Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Giving Thanks

Everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving for its wonderful food, family get-togethers and exciting football games.  Thanksgiving is also a time to reflect on the previous year(s) and to be grateful for the people who have bettered our lives. 

Today's blog will focus on why I am thankful this year.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am grateful that I have a wonderful family.  My wife and young adult children have helped me create an indoor "playground" where families can have fun while improving their fitness together, and I am lucky that my family shares my dream of helping special needs children maximize their physical potential.  In fact, many of you have met my family members in the gym as they assist families during Open Gyms on Friday nights, Open Houses and play with the children during special events.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize and thank my Fitness for Health family.  I have the best staff, and my fitness trainers and occupational and physical therapists are not only experts in their fields, but share my dedication to our local community.  Their innovative and creative approach to fitness has helped kids - and adults - of all ages and abilities enjoy the benefits of physical activity while conquering their fear of trying new activities. 

I am also thankful for you - my Fitness for Health friends.  As many of you know, a few years ago, our facility experienced damage from a building fire and it took us almost a year to rebuild our gym.  We tried to take the tragedy in stride and used the opportunity to make Fitness for Health's facility even better.  Due to your children's comments and suggestions, we are now the only glow-in-the-dark, kids' fitness facility in the Washington, D.C, area that offers rock climbing, exergaming and a laser maze.  And, recently, we have added occupational and physical therapies to our list of family amenities to create a timesaving, one-stop-shop for family seeking multiple services. 

During this time of giving gratitude, I'd like to thank you again for your continued support and patronage.

From our Fitness for Health family to yours, I wish each of you a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving!

For more information about Fitness for Health, visit www.FitnessForHealth.org.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Holiday Stress Busters for Parents of Autistic Children
One of the happiest – and most stressful – times of the year is right around the corner.  Although the Holidays are known as the time of the year when families get together to catch up, dine and tell one another how much they care for each other, the Holidays also bring cramped parking at the malls, endless shopping to find the best deals on the hottest toys and trying to find the time to clean and decorate the house before out-of-town family arrives.  Oh, did I forget to mention sleep? 
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas can provide memories that last a lifetime, but, if your life is already stressful, the Holidays can become overwhelming.
In honor of the upcoming holiday season, I’d like to take this opportunity to give parents of autistic children a few ideas to beat seasonal stress.
·         The Holidays are a time of marvels and sensations.  Connect to your sense of wonder.  Does your child find peace in the tranquility of looking at holiday lights?  Try the Garden of Lights at Brookside Gardens where kids can walk quietly to admire the light displays if they need time for inner reflection or can run through the gardens if they need physical activity to regulate themselves.  This family favorite can be as quiet or as loud as your child needs.  Let’s face it.  If your children are happy and having fun, you’ll be less stressed and can take time to enjoy the seasonal lights too.
·         Keep track of holiday schedules.  Families’ day-to-day schedules are hectic, but adding holiday recitals, family dinners and school parties can be stressful for everyone.  Keep a calendar displaying events for each family member.  This will help children to mentally prepare for the outing and will also help you limit activities.  If your calendar is becoming too much to handle for you and your child, don’t feel guilty about declining invitations.  Instead of trying to pack three parties into one day, clear your schedule for a night and stay home to play a family game or watch a movie.  Nothing can help you feel better about your family’s holiday season than to watch America’s favorite, dysfunctional family, the Griswalds, in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
·         Know that you’re not alone.  Many families of autistic children find that speaking to parents of other special needs children gives them much needed support and a sounding wall for ideas. Check out these organizations that offer family services and support groups – Autism Speaks, The Autism Society of America, The National Autism Center and the National Autism Association.  Additionally, visit these resources on Facebook to learn about community events, family meet-ups in your area or share your personal experiences – AutMont, Autism Discussion Page, Autism Sparks, Autism: Different, Not Less and Autism Awareness.  If you live in the Washington, D.C., area, join this great parent group – Maryland Moms of Autistic Children.
·         Define success for your family.  Every family doesn’t have to have a Martha Stewart holiday season with a perfectly trimmed tree, beautiful buffet centerpieces and songs happily sung by an open fire.  Don’t place undue stress on yourself and your family by trying to live up to unrealistic expectations that you place upon yourself.  As long as your family has fun and shares a few laughs, the Holidays will be a great success!
I want to wish you and your family a wonderful Thanksgiving and holiday season.  And, I hope you join me at this blog for lively discussions and ideas to bring fun and happiness to your families.
For additional resources for special needs families, visit www.FitnessForHealth.org.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Heart Healthy Holiday Eating

Thanksgiving is only a few days away and it’s time to start thinking about our holiday eating habits.

The holiday temptation of cookies, cake, pie and sweets begins at Thanksgiving and doesn’t end until after the new year when many people vow to lose weight as part of their New Year’s Resolutions.

A new study published in Journal of the American Medical Association gives us yet another reason to eat healthy and avoid obesity this Holiday season. 

People with an irregular heart rhythm could see an improvement in symptoms if they lose weight in addition to managing their other heart risks, says the new study.  Researchers found that people who steadily lost more than 30 pounds and kept their other health conditions in check saw greater improvements in atrial fibrillation symptoms than those who just managed their other health conditions without trying to lose weight. 

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a type of rhythm disorder affecting the heart's upper chambers.  It can be caused by a number of issues - including heart attacks, infections and heart valve problems.  Obesity is a risk factor for AF, as are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Is it possible to eat “heart healthy” at Thanksgiving dinner and eat well?  Yes!

·       Control your portion size.  How much you eat is just as important as what you eat. Overloading your plate, taking seconds and eating until you feel stuffed can lead to eating more calories, fat and cholesterol than you should.

·       Understand serving sizes. A serving size is a specific amount of food, defined by common measurements such as cups, ounces, or pieces—and a healthy serving size may be a lot smaller than you’re used to.  Remember this at the buffet - the recommended serving size for pasta is ½ cup, while a serving of meat, fish, or chicken is 2 to 3 ounces (57-85 grams).

·       Eat more fruits and veggies.  Vegetables and fruits are good sources of vitamins and minerals. Vegetables and fruits are also low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Vegetables and fruits contain substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eating more fruits and vegetables may help you eat less high-fat foods, such as meat, cheese and snack foods at the holiday party.

·       Limit unhealthy fats.  The best way to reduce trans fats in your diet is to limit the amount of solid fats — butter, margarine and shortening — you consume. You can also reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by trimming the fat off your holiday steak.

·       Change your holiday habits. The best way to avoid saturated fats is to change your lifestyle practices. Instead of chips, snack on fruit or vegetables as hors d’oeuvres. 

As the Holidays approach, be realistic. Now is probably not the best time to start a diet.  Instead, try to maintain your current weight and make a promise to lose any extra pounds after the Holidays. 

Plan time for exercise. Exercise helps relieve holiday stress and prevents weight gain.  A moderate and daily increase in exercise can help partially offset increased holiday eating. Try 10- or 15-minute brisk walks twice a day.

Most importantly, enjoy the Holidays with your family and friends and make healthy eating choices without denying yourself your favorite foods in the buffets!

To learn how Fitness for Health can help you make time for exercise this season, please visit www.FitnessForHealth.org or call 301-231-7138.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bullying in the Special Needs Community

As I wrote about earlier this week in my blog, bullying – whether face-to-face, nasty notes, harassing cell phone voicemails or cyber – has become an epidemic. 

There are numerous statistics about childhood bullying and its growth in the computer age.  We know with certainty that bullying of children with disabilities is significant but, unfortunately, there has been very little research to document the harassment of this population segment. 

Only 10 U.S. studies have been conducted on the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, but all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers.  According to PACER’S National Bullying Prevention Center, one study has shown that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly compared with 25 percent of total students.

This should be disheartening to each of us and should act as a wake-up call to government legislators, educators and parents.

Because bullying involves an imbalance of physical or psychological power, students with disabilities are especially vulnerable and frequently targeted.  For example, in the fall of 2009, responses to a Massachusetts Advocates for Children online survey asked about the extent of bullying against children on the autism spectrum.  Nearly 90 percent of parents responded that their children had been bullied. These findings are applicable to most students with disabilities.

All children deserve to feel safe in school.  The Federation for Children with Special Needs lists a few ways parents can support a special needs child who is being bullied:

  • Tell your child that this is not his or her fault, and that your child did nothing wrong.
  • Gently emphasize that above all, your child should not retaliate or attempt to fight or hit the bully.
  • Role-play ignoring the bully or walking away.
  • With your child, make a list of adults in school he or she can go to for help, such as counselors or administrators.
  • Arrange for him or her to see friends on the weekends, and plan fun activities with the family.

Children and young adults with learning disabilities and special needs are undoubtedly at increased risk of being bullied.  And, unfortunately, a person’s disability can make it difficult to identify the type of bullying that is occurring. It is important for both teachers and parents to take the time to clearly define and describe bullying behaviors for children with disabilities, so they can identify bullying and notify adults if they experience or witness bullying.

We, as a society, have somehow moved away from teaching our children about empathy and compassion. We, as parents and educators, have moved far away from teaching kids that, just because someone is different, it does not mean that they are a target to bully and tease.
We need to relearn and re-emphasize respect and human decency for everyone. It is every parent and educator’s responsibility to speak to our kids about why some people are different and answer any questions that they have openly and honestly.  Only then, we may have the opportunity to create happier and healthier kids at school and less bullying.

Visit us at www.FitnessForHealth.org to learn more about our therapeutic services for the special needs community.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Warning Signs of Bullying

Within the last week, bullying has again been in the national news.  Although, the unusual aspect to this story is that it involves professional athletes from the Miami Dolphins.

Rookie Jonathan Martin received numerous racist voicemails that allegedly came from one of his teammates, fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito.  Martin decided to quit the team in order to make the harassment stop.  The unfortunate part is that he never told his coaches the real reason that he left the team. (His agent contacted the Dolphins after he quit.)  Martin was worried that complaining about being bullied might damage his NFL career and lead to retribution.

If a professional athlete is scared to tell his team management that he is being harassed, how can we expect children to tell their parents when they are being bullied at school, on the playground or on their sports teams?  Parents and caregivers need to recognize the warning signs. 

To ensure our children remain safe from bullying, I want to share these tips from StopBullying.gov.

Signs a Child is Being Bullied

Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs.  Some signs that may point to a bullying problem are: 

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide.  If your child is feeling hopeless, helpless or knows someone who is, please call the LIFELINE at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
If you have determined bullying has occurred, learn how you and school or community officials can work together to support your child - whether the child has been bullied or witnessed bullying.   Also, learn about considerations for specific groups.

Bullying is a serious issue that needs children, parents, educators and community officials to combat and de-stigmatize. 

For additional tips concerning how to prevent bullying, visit www.StopBullying.gov.

For additional information concerning Fitness for Health, visit www.FitnessForHealth.org.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Social Thinking

Yesterday, I participated in an email conversation with parents of Autistic children.  One of the main concerns of parents was their children making friends.  I thought this would be a great topic for today’s blog.  So, today, I will discuss the foundation of social skills and making friends – social thinking. 
In the past, I have attended Michelle Garcia Winner’s “Social Thinking® Across the Home and School Day” seminar.  The focus of the conversation concerned what encompasses social thinking and its role in daily conversation.
What is social thinking?  Generally, it is the ability to consider your own and others’ thoughts, emotions and beliefs to help interpret and respond to the information in your mind – and possibly through your social and behavioral interactions.
For example, when meeting someone for the first time, it is polite to look the person in the eyes and introduce yourself. 
This seems natural and second nature, right?  Not necessarily.  From the time children are born, they mimic adults’ social interactions and learn how to effectively share space.  Although, some children can decipher “hidden agendas” in conversations and understand underlying social mores, some need more explicit social direction.
Does this sound familiar?  Have you ever seen a child walk over to a pregnant woman and ask “Why are you fat?”   Although deemed cute if the child is elementary school-aged, it is less endearing if the child is a teenager.
It is important to remember that social skills increase significantly in nuance and sophistication with age.  Some children’s “errors” are due to the fact that they simply don’t recognize the rules have changed.  These children need additional guidance in adapting their behavior effectively based on the situation and what they know about the people involved.  This assistance will help illicit the reaction and response that are the social mores.
This topic is wonderfully thought provoking and always leaves me with a few “To-Do’s.”  As a fitness trainer working with special needs children, how can I help them develop the ability to empathize and better interpret/respond to social interactions?  As an instructor, how can I better lead by social example?
How can we as parents become better communicators and teach our children how to use social thinking to make new friends?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Dangers of Wandering in Autistic Children

I created Fitness for Health more than 25 years ago to help special needs children maximize their physical potential and, through that time, the Autistic community and local special needs parents have become like a second family to me.  So, today my blog will focus on a very important topic and one that is close to heart - the dangers of Autistic children wandering off.

There has been a lot of news coverage in recent months about Autistic children wandering away from their homes and schools.  One case still receiving much needed publicity is Avonte Oquendo, a non-verbal, Autistic 14-year-old boy who walked out of his school in Long Island, NY, last month.  Unfortunately, Avonte is still missing.

A 2012 study published in the journal, Pediatrics, confirms what parents of Autistic children already know too well - wandering by children with autism is commonplace.  Using parent surveys, the researchers found that nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) attempt to wander or bolt from a safe, supervised place. More than half of these wandering children go missing – often into dangerous situations.

To ensure our children remain safe - especially now that the weather is turning colder - and avert further tragedies for parents, I want to share these tips from Approach Autism with Advocacy, Recovery & Education (AAWARE).

Six Tips to Help Prevent Wandering and Wandering-Related Tragedies
From AWAARE: Autism Wandering Awareness Alerts Response Education Coalition

1. Secure Your Home.  Consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company or home improvement professional to promote safety and prevention in your home. You may find it is necessary to prevent your loved one from slipping away unnoticed by installing secure dead bolt locks that require keys on both sides, a home security alarm system, inexpensive battery-operated alarms on doors, placing hook and eye locks on all doors above your child's reach, fencing your yard, adhering printable STOP SIGNS to doors, windows and other exits, etc.

2. Consider a Tracking Device.  Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver or LoJak SafetyNet services. These tracking devices are worn on the wrist or ankle and locate the individual through radio frequency. Various GPS tracking systems are also available.

3. Consider an ID Bracelet.  Medical ID bracelets will include your name, telephone number and other important information. They may also state that your child has autism and is non-verbal if applicable. If your child will not wear a bracelet or necklace, consider a temporary tattoo with your contact information. 

4. Teach Your Child to Swim.  Swimming lessons for children with special needs are available at many YMCA locations. The final lesson should be with clothes on. Remember: teaching your child how to swim does not mean your child is safe in water. If you own a pool, fence it and if neighbors have pools, let them know of these safety precautions and your child's tendency to wander. Remove all toys or items of interest from the pool when not in use.

5. Alert Your Neighbors.  It is recommended that caregivers plan a brief visit with neighbors to introduce their loved or provide a photograph. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering. See the caregiver tool kit below for resources to use to alert them. 

6. Alert First Responders.  Providing first responders with key information before an incident occurs may improve response. Informational handouts should include all pertinent information and be copied and carried with caregivers at all times. Circulate the handout to family, neighbors, friends and co-workers, as well as first responders. Click here for resources to use to alert them. 

I hope these resources help to keep our children safe and secure.  Please keep Avonte and his family in your thoughts.