Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Goodbye Kevin and Elmo

Today's headlines, interspersed with news on Gaza, Syria, and various other news points, was interrupted with news that would devastate my boys if they understood:  Kevin Clash has resigned from Sesame Street.  It appears that the scandal of a false accusation and another accusation being filed against him has become a distraction for him and for Sesame Workshop, so he resigned.  As Sesame Workshop's blog stated, it is a sad day for Sesame Street.

I have never been a huge fan of Elmo, as I have always resented him for taking the place of Kermit the Frog, of whom I have very fond memories.  And with the advent of Elmo, Sesame Street changed it's format significantly.  It became more targeted, more focused, almost laser-like in it's educational mandate, but leaving some of the fun muppet skits that I enjoyed when I was very young.  But, I figured, it was up to them and how kids would learn best.

When I had kids, I was hesitant to have them watch Sesame Street, because it was so different then I remembered.  But watching it with them, I understood what they were learning.  I saw what Kevin had done with Elmo, and why he was so popular.  I saw the educational vision of Sesame Workshop, and was very impressed.

Over the years, we have gotten several toys with Elmo's voice, many of which have been relegated to storage or to thrift stores because our kids have grown out of them.  But they haven't grown out of Sesame Street, which has been a huge contributor to their education.  And now, it is less.

Not less in the sense that Sesame Street will suffer from Kevin's departure monetarily, or even in their vision.  Sesame Street lost it's creator in the 80's, and managed to continue to grow into a powerful educational provider to the world.  Sesame Street is also not less in it's vision, as they will continue with purpose to educate our children.  No, it will be less because Elmo, who has become a whole generation's symbol of education, acceptance, and curiosity, will be either phased out or replaced by another puppeteer.  Kevin is no longer there, no longer Elmo, and for that, it will be less.

I wish Kevin all the best as he works through his private life, and I hope it will remain just that, private. I hope that Sesame Street will give him a proper send-off, perhaps by helping children understand what happens when a friend moves away (like Elmo).  It will make it less traumatic for the kids, and perhaps help everyone cope with the loss of the little red monster who was friends with everyone.

Kevin, you will be missed.  Thank you for your work, for your efforts, and your positive influence on the lives of my children.  I wish you all the best.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Vaccine Studies and Autism: Which are Accurate?

Article first published as Vaccine Studies and Autism: Which are Accurate? on Technorati.
Two boys with autism sit on a bench.Recently an article published in the Examiner brought up the old "vaccines may cause autism" argument by questioning the authenticity of the Danish autism and vaccine study. The article alleges fraud on the part of the Danish research group by not disclosing the decrease in Danish instances of autism after usage of mercury in vaccines stopped.

The argument that vaccines and autism correlate has been hashed out again and again, often to the point of absurdity, with proponents of both sides being dead set that they are right and the rest of the world is conspiring against them. Personally, (bias revealed), I am inclined to believe that vaccines have little if anything to do with autism rates due to the increased evidence linked to Biology and genetics. Still, I ran through a lot of research to get my facts right, and realized there are several published studies trying to link autism to vaccines and mercury poisoning, or trying to disprove the study.

So which is right? How can you know which study to believe, and which to approach with healthy doses of salt? Well, as I'm not an MD, biologist, neurochemist, or biochemist, I have to rely on others to review the materials and report their findings.

One way to do that is to check the citations. Often a study will be cited for two reasons: either it was so good that everyone wants to show it as a foundation to their research, or it was so bad that it is used as an example of a disagreeing study that conflicts with your findings because of it's poor execution. That means that based on citation alone, you can't trust a published research study. Nope, you need to rely on critical research reviews.

Critical reviews takes a sampling of research data and reviews their findings. They review based on several criteria, such as how well the study can be reproduced, the rigor of the data accumulation, the margin of error in the statistical number crunching, etc. While not publishing new content themselves, these reviews serve as a critical baseline for existing research to determine what is good science, and what needs more work.

Based on this understanding of a critical review, I dug one up on autism, thimerosal, vaccines, and causation for review. The results found that those studies that supported a link between thimerosal and autism were poorly executed and difficult to reproduce, while those that found little to no link between vaccines containing thimerosal and an increase in autism.

Now, granted, this is not a perfect way to determine a cause for autism, hence the reason why no single cause has been found. But it is a great way to see a trend in the research, determine which research is more promising in it's results, and which research is employing accurate, scientific methods to reach their conclusions. That being said, new research is being done every day, and it can only help us better understand such a complex and baffling condition as autism.

But, ultimately, discovering a "cause" doesn't help children on the spectrum much in the short term. Sure, it's nice to know, but those individuals that have it will still need the resources available to help them learn and grow, to become better contributors to society. So, while it's nice to know a cause, I think it's better to know how to help those in need now.

Monday, November 19, 2012

NaNoWriMo: A Brain-Bending Exercise

This month is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I have yet again taken up the challenge.  For those not familiar with the challenge, you are to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  That equates to roughly 1,700 words a day.  Doesn't sound like it would be all the difficult, does it?  Well, imagine that the average blog post that I've read comes in between 500 to 1,000 words.  The average tweet is about 10 to 20 words, and the average sound bite used in news broadcasts is about 5 to 10 words (averages and research done by author, and not in a scientific manner).

Now think of your average novel.  Good novels, the ones that get published and have a great following, leading to movie deals and thousands of die-hard fans that name their children after characters in your books, take years to develop, write, and refine.  Some may only take a year or so, some decades.  It's all about turning the phrase, gripping the reader, and drawing them in.  And, unless you are some kind of literary genius, it cannot be done well in a month.

So why bother?  Because a good first draft requires a complete story from beginning to end (at least in my case), so that you can look at it in it's entirety, and make the necessary changes to fix it.  That, and sometimes it's just fun to see if you can write a story in the given amount of time and have it worth reading.  To date, I haven't done such a thing.  Even after spending months of prep work building a scaffold of back story (a la Rowling or Tolkien), outlining the story, and getting to know my characters.

This time I thought I would approach the story as a way to explore a wish or a dream, and place that wish or dream in the belly of a huge problem.  In this case, I have always wanted to live on a boat (or have a boat that could be lived on for long, cruising voyages).  The problem is, the world just ended, and now all I have is my boat.  What to do?

Anyway, the fun is working through various plot points and possibilities while writing the story.  It takes a lot of focus, and a lot of research to make sure it's accurate.  The nice thing is once it's down on "paper", it's easily edited, searched for, and recalled when needed.

So, now that I have decided to write the novel, what tools have I been using?  Well, I've been burned before by losing files, trying to move them back and forth from multiple computers, and now I have an iPhone or iPad I can use as well, how do I write on those tools when I'm not in front of my computer?  Here is a list of tools I use:

  1. iCloud:  First and foremost I use iCloud.  I don't want to come up to my iPad and see that my son has deleted the whole thing, or accidentally wash my jump drive.  I also want to have offline access to the file, and have it update once I'm back online.  iCloud is a great tool for that, and it's supported by my favorite editor.  
  2. Dropbox:  I spent a week writing, backing up to Dropbox, and then the unthinkable happened:  my phone editor removed 7,000 words from my story, as it updated from what it had before it pulled from the cloud.  Fortunately, Dropbox has a restore feature online, so I was able to get it back.  From then on I kept two copies of my story:  One on iCloud, and one on Dropbox.  Two cloud based backups helps me sleep better at night. 
  3. iA Writer:  My editor I use is iA Writer.  It's one of those "Just get out of my face and let me write" apps.  I purchased it for my Mac and for my iOS devices, and I have just loved it.  It supports both iCloud and Dropbox on both platforms, so I have access to both copies, just in case.  
  4. Bing:  I have been slowly and deliberately moving away from Google based items.  Not because I hold any animosity toward Google, but rather because I'm concerned how much control I have allowed them in my tech life.  That control has been strained, as Google kills web apps that I have used for years.  As such, I started using Bing as my search engine (though I still use Google Scholar).  For basic information about Avalon on Santa Catalina Island to research in pneumatic robots and atomic sterling engines, Bing has been a champ.  
Well, that's about it!  Using these tools, I've managed to write (to date) a 28,000 page half-novel that is working it's way to completion.  Based on my current rate of completion, I could very well finish my novel in time.  

So for all of you who are working on your novels during this time, I salute you!  For those of you who have not tried writing a novel in such a constrained manner, I recommend trying it.  It exercises the mind, keeps your story-telling skills nimble, and could possibly be the catalyst for the next Twilight, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings series.  And if not, at least you can say you did it.  And that feeling of accomplishment can be worth a lot. 

And for those who don't fancy writing a lot this month, it is also Movember, or the month to grow a mustache, provided your significant other doesn't mind a scratchy cookie-duster in their kiss. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Autism and Floorplay with Your Kids

Article first published as Autism and Floor Play with Your Kids on Technorati.
Mother and son with autism watching a Lemon Shark from the entrance at Sea World San Diego's Shark Encounter.One of the interesting behaviors that both my sons tend to exhibit that is unique to most children with autism is their relative willingness to socialize. My oldest child had a friend at his last school, and likes to play with other kids he knows. He loved playing with his cousins, as did my youngest son. Yet this is unique to children on the spectrum, as most find it difficult to socialize, even with their parents.

I hadn't thought much about it, because in our home we get down on the floor and play quite a bit with our kids. I remember when my oldest was a lot younger (shortly after he was diagnosed), he would often lose interest when we played. Now he can't wait, often tackling me when I sit down, just to right on my back. The difference is that I would play a lot with him, trying to get him to give me eye contact. I would sit and tickle him, praise him for giving eye contact, and tickle him again. We went the rounds quite a bit, and he still loves to be tickled.

Apparently, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Children who received the Early Start Denver Model therapy saw a significant change in their brain functions relating to normal social behavior, normalizing those functions to coincide with the control group. The study was well done, and fascinating to read.

Of course, this begs the question: what is the Early Start Denver Model, and what does it have to do with playing with your kids? Well, the Denver Model is a version of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy that takes the therapy to the floor with the child. Parents can quickly learn to use this method to help their children, and it all comes from integrating play with the therapy. I'm sure there is a lot more that goes along with it, but the core is teaching while playing. Early Start Denver Model is specifically designed for those children between the ages of 12 and 48 months to help them while their brain is developing.

So it seems that while I was playing with my son, I was implementing, at least in a rudimentary form, the Denver Model to help his development. From that period he gained some pretty impressive skills for his age at the time, and they have helped him as he goes through school now.

How did I get the idea for playing with the kids all the time in order to reinforce behavior? Well, my parents did the same thing while we were younger. I knew what to focus on because the psychologist that evaluated our oldest had told us, "work on his eye contact". So that's what we did, and apparently it worked.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Special Needs and the Magic Kingdom

Article first published as Special Needs and the Magic Kingdom on Technorati.

Family picture with EyoreSeveral parents have talked about their experiences taking their child with autism to Disneyland. Some parents have shared their experiences and advice which I have always found helpful. In fact, I've posted about this previously myself. But I really wanted to share my recent experience.

Last weekend we went to Disneyland and California Adventures with extended family. On the last day for the extended family, we went to Cars Land. While their kids were in (a very long) line to have their pictures taken with Lightning McQueen, we went around the corner from the Cozy Cone to have our son's picture taken with Red, the fire engine.

While in line, witnessed something amazing that sort of outlines why we go to Disneyland every year. A young lady with special needs, all dressed up, went right up to red and gave him a hug (at least as best as she could). The character assistant had a huge smile, the cameraman was snapping pictures like crazy. I started to tear up. She took a good 5 minutes or so to interact with Red, and Red responded back (I'm still not sure how they do that, I think their might be someone inside the vehicles). It was awesome.

Disney, with their theme parks, cast members, hotels, vacations, etc. seem to have this policy that every experience with Disney needs to be magical for everyone. It doesn't matter who you are or what your abilities are, they treat everyone as special guests. And it's infectious, as many guests try to keep that same tenor that makes Disneyland the happiest place on Earth.

My own experience comes from hearing my sons' excited squeals as we go from place to place. They both dance for joy, run to the characters they love so well from countless shorts, and give each one a hug. And the characters even play with them! It's heartwarming to know there is always one place they can just be themselves, and enjoy such a crowded, public place.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wandering and Autism: A Parent's Perspective

Article first published as Wandering and Autism: A Parent's Perspective on Technorati.
Boy wandering at SeaWorld.The morning after we moved into our town home in San Diego, we started unpacking. The kids were playing both upstairs and down stairs, exploring the new home. After a few minutes, I looked up and asked my wife where our youngest was. We started looking in all the rooms, but he was no where to be seen.

Now frantic, I ran outside in my bare feet and checked the fire exit, and it was open. Our youngest had squeezed through the small opening at the fire escape, and climbed down the stairs. I ran up and down the back side of the complex, but couldn't find him. Then a police officer drove up and asked if I was looking for a child. They had found him down the street, walking in the middle of the road (thank goodness it was early on a Sunday morning!).

While both our boys have bolted before, this was the first time our youngest had bolted without our knowing. It was particularly frightening because we didn't know anyone in the area, our son didn't know the area, and it happened when we were certain that the town home was secured. We have since fixed the issue, but it remains a fear.

USA Today reported a study conducted by the Interactive Autism Network Project and published in the journal Pediatrics that finds 46% of children with autism have wandered, bolted, or eloped, and 49% had done it at least once after age 4 when bolting is no longer supposed to be that common.

Wandering is a very dangerous problem that threatens those on the autism spectrum because they often have close calls with traffic or come in danger of drowning. It's frightening for parents, frightening for the children, and you get some very interesting questions from the police when you don't carry your ID in your pajama pocket.

Ways to resolve bolting include double lock deadbolts, so a key is required to enter and leave the house. This works great, until your child figures out the right key, where it is, and how to get it. Alarms are also very common, both on the doors and on your children. The doors are more common, though if you have people coming in and out regularly, it defeats the purpose. Proximity alarms on your child work well, assuming they are willing to keep their transmitter on their person (my son is quick to find those things and take them off).

There are a things you can do as a parent, but it really helps to have the community behind you. I was very grateful for three officers in San Diego that Sunday morning that helped me locate my son and bring him home. Once I told them he had Autism, they then understood why he was so feisty (their word), and why he was unable to tell them who he was and where we were. And it served as a very dramatic reminder to us how important it is to make sure all avenues have been properly accounted.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Living in San Diego: Two Week Milestone

It is now two weeks since we have moved the entire family to San Diego, and I thought I would report on the progress so far.

First, the town home in which we have moved is now put together, and feels like a home. Pictures are up, boxes have been sent to recycling, and furniture has been placed. The boys are very familiar with every inch of our town home, and have settled in nicely.

Because of space restrictions, the boys have a bunk bed, with our youngest sleeping on the top bunk. Both boys like their bed, and have spent quite a bit of time playing in their room (though not as much as I would like). Their room is small, but big enough for their needs, as it also means we needed to trim back on the toys they had.

Crookshanks, our cat, hasn't been so relaxed in years. She loves every bit of the town home, including the neighbor's parakeets across the courtyard. She has a couple favorite spots to sit, the most common being on the landing between the two flights to the top floor.

The boys are loving school. Jonathan will come home from school (he gets out at 2:00), and after being home for a while will grab his backpack and wants to head out again. He doesn't want to stay home when he has his school so close. Luckily, if it gets urgent, the public library is just around the corner.

Scotty loves his preschool class. In fact, he loves it so much he doesn't fuss when Kristal drops him off anymore. He did for a little bit at first, but he has gotten better since. Both boys have to get used to getting out of school early (or not going to school for Scott) on Wednesdays instead of Fridays.

Kristal is settling in well so far without having to go to work. She put the house together within 2 weeks of moving everything in, so efficiently in fact that I was surprised she was able to get everything in. She also has a number of other projects to keep her attention, and she is finally has time to read.

Work has been exciting and new for me. Currently I'm working on video and audio recordings to produce and release online training for an Introduction to the Macintosh class. It's been an interesting exercise trying to find a quiet place to record audio in a call center, but I've managed to find one training room that is quiet enough. The work has been rewarding, challenging, and exciting.

So that's the progress so far. The beach has been fun, the weather different, and all and all it's been a great experience. I'm excited to see what comes in the future. For now, I'm just going to enjoy being with my family.