" brain where empathizing is developed more than systematizing. And in the middle is a "balanced" brain where both characteristics are equal.

Baron-Cohen's ideas are clearly articulated. He defines empathizing and systematizing and then references a range of studies to provide evidence of both. Empathizing, the predominant feature of a "female"-superior brain, is characterized by the following behaviors:

  1. Shares and takes turns.
  2. Engages in less rough-and-tumble play.
  3. Responds empathetically to the distress of others.
  4. Is better able to infer what others are thinking or feeling.
  5. Is more sensitive to facial expressions.
  6. Values altruistic and reciprocal relationships more than those based around power, politics and competition.
  7. Is less likely to exhibit disorderly conduct.
  8. Is less aggressive.
  9. Is less likely to murder.
  10. Is less likely to form hierarchies of dominance, because such hierarchies put one person in as a leader.
  11. Talks using a language style that is more cooperative, reciprocal and collaborative. Disagreement is more likely to occur in the form of a question than an assertion.
  12. Talks more about feelings and emotion than about objects and activities.
  13. Is more likely to hold infants in a face-to-face position and follow through children's chosen topic of play rather than impose their own topic.
  14. Looks longer at faces.
  15. Has better language ability overall.

Systematizing, which characterizes "male"-superior brains, represents a more inductive process -- one of watching, gathering data, considering differences, looking for patterns and then generating rules about how the system works. People who systematize seek to understand and predict the "law-governed inanimate universe"; people who empathize seek to understand and predict the social world.

Other research on brain and behavior considers physiological differences to examine sex differences. A number of studies, for example, have used brain scans as evidence. One study led by Professor Haier at UC Irvine found that women tend to have more white matter, whereas men tend to have more gray matter. White matter represents neural networking, whereas gray matter represents information processing.

Professors Gur, Gur and Verma from the University of Pennsylvania found that men, on average, have stronger connections between the fronts and backs of their brains. This means that men are often better at learning and performing a single task, such as bike riding, and will respond more quickly to what they see. Women, on average, have stronger connections between the left and right sides of their brains and therefore tend to have a superior memory and better social-cognition skills and are better at multitasking.

When I read others' recommendations on how to market to women, what the recommendations really address is how to market to people with a "female" brain. Implicit, then, is an assumption that all women have "female"-superior brains and therefore excel in empathizing (or that all women have significantly more gray matter or notably stronger connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain).

What these recommendations fail to consider is that some women might engage in equal amounts of empathizing and systematizing, just as some women might excel at systematizing rather than empathizing. The same is true of men in that as some men might excel in empathizing and not in systematizing.

My first recommendation for marketing to women is to determine where your female audience sits on the emphasizing-vs.-systematizing spectrum. Put another way, how dominant is the "female" brain among your target market?

A second recommendation is to take into account the behaviors that a woman might learn as she adapts to the many roles she undertakes. Baron-Cohen writes extensively about how to teach autistic people to empathize. As a professional woman, while I might enjoy caring for others or prefer relationships among my friends that are reciprocal (indicators of empathizing behavior), when I am at work I might read legal documents very carefully or pay close attention to the stock market (indicators of systematizing behavior). As marketers we need to pay attention to the many roles that women take on (e.g., partner, parent, paid employee). As women continue to make strides in education, more women will take on positions of leadership within organizations, and, I argue, women will learn to adapt to a range of situations and environments.

The research by Baron-Cohen, Haier et al., and Gur et al., is important in that it helps us understand how to more effectively market and sell to women. But at the same time, we need to be careful and not assume that all women in all circumstances (or men, for that matter) behave similarly.

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Shelly Ulaj: One Rockin' Woman Who Does It All

Since the inception of Women Empowered, I have come across many women from all walks of life and a considerable number of female entrepreneurs.

There's a thriving female entrepreneurial community here in Los Angeles and many have inspirational stories that are the driving force behind their businesses. One woman in particular who has recently inspired me is Dina Kimmel, Founder and CEO of We Rock the Spectrum. Dina's story was so powerful and filled with layers of empowerment, that I felt it was my duty to share her story with the rest of the world.

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What started out as an in-home kids' gym to help her now 7 year old son Gabriel turned into a nationwide franchise with a foundation attached called My Brother Rocks the Spectrum benefitting autistic children whose families cannot afford to send them to WRTS.

The conversation of women not being able to do it all was immediately quieted in my head as I was listening to Dina's story. She is literally a woman who does it all, and all with a warm heart and smile. Through her personal need to help her son, she wanted to do the same for other children who battle with autism. We Rock the Spectrum (WRTS) was founded in 2010 and became a franchise within four years. In as little as 10 months, WRTS now has 20 locations and keeps growing. There was nothing like it and the word spread like wildfire, in the best possible way. WRTS is an all-inclusive kids' gym that provides children with a fun and motivational environment to help them in areas of strength, movement, sensory processing, communication and much more. The unique equipment assists all children in their neurological growth and development.

What I found so inspiring about Dina's story was not only how and why she started WRTS, but how she incorporated so many other aspects to foster the personal growth of her employees, franchisees, and the parents involved. In addition to empowering children, she is also empowering women to lead their own lives through becoming a franchisee. About 85 percent of the franchisees are women. WRTS is not your typical cookie cutter franchise -- Dina allows her franchisees to have a voice and empowers them by encouraging them to develop new ideas and programming. She also plays the role of mentor for most of the franchising women. Not only will Dina have a business plan ready for you but she will even go as far as to help you find the right space and location. The next empowering layer is Dina has also implemented a Young Adult Mentoring Program within WRTS where she employs the young adults that go through the program -- this is when my mind was blown. Lastly, she provides a space for parents to connect, network, and support each other through the WRTS mom's club.

Dina's entrepreneurial story could not have been more inspirational; she is the epitome of an empowered woman. Her passion radiated and was contagious. When asked what three rockin' tips she had for those aspiring to be in her shoes, Dina responded just as I felt she would: full of love. Here are Dina's empowering entrepreneurial (and heartfelt) tips:

Family is always first.
Dina started WRTS specifically for that reason -- her family. Her support system is her family and she prides herself in spending as much time as she possibly can with her loved ones. In fact, I arrived 10 minutes early for our interview and I was greeted by her daughter, Sophia. So if you're looking to start a new venture, make sure you have the support you need but most importantly, your family. Running a business is no easy task, and having a supportive family will make those inescapable obstacles easier to overcome.

Don't go beyond your means, financially.
There's the saying: you have to spend money to make money. However, you have to be smart about it as well. Dina advises to create a budget and stick to it when launching a new business. Be realistic with your goals. Prior to starting WRTS, Dina owned a clothing boutique which she sold to fund the first WRTS gym. When seeking to fund your new venture, make sure you're fiscally conservative. In other words, don't go from business to bankrupt.

Make sure it's something you love.
Even though this seems like a given; oftentimes people get into business for all the wrong reasons or they lose sight as to why they started in the first place, one in which may be money driven. The money will come but the passion will not. You must passionate about your new venture. The sweat, blood, and tears that you will end up putting in, and long hours won't seem as difficult if you come from a place of passion and not one of obligation. The love for what you do will drive you, and will sustain you and your business. Plain and simple: do what you love. It was very clear that Dina is in love with what she does.

I ended the interview by asking Dina what her five year plan was for WRTS. Her empowering response was: My ONE year plan is to go international. And with Dina's determination and heart, I have no doubt that she will.

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Shanell Mouland: Our Instagram-Filtered Double Life

Do you know how hard it was to NOT instagram filter the hell out of these pictures? I love those filters and the way they make everything look better. In the interest of the integrity of this post, I held off and decided to show you what really happened as we attempted to keep our kids active this Fall.

First, the scene: An apple orchard. Piles of children tripping over the apples discarded on the ground by piles of other children. Grumpy dads and iPhone-wielding moms taking pictures to prove their children do seasonally appropriate activities in seasonally appropriate attire. Two minor autism-induced tantrums and a friendly puppy to make it better round out our morning at the orchard.

I have arranged the pictures to show you the kinds of things that I usually post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine etc. Following those, I posted picture depicting the reality of our day. I am finding I enjoy reality much more, these days.

Below, the pictures that I pulled from the hundreds I took today. These are the pictures that make our day look like an effortless morning outing. See the happy, well-behaved children. Isn't is obvious that this family went home and made apple crisp to eat after their honey ham supper tonight? This family has their sh*t together.

This family took the visit to the orchard as a learning opportunity and taught their two young daughters about the different types of apples and the kinds of great foods they could make with their haul today. They even threw some math in when they asked the girls to count the apples in their buckets.

The older girl kindly reached for the apples that were out of reach for her little sister. They stuck together and giggled softly when an apple fell from the tree and almost hit Daddy in the head. Oh, what a time!

(Did that make you feel as nauseous reading it, as I felt typing it?)

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And now, the reality. (Minus pictures of the tantrums, which would have been ideal, but dammit I can never get to my camera and stop her from destroying public property at the same time.)

This family dropped all of the apples out of their buckets twice. They are fairly certain many of the apples they brought home had been sitting on the ground for weeks.

Their littlest one beelined for a busy road and her mother turned her ankle while chasing her. Their mother swore loudly and caught the attention of a disapproving LuLuLemon-clad supermom. (Did you know LuLu made apple picking gear?)

The oldest refused to wear the outfit that was chosen for her and perfectly co-ordinated with her sister's. She chose to wear her school clothes from yesterday, instead. The mom spent so much time behind her IPhone trying to get a "great shot" that she did not actually pick even one apple.

The drive to the orchard was longer and more painful than the 11 minutes they spent there, but when they look back at their pictures they will remember it so fondly they will be willing to do it again next year.

They went home and gratefully accepted an invitation to eat elsewhere because they were too exhausted to cook.

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I don't know about you, but I know which family I'd rather hang out with.

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Lauren Harris: Sincere and Sincerely Wrong: Making Children Less Safe In The Name of Safety

In recent days, the world has witnessed West Africa's deadly Ebola epidemic. The World Health Organization is now reporting the number of illnesses and deaths are likely significantly higher than previous official estimates. Certainly those on the front lines have witnessed first hand the terrifying effects of this cruel disease. So far, 6,263 cases of the disease and 2,917 deaths, and 3,487 laboratory confirmed cases are reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria according to the CDC. The approval of a vaccine to treat the deadly disease brings me to the importance of immunization and preventative vaccination in the U.S.

Recently, many parents and communities have decided not to vaccinate their children. There are several reasons people choose not to vaccinate their children, primarily born from misinformation from anti-vaccine advocates. One advocate who profoundly impacted the discussion of vaccine safety is Andrew Wakefield, lead author of a small 1998 case report (now retracted) that hinted at a causal relationship between vaccines and the onset of childhood autism.

In 2011, Britain's leading medical journal openly criticized Wakefield's findings and labeled the data he put forward in his study "deliberately fraudulent," further stating that Wakefield "fraudulently fabricated data" and that he "willingly" changed the data concerning the children profiled in the study. The UK has rescinded Wakefield's medical license. The now-discredited study panicked many parents and led to a sharp drop in the number of children getting the vaccination that prevents measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccinations rates dropped sharply in Britain after its publication, falling to 80% by 2004. 1 Measles rates have increased sharply in the subsequent years. 2 Wakefield's response to the allegations of fraud is that "in the absence of adequate data on vaccine safety" one cannot be confident in their safety.

Wakefield's assertion is erroneous, misleading and dangerous. The paper was immediately controversial and the UK convened a special panel of the Medical Research Council. A Japanese study found no causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism in children. The British Medical Journal issued the following statement: "Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong and not dishonest, or that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project? No." This comes directly from the journal and is not editorial opinion, but scientific opinion. Nevertheless, Wakefield's fraudulent claims prompted long-lasting damage to public health.

Wakefield's claims have had a lasting impact on American children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2008, the United States saw more cases of measles than in any year since 1996. More than 90% of those infected had not been vaccinated, the CDC reported.

Other common myths about vaccines:

1. Vaccines aren't risk-free: The most common side effects are soreness at the injection site and fever, which are best treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Less common are seizures (defined as "jerking or staring"), and risks vary depending on the vaccine. For example, 1 in 14,000 children suffer a seizure after receiving the DTP shot; it's 1 in 3,000 with the MMR vaccine.

2. Too many shots weaken the immune system: Quite the opposite, each dose helps the body to mount an immune system response and make antibodies. This will allow the body to fight off a real infection should it show up.

3. Vaccines are only important for kids:
There are numerous vaccines that are beneficial to adults. For example, flu shots keep young and old healthy. Older folks are more susceptible to vaccine preventable diseases such as shingles and flu. Those over 65 can benefit from the pneumococcal vaccine, whooping cough, as well as a tetanus/diphtheria immunization vaccine booster every 10 years.

4. HPV vaccine is only for girls: There are two types of this vaccine: Ceravix for girls and women 10-25, and Gardasil for females 9 to 26. Gardasil protects against the 6 and 11 types of human papillomavirus, those that cause about 90 percent of all genital warts.

5. Some vaccines contain mercury: Not quite, Thimerosal, a preservative containing 50% mercury, prevents contamination by bacteria. According to CDC, since 2001, mercury has not been present in routine vaccines for children 6 and younger. Both flu shots and some vaccines for older children are now available in either Thimerosal-free versions, or with only trace amounts.

There are some risks involved with vaccinations, just as there are with any prescribed drug of other medical intervention, but an array of misinformation exists as well. The risk of side effects are less perilous than allowing the diseases these vaccines prevent from running unchecked. One need only refer to the devastating debilitation and death that resulted from these illnesses in the not-too-distant past. Since the introduction of vaccines the incidence of polio, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and whooping cough have been drastically reduced. The measles vaccination was introduced in the United States in 1963. From 1958-1962, an average of 503,282 measles cases and 432 measles-associated deaths were reported each year. In 1998, measles reached an all time record low number of 89 cases with no measles-related deaths.

See: Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children -- United States, 1990-1998

In the past few years the number of preventable infectious diseases has increased. According to Scientific American, in 2011, children died of whooping cough in California. The outbreak was the worst since a vaccine all but eradicated the disease in 1947. Furthermore, that year the Center for Disease Control records revealed 10 measles outbreaks. The largest of these was in Minnesota with 21 cases, a state where many parents opted out of the MMR vaccination for their children because of concerns about the safety standard of the vaccine.

Since then, a number of state initiatives have been put in place to safeguard the public from preventable diseases, and states are now suspending children whose parents have not administered the proper vaccines. New laws in Oregon, Texas, North Carolina and California, to name a few, seek to reverse the rise of preventable diseases.

Read: State Law & Vaccine Requirements

No matter where I go, whom I meet or what I accomplish, I am most proud of being a mother. My mother was indifferent, neglectful and abusive. She abandoned us for days on end, beat us with belts and shuttled her lovers through the house at all hours of the day and night. I ran away from my home at 18. When I started a family, I resolved to be the mother I never had. I wanted my children to know that no matter who they were, what they believed or where they traveled, they would be loved. Moreover, I wanted my children to know more than anything that I would always do everything in my power to protect them from the confusions, pains and evils of a large, opaque and often cold world. And so, it is not the rational thinker in me, nor the professional in me, nor the student in me that decries the deleterious and neglectful practice of waiving the treatment of our nation's children with proven vaccinations. It is the mother in me who condemns this ignorant and hurtful development in healthcare.

1 PDF: Thompson, Gavin. Measles and MMR Statistics. Rep. no. SN/SG/2581. London: Library House of Commons, 2009. Web. p.5: This report summarizes the latest statistics on measles incidence and rates of immunization. Of interest is the inclusion of pertinent data on the influence of media coverage and its impact on public confidence in the MMR triple vaccine. The report also includes the UK's immunization rates with the rest of the OECD.
2 Ibid

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