November is National Family Caregivers Month, it is a time to recognize and honor caregivers across the country. Did you know that there are over 65 million Americans caring for aging and disabled loved ones in the US? My son, Nick has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). We are very fortunate to have wonderful caregivers to support him. This allows us to work, get out and enjoy activities outside the home.
The needs of individuals with DS-ASD are complex and behaviors can be challenging. It can easily burn out family members trying to manage it all alone. Families can access funding for respite care by checking to see if their state has a Medicaid waiver or other programs for individuals with a disability.
I want to honor the amazing caregivers who work with our son, Nick. He enjoys their company at home and out in the community. The Medicaid home and community based service plan here in Illinois pays personal support workers who also work on goals for Nick to keep up with his skills and communication.
As I mentioned earlier, Nick enjoys their company. On many occasions he will grab pictures of the caregivers out of his Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) book and hand them to me. A PECS book helps Nick to communicate his wants, needs and feelings. Individuals with DS-ASD can benefit from using pictures to express themselves. It is very evident that Nick loves each of them and they have all become part of our family.
Thank you to Miss R., Jodi, Kelsey and Lisa for your love and support. We praise all that you do for Nick and our family. We honor you this month and every day of the year! That’s what is in my noggin this week.
Blog #240~October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. My son, Nick is 27 years old and has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). As a parent, writer and advocate, my mission is to educate others to better understand more about Down syndrome and autism. Down syndrome awareness is about promoting understanding, acceptance and inclusion of all individuals with Down syndrome in all aspects of our society.
Here’s how YOU can promote Down syndrome awareness and acceptance:
🙂 Post information and stories about individuals with Down syndrome on your social media platforms. You can follow many inspiring individuals on Facebook and Instagram like Nick at #Down Syndrome with a Slice of Autism. Here are a few of my favorites:#noahsdaddotcom #calebs_crew #brittanysbaskets #chrisnikic #dsdn #chucklesandmeatloaf #nothingdownaboutit #sean_from_born_this_way #troymadeit #abigail_the_advocate #theluckyfew #aceismyfriend
🙂 If you are a parent of a child with Down syndrome, send updates, pictures and tell your story to your family doctor and OB/GYN. Consider becoming a Hope Advocate-You will get a custom hope kit to distribute to your OB/GYN and family doctor. More information @ https://hopestory.org/sign-up/
🙂 Your local Down syndrome support groups have promotional materials, like books and bookmarks that can be distributed at libraries and schools.
🙂 Down syndrome support groups have public speakers available to talk with schools, businesses, community groups, hospitals, and other organizations.
🙂 Encourage your kids to volunteer for Special Olympics and Best Buddies programs through their school.
🙂 Use and promote “person first language” to respectively speak about a person with a disability. Individuals with Down syndrome should always be referred to as people first. Instead of “a Down syndrome child,” it should be “a child with Down syndrome.” Also avoid “Down’s child” and describing the condition as “Down’s,” as in, “He has Down’s.”
🙂 My book A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism is helping so many readers understand both Down syndrome and a co-occurring Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). It’s available on Amazon, plus there are share buttons you can utilize for social media to help spread awareness. Order and donate a copy to your local library @ https://amzn.to/2W3Un6X
Thank you for supporting and sharing all about Down syndrome awareness this month! That’s what is in my noggin this week.
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Blog #239~Back to School Tips for DS-ASD Families in 2021
As the 2021-2022 School year approaches after a lengthy Covid-19 lockdown, many families feel anxiety about returning to school. Families who have a child with a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD) have additional challenges and needs to consider.
My name is Teresa Unnerstall, I am a DS-ASD parent, consultant and author of A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism. My son Nick is 27 years old and my passion is to help families, educators, therapists, medical professionals and anyone interested in supporting individuals with co-occurring DS-ASD.
This week, I want to offer some practical tips to help families ease back to school. Whether you are in person or remote, the goal should be a smooth transition for students.
Here are my 10 Back to School Tips:
1. Prepare the student with a visual countdown calendar, and re-instate morning/evening routines before school starts.
2. Tour the school with your child. Then, create a social story or video social story of the school settings and staff that the student will be interacting with. Review this several times before school starts.
3. At the tour, whether it’s in person or virtual, ask the teacher to show you the Covid-19 safety precautions, accommodations and equipment that is listed in the IEP to make sure everything is in place.
4. Prepare a student “About Me” profile sheet. There are many templates available online. You can include different sections such as, Things I love, My Strengths, What Works Best for Me, How to best support me, What Doesn’t Work for Me, and Interests. Make several copies to share with the staff.
5. Determine the modes of communication back and forth with the teacher and school staff. Examples include texting, email, communication logs/notebooks and daily report sheets. This is very important as many students with DS-ASD who have language deficits or may be non-verbal.
6. Review the child’s IEP to insure that all goals and accommodations are still relevant. Note any additional needs or concerns you have coming off of the summer break and remote learning. Share these with the staff at school.
7. If the student has a behavior support plan, check to see if this has been shared with all staff and is ready to put in place on day one. Make a list of any new target behaviors that may need to be addressed.
8. If the student uses AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) make sure the teacher and aides are familiar with how to use the program, whether it’s high tech or low tech like a picture exchange system (PECS). You can request a training for staff and parents on how to program devices, navigate tabs and get trained on how to utilize PECS with the school speech and language therapist or school district AAC specialists.
9. Students may have lost skills or experienced regression due to summer break and remote learning due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Evidenced-based practices help students regain lost skills and develop new ones. Some examples are using visuals, schedules, task strips, task analysis, first-then prompts, visual timers, choice boards and sensory breaks.
10. Show your commitment by staying on top of your child’s progress. Ask for data within the first quarter. Data drives decision making for future conferences and IEP meetings. If possible, volunteer at school, (room parent, field trip chaperone, art awareness presenter, book fairs, picture day and assisting with making learning materials like laminating and making copies).
Being prepared, invested and aware of your child’s needs will help them reach their full potential for the new school year. As students re-enter school after a long break, let’s also remember to extend each other some grace, be flexible, and give time and space to establish the new normal, whether you are heading back into the classroom or working remotely.
Blog #238~Autism: Welcome to My Life… Sleep Number is Zero
Autism Acceptance and Awareness Month is winding down, but for countless families living with autism it will continue beyond April, and often includes a sleep number of zero. That is the opening chapter of the book, Welcome to My Life: A Personal Parenting Journey Through Autism by author Laurie Hellman. My son Nick, is 27 years old and has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). I am quite familiar with sleepless nights followed by the fog and exhaustion that comes with autism. But this book is much more than sleepless nights. The author takes you through a journey that is a honest portrayal of what autism is like, often raw but always filled with compassion and love.
What I find refreshing about the book, Welcome to My Life, is that it depicts many of the aspects that families deal with when autism is profound. Author Laurie Hellman, pulls back the curtain and lets you in to see the dents in the walls, the internal, detailed pre-planning before any event outside the home and yes…..the literal shit show, because trust me it happens. I found myself nodding my head, getting teary eyed and laughing, as her stories were so relatable. Laurie’s love and determination for her son mirrors mine. Finally, there are many lessons that Laurie offers in her book:
“Skyler teaches me to be brave, strong and courageous. he’s taught me that when I am tired and feel like giving up, I can keep going.” Laurie Hellman
It was heart wrenching to read about the additional health struggles associated with Laurie’s son, Skyler. I admire how she poured over research and turned over every stone to find answers and treatment to help him. As a mother of a child with autism, I understood the feelings of grief over what might have been. In my book A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism-(https://amzn.to/2W3Un6X) I wrote about all the milestones that my son missed out on, like getting his driver’s license, going to the prom and eventually heading off to college. Did you know parent’s of individuals with autism sometimes find it easier to smile and say everything is fine? Why? Because quite frankly on some days it’s just too much to unpack. When autistic kids can’t process overstimulation it can lead to meltdowns, and as a parent you are right in the path of any collateral damage. Laurie writes about how her son can’t verbally communicate so he may lash out by swatting her arm or smacking her leg…..
“On most days, I think to myself, Does he even like me?” Laurie Hellman
After 27 years of navigating DS-ASD with my son, I have learned the function of such behaviors. I cope, by putting them in the compartment of brain rewired differently with autism. I don’t take it personally, when Nick hits me anymore, because he is mostly non-verbal. I recognize that these behaviors are his means to communicate when he feels overwhelmed and not being heard.
I think that what you will learn from reading books about autism like ours, is that if you met one person with autism…. you met one person with autism. Each is a unique journey, because autism is a spectrum disorder. Autism Acceptance and Awareness Month is about understanding these journeys and different perspectives. With better understanding our society can be more kind, patient and compassionate:
“Simple acts of kindness go such a long way and can restore my sometimes-crumbling faith in humanity.” Laurie Hellman
Moving beyond Autism Acceptance and Awareness Month, I encourage you to continue to learn more about autism. Share our stories so we can make this a bigger narrative. That sleep number of zero is real, along with the challenges associated, especially when autism is profound. Understanding leads to acceptance. It means showing kindness by making some room at the table for all abilities and behaviors of autistic individuals along with their families.
There is a shift occurring this April with Autism Awareness Month. Let’s face it autism awareness doesn’t mean much without acceptance too. It’s not just a shift in the terminology of “autism awareness” to “autism acceptance”, you may notice new symbols like the rainbow infinity taking the place of the puzzle piece imagery (as many believe that the puzzle symbol evokes a negative connotation as a problem that needs to be solved). To keep you in the loop, the rainbow infinity sign represents neurodiversity, here’s more:
Whether it’s promoting with rainbow infinity symbols or puzzle pieces I think the emphasis should be on the movement from autism awareness to acceptance. My son Nick is 27 years old and has a co-occurring Down syndrome and autism(DS-ASD). According to Autism Speaks, “Over the next decade, an estimated 707,000 to 1,116,000 teens (70,700 to 111,600 each year) will enter adulthood and age out of school based autism services.” That is a staggering statistic as autistic children grow up to become adults in need of safe housing, medical care insurance, family (inclusive and accessible) public restrooms, meaningful employment and adult day program opportunities. Acceptance requires understanding along with providing supports and accommodations.
We need to accept the fact that 1 in 54 children born in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism and they along with their families need support and opportunities to be fully included in society. What if we celebrated differences and became more understanding of individuals with autism? For my son Nick, it would mean respecting his need for routine, sameness and space, to be accepting of his need to rock, sway, flap his hands and make verbal stimming sounds to help keep himself regulated. It would also mean looking beyond these self-stimulatory behaviors to see his unique abilities and strengths.
This Autism Acceptance Month I challenge you to do more than just be aware of autism. Here are a few suggestions:
*Read and share books about autism like my book A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism available on Amazon at: https://amzn.to/2W3Un6X
*Donate and join autism support groups like The Down Syndrome-Autism Connection which has been in operation since 2007, and is the only non-profit in the United States dedicated solely to co-occurring Down syndrome and autism. They have given over 2,000 families around the world a place to belong. This month you can donate to my team @ https://givebutter.com/xrKt9I. Learn more about the connection at http://www.ds-asd-connection.org.
*Show kindness and respect for how autistic individuals need to process the world around them and understand that they shouldn’t have to conform to the norms when expressing themselves.
This April for Autism Acceptance Month and moving forward, I encourage you to learn more about understanding autism. Understanding leads to acceptance. Let’s celebrate unique personalities and abilities and also show compassion for the challenges and struggles faced by individuals with autism and their families.
That’s what is in my noggin this week.
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Blog #236~Need IEP Help? The New Go-To Guide: Special Education Savvy
IEP Season is here, do you need help understanding the process and how to become a better advocate for your child? I’ve got the resource for you, just in time for IEP season. It is the new go-to guide, Special Education Savvy: A Mom’s Guide to Mindset and Effective Advocacy Throughout the IEP Journey and it’s a must read! I received an advanced reader copy of Mary Beth Gilliland, M.ED book which was just released last week. The author literally takes you the reader, by the hand and guides you step by step on the IEP process.
IEP stands for Individual Education Plan, which is a written document outlining the program of special education instruction, supports and services that a student with a disability needs to make progress in school. IEP’s can be complicated and daunting, especially for moms who are new to navigating this journey with their child. I was one of those moms, my son Nick, has co-occurring Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). This new book, Special Education Savvyis the book that I wish I had in my hands 27 years ago.
Special Education Savvy stands out in my mind as different than other special education/ IEP/advocacy books for several reasons. First of all, the author Mary Beth Gilliland feels like a mentor that is sitting right there with you at an IEP meeting. She provides sections that include basic special education 101, advocacy strategies, IEP meeting tips and more. You will also learn how to handle the uncomfortable and often challenging encounters that parents may face when IEP’s, when aren’t being followed or their child is not making progress. Second, this book is easy to read especially for busy moms who are juggling a multitude of responsibilities. The technical jargon associated with special education is clearly spelled out making it easier to understand. Mary Beth also breaks down every aspect of the IEP process, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Finally, as the title suggests you come out of each chapter feeling confident with a savvy mindset ready to advocate for your child.
I found myself shaking my head, yes as I read each chapter. Mary Beth uses clever analogies to make important points about a student’s rights along the technical stuff like IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and FAPE (Free and appropriate public education). Again, she clearly explains these tough areas and makes the information parent friendly.
As a DS-ASD consultant, advocate and author of A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism (available at https://amzn.to/2W3Un6X ) I highly recommend Special Education Savvy. It is the ultimate instruction manual for understanding and advocating for your child’s IEP. You will feel more educated and empowered with this well written toolbox of strategies. Ultimately, this knowledge will help to ensure your child receives the services and support to be successful in school.
That’s what is in my noggin this week. Now, I am off to find a cute pair of yellow flats and get savvy for April to advocate about Autism Awareness Month.
Follow us on social media on Facebook and Instagram @ Down Syndrome with a Slice of Autism and on Twitter @tjunnerstall.
World Down Syndrome Day is this Sunday, 3/21/21. “WDSD purpose is to raise awareness around the world of what Down syndrome is and the vital role people with Down syndrome play in our society. The day has been officially observed by the United Nations since 2012 and the date — always on the 21st day of the 3rd month — is meant to highlight the uniqueness of the triplication (trisomy) of the 21st chromosome, which is the cause of Down syndrome.”
World Down Syndrome Day is an opportunity for all of us to promote awareness, understanding, acceptance and inclusion. Lack of knowledge and understanding can prevent people with Down syndrome from being accepted and included in society. The message is simple, every individual is unique, we all have value, and everyone has the right to live a happy and fulfilling life. I heard a great quote the other day, “Down syndrome is just another way that humanity presents itself”.
My son Nick is 27 years old and has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism. He has taught me a multitude of life lessons. Our story has touched the lives of so many others:
Here are 3 easy ways to celebrate WDSD and promote acceptance and inclusion:
*Promote Down syndrome awareness on social media using the hashtags #wdsd #worlddownsyndromeday #downsyndromeawarness #t21 #downsyndromelove #downsyndrome #321 #abilities #inclusion #funkysocks #downsyndromerocks #downsyndromewithasliceofautsim 🙂 Don’t forget to rock those funky socks to show that different is beautiful and wonderful!
*Encourage the use of person first language. This means saying, “a person or individual with Down syndrome”.
Do NOT say: * “A Down syndrome baby, child or kid.” * “Down’s baby, child or kid” * “Down’s” * “He or she has Downs
Promoting WDSD on social media, encouraging the use of person first language and getting involved with WDSD events and fundraisers are wonderful ways you can be a part of of celebrating the uniqueness of individuals with Down syndrome. That’s what is in my noggin this week. Be sure and follow us on social media: Facebook and Instagram at Down Syndrome With a Slice of Autism to see how we will be celebrating!
Blog #235~More than Down syndrome, Co-occurring DS-ASD
As a DS-ASD consultant and author of A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism, I am often asked why it is important to seek a secondary evaluation for autism for individuals with Down syndrome. My son, Nick is 26 years old and has co-occurring Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). The needs associated with DS-ASD are complex and there are several areas where you can support a child at their level.
Click on the blog link below to read more about co-occurring DS-ASD and how you and the IEP team can better support the additional needs associated with a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism:
There are many more services, supports and resources available for individuals with co-occurring Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD). My mission is to help families navigate this journey easier, raise awareness, understanding and provide guidance in this journey navigating DS-ASD.
That’s what is in my noggin this week.
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I’m taking some time to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy. There is so much negativity and turmoil in our nation. My hope is that we can come together, heal and echo the powerful messages given by Martin Luther King Jr.
Yesterday, another national treasure, Betty White turned 99 years old. I wrote this blog and posted it on the third week of January 4 years ago. This blog is so resonating and timely, given the current distress facing all of us. Happy Birthday Betty White, your wisdom is like an elixer for the fountain of youth and for finding happiness and peace.
I am Teresa Unnerstall, a DS-ASD consultant and author of A New Course: A Mother’s Journey Navigating Down Syndrome and Autism (https://amzn.to/2W3Un6X) My son Nick is 26 years old and has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism (DS-ASD).
Here are my top 10 Autism Holiday Stress Tips to help you navigate the upcoming holiday season. Click the link below to view:
I hope you have a safe and joyous holiday. Remember to give yourself a little extra grace as we deal with the added stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. I have pared things down even more this year and striving for simplicity. That’s what is in my noggin this week.
Cheers and Be Well,
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