Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Professionals Agree – The ProxTalker is Uniquely Effective Among Communication Devices

Editorial Board - Autism Health and Wellness

When the ProxTalker came on the market, we were enthused by the array of benefits that this one device had to offer. It had an exceptionally wide range of vocabulary. It facilitated sentence structure, allowing children who cannot speak and who could previously just point to objects, to organize complete and proper phrases.

The ProxTalker was also uniquely durable, as the inventor had the product thoroughly tested and even run over by a car without damage. This is an especially useful beneficial as there have been many cases in which children have been known to throw high level communications devices into pools or out of cars. This device was built to last.

Now educators are coming forward expressing the uniqueness of this easy to use, yet uniquely functional device.

Here are a few of first hand experiences that we are pleased to report:

"Students and all of the staff were all as impressed with the device as I was. I found it easy to use, easy to program and easiest to teach. I was very pleased with how durable the device is as well. One thing I especially l liked was the material that icons were affixed to. I found the material much more practical than a typical PECS (word pictures) page or one that you have to put Velcro on the page prior to affixing the pictures. I felt as though we could add more icons to your device versus a typical PECS book (because it would be very thick, bulky and difficult to maneuver).

My ultimate goal is to have two of my students purchase your device through their health insurance or our MASS Health. I feel that the ability to have the voice output component can increase their independence across all settings.

- Janet Terranova M.S.CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist, Brown Elementary School; Massachusetts

“Parents took the device home each night and over the weekends. [It was] easy for them to reprogram the voice on different pictures to make it more meaningful for their child.”

- Karen Unkert, Speech pathologist at Coventry Grammar School; Coventry, CT

The Proxtalker provides the interim step often needed to move a child with Autism from communication with static picture symbols ( PECS ) to a communication system that uses a voice. The Proxtalker presents the ability to build language for exchanges much like the PECS ( Picture exchange communication system) which takes into account that language is a behavior and learned language behaviors like stringing pictures in left to right sequence and physically handing them to someone or pointing to the symbols is an established behavior that many students have learned and developed. This is their language behavior that has been reinforced very methodically.

As many of our students have this language behavior using pictures established, this is the platform that can now be used to move the students into a similar method with a voice attached. We can capitalize on the physical behavior and just layer on the voice. In the past we have tried to move students from a PECS system to a Voice output device unsuccessfully as the patterning and access to the language is very different.

Many dynamic display devices link between pages and the language is hidden and revealed through a series of actions. Most of the students that demonstrate an active ability and desire for language would be intellectually able to do this...the struggle lies in the inability to be flexible with behavior, which is prominently observed in students with Autism. Many of the students would perseverate on the voice and would just use the device to become auditorially stimulated. A small population could make this transition but many, many just couldn’t make the connection. We feel and are beginning to see an easier transition towards a voice. This ties in very nicely to our goals for increased communication and socialization for our language impaired and autistic students.

The other really special quality that this device has is that as all of the picture symbols are pre-programmed with the message there is an increased opportunity to present language supports without planning and provide very spontaneously an outlet for language interaction without even knowing what may occur. For example if a student is looking towards the side of the room where the books are I can right in the moment put the tiles on the device and that say I want a book. Model it for the student, elicit the student to activate the device and provide immediate reinforcement to getting that book in the moment it occurred. As generalizing learned information is difficult for our students we can get the language to them as it occurs when it is most meaningful.

Our struggle for providing language accessibility during spontaneous occurrences and activity based lessons is much easier with the Proxtalker as a tool. The device also has the flexibility to practice isolated groups of words with repetitive practice. One device can be used with several students, devices can be used in teach settings where individual protocols are being practiced, enabling us to increase the demand for language within a familiar format. It is a tool that will make sense for families and can easily be incorporated during activities that are already occurring with no preparation needed.

The New York City Department of Education is always looking for ways to improve access to language and prepare our students to be more independent. Communication is primary to all education and social goals or them. This tool is becoming very valuable to us and we feel we are just beginning to think of ways to utilize this technology to give our students an increased access to their inner voice.

- Karen Gorman; Coordinator; District 75, New York City Department Of Education, Special Education Department

These are just some of the reactions of educational experts throughout the nation. With this and other factors in mind, coupled with all of the points listed above, Autism Health and Wellness is pleased to endorse this most unique and needed communicative device.

6 Strategies for Well-Nourished Children on Special Diets

By Dawn Michelle Simon

Many of the Children seen in my practice arrive on special diets, usually the GF-CF diet, (short for gluten free casein free diet). Gluten and casein are proteins. Gluten is found in wheat and other grains and casein is found in products made from milk.

Typically, parents are introduced to this diet by their child’s pediatrician or DAN (Defeat Autism Now) doctor. Usually with low expectations, but are told to try it if they like. Those same brave parents with their new ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnosis are armed with a list a mile long of various treatments, websites and a GF-CF Diet pamphlet.

With skill and determination they face the daunting task of eliminating these often harmful proteins from their child’s diet or with dreary eyes from staring at a computer screen attempt to choose from an array of other special diets. All the while, questioning the safety and adequacy of their child’s diet.

After a couple of weeks or even months of being 80-90 percent on “the diet” parents become bewilder and abandon the special diet they have chosen. Convinced that the diet is ineffective or feeling defeated because it’s just too hard.

This is unfortunate because if implemented and monitored properly nutritional interventions can be an effective treatment, enhancing other therapies the child is no doubt receiving. All children need healthy nutritious protein, carbohydrates and fats in the correct proportion daily, especially children with special needs.

1. Keep it balanced. Many times when gluten and casein are eliminated, the diet becomes inadequate in protein and fats. This is due to the fact that milk is a large contributor of fat and protein for most children.

2. Ask your pediatrician or DAN doctor to test for intestinal parasites.

3. Control the intake of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates (even wheat alternatives) should not be limited but conversely not eaten in excess. Many children on the spectrum have difficulty digesting complex carbohydrates (starches). Undigested starch feed harmful intestinal parasites and allows them to overgrow. Resulting in toxic by-products that can cross the blood-brain barrier eliciting addictive behaviors that impair growth and development; as well as intestinal dysfunction and inflammation.

4. Eliminate and Replace foods that are inflammatory. The key here is to not only discover the particular foods but to replace with foods that are equally or more nutritious.

5. Test for functional vitamins and minerals deficiencies after an adequate nutritious diet is in place.

6. Find a licensed registered dietitian who is trained to assess, monitor and evaluate children with special needs and expertly implement special diets. Look for someone who will work closely with your child’s pediatrician or DAN doctor to keep nutrition care adequate and safe.

Sign up for the free electronic newsletter “Healthy Bellies Tips of the Week” atwww.dawnmichellesimon.com and receive the handy “11 Questions to Ask Your Childs Pediatrician”. Contact Dawn Michelle athealthy@dawnmichellesimon.com or 305-761-3738

Solving a Great Financial Worry

Written by Special Needs Attorneys:

Danielle B. Mayoras and Don L. Rosenberg


Have you ever wondered what would happen to your special needs loved one if you passed away tomorrow? Have you done everything possible to ensure that your loved one with special needs will maintain his or her government benefits and receive an inheritance from you? For many parents with special needs children, whether the children are minors or adults, these questions linger in the back of their minds. Estate planning is always important to do; however, when one of our beneficiaries is a special needs loved one, the planning becomes critical.

When a parent leaves an inheritance over $2,000 to an individual with special needs, then that inheritance is actually a gift to the government because it eliminates that child’s qualification for government benefits. Parents and attorneys armed with the basic knowledge that you cannot have assets in the excess of $2,000 and still qualify for government benefits, often think that the only reliable method to protect a special needs loved one is to disinherit them. They believe, or are counseled; that leaving their inheritance to another child or individual who will morally take care of their special needs loved one solves the problem. In most cases, however, this does not solve the problem, but only makes it worse. Leaving everything to your daughter “Susie” if “Johnny” has special needs would allow Susie’s creditors to attach Johnny’s money. In addition, if Susie is having a bad year financially, there is nothing to stop her from using the money for herself. Furthermore, if Susie passes away, this money would go on to her beneficiaries and not to Johnny.

Parents can solve all of these problems by creating a Special Needs Trust. A properly drafted Special Needs Trust allows the special needs individual to maintain government benefits and to use the inheritance for everything but food and shelter. The Special Needs Trust is the perfect solution and the only reliable method to make sure that your inheritance benefits your child with special needs. The Special Needs Trust keeps assets in a form that will be available for your child and allows your child to maintain and receive government benefits.

A properly drafted Special Needs Trust will specify that funds from the Trust only supplement and do not replace the government benefits. These funds can be used for extra medical care, personal items, such as televisions, radios, computers, vacations, companionship, advocates or any other item or service to enhance your child’s self-esteem and situation (anything except food and shelter). With respect to shelter, your child can use the money to purchase a home, but cannot use the money for rent.

Oftentimes, parents who have minor or adult children with special needs wonder what the future will hold for their special loved one. Will they be productive in society, will they need governmental benefits, who will take care of them and be responsible for their financial needs? We have developed a very unique approach to address these questions – the “Wait and See Special Needs Trust”. A Special Needs Trust would be set up as a vessel into which an inheritance would go. However, a decision would be made by the trustee at the time that the parents pass away whether or not this individual is likely to need government benefits in the future. Specifically, the Wait and See Trust requires the trustee to test and have your special needs loved one evaluated educationally, cognitively, rehabilitatively, physically and emotionally.

These evaluations also include, but are not limited to, a physical and psychological evaluation, and evaluation of education and training programs, work opportunities and earning, recreation, leisure time, and social needs. If he or she is not likely to need government benefits, then the Special Needs Trust would not be used and the assets can then be used for basic needs as well as special needs. The benefit of this, of course, is that we have the advantage of planning for an unknown future.

As a parent, not only do you want to provide an inheritance to your children, but when you have a child with special needs, you often are the only one who knows their medical needs (i.e. doctors, prescriptions, as well as the child’s likes and dislikes). The Special Needs Trust incorporates a Letter of Guidance that addresses all of the information that caregivers so vitally need.

While government agencies recognize Special Needs Trusts, there are strict rules and it is critical that you work with an experienced special needs attorney to draft the Trust. One wrong word or phrase can make the difference between an inheritance that benefits your child and one that causes your child to lose the many services, assistance and benefits available. Parents of special needs children can solve their greatest worry with a properly drafted Special Needs Trust.

For more information on Special Needs Trusts and to stay up to date on the laws, contact The Center for Special Needs Planning at 1-877-PLAN-758 or www.thecenterforspecialneedsplanning.com, for a personal consultation and/or to subscribe to the informational e-letter, “The Insight: News, Stories, and Thoughts on Elder, Special Needs and Probate Law.”

This article provides general information concerning a variety of legal topics. It is not intended to be a legal opinion and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Legal advice should not be given without investigation of your particular circumstances.

About the Authors

Danielle B. Mayoras, Attorney and Director of Education
Danielle Mayoras has dedicated her legal career to educating professionals and businesses as well as the general public on the topics of special needs planning, elder law, and general estate planning through presentations, print, and broadcast media across the United States. Her speaking audiences range from nationally recognized brokerage firms, banks, and insurance companies to attorneys, accountants, and non-profit organizations. She was the speaker at the Special Olympics Summer Games, as well as countless support groups for parents who have special needs children as well as social workers and attorneys. She consistently draws rave reviews from audiences and her speaking skills are in high demand. Danielle is the co-author of the upcoming book Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights,(www.trialandheirs.com) to be released Fall of 2009. Additionally, Danielle is a founding partner of The Center for Special Needs Planning, The Center for Elder Law, and The Center for Probate Litigation.

Don L. Rosenberg, Attorney and Counselor

Don has been practicing for over twenty-eight years. His practice is limited to specializing in issues concerning disability, Special Needs Planning, Medicaid, estate, long term care, and nursing home. He is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners, past-President of
KESHET, which is a nonprofit organization that serves families who have children of any age with disabilities of any kind and a Member of the Board of Directors of KADIMA, which is a nonprofit organization that serves families and individuals with mental illnesses. Additionally, Don is a founding partner of The Center for Special Needs Planning, The Center for Elder Law, and The Center for Probate Litigation. He is also the Chair and Officer of the Governing Council of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Section of the State Bar of Michigan.

Autism and the Rocket Ship Pencil

By Colin Roche, Director of Educational Accounts


For any child between kindergarten and 6th grade, handwriting is a formative component of children’s education, as teachers require written communication from students to see evidence of their comprehension of subjects. By simple observation, autistic children have an added obstacle and whether writing single words or short sentences, these children find this learning process to be a frustrating and unfulfilling experience. Autistic children tend to struggle with writing because they often grasp pens too tight and press down too hard causing most pencils to break. For most children, the basic act of handwriting is usually mastered midway thru elementary school. However, the autistic child’s learning curve is much longer as more time is needed for them to put words on paper.

Autistic children are inclined to draw letters very deliberately and take more time. For example, a 30-minute dictation exercise could take up to two hours. This can be frustrating to both child and parent as in many cases. Not properly addressed, the child may fall behind classmates even though their mental grasp of the particular lesson is proficient. This becomes a slippery slope that often affects confidence because even though the child is unable to adequately convey thoughts on paper in the time required for that grade level, they are mentally capable to comprehend and complete assignments.

This bottleneck of self-expression is further exacerbated by the physical constraints of common writing instruments. Combine that with dexterity issues which perpetuate the autistic child’s anguish and subsequently the primary caregivers and teachers’ commitment to them and their development, and the probable future remains disheartening.

There is good news and a possible solution for many autistic children and their parents and teachers to ultimately win. Recent studies scientifically confirmed that autistic children have trouble with fine motor skills. This means that it is not a mental barrier as some have thought. While many parents of autistic children have known this for years, there is now data to support the fact that students can benefit greatly from simple assistive writing aids that help to refine fine motor skills.

One product in particular is getting positive reviews as an effective solution for teaching the fine motor skill required in handwriting. The PenAgain® Twist-n-Write™ (
http://penagain.com/twistnwrite.html) is an ergonomic pencil designed so the child must position the fingers into the school taught “tri-pod” grasp for a comfortable and firm grip. The shape of the pencil resembles a wishbone. The user slips the index finger thru the middle, not unlike a mini crutch for the finger. Grasping both sides with the thumb and middle finger, the pencil has greater surface area contact with its user, distributing less pressure more evenly among fingers providing a comfortable yet stable grip, even if the hold is too tight.

Many parents have commented that learning to write is a positive experience with the Twist-n-Write because children see progress as they use it. Designed to be more intricate, fun and colorful, as opposed to an orthopedic looking device, translates into a deeper sense of curiosity and attention for these children. More time and interest with a tool like the PenAgain creates an attractive experience for children and the result is more time practicing their handwriting. Even the added erasers on both “arms” of the pencil make the act of erasing fun. Many kids have nick-named it the “rocket-ship pencil.”

Word about these unique pencils spread quickly when Parents Magazine wrote, “We’re hearing raves about the easy-to-use Twist-n-Write pencil.

Originally designed to encourage kids to use the proper pencil grip, it makes writing more comfortable and fun for little hands. Parents, teachers, and occupational therapists are reporting that the ergonomic rocket-ship design is also very helpful for kids with weak motor skills, ADHD, autism, or juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.”

Once the product hit the market many parents wrote in with their own child’s experience with the pencil. Here’s one such letter:

“I am the parent of a young man with Down Syndrome and Autism. We have tried for many years to find a writing instrument that he can use with his weak grip. We have created many different kinds of items using [clay], but this pen of yours which I saw online is perfect for him. Allowing him to put one finger OVER the pen and stabilize with side fingers, giving him a strong tripod grip is genius.”

Teachers are writing in to give feedback on their experience too:

“Your pencils (Twist-n-Write) have given my most severely impaired students an opportunity to practice their writing with more independence than ever before! I need more Twist-n-Write pencils, though, because they seem to be sold out wherever I look for them! Please help!!!! Thank you so very much!”

You can find the Twist-n-Write and other PenAgain writing instruments in office supply superstores such as Staples and Office Depot, along with a growing list of school supply and stationery store retailers.

The pencil is manufactured and distributed exclusively in the U.S. by Baumgartens (
www.baumgartens.com), a manufacturer of unique, useful, and human-and environmentally-friendly products for the office, school and home. The woman-owned, family business supplies products to thousands of retailers and wholesalers across the U.S.A.

For more information, please go to
www.penagain.com or contact Baumgartens at 800-247-5547.

Technology and its Impact in Schools

By Ruth C. Heitin, Ph.D, and Liana Heitin, M.Ed.

When I was asked to write this back-to-school article, I was eager to address the issue of technology, as it is an area both parents and educators are forced to consider a bit more each time we start a new school year. In my work as a special education consultant supporting students and their families over the past 17 years, I have had the opportunity to review thousands of students’ records and consult with those students’ families. In writing this article, I also solicited the input of my daughter, Liana, who has just completed two years as a special education teacher through the Teach for America program.

One of the most salient technological changes my daughter and I have witnessed is the use of email as a form of home/school communication. As more and more parents turn to email (over phone calls and conferences) when contacting teachers, I think it is important to discuss effectiveness and consideration in sending emails to the school.

It has been my belief (as well as our experience) that teaching is one of the most stressful and demanding jobs. In addition to instructing students, teachers must spend time planning lessons, grading papers, communicating with parents, doing paperwork and attending meetings.

While the advent of email has provided teachers and parents an efficient means of communication, it also has the potential to divert teachers from other important duties. At many schools, such as the one where Liana worked, teachers are given 40 minutes per day, or 200 minutes per week, of preparation time while their students are at special classes. If, for example, each parent in a particular class sends two emails per week and each email takes three minutes to read and respond to, then that teacher must dedicate up to 150 minutes of preparation time for emailing. This does not include the other 20 or so emails sent each day by administrators, other teachers, and the district, all of which leave little time for essential lesson planning. I have read student files that included as many as a 100 emails from the parent to the school; I find it hard to imagine how teachers and administrators are able to keep up. While the advantage of email is that it is a quick and easy form of communication, it can become problematic when not used with discretion.

All emails related to a student should become part of that student’s records. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act allows parents access to their child’s records, which include any information that is personally identifiable either by the child’s name, the parent’s or other family member’s name, or any information that would make the student’s identity easily traceable. Parents and teachers should be well aware of these facts in their email communications. As Peter and Pam Wright note in their book From Emotions to Advocacy, “Good records are essential to effective advocacy.”

Email can be an efficient way to build a record of issues and to document concerns. However, those very records built on emails can also be condemning for both parents and professionals. I have seen myriad cases in which the sheer quantity of emails sent shed an unfavorable light on the parents, depicting them as having unreasonable expectations.

I remind clients in my practice that they have the right and responsibility to regularly review their child’s records. In providing these records to parents, schools often need reminders to include emails with personally identifiable information. As a result, parents should always maintain copies of their communications with schools as part of their own records, to ensure this important documentation is not lost. My clients are often surprised to find that reviewing student records, including all pertinent emails, presents them with a more complete and vivid picture of their child’s educational experience over time.

• Email can become a very effective tool for parents, but it also can be a source of contention between parents and schools. In forming relationships with new teachers, it is imperative that parents are both savvy and mindful in their use of emails. As the 2008-2009 school year begins, I offer some guidelines for parents regarding emailing. In general, these were derived from lessons learned through my clients’ experiences. They are offered in no particular order.

• Email is best used in moderation. It is human nature for people to begin to devalue the information they receive in a constant barrage, much like with the boy who cried wolf. Email should make communication between parents and schools more convenient and efficient, rather than more onerous. Choose wisely what you communicate and how much you communicate. Keep emails short and to the point.

• Ask your child’s teacher and the principal if they have a policy on emailing. Some principals, in my experience, expect teachers to respond to emails within 24 hours, while others condone teachers never returning emails. It would be helpful to know your school’s guidelines or policies regarding emails at the onset of the school year.

• Do use email to document your concerns with the school related to your child’s needs. By addressing your issues early and in writing, you build a record of having expressed your concerns and the response you received. Additionally, using email to document a verbal exchange can both clarify your understanding and serve to document that exchange.

Save all email communications between you and the school. While you may never need to refer to them again, it is important to have access to them in case the interactions are called into question. Be sure your emails are included in your child’s records at school as well.

• Review your emails before sending them to be sure you are saying what you want to say in a way you want to say it. Keep in mind that your words may come back to haunt you. Be careful never to write an email in anger; allow yourself time to gain composure before writing an email to the school.

• Emails are great tools for clarifying vague issues that are not otherwise put into writing by the schools. Asking a teacher or administrator to provide a given policy in writing often fleshes out whether that is, indeed, a policy to which they can refer or simply a personal preference.

Ruth C. Heitin, Ph.D. is a special education consultant in private practice in Northern Virginia since 1992. Her website is www.educationalconsultingva.com. Dr. Heitin’s article, “When Parents and Schools Disagree.” has been widely published on the Internet. It can be found at: www.wrightslaw.com/info/advo.disagree.heitin.htm.

Dr. Heitin’s office phone number is 703-519-7181. Liana Heitin, M.Ed. is an aspiring education writer. She can be contacted at liana.heitin@gmail.com.

Therapeutic Play Challenge

By Christina Wallerstein, Playworks.net

Here's a challenge for you: design the perfect distraction toy for a child over the age of three. Of course, adults agree that all distraction toys need to be affordable, available, portable, safe, and easy to clean. Beyond our practical considerations, however, lies the key to success: child appeal. Unless a child finds a toy inviting and chooses to play, the toy, however well designed, is a dud.

So let's put on our thinking caps and consider our options:

What material attributes will the toy have? Will it be hard or soft? brightly colored? What will the toy do? Of course the child needs to provide the "fuel" to make it "go," no batteries required. Can the child play independently with this toy? Will playing with the toy be calming to the child? Will the experience improve his/her ability to focus and concentrate? Will the toy be "educational? enhance problem solving skills? deepen understanding of spatial relations?

I'm no toy designer, but lucky for us, Richard Zawitz is, and he invented what has to be a leading contender for the title of perfect distraction toy. Tangles, the ultimate universal playthings, feature a series of 90 degree curves interconnected to pivot 180 degrees at each joint. A Tangle has no beginning and no end, and there is no end to the delight children and adults alike experience when turning, twisting, bending and coiling a Tangle. Lightweight and portable, Tangles are the pinnacle of take along stress relievers.

Happily, Richard didn't stop with just one design. His creations vary in color schemes, the size of the curves, surface hardness, and texture. Some are smooth; others are textured. Some are hard plastic, others have a soft, pliable coating with distinctive raised tactile nodes. Some are large, others small.

The largest, Tangle Original with Texture, offers vibrant colors and five different textures. The links can be pulled apart and pushed together, building finger strength and improving hand-eye coordination; however, as a distraction toy, and I consider that its primary function, it invites being "fiddled with" - twisted, turned, bent, and coiled. All Tangles are child-powered, no batteries required.

The smallest and most affordable style, Tangle Junior Textured, is the perfect pocket distraction toy. I'd say the caution "don't leave home without it" applies to this toy. Having a stash of these could save the day. We all know what happens when a favorite, and successful, antidote to stress, goes missing.

For variety and to encourage observation of similarities and differences, offer the Junior Textured as a companion to the Original with Texture. Being small, Tangle Junior Textured fits easily inside a pocket of the Functional Uni4m [Playworks>Other Toys>Teaching & Learning Products] worn by a growing number of Applied Behavior Therapists.

My personal favorite is Tangle Therapy, the first Tangle with a soft, pliable coating and raised tactile nodes. I like its feel and find its easy to grip and manipulate surface encourages squeezing as well as twisting. Orthopedic surgeons recommend Tangle Therapy for patients needing to rehabilitate hand muscles and joints.

Tangle Relax Therapy is a smaller, more affordable version of Tangle Therapy. Offering a child a Tangle Junior Textured and a Tangle Relax Therapy provides another exercise in exploring similarities and differences.

Distraction toys are meant primarily to reduce stress and create calm, and for that Tangle is a perfect choice. Yet their benefits extend into the educational realm as well. Teachers who use Tangles as a reward for children with autism report improved behavior: an increased calm and ability to cope with stressors that usually send them "over the edge" as well as increases in skill acquisition. Tangles invite manipulation and reward play with improved concentration and spatial relations and problem solving skills.

Considering the affordability, with prices ranging from $3.50 to $12, portability, and all around appeal of Tangles, I'll give it my vote for perfect distraction toy.

How about you? Have you tried a Tangle with your child? If not, I encourage you to do so. You'll find a selection at
www.playworks.net (see Playworks.net >Manipulatives>Mazes & More).

If you have, I'd like to hear your experiences. Please e-mail me at christina@playworks.net. In return we will e-mail each contributor a coupon code for $5 off your next order of $10 or more as well as choose the most informative comments to post on our blog. Let's share and learn together.

Tax Planning for Parents of Children with Special Needs

By Karen F. Greenberg, MBA, CFP®

Parents or other caregivers of loved ones with special needs may qualify for valuable tax benefits, which may be overlooked by tax preparers who are unfamiliar with the autism and other spectrum disorders. These unique tax benefits may entitle parents to additional refunds of thousands of dollars.

Families often incur a myriad of expenses because of their child’s treatment and life style expenses, many of which are deductible as medical expenses.

Taxpayers who itemize deductions can claim medical expenses to the extent that they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income . The challenge is to be aware of which expenses may be allowable and to keep track of them.

Aside from the traditionally well-known medical expenses such as prescriptions, doctors and dental treatments, eyeglasses, lab and hospital tests, therapies and health insurance premiums, there are many other deductible expenses you may not readily think of.

Your physical or speech therapist may recommend certain activities, such as music lessons, gymnastics, horseback riding, swimming, or other sports activities as an adjunct to the therapy. These expenses, as well as travel to and from these activities are also deductible. Be sure to ask your therapist or doctor to write an updated note recommending the suggested activity for your tax files.

In addition, you may choose to attend workshops or informative seminars or conferences about your child’s disability and treatment. The cost of these conferences as well as travel and lodging costs ($50 per night per person) may be deductible.

If your child attends a special school, tuition costs, tutoring and educational supplies (such as software, books and videos as learning tools), which are designed to educate special needs children, may be deductible. Sign language instruction, speech therapy, remedial reading instruction and related books and materials, in addition to transportation including parking and tolls, are deductible.

The cost of diagnostic evaluations including testing by a speech-language pathologist, psychologist, neurologist, or other person with professional qualifications, may be deductible.

The cost of a patient care attendant (such as a babysitter or care giver) may also be deductible, so if you must hire someone to stay with your older child or adult child while you are out, keep the receipts for these expenses.

A capital expenditure, such as a home improvement or upgrade to make a home or auto handicap-accessible, qualifies as a medical expense if it has as its primary purpose the medical care of the disabled child, but only to the extent that it exceeds any increase in property value. Therefore, as an example, the partial cost of a home generator, if your child has an underlying health condition, (such as asthma) may be considered a qualified medical expense.

Over-the-counter medications that can be purchased without a doctor's prescription, such as aspirin, are not deductible. Nor is the cost of nutritional or herbal supplements, vitamins, and natural medicines are not deductible as medical expenses, unless they can be obtained legally only with a doctor's prescription. However, the cost of special foods, such as gluten-free products, may be deductible to the extent the cost exceeds regular food.

You should also be aware that a special needs trust may afford your family some tax benefits. An irrevocable special needs trust may be drafted by an attorney, as an estate planning tool. These trusts can also be a great way of saving for your child’s future care costs, and a supplement to governmental benefits your child may be entitled to.

Funds placed in a special needs trust are not counted as your child’s assets, and will not jeopardize needs based entitlements. If the special needs trust is properly drafted, it will be considered a “qualified disability trust,” which has a very generous standard deduction (equivalent to a personal exemption) currently $3500 under current 2009 treasury regulations. This means that the first $3500 of investment income generated by a special needs trust will be offset and therefore not taxable. The same investment income on your tax return may be taxed at your tax rate (currently 25-28% for most tax payers).

The special needs trust may be used to accumulate funds for the future, but may also be used for any currently-qualified special needs expense. Special needs trusts may be funded with any investments an individual can own, and can be a great way for grandparents or other family members to help provide for any current or future lifestyle expenses.

Remember to keep receipts, cancelled checks or credit card documentation along with your doctor or therapist written recommendation to secure these valuable deductions.

Karen F. Greenberg. MBA, CFP ® is the mother of an adult child with autism, a tax preparer and Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner. Her home office is located at 4673 Brady Blvd. in Delray Beach, FL 33445. (561) 638-6945. Email to KFGreenberg @ cs.com.

Is ABA Enough?

By: Pamela Vogelsang-Davis

ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis is a widely used method of teaching children with Autism based on the premise that appropriate behavior can be taught using certain scientific principles. Children are rewarded for appropriate behaviors usually with a token or a treat so that they are more likely to keep repeating those same behaviors. Eventually, the reinforcement is reduced so that the child can learn without constant rewards. ABA is one of the main types of therapy available for children with Autism. But used alone, is it enough to help the children use their learned behaviors in real world settings?

At Divine Academy, “Real World” Therapy is used in tandem with other types of therapy such as ABA where students are prompted to respond appropriately through everyday interactions. Their reward is that they get what they ask for, not just a token for giving a correct response within a controlled environment. Using ABA, students learn to say “spoon” when shown a spoon yet they may have trouble asking for one. In conjunction with “Real World” Therapy if students want a spoon, they must learn to identify one as well as learn how to ask for one using a complete sentence.

Both “Real World” Therapy and ABA conditions the child to give specific responses to specific questions but “Real World” Therapy also helps the students learn generalization through constant questions and answers between staff and students in a real world environment.

Students learn best using discreet trial training where skills are broken down into the smallest tasks and taught individually. Small skills are taught first and as each one is mastered, students learn more complicated skills. Many ABA programs also provide “errorless” learning so that the students are reinforced every time. This may teach the students to provide the correct response when given a certain prompt but it also causes them to be unable to accept mistakes within real life settings such as in the classroom and at home.

Using “Real World” Therapy, students learn that it is okay to make mistakes that it is okay to not give a correct response every time. They also learn that the real world must provide the reinforcer for the appropriate behavior, and that rewards may not always be tangible in the form of tokens and treats.

While other children learn from experience, far too many students with Autism sit at a table for hour after hour usually receiving 40 hours a week of therapy which can become quite tiring for the child. By using “Real World” Therapy, Divine Academy provides constant interactions that teach the students appropriate responses on a daily basis in a relaxed school setting with their peers. Parents are also taught how to elicit correct responses from their child by interacting with them constantly and requiring them to ask for things using complete sentences at all times so that it is used at home as well as in school. At Divine Academy, we design our program to work in conjunction with various forms of therapy to provide a conducive environment for the best overall success.

With any type of therapy, children need constant opportunities to apply what they have learned in the real world. Elementary age students and younger have more opportunities to interact with others on a daily basis within the school setting thus helping them to improve their generalization skills. Once they reach middle school, however, where social interactions get more complicated, they have less and less opportunities to interact and generalize their learned behaviors in real world settings. The transition into middle school coupled with the onset of puberty can be frustrating for the students.

At Divine Academy, this feeling of frustration is not felt which enables them to apply their learned behaviors with their peers.

So is ABA enough? That would depend on the individual needs of the child and how many opportunities there are to generalize the learned behaviors in real world settings. At Divine Academy, our unique program proves that our “Real World” Therapy does provide success for each of our students.

Through our constant interactions between our very professional and committed staff and our students, Divine Academy provides a cohesiveness that students are usually not accustomed to at first. Students are often surprised at how fast we get to know them, and how quickly they make new friends. It is the collaboration among teachers, therapists, and parents, which helps make our use of “Real World” Therapy in conjunction with other forms of therapy successful for our students.


Son’s Food Allergies Inspire Mom’s Business Venture

By Lynn Yeager

“Your son has autism.” Those words changed our lives, who we were, what westood for, and introduced us to a whole different world that we never knew existed. At that time, my husband nor I had any idea what that diagnosis would mean for our son, or for us, for that matter. We approached autism as two warriors on a mission. We found the best schools, therapists, doctors, and treatments available for our son. We knew that it would be our privilege to help our son be the best he could be and reach his own personal potential.

Early on, we figured out that Jacob had allergic reactions to foods. It started one Christmas when I was baking holiday treats. Every time I would pull out the nuts, Jacob would break out into hives. We also battled skin rashes and eczema that never seemed to go away. We would give him an antihistamine in the morning, another at night, and rub him down with steroid cream, but nothing really seemed to control the issue.

Once we really started working with our DAN! (Defeat Autism Now!) doctor and truly looking at Jacob’s blood, food sensitivities, metal levels, and nutrient deficiencies, we were finally able to start unraveling the mystery. We could control Jacob’s allergic reactions by eliminating certain foods. We eliminated gluten, casein, tree nuts, soy, and artificial flavorings and colorings. Soon after, we were able to eliminate the antihistamines and steroid creams because the eczema, hives and rashes were under control.

I never would have dreamed that food was responsible for a large part of our son’s misery. No wonder he couldn’t concentrate in the classroom or therapies—he itched uncontrollably. It also affected his sleeping patterns, because he would wake up itching and then not be able to go back to sleep so he was cranky on top of it all! It was a rough year for our entire household!

Now, we rarely have reactions to food, unless an ingredient somehow found it’s way into his diet. His school and teachers are very understanding and do not allow him to eat anything unless I send it from home. They also keep and arsenal of goodies in the cabinets and freezer so that Jacob is never left out when they are having special celebrations.

After our struggles with food allergies, one of my coworkers suggested that we create a business that would cater to parents and children in similar situations with special dietary needs. Our 7th and 8th grade students were eager to taste test our recipes, and we finally were able to fool them with our gluten and casein free chocolate chip cookie when compared to a traditional wheat based recipe. We started selling our frozen cookie dough to a small local natural foods store and then Whole Foods Markets discovered us! Since then, we have expanded into all of the Florida Whole Foods Markets, and even opened a gluten, casein, and nut free bakery in Jacksonville. We have plans to expand our bakery into other areas in Florida based on the overwhelming success we have experienced in Jacksonville.

All of this is because of a small boy that I call the light of my life. And…because of him, I decided to undergo food allergy and sensitivity testing. Guess who is now gluten and casein free among other things as well?

Autism: Burden or Blessing?

By Denise Meissner, OTR/L

Co-Founder and Owner of QCharm, LLC

Caring for someone with Autism can feel like a burden and a blessing. When I was an Occupational Therapy student, I worked 8 hours a day with students severely affected by Autism. One of the burdens I experienced was dealing with the students’ screams and outbursts when I had to transition them out of their favorite activities. On one particularly difficult day, I prayed out loud that if I ever have children, please don’t let them have Autism.

Seven years later I even wrote that in my first born son’s pregnancy journal. I just couldn’t imagine anything good coming out of parenting a child with Autism. Confident that my “no Autism” had been heard, I didn’t write it in my second son’s pregnancy journal. Coincidentally, he was born with Autism. Ultimately the blood work revealed that his Autism was related to his abnormal amount of chromosome #15.

The running “joke” in our family is that his Autism was my fault.

The first 4 years of our youngest son’s Autism (days and nights filled with outbursts, screaming, hitting, biting, throwing food, and throwing up), I most certainly felt burdened and punished. Emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained, I knew I didn’t have the skills or desire to deal with our son’s behaviors. It took several months to realize that our son’s Autism was allowing us to meet and work with experts who did have the skills and desires. Their behavior and communication techniques were just what we needed to elevate our level of parenting. Unlike families of “normal” children we were fortunate to receive their instruction, compassion, and encouragement. What a blessing!

It took 5 years for the shock of the Autism diagnosis to wear off and for the newly learned skills to set in. We were able to enjoy spending time with our son and to help him enjoy spending time with us. By the 6th year, I was well versed in the use of visual strategies and First____Then____ phrases. But there were two things driving me crazy. 1) The large box of visual cues was very difficult to transport within the home and out in the community and 2) the cues required significant chunks of time to create. So while I was cutting out squares of Boardmaker images, peeling laminating sheets and adhering Velcro strips, our son was spraying the backyard with an entire can of air freshener. “Mommy! I made the backyard smell pretty!” (“Great!”)

Then, one afternoon, it happened. Sitting on the bathroom floor, waiting for our son to finish his business, I realized that “down times” like this could be and must be used as teachable moments. The large box of carefully crafted visual cue cards was, naturally, out of reach. With our son’s history of behaviors, I was not about to leave the bathroom just to get a few cards.

What I did have on hand (literally) was a charm bracelet. Using the seashell and other beach related charms as visual cues, I explained what to expect during our upcoming beach trip. For example, we get to walk the beach to collect shells, we get to visit the place that teaches about turtles, and he must hold my hand to walk into the water. Ding ding ding ding! That’s it! I need to find a way to have his cues on my wrist. After much research, several phone calls and multiple emails, my husband and I successfully filed for the patent of our Portable and Visual Cueing System. Soon after, we joined forces with the two owners of EZBands to create QCharm, LLC. Now we were able to provide other caregivers and educators with images pad printed onto ½ inch by ½ inch flat-surface plastic charms that clipped to a 100% silicone wristband and a keychain version of the band. These ready-made cues can be worn on the wrist or attached to a belt loop (or backpack strap, etc). They are easy to transport, manage, and reference. It’s like breaking away from a desktop computer to a cell phone and providing classroom-like structure in any setting.

Based on customer feedback and with our contractual agreement with Mayer-Johnson, LLC, we have expanded our charm inventory to include nearly 200 ready-to-print Boardmaker images. This allows us to create pre-fab kits (5/10/30 charms per kit) and to customize kits. Soon we will upgrade our website (
www.qcharm.com) to reveal our list of charms and kits. Meanwhile, customers can request information via email (info@qcharm.com). Then we will send the list of images.

After creating kits for customers’ personal use, gifts and fundraisers, I thank our son for being the catalyst for QCharm. His Autism, which once felt like a burden, has become a meaningful way to serve others. What a blessing!

To arm yourself with visual cues and capture teachable moments, please contact us:

QCharm.com, info@qcharm.com, 888-498-1115.

Give a Dog a [Gluten-Free] Bone

Around the world, dogs consistently give comfort, security, and unconditional love to their families. While all children develop a unique and special bond with their pets, the connection of an autistic child with his or her beloved dog is often a shining example of the power of this amazing relationship. The emotional bonding that occurs between the dog and child can build a steady, special companionship that can help to promote a calm, safe environment.

One of the many ways that people bond with their canines is through regular behaviors, such as meal time and treats. Many families coping with autism successfully incorporate a gluten-free lifestyle as part of their treatment plan.

For consistency and pantry safety, some may also want to make their dog’s meals and snacks gluten-free. While both public awareness and product availability have increased over the past few years, finding gluten-free alternatives can still be a challenge.

One company, SunnyPaw, based in Pennsylvania, makes small-batch, organic, gluten-free dog treats, and will ship anywhere in the United States. The company was inspired by their snack-loving dog, Sarah, a cavalier spaniel mix. During product development, they realized the importance and need for gluten-free alternatives for dogs. Several different flavors are available, including their best seller “Yammies”, chewy snack sticks made with fresh organic yams, and fun flavors like “PB & J”, crunchy unsalted organic peanut butter biscuits topped with organic blueberries.

SunnyPaw’s treats use all gluten-free ingredients, so there is no risk of cross-contamination, which otherwise could occur if gluten-containing products were manufactured using the same equipment. During production, SunnyPaw does not use any non-stick sprays or soy-derived emulsifiers, which often contain soy lecithin; minute amounts of soy protein can still exist during the manufacturing of lecithin, which can trigger reactions, even in minute quantities. The ingredients of each SunnyPaw treat are listed on the product information pages on their website, and ingredient nutrient information is presented on their Pantry page.

SunnyPaw takes great pride in making products that are not only healthful and delicious, but that are also mindful of the environment. SunnyPaw’s treat boxes are made in the USA from 100% recycled boxboard, their sealed treat bags are compostable / biodegradable, and their labels and promotional materials are printed in-house with soy ink.

SunnyPaw also makes hand-crafted, solid-oak feeding stations: sturdy, elevated platforms to offer food and water at a comfortable height, your choice of three sizes/stains; and 100% organic cotton “walking scarves”: all-season, hand-knit scarves with a pocket, perfect for holding keys, phone, or treats when out walking, your choice of four colors.

SunnyPaw is grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the daily lives of families around the country. They believe that “radiant happiness, abundant wellness, and a healthy Earth belong to everyone, including our companion animals.”

SunnyPaw offers free samples of their dog treats. Contact them at 484-879-2998 or
pawprint@sunnypaw.com, or go to their website: www.SunnyPaw.com.


By Michele Weppner


Marinate chicken with chopped garlic, olive oil, lime juice, chili powder, cumin, and oregano. Let it sit for about 30 minutes or overnight.
Sauté in a hot pan with olive oil, cooking the chicken thoroughly. Let it cool so you can handle the mixture. Shred with knife adding your favorite topping such as lettuce, tomatoes, or salsa.

For beef or Turkey tacos, I like to add some chopped onion to the sauté, following the above recipe.

Cook rice per package directions adding some cilantro to the water.

You can use either black beans from a can or dried beans from a package. MAKE SURE YOU USE ORGANIC BEANS. Heat thoroughly till done.

There you have it ... a Mexican dinner Gluten Free/Caesin Free. You still can have your favorite foods, you just need to substitute a few things. Go more Natural, Tacos seasoning mixes have lost of artificial flavorings such as monosodium glutamate, not good for our kids. Cook with fresh foods and spices.

Michele Weppner is the mother and care giver of an autistic child. She is also the President of Fund for H.O.P.E, Inc., a not for profit 501c foundation dedicated to raising funds in order to assist low income families with autistic children to receive alternative therapies.www.fundforhope.commicheleweppner@belllsouth.net

Kay's Cookie Parfait

At Kay’s Naturals we have surveyed the vast landscape of so-called nutritious foods and determined that the missing link is a Better Balance™ of protein, carbohydrates, fiber and fats. Kay’s all-natural, gluten-free line seeks to fill this gap with food that has a healthy balance of great taste, low calories, lean soy protein, zero cholesterol, lower carbohydrates and fiber. Our foods also provide a complete amino acid profile.

Kay's Naturals has chosen to focus on a healthier balance of ingredients:
30-35% natural soy protein
10-18% healthy fats
10-12% fiber
20-40% carbohydrates
Every 1-ounce (28g) serving has:
8-10gnatural soy protein
100 -110 calories
9g -13g carbohydrates
1g – 3g fiber
Low saturated fats/no trans fats


A gluten free diet can be beneficial for many different reasons. Gluten-free diets are necessary for those who are gluten or wheat intolerant and those who have Celiac disease. Diets free of gluten can also benefit those with autism, autoimmune diseases, people who suffer with migraines, Lyme disease, and several other medical conditions. We, at Kay's Naturals, understand the importance of a gluten-free diet and because of this we test every batch of product for gluten-free before shipping.

Kay's Cookie Parfait

1/2 cup of your favorite yogurt
1/4 cup of Kay's Naturals GFree Cinnamon or Honey Cookie Bites, crushed
1 handful of berries: strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries
A sprinkle of fresh ground cinnamon

Mix ingredients together and enjoy a delicious, gluten-free, high protein treat!

Austria’s Finest, Naturally FALL HARVEST SALAD

Ingredients: (makes 2-3 servings)

2 Tablespoons Austria’s Finest, Naturally PUMPKIN SEED OIL
1-2 Tablespoons Austria’s Finest, Naturally BLACKBERRY or SCHILCHER VINEGAR** (depending on taste)
1 Pear
1 Apple (sweet varieties are best)
1 bunch of Grapes (red or white) If large grapes, best to halve or quarter them
2 cups Mixed Garden Salad Greens, or favorite lettuce
1-2 ounces Austria’s Finest, Naturally NATURAL or LIGHTLY SALTED PUMPKIN SEEDS


Dice apples and pear; toss with grapes, seeds, and lettuce. Place individual servings on plates. Mix Oil and Vinegar (some add a dash of salt & pepper) and pour over salads.

*During the Spring and Summer, this makes a great dressing over conventional salads
**Try the other flavors of Austria’s Finest, Naturally® vinegar to add variety to your salads!


Austria's Finest, Naturally Pumpkin Oil Bread Dip
(makes 2-3 servings)

Ingredients: (per serving)

2 teaspoons of Austria's finest, naturally Pumpkin Seed Oil
French, Italian, Gray, or your favorite Bread


Pour into a small bowl with a large opening, slice bread into small pieces, ENJOY!

Austria's Finest, Naturally Roasted Poultry


Turkey or Chicken
Fresh Herbs (Sage, Rosemary, Thyme)
1 small Onion
1 small Apple
1 small Pear
1 Cup Wild Rice
1 Cup Diced Celery
1 Tablespoon chopped Austria's finest, naturally Pumpkinseeds
3-4 Tablespoons Austria's Finest, Naturally Pumpkin Seed Oil


Cook the Wild Rice according to directions. Divide the fresh Herbs. Dice the Apple, Pear, Onion and Celery, and mix together with the Wild Rice and Pumpkinseeds and Half of the Fresh Herbs. Stuff the cavity of the Poultry with the mixture. Create a pocket between the meat and skin on top of the Poultry. Place remaining Fresh Herbs into pocket and pour the Austria's finest, naturally Pumpkin Seed Oil into pocket. Return skin. Bake poultry according to directions for weight. Austria's finest, naturally

Austria’s Finest, Naturally™ Corn Salad
(serves 2-3)


1 Can Whole Kernel Corn Drained Fresh Garlic to taste (2 cloves recommended)
¼ Medium Bell Pepper (Diced) 1 Small (Roma size) Tomato Diced
2 Tablespoons (or to taste) Pumpkin Seed Oil
2 Tablespoons (or to taste) Honey Vinegar (Oak Aged Apple is also very good)
Salt & Pepper to taste


Combine all ingredients, mix well and let stand at room temperature at least an hour (refrigerating overnight is best) mixing occasionally and then serve.