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Shanell Mouland: 5 Things That Do NOT Cause Autism

It's been painful to read the long and varied list of what people believe causes autism. In the beginning, I would investigate every possible lead like it mattered. Soon, I would learn to pick and choose ideas from the mass of information that seemed plausible, or even remotely possible. More recently, I have decided that it doesn't matter at all. It hurts more than it helps and knowing what may or may not cause autism won't change a thing about our perfect girl. There are some who would prey on our fear in order to profit from touting false cures. Some may truly believe what they are selling and some are the worst kind of predator. And some cause harm by jumping on one of these bandwagons to spread ideas that hurt our cause. I would like to address some of the more harmful propaganda surrounding causes of autism. When people posit or perpetuate some of the following ideas, it hurts our community irreparably.

1. Vaccines

Let's just get this one out of the way. It's probably the most popular of the circulating myths surrounding autism. It's also, by far, the most dangerous. It's been promoting a culture of fear surrounding vaccines. These crucial vaccines have protected us from deadly diseases for years. It is the most frustrating and publicly dangerous movements of recent years. Vaccines do not cause autism. Full Stop.

2. Maternal Anything

There is never a day that my inbox does not receive an email detailing the latest cause of autism. The vast majority of the time, these 'causes' are directly related to something the mother did during pregnancy. I kid you not when I say we have been accused of everything from watching too much TV during pregnancy to eating too many carbs. Sometimes, I imagine there is a tiny troll in a little room somewhere whose job it is to fill the Internet with accusations against mothers with children with autism and you know, I bet that is not too far from the truth.

3. Lack of Discipline

We are not parenting wrong. We are not parenting weakly. We are good and strong and fair. Our children are sensory seekers and sensory defenders and unless you live in our world, you may not make suggestions or accusations about our parenting. This whole parenting thing is hard enough. Autism or not, parents need allies and not judgment. We adore our children as much as anyone. Oh, how badly we wish you could walk a day in our shoes.

4. Food and Drink

I've been so suspicious of so many things. I've been afraid of the drinking water, for goodness' sake. I've since learned it's just fine, but it just goes to show you how parents of children with autism can be preyed on by people touting causes and cures with zero evidence behind them. One day milk is the culprit and the next, green beans are the cure. It may sound bizarre, but an exhausted parent, who feels, daily, like they are failing their child, may glom onto any bit of information that seems like it could help.

5. God's Wrath

Thankfully, this group tends to be small. However, what they lack in size they more than make up for in ferocity. This particularly unpleasant group will often seek out parents to inform them they have sinned something fierce, and autism is their punishment from God. For some reason, they love to target a vulnerably population. With little credibility behind anything they do, their accusations seem silly, but added to the list, can sometimes overwhelm even the most practical person.

This list could go on so long we could run out of space on the Internet. There is no end to suggested causes and cures for autism. While we appreciate the hard work some are putting into the evidence-based research behind autism's cause and treatment options, we are fatigued by all the Internet noise; the noise with no documented research or evidence to back it up. It is both ugly and alarming that parents are subjected to such drivel.


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Why These Neuroscientists Are Prescribing Video Games

Video games as therapy? While most virtual reality falls under the category of mindless entertainment, a group of researchers believe the gaming world may offer some benefit to those on the autism spectrum.

A team comprised of cognitive neuroscientists and gaming technology experts created a game with potential therapeutic applications, as part of an ongoing research effort at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. The virtual-reality program aims to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder, Asperger's, traumatic brain injury and other conditions that limit social cognition skills.

"Practicing social interaction in a safe, non-threatening, gaming environment helps people reduce anxiety and gain the confidence and skills they need to attempt more social interactions in their daily lives," Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, the center's founder and chief director, said in an email to The Huffington Post.

Using high-tech graphics, customized avatars, and real-time face tracking, the games provide users the opportunity to practice engaging in realistic social situations like job interviews, confrontations with neighbors or even dates -- scenarios that are often vexing for individuals with an autism spectrum or anxiety disorder.

By engaging in non-scripted virtual conversations, users can reinforce lessons in social perception and deciphering facial expressions.

Tandra Allen M.D., the project's lead clinician, has seen significant progress among the project's early users. In as little as five weeks, participants’ scores can significantly improve in the domains of emotional recognition and in the ability to understand and respond to what others are thinking.

"[Participants] have told me that the training improves their conversation skills and has helped them make friends," Allen said in an email to The Huffington Post. "Parents of children have expressed that they see their child have a better understanding of quality of relationships following the program (knowing who is a good friend versus a bully). Their child also has the ability to self regulate his/her emotions, instead of becoming overwhelmed and breaking down in a classroom; they can recognize when they become frustrated and handle their emotions in a positive manner."

Carly McCullar, a 32-year-old who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as an adult and participated in the program, said that after a period of practice, the games began to feel surprisingly real.

"You know it is an alternate reality, but you feel the same emotions you would feel in the actual situation you are practicing," McCullar told Mashable.

Chapman explained that the virtual-reality program is comparable to traditional role-play therapy, in which patients practice various social interactions with a clinician. The virtual-reality scenarios, of course, have the advantage of being able to alter the appearance of the setting and "characters" to make the role-play feel more realistic. The researchers envision the program as a complementary approach, filling in the gaps in traditional therapy, rather than replacing it.

"Individuals with autism are often familiar with video-game platforms and are therefore motivated to practice in such an immersive and engaging environment," Allen explained. "The virtual training is meant to offer a program when there is often a gap in traditional therapy, at a critical time in development -– adolescence and young adulthood –- as well as provide high-level cognitive training that can continue to foster independent growth and living.”

And with the growing field of telehealth gaining legitimacy in the medical community, video-game therapy is something we could be seeing more of in the future.

"As we become a more technologically interactive and social-media based society," Allen said. "Utilizing gaming and virtual technology will become much easier and access to services will be more readily available."


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Chrissy Kelly: 5 Steps That Won't Help YOUR Marriage

This essay on marriage can't help YOUR marriage. No article or book or well meaning advice from a friend can. But the good news is YOU can. Like most important things in my life I have learned this the hard way. Every article on relationships I perused didn't cut it for me. "Five Ways To Fix Your Marriage" the title beckoned, but it just doesn't work that easily in reality. An article can't put in hard work and honesty and tears. "You need more date nights" many suggested -- so we tried that. We sat there at a restaurant opposite each other like strangers. Besides our children, we didn't know what to talk about anymore. Our problem wasn't due to a lack of quality time spent together, it was caused by fissures in communication and intimacy.

As the years passed we grew further apart. Our upbringing caused us to speak two very different languages and both of us were left feeling unseen and misunderstood. Finally four months ago we made a tough choice to begin marriage counseling. Both of our precious boys have autism and many assume that this is was caused the break down in our marriage. That is not the case for us -- our communication and intimacy problems have been here since the beginning. The truth is, I don't think most marriages disintegrate over ONE big thing, but instead over many little hurts compiled and pushed aside day after day.


Here we are on our wedding day.

Through hard work, a willingness to try and counseling, we are working to connect with the things that made us fall in love and get married in the first place. It's taken me a long time to realize that my marriage is a living breathing thing and it needs attention and upkeep. Like children,no two relationships are the same and what works for one may not work for another. Here are a few things that so far have worked for me.

1. Express your feelings in the moment.
"How often do you and Michael fight?" Our counselor asked me. "About once a week," I told her. "How often do you get mad at him?" She asked, rephrasing the question. "Oh, probably every day" I replied. I'm a lover -- not a fighter. I really HATE fighting -- so when I get angry, I stuff it down inside and file it away for later use. Once a week or so, something makes me mad, like really mad which sets me off and a week of his misdemeanors all come flying out at once. "But I'd rather fight once a week instead of every day," I told our counselor. "Why does it have to be a fight in the first place?" she asked. Hmmmmpfff. Good point. I am working on expressing my feelings in the moment instead of bottling them up. I am also working on using words more specific than angry/pissed/mad. Anger is usually born from sadness, disappointment, frustration and fear -- so we are using those truer labels instead.

2. Do not have serious conversations after 6:00 p.m.
Just do not. I CAN NOT. After a long day with our 5- and 3-year-old, my mind is FRIED in the evening. My brain is amazing at watching BRAVO TV then, but it does NOT function on serious life topics. I can easily see myself bursting into tears while trying to decide between ketchup and BBQ sauce after 6:00 p.m. At night, KEEP IT SIMPLE. A friend told me that her and her husband ask first "Is this a good time to talk?" before having any serious discussions -- and if the other person says "no," you aren't allowed to push it. If there are things to be discussed, make sure you do it at a time that works for both of you. Go grab a latte on the weekend, keep an open mind and talk.

3. Ask for what you need.
This is one is tough. I am much better at doing it ALL by myself while getting more and more pissed off at him for just sitting there. "I want him to want to do the dishes!" If you don't know what quote I am referring to you HAVE to watch this clip. Please! I've never been more serious about anything. (But I want you to WANT to watch it. Don't just do it because I just begged you).

You see, many men are just NOT wired this way. Sometimes I feel like I do everything. Why can't HE see that the kids need to be fed or that the floor needs to be vacuumed or the dishwasher needs to be emptied? Why do I have to ASK him to do these things for OUR family? BECAUSE I DO. BECAUSE I DESERVE TO BE HAPPY. It's just part of the gig. I can do them ALL myself and stay pissed -- or I can ask for his help. It's also important to note: When he helps -- I am NOT ALLOWED to correct him, redo it or tell him that he's doing it wrong (a.k.a., not doing it MY way). If I ask for his help, I've got to accept the help that he offers.

4. Make sure to take care of you.
One person can't be your everything. That is too much responsibility for another person and leaves too much empty inside you. You are in charge of you -- and here's the thing -- you are not a burden. You are a life. You are an adventure. You must have other outlets and friends and hobbies that give you the things that you need to be the person you want to be. You were your own complete person before you met your spouse and it's important that you don't ever let that person slip away. The more robust your life, the happier you are. The happier you are, the better your relationship will be.


My husband Michael and I before our weekly counseling session. It's exhausting and the hardest yet most important part of my week.

5. Hire professionals,
If your toilet broke you'd go to a plumber. If you were sick, you'd go to a doctor. So when your marriage is hurting, go to counseling. We don't know it all and sometimes we can't do it on our own. Don't wait until you're beyond angry and frustrated. You deserve a happy and healthy relationship and chances are you've tried everything you could yet it still isn't better. Going to relationship counseling isn't a declaration that your relationship is doomed, it simply shows that it is worth working on. It isn't something to be ashamed over. Be proud and remember your pledge to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.

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When This Mom Couldn't Find What She Needed To Help Her Autistic Daughter, She Created A Site That Could

marlo thomas"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us—that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about Julie Azuma – a successful designer who found a way to help her autistic daughter’s developmental progress –and ended up helping thousands of other autistic children in the process."—Marlo, MarloThomas.com

What Julie Azuma remembers most from her baby’s first year is a sense of bewilderment and despair. A successful designer in the apparel industry, Julie was past 40 when she and her husband adopted an infant from Korea.

And things weren’t going well. Baby Miranda would scream and scream, and she couldn’t be soothed. She wasn’t reaching her developmental milestones on time either—didn’t sit up on her own, didn’t walk well, didn’t talk at all.

When it became clear that the issues were ongoing, Julie took Miranda to a series of pediatricians, neurologists, psychiatrists, and speech-and-language pathologists, all in search of answers that didn’t come. “They said she had speech and developmental delays; they said it was because of the adoption; they said a lot of different things,” Julie says with a sigh. “They never said she had autism.”

Miranda didn’t demonstrate autism’s defining symptom, which is failure to make eye contact. By the time she was six years old and still not talking, however, it was clear to everyone that something was very wrong. Julie and her husband had adopted a second child, Sophie, who was developing just fine. But even at a special-education preschool, Miranda was not progressing.

“Miranda was six and a half before she was diagnosed, and by that time, sadly, it was tough to change her trajectory,” says Julie. Today we know that early, intense therapy can make a tremendous difference in how an autistic child develops, but for Miranda the opportunity seemed lost.

Not about to give up on her daughter, Julie started her research, which was a lot harder in the days before Google. “But I found a book called Let Me Hear Your Voice, which led me to a parent movement that advocated using Applied Behavior Analysis.” Now a standard therapy, ABA was then a largely unknown method for teaching language and social skills to children with autism. “This ABA method was the one thing that gave us parents hope.”

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Julie Azuma
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