Monday 25 November 2019

My Wish for My Little Superheroes

Like most parents the world over, there are many things that I want for my little superheroes in the future and there are many more things that I want them to know. 

Both O and L have been struggling with their self belief and their self confidence over the last few weeks. Both O and L have been incredibly anxious to the point that their anxiety has prevented them from doing the things that they both love. Many of the specialist appointments that we've attended recently have focused heavily on what they can't do, on their deficits, rather than on the things that they can do very well.

So I wanted to write down the things that I want them both to know. Many of these wishes, these positives, we constantly talk with both O and L about so that they know just how much they are loved and just how much we are proud of them.

💓 I love watching you both grow and develop your own little personalities. You are both incredible, amazing, capable little superheroes. Please always keep being you. I love that you are both happy, well most of time, just being yourselves. You both have your own sense of style and you both own it. Please don't ever change just to fit in with the crowd around you. This world needs people with differences in it. I know that at times it is incredibly hard to find your own way and be yourself but you know what? If people walk away because they want you to be someone that you're not, then that is their loss and not yours.

💓 Keep learning. I love that you both want to constantly learn. Not because you want better grades at school or to know everything. You both just love learning and trying new things. I love just how curious you both are and your sense of wonder. You both find joy in the little things and you open my eyes every day on how you view the world around you. I want you both to be always willing to learn new things and expand your minds. You both push yourselves on a very regular basis beyond your comfort zones and for this I am so very proud of you.

💓 I love that you are both accepting of the differences in others. Please keep this quality in you. Keep being respectful of others thoughts and opinions, even though at times, their opinions may be different than those of your own. You are both kind and caring souls, share some of this around as the world needs more of it. As your Daddy and I constantly tell you, kindness and politeness goes a very long way in helping others to feel respected. You don't have to like everyone, you do need to keep being polite.

💓 Stand up for those who need someone to stand up for them. Be the person that stands up to the bullies. Be the person who encourages others to stand up for those who are being bullied. Be the person that through your words and your actions, you can motivate and inspire others to be a better person.

💓 Listen to your mind and your heart. Take on board the advice that others will give you, but at the end of day, you are your own person. You are the one that has to live with the consequences of your actions. I know that you both are very capable of making wise choices for not only yourselves but also for others.

💓 Be confident in your abilities and be proud of your achievements. Every day I watch you both get up out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. You have both overcome not only obstacles, but mountains that have been in your way. Not once have either of you said "I give up, I can't do it." There have been moments when you have doubted your own abilities but these moments have never, ever stopped you. I see the confidence in you both of you. If you find yourself saying "I can't do this," add the word "yet" to the sentence - I can't do this yet. And then think of a way to get to your end goal. You are both out the box thinkers and I love this quality in you both. You have both come so far in the last few years and I cannot wait to see what you achieve in the future.

💓 Lastly, keep your zest for life. No matter the situation or where you find yourself, have fun. Enjoy everything that you do and look for the rainbow if you ever find yourself in a dark place.

You both make me very proud on a daily basis to be your Mama and no matter where you are or what you do, I will always be here for you xxx

Sunday 17 November 2019

Zones of Regulations - what they are and how to use them

*** If you believe that you or your child would benefit from using the Zones of Regulations, please speak to a trusted medical professional. 
We do not receive commissions of any kind for this post. ***

When L began on his early intervention therapy journey after we received his ASD diagnosis back in 2016, one of the very first concepts that we learnt about through his therapists was The Zones of Regulations.

One of the first things that we noticed about L was his apparent inability to identify his own and others emotions and respond appropriately to these emotions. L struggled to self regulate his own emotions and we in turn struggled to help him with his emotions. Since being introduced to the concept of the Zones of Regulations, it is a concept that we now use on a daily basis with both O and L.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, children are not born with the inherent ability to immediately recognise and respond to their own emotions. This is a skill that we all continually develop from birth. New born babies begin to learn about their emotions through their parents responses. As a child grows older, they further develop these much needed skills through their relationships and interactions with family, peers, caregivers and teachers and so on. Even as adults we are still learning, as we may encounter new situations that invoke different emotional reactions in us.

So let's start from the beginning .... what is the Zones of Regulation?

The Zones of Regulations framework was created by Leah Kuypers, who has a background in occupational therapy and Autism specialist work. In creating the Zones of Regulation, Leah was influenced by the work of Williams and Shellenberger's, "The Alert Program (1994) and Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis' "The Incredible 5 Point Scale" (2003.) Leah's goal in creating the Zones of Regulation was to teach her students to how to identify their feelings and emotional reactions as well as learn how to self regulate their emotions so that they could meet the demands of the environment around them and be successful both socially and academically. The Zones of Regulation has since been turned into a curriculum and is now used the world over to teach children, and adults, how to identify their emotions and in turn learn how to self regulate their own emotions and feelings.

The Zones of Regulation uses four different colours to help children, and adults, identify how they are feeling at any given moment. When using the Zones of Regulation is incredibly important to note, that there is no such thing as good or bad emotions. When we talk with O and L, we often refer to their BIG emotions (happy, sad, angry, frustrated and so on.) 

The four zones, refer to different states of alertness when experiencing different emotions. It is also important to note that all of the Zones of Regulation and in turn all of the emotions are very natural to experience by all of us, regardless of whether or not we have a diagnosis of some sort. No matter what we do, where we are or what we are doing, we will always feel an emotion of some sort.

As Leah states "Feelings are innate: they make us human and are part of the fabric of life. Our feelings are windows into the thoughts and perspectives we hold toward a situation, a person, or an event."

I have used the Zones of Regulation concept with children from the age of 2 years and up, and not all of these children had a diagnosis of any type. I have found that when little people are experiencing BIG emotions, the Zones of Regulation has been incredibly useful for them to identify how they are feeling.

The Red zone is used to describe how we feel when in an extremely heightened state of alertness and/or our intense emotions. These emotions or feelings could be anything from over excited to anger, rage, devastation, panicky or terror and so on.

The Yellow zone is also used to describe how we feel when in a heightened state of alertness. The difference is that individuals may feel a little more in control of their own emotions when in the yellow zone. Emotions that are in the yellow zone could be one of stressed, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness or nervousness.

The Green zone is used to describe how we may feel when in a calm state. Think happy, focused, content or ready to learn. The Green zone is the optimal state that we want to try to remain in.

The Blue zone is used to describe how we may feel when in a low state of alertness - think sad, tired, unwell or bored and so on.

There are many different visuals that can be used when teaching or talking about the Zones of Regulation. We use a fairly simplified version that shows not only the four zone colours but also the different faces that represent the emotions. We have this visual laminated and kept in a spot that is easily accessible for L.

When we first began to use the Zones of Regulation with L, we would show the visual to L and we would try to identify the emotion that we could see L exhibiting and ask him, "I can see that you look angry, can you point to how you are feeling?"

Nine times out of ten, we correctly identified the emotion that he was feeling and by providing L with the language that he needed to identify how he was feeling, he later began to tell us how he was feeling.

Once L had been able to identify to us how he was feeling, we would then assist him to regulate his emotion back to the green zone or work with him to find out what he needed to come back to a calm state.

Once we had identified what zone L was in and what his emotion was, we could then start to talk with him about what made him angry/frustrated/sad/scared and so on. Doing this with L meant that we could identify, with his assistance, what triggered him to enter into that emotional state.

By becoming aware of what emotional state he was in and what triggered him to enter that that emotional state, L has begun to learn how to self regulate his emotions.

If you do intend on using the Zones of Regulation with your own children, or those that you work with, there are a few points that you will need to keep in mind.

As mentioned above, it is very natural for all of us, children and adults, to experience all of the emotions in all of the zones. There is no such thing as a good or bad zone. The Green zone is the optimal zone that we need to aim to be in.

Being unable to identify and respond appropriately to our different emotional states is a part of the development of a typically developing child. Being able to recognise and respond appropriately to our internal feelings, our sense of interoception, can be tricky for those who have been diagnosed as Autistic. This can make identifying feelings/emotions even trickier.

The emotions that we feel are heavily influenced by our internal feelings as well as external factors such as the environment that we are in at any given time during the day. A bright, busy, noisy environment may cause a child, or adult, to enter into a state of over excitement or terror. 

The behaviour that we then see in our children, or in adults, is a by product of the emotion that they are feeling or how they are managing their behaviour. They may not be able to tell you how they are feeling, so that are trying to communicate with you through their behaviour. Please don't pass judgement on their behaviour, they are doing the best that they can in that moment to tell you how they are feeling.

Finally, please remember that when your child shows you their most challenging behaviour they do this because they know that you are their safe place. They know that you won't pass judgement on what they are doing and that you love them unconditionally. If you feel that you are having a rough day, imagine how they must be feeling.

We've always said that Autism doesn't excuse why O and L do certain things or why exhibit challenging behaviours at times, Autism is a reason. Through using the Zones of Regulation visuals, we have been able to assist both and O to learn how to identify their emotions and learn how to self regulate.

Saturday 9 November 2019

O's Australian Girls Choir Journey.

From a very young age, O has always loved singing. When she was in year three at her previous school in Western Australia, O joined the school choir and loved it. With the school choir, she performed at their school and also on stage at the 2017 Schools Make Music Concert series. She loved the experience of performing with her school choir in front of such a large audience. They were one of the smallest choirs performing but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for with their combined voice.

When we moved back to Queensland, O mentioned to us that she really wanted to join the Australian Girls Choir and at the beginning of 2019, much to her delight, O was offered a place in the Australian Girls Choir, Avanti level. From the moment that O's Australian Girls Choir uniform arrived and she tried it on for size, we could not wipe the smile from her face. The look on her face was one of pure joy. And since that moment every Thursday afternoon when O puts on her uniform, she beams so brightly. O loves telling everyone and anyone that will listen about the Australian Girls Choir.

The Australian Girls Choir was established in 1984 by Judith Curphey, OAM, in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood. Judith, whose 30 year career background is in music and drama education, was the sole tutor and she had 150 girls rehearsing in four classes. Judith's aim in establishing the Australian Girls Choir was to form a girls choir that would have an emphasis on not only singing but also dance and presentation and she wanted the choir to be known for its unique Australian sound.

The founding philosophy behind the Australian Girls Choir is that every child can learn to sing if they are given the encouragement and training. The Australian Girls Choir provides very high quality performing arts education and truly exceptional performance opportunities.
This year marks 35 years of the Australian Girls Choir. Judith celebrated her 90th birthday in style by going to Paris to watch her beloved choir on one of their oversea tours. Today, in 2019, there are approximately 6000 girls aged from 4 years to 18 years learning to sing, dance and perform in Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

Since joining the Australian Girls Choir, O has very definitely found her niche. And in the last 12 months of being an Australian Girls Chorister, O has blossomed musically and her confidence has grown.

Earlier this year O performed in the Winter Showcase. Leading up to the Showcase she was a bundle of nerves but on the day of the showcase, she was cool and calm. After the concert, O talked non stop about being back stage, the dress rehearsal, the performance and meeting the choristers from the other venues. That performance cemented to O, that singing is what she wants to do. Singing is her happy place.

Last weekend, O performed in one of the Australian Girls Choir Annual Concerts at the biggest venue that she has ever performed in - The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC.) O can now say that she has performed on the same stage that one of her Mummy and Daddy's favourite celebrities, John Scott Barrowman (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Arrow) performed on!

The morning of the concert, O had a massive anxiety panic attack about something that had happened at school during the week prior. She was a huge mess and both myself and Daddy Superhero were concerned about how she would go that night. But to O's credit, she brushed off her anxiety, put one foot in front of the other and off we went to QPAC. As soon as we arrived, she became a completely different child and she shone. After the concert finished, O was on a huge high. The drive home took us over an hour and she talked, sang and giggled the entire trip. It is truly wonderful to hear your child on such a high after doing something that makes her so very happy - singing, dancing, performing.

One of the things that I love about the Australian Girls Choir, is just how happy the classes make O. No matter how rough a day O has had at school, she goes to her weekly classes and comes out at the end of the hour and a half session on a huge high. O is genuinely happy and will giggle and sing the entire hour car ride home. I love the camaraderie that I see week in, week out at her weekly classes and also that I've seen at the two performances that O has been involved in this year. I honestly believe that her Australian Girls Choir classes are genuinely beneficial to O's happiness, as well as her mental and emotional well being. Australian Girls Choir is very definitely one of O's happy places and she has found her tribe with her fellow choristers.

But what about O? What does she think about her Australian Girls Choir experience?

"I love that the AGC doesn't try to push me beyond my limits. My friends there accept me for who I am. Everyone, the girls in my Avanti group, my tutors and the older choristers, our venue manager Miss Parkinson, all of the staff at the concerts, are so friendly and inclusive of all of the girls. It's like being in a big choir family. I am making friends with girls who are my age and who I have so much in common with. And I loved meeting and singing with our groups sorella, she was so lovely and her singing voice is beautiful.

My tutors Mrs Scott and Miss De Castro are so friendly and very encouraging. Mrs Scott and Miss De Castro have taught me so much more than just singing. They've taught me how to read sheet music, how to project my voice when I sing and act. I'm learning drama and performance skills. I love going to choir. I just wish we'd found out about the choir when I was younger. But I know that I want to be with the choir until I am in year twelve. I want to be just like the big girls in the performance and concert levels." 

So bring on 2020, O's second year with the Australian Girls Choir! We can't wait to see what next year with the Australian Girls Choir will bring!

P.S. Sorella is Italian for sister! There is an emphasis on the Australian Girls Choir being like a big family. O's AGC big sister is one of the older choristers who was helping out in their class leading up to the Annual Concert. For third term I'm not sure who was having more fun the class, the girls or their sorella!

Sunday 3 November 2019

A Superhero Pup for Lachlan

When I first began this blog and our social media sites back in 2016, I decided (in consultation with Daddy Superhero) that I would refer to my little superheroes using the initials of their first name. This was purely to give them a little anonymity.

That decision changed last Tuesday when we received this letter!

As I was sitting down getting ready for my work staff meeting, a notification popped up on my phone from my emails. I could not contain my excitement when I opened the email and read that L, a.k.a. Lachlan, had been accepted into the Smart Pups Assistance Dog program. We'd applied to the program last month and we honestly weren't expecting a response this quick!

If you've been following our journey, you'd know that Lachlan was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder at the age of three and a half. Lachlan has also been diagnosed with a host of other medical issues and we are currently in the process of going through the assessment process for ADHD. With the speech and occupational therapy that Lachlan has been doing for the past three years, he is now thriving at school but he still has many other struggles. In saying that he never lets these get the better of him. And this is where a Smart Pups Assistance Dog would greatly benefit Lachlan.

A Smart Pup, while primarily being trained as Lachlan’s companion, would also benefit O, a.k.a. Olivia. In 2017 at the age of eight years, she was given a DSM level 2 ASD diagnosis. Since then she has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Difficulties and severe Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

But what is the Smart Pups program I hear you ask.

Smart Pups is a not-for-profit organization that is based on the Sunshine Coast here in Queensland. Smart Pups trains and provides assistance dogs to children who have additional needs, such as Lachlan. These assistance dogs are trained in specific tasks and skills which improve a child’s independence and quality of life. It is a unique form of early intervention therapy and the assistance dog will have a profound positive life-long effect on the day to day lives of these children who have additional needs and their families.

A Smart Pup Autism Assistance dog can increase an Autistic child’s ability to cope with life, sensory overload and provide the child with emotional support when the child needs it. A Smart Pup can act as a bridge between the child and the outside world, guiding the child through their daily routines, keeping them safe and comforting the child when the world becomes too much for them.

Lachlan loves animals and immediately calms when he is around them. We've seen that first hand. He struggles with sleep and has averaged 4 and a half to 5 hours sleep a night since he was the age of 4 and a half months old. A Smart Pup Autism Assistance Dog would provide the level of comfort that Lachlan needs to fall asleep and stay calm.

Lachlan has very little awareness of safety and danger and he has no sense of fear whatsoever. Having no sense of fear is good in a sense that he will attempt things, like climbing to the top of trees and play equipment, that children his age and older will not attempt. However it also means that he is very accident prone - at present he is known by name in four Accident and Emergency departments in four hospitals in two states of Australia! From a very young age, as soon as he became mobile, he would run, jump, climb. 

This is one of his coping mechanisms when he needs to escape from sensory overload from crowded or noisy or bright places. When Lachlan spots something that he wants to look at, he runs. It doesn’t cross his mind that he should tell us when he wants to look at something or escape from overload. When his emotions overcome him, he runs. This is a behavior that we see in him on a regular basis. At present when Lachlan wanders, he will hide and not answer to his name. A Smart Pup Autism Assistance Dog would be trained to quickly find Lachlan using its sense of smell. When Lachlan wanders off, this would truly be lifesaving. The pup would also be trained in grounding itself, which would hopefully prevent Lachlan from running away.

A Smart Pup Autism Assistance Dog would be trained to touch, nudge or lay on Lachlan to disrupt any disruptive behavior that he exhibits, in particular when Lachlan enters into meltdown mode due to emotional or sensory overload. The Assistance Dog would be trained to snuggle and comfort Lachlan when he becomes upset or distressed, which would help prevent Lachlan’s emotional reaction from escalating into a meltdown.

A Smart Pup Autism Assistance Dog can perform a variety of simple tricks which will not only increase the bond between the dog and Lachlan but will also create fun during social interactions. Lachlan is still developing the confidence and skills required for social interactions. An Autism Assistance Dog would assist to increase his confidence when engaging with others as well as opening a dialogue between Lachlan and his peers. An Assistance Dog would give Lachlan a sense of pride as the dog would be his companion.
An Autism Assistance Dog would also assist in decreasing Lachlan’s anxiety during his daily routines.

Unfortunately Smart Pups receives no government funding to train and provide these specially trained dogs and as such relies on sponsorships and donations from the public and the families who have been accepted into the program.

The approximate training costs for an assistance dog is $30,000. All money that is raised goes directly to Smart Pups to train the pup and ultimately to the child who receives the pup as their assistance dog. Each family that is accepted into the Smart Pups program is asked to raise a minimum of $20000 to go towards the training of the Assistance Dog.

Our next step in our Smart Pups journey is raising this much needed money. And what better way to raise awareness of Autism and what an Autism Assistance dog is capable of, than approaching local community groups to raise funds for an amazing organisation such as Smart Pups.

This particular post will be an ongoing post and will be updated with our progress, so please keep your eyes peeled for our updates on our fund raising efforts. If you would like to or are able to donate to our fundraising campaign, Lachlan's campaign page can be found here.

We live and breathe Autism, Sensory Processing Difficulties and Anxiety 24/7. An Autism Assistance Dog would make a huge positive impact for not only Lachlan but also Olivia and  our family in general.