Praise for A Full Life with Autism

Lars Perner, Ph.D., Chair, Panel of People on the Spectrum of Autism Advisors for the Autism Society of America, and Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing, USC, had this to say about A Full Life with Autism:

Each individual on the spectrum is unique and will need personally tailored supports.  At the same time, because of autism’s complexities and seemingly contradictory characteristics, it is often difficult to get a view of the “big picture” of a life on the spectrum and the challenges that it presents.  In their very comprehensive—yet highly readable—book, Chantal and Jeremy succeed in addressing both of these concerns.

Although ample resources for addressing the diverse needs of individuals on the spectrum are presented, the case Jeremy illustrates the types of challenges, surprises, and opportunities  that may come up as an individual develops.  Chantal talks about initially not expecting Jeremy even to finish high school and subsequently being able to help him not just graduate but go on to college.  An especially intriguing issue discussed involved helping Jeremy understand that a girlfriend is not something that can just be “hired” in the way that one can secure aides and support workers—an issue that only the most clairvoyant parent might have anticipated. Although optimistic and filled with humor, the book clearly acknowledges challenges that this family faced and those that will likely be faced by others—including obstacles to finding long term housing opportunities and healing from traumatic events.

Although much of the writing is done by Chantal, Jeremy is a consistent, creative, and innovative contributor, talking candidly about his own experiences that have led to the lists of tips that he presents.  I especially love his observation that rights of disabled individuals “are founded on the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.”  The book’s extensive list of issues that may come up will unquestionable leave many families much better prepared for handling the challenges that will come up over the years.

A Full Life with Autism: Comments by Dr. Cathy Pratt

Unfortunately, many adults on the autism experience high rates of unemployment or underemployment.  Some of our most gifted live in poverty and have few options in life.   Chantal and Jeremy have creatively worked to create an engaged life for Jeremy and his family.   This book provides very practical ideas for transition planning and provides a template that others can use as they support adults moving into adulthood.   I highly recommend this for any family or individual as they  prepare for transition planning.

 

Dr. Cathy Pratt, BCBA-D, Director- Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community; Former President of the Autism Society of America

SOLANA BEACH: Nonverbal autistic student to give commencement address

Torrey Pines’ Jeremy Sicile-Kira clears big hurdles on road to graduation

Published on the front page of The North County Times

By CHRISTINA LOPEZ

Most people would consider scaling Mount Everest or winning a Nobel Peace Prize an impressive feat, but Jeremy Sicile-Kira —- who was diagnosed at age 3 with severe autism —- is scaling heights that are equally impressive.

On Friday, the 21-year-old is set to become the first nonverbal autistic student to receive a full academic diploma from Torrey Pines High School, San Dieguito Union School District officials said.

He will also give the school’s commencement address, which has been prerecorded using a computer voice generator that translated his typed speech into an audio file burned onto a CD.

Sicile-Kira communicates by using what is known as Rapid Prompting Method, a system that requires intense focus and participation by aides or other caregivers to keep him on task.

In Sicile-Kira’s case, his mother, Chantal, and aides use prompts —- snapping their fingers or pointing at familiar objects —- as they ask questions.

He then points with one finger to a letter board or keyboard to spell out his answers.

“My mom tells me that no one is better than anyone else,” Sicile-Kira said in an interview last week, using his laminated keyboard, and assisted by his mother. “We know that we should try our best.”

Autism is a range of complex neurological disorders characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties and repetitive behavior patterns, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Many people with autism are diagnosed as toddlers. In severe cases, children with autism appear to be locked in their own worlds, unable to communicate.

Chantal Sicile-Kira said her son began showing signs of autism when he was 9 months old.

“He didn’t move. He didn’t develop right away,” she said. “I had to fight to find out about Jeremy’s condition.”

In the years since, she said, her son has gone through home schooling, special education and many different therapies, but couldn’t spell out words until he was 14 years old and began learning RPM.

“I really believe in the impossible,” she said.

At Friday’s commencement ceremony, Sicile-Kira —- decked out in cap and gown —- will deliver his speech to 619 fellow graduates.

His sister, Rebecca, 18, is graduating earlier Friday from Canyon Crest Academy and will be in the audience during the 4 p.m. Torrey Pines ceremony.

“The staff and the students know him so well —- they’ll be encouraging him,” she said about her brother’s participation in the event. “I think people will be proud of him when he delivers the speech.”

Bruce Cochrane, executive director of student services for the San Dieguito Union High School District, has worked with Sicile-Kira for the past three years and is just one of the many people who helped him reach this goal.

“Jeremy is an incredible young man,” Cochrane said. “I think as he has matured, his skills and talent have flourished. (He) has been able to communicate at a greater level and really show people his intelligence.”

Sicile-Kira is able to earn his diploma under a state law that gives special education students until age 22 to do so.

He completed the necessary course work and passed the California Exit Exam on his first try.

Sicile-Kira’s mother said she never believed the naysayers who told her when the boy was young that he would have few options in life.

“Once they diagnosed him, I was told to find him a good institution,” she said. “And I have —- it’s called college.”

In the fall, Sicile-Kira will enroll at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, with an interest in journalism; he hopes to write for the college newspaper.

Until then, his summer plans include financing a two-week trip to New York City. He also plans to publish his first book and establish an online newsletter geared toward helping families understand children with disabilities such as autism.

“I think I greatly inspire others by my ability to continue to learn and not give up on my dreams,” he said.

An author, speaker and autism expert, Chantal Sicile-Kira is working on her fourth book on autism and says she has learned much from her son in the years since his diagnosis.

“We raised him to never feel sorry for himself,” Chantal Sicile-Kira said. “He’s a big inspiration to me. He has taught me patience and has actually made me into a stronger person.”

The message Sicile-Kira wants to convey to the class of 2010 is to focus on a goal and never give up on yourself.

“When I first arrived, I had no way to communicate,” he said. “But over the years, I learned how to spell, and my life changed from one of loneliness to one of having great teachers and an education.”

It Takes An Army

Graduating high school was not one of the goals I had for Jeremy. Now he’s college bound.

In 2007, my son Jeremy walked the graduation ceremony at the local high school along with the other seniors from his severely handicapped class. On June 18, he will be walking the graduation ceremony again, in the same gold and scarlet robe he wore three years ago. This time however, he will have earned and will receive a full academic diploma. He has a GPA of 3.5. For me, this is unbelievable. Graduating high school was not one of the goals I had for Jeremy. The goals I had were mostly those based on functional living skills.

When Jeremy was diagnosed, I was told to find a good institution for him. I don’t think the medical professional who diagnosed him meant “college,” but that is where he is headed. People ask me how Jeremy made it to this point, and the truth is, there is no short answer. Like most parents, I started out hoping to find that “one thing” that was going to make a huge difference in Jeremy’s life, that would improve his chances of overcoming the challenges he faced. But I soon realized that there is no magic bullet.

Jeremy, now 21, has received numerous treatments, therapies, and educational strategies (some of which he still continues) with acronyms such as ABA, TEACCH, OT, SI, AIT, VT, RPM, and some biomedical interventions including methyl B12, HBOT and more. All of them have helped somewhat, some more than others. But the most important ingredient to Jeremy’s success has been the same that it is for all of us: having the right people as teachers and mentors – people who believe in you, who motivate you to do your best. People who see beyond the label and who are willing to see the person. People who are willing to try different ways of reaching and connecting with the student, when the traditional ones do not appear to be working.

Any tasks requiring motor planning and sensory processing have always been extremely difficult for Jeremy. My office is full of binders that include Jeremy’s task analysis and data sheets for all kinds of skill acquisition such as fastening pants and brushing teeth. When he was younger, many educators and other professionals took Jeremy’s inability to respond as a lack of intelligence, rather than as challenges due to visual processing issues and difficulties in initiating and controlling his motor planning. Teaching methods based on visual strategies did not work with Jeremy. He is not a visual learner, and his visual processing was not working correctly, but no one recognized that at the time.

When he started high school, Jeremy attended a class for the severely handicapped at the local school. When Jeremy’s teacher, Rachel Page, came to our house for a home visit and saw how I was teaching Jeremy to point to letters to spell words. Jeremy had been taught by Soma Mukhopadhyay twice a month, over a period of 14 months, using the Rapid Prompting Method she had developed, and I continued to work with Jeremy using this method of teaching. Rachel tried what she had observed at school and was successful. By then, I had had enough battles with the powers that be to even consider asking them to use an unknown method to try and teach Jeremy. (The year before, Jeremy had come home from the middle school with rug burns on his chest and back inflicted unknowingly by an inexperienced occupational therapist, and had ended up filing for due process when the school district refused to provide training. At the IEP meeting I had requested, the OT said she didn’t need anymore training. No comment.) I had decided to do what I did at home and to just focus on Jeremy having a safe environment at school and coming home unmarked.

Rachel then invited me to the classroom to show her and Jeremy’s paraprofessionals how I was teaching Jeremy at home. At an IEP meeting, it was decided by the IEP team to allow Jeremy to attend one general education class on a trial basis. This was a major victory for Jeremy at this school district at that time.
Jeremy’s most important growth period came over the next three years, thanks to Allan Gustafson. Allan was Jeremy’s second teacher in the SH classroom and is the best teacher that Jeremy has ever had. He helped Jeremy—and all his students—grow not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. To give you an idea of the type of teacher Allan is, read Allan’s assessment of Jeremy for an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP) meeting in 2006. It says it all about the type of person he is:

“Jeremy is a complicated young man who people cannot judge on appearance. A good metaphor would be to describe Jeremy like as an artichoke. Each leaf on the artichoke has to be taken separately, each having its own characteristics. As you go through each layer of the leaves, it becomes more apparent that there might be something inside, something worth getting to. It takes time to get there, but there is a heart inside, worth the time and effort to expose, as some people say is the prize for the patience of delving through the layers of leaves. Jeremy is this man.”

In June 2007, Jeremy was technically a senior and it was time for him to attend the off-site transition program, thus his participation in the high school graduation ceremony. By that time, Jeremy had made it clear that he enjoyed learning, and wanted to continue learning even if he was no longer on a high school campus. Some of his IEP goals by then included preparing him for taking the GED sometime down the line while attending community college. It was clear that he was capable of doing that, although I would never have though that possible a few years earlier.

However, Jeremy did not handle the transfer out of high school into the transition program well at all. Meanwhile, my father was dying from lung cancer and I was traveling a lot to helping him and my mom, who lived two hours away. I wasn’t able to work towards changing the situation. Bruce Cochrane, an administrator new to the school district (now head of Pupil Services), became concerned about the complete change in Jeremy, from a model special education student to a non-compliant, unhappy and disruptive person. Bruce started asking questions, studying Jeremy’s school records, interviewing teachers, observing Jeremy. Jeremy, still considered a transition student, was moved back to the high school where his behavior improved. He continued on a couple of workability projects, but started taking general education classes again.

Then, at an IEP meeting, Bruce brought up the question – was Jeremy interested in working towards obtaining his diploma? According to Jeremy’s official transcripts, Jeremy needed more credits in certain subject areas, and he needed to pass the California High School Exit Exam, which is routinely given to tenth grade students. Students are allowed six chances to pass this test. The IEP team recommended that the test be given to Jeremy the first time as a baseline, if he was interested in trying to get his diploma. Jeremy surprised us all by passing on his first attempt all the parts of the test he was given. However, for some reason, the school did not administer the essay part of the test, and Jeremy had to retake the complete English section of the test a few months later. Again he passed. Since then, he has steadily been taking two classes a semester towards his diploma.

This June, I am doubly blessed. Not only is Jeremy graduating from Torrey Pines High School, his sister, Rebecca, is graduating from the other high school in our area, Canyon Crest Academy. I am proud of both of them, and thankful for the educators that have crossed their paths, not to mention the army of paraprofessionals, therapists, support staff and other professionals who have joined us on our journey. Clearly, there is not one magic bullet. Rather, it takes an army, and we will never forget them.

This article was first published in Spectrum Magazine, June/July 2010 issue.

The Horse Boy: Looking for Answers to Autism With Horses in Mongolia

On Tuesday, May 11, The Horse Boy airs nationally 10pm EDT on the PBS series Independent Lens.

The Horse Boy is a film about a dad (Rupert Isaacson) and a mom (Kristin Neff ) who are trying to do what hundreds of thousands of families in America do every day – search for a way to reach their child with autism. Only, we don’t look so good doing it and we usually stay pretty close to home.

Rupert is a past professional horse trainer, writer and journalist as well as a human rights advocate for tribal peoples. Rupert’s wife and Rowan’s mother, Kristin, is a tenured professor of psychology, and has been a practicing Buddhist for more than 10 years. She is well known for her researches into the Buddhist concept of self-compassion and its correlation with positive mental health. When Rupert witnessed the amazing way in which their son Rowan, who had autism, connected with their horses in Texas, they started to wonder if there was a place on earth that combined healing and horses. They discovered that the nomadic horse life is still lived by most of the people Mongolia, and it is also the one country where shamanism–healing at its most raw and direct–is the state religion. So off they went.

All right, so maybe we all can’t grab our kids with autism and take off for Monglolia and ride horses and experience ritual healings with the reindeer people. I know my area’s Regional Center isn’t going to pay for it and neither is the school district. However, the point of the movie is best highlighted by Michel Orion Scott (director and cinematographer) of “The Horse Boy” when he is asked what he thinks ‘healed’ or helped Rowan. His answer:

“I don’t know … but what I do know is that, if there was one thing it could be contributed to, without a doubt, it is that the parents took that extra step to follow their child into the unknown. To allow themselves to trust the love they have for their son and to do whatever it took to find a way into his life.”

It’s a good reminder, as parents to follow your instincts, observe and listen to your child. Cheesy as it may sound, follow your heart. It’s sound advice. Though Rowan, Rupert and Kristin are in Mongolia, they encounter the same trails and tribulations that most parents with autism do. We hear Rupert exclaim,

“Sometimes it is like he (Rowan) is leaping forward and sometimes it is like he is totally regressing.”

Who can’t relate to that? What parent doesn’t feel that anguish every time there is a ‘setback’? Your child or teen goes back to some disruptive or unhappy behavior, and you are filled with the double anguish of not being able to figure out how to make him feel better, and the fear that it may not be just a temporary regression.
With all the ups and downs we parents of children with autism have to face, it’s nice to see inspirational movies such as this one from time to time. The scenery is beautiful and it’s a pleasure to watch a movie about autism that doesn’t take place in a classroom. It’s also good to know that Rupert and Kristin have used the profits from the book The Horse Boy to found the nonprofit Horse Boy Foundation, which offers the chance to ride and benefit from close contact with horses, other animals, and nature. They welcome families to spend time there.

My favorite line in the movie is when Rupert says:

“We’re gonna climb up 12,000 feet to perform 4 hour healing rituals with shamans, isn’t that what all families do?”

Rupert was being sarcastic, but the answer is, “Yes.” Yes, it is what all of us parents do. We get up and we climb mountains every day, in order to help our children. Sometimes the shamans are helpful, and sometimes they are not, and often it is hard to tell the difference. Watch this film, and you’ll be inspired to continue climbing those mountains. You know it’s worth every step.

HBO: A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism

International Autism Awareness Day is on Friday, April 2nd and what better way to celebrate than by watching an HBO documentary about a family from Iceland that travels to the United Kingdom, Denmark, and many different states in the US to find ways to help their child with autism?

Producer Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir decided to film her search to find help for her son, Keli, who is ten years old and severely effected by autism. Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridksson (the Oscar nominee Children of Nature), and narrated by Oscar winner Kate Winslet, the film takes us to different places where Margret interviews parents, advocates, scientists and professionals. Temple Grandin, Ph.D., whose life story recently aired on HBO, provides insight, as does Dr. Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of Autism Speaks. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, and Dr. David G. Amaral, research director, Mind Institute also provide food for thought.

This documentary does not sugarcoat autism, or celebrate it, or cure it. The movie’s strength lies in that it shows the heart-wrenching reality of what families have to go through to get assessments, diagnosis and advice; it shows the reality of the pain parents feel when their bubbly, verbal child regresses and becomes autistic. We visit with families who have more than one child with autism. A Mother’s Courage does not try to cover all the autism treatments and therapies (i.e., biomedical interventions); it would take a series to do that, not just one film. Instead, the last half part of the film focuses on what Margret has found that works with her child, the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM).

This HBO film is a good resource for promoting community awareness that families can share with their relatives and neighbors. They will gain a better understanding of what families effected by autism go through every day (the motivation behind my writing the recently published book, 41 Things to Know About Autism).

A Mother’s Courage shows us how caring and concerned professionals are; they don’t have all the answers though they wished they did. Joseph E. Morrow, Ph.D., BCBA
and Brenda J. Terzich-Garland, M.A., BCBA founders of Applied Behavior Consultants (ABC ) in Sacramento say that 40 % of the children who attend ABC school at an early age (where they receive intensive therapy based on the principles of applied behavior analysis, ABA) are able to be integrated in their neighborhood school after two years. We are left thinking, but what about the other kids — the kids that make some progress with ABA but never learn to communicate past the “I want” step with the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) or never get past three-word sentences?

In the film, we find out that luckily, Portia Iverson and Jonathan Shestack, co-founders of Cure Autism Now, wondered the same thing, and brought Soma Mukhopadhyay to the United States after hearing about how Soma had developed a method to teach her son, Tito.

Margret visits Soma, now the Educational Director of HALO (Helping Autism Through Learning and Outreach) based in Austin, and meets Linda Lange, founder of HALO and other parents and their children. For parents of children with autism who are not familiar with the Rapid Prompting Method, this is the part of the movie that will enlighten them to another possible method for teaching academics and communication. RPM is not a miracle cure, it’s a way to try and reach children using the learning modality that works best for them. The footage of Soma working with Keli gives a good overview of RPM.

My son Jeremy was taught by Soma for a year and a half on a bi-monthly basis when she lived in California. Recently Jeremy wrote an article on How The Rapid Prompting Method Gave Me A Voice. After watching A Mother’s Courage he spelled,

“I am really glad to see people talking about people like me. The fact is, there are many of us. I think there needs to be more understanding. I get frustrated by people not realizing I am smart. But I know I am one of the lucky ones because my mom found a way for me to learn and communicate and the school continued.”

I wish there would have been a better choice made for the final scenes of the movie. Whereas Soma is down to earth and logical, the music took on heavenly tones and rose to a crescendo with angels singing in the background. The symbolic last scene of mother and son walking though a fog with the sun and heavenly music breaking through was heavy-handed.

Much better to have ended on Soma’s words — realistic and inspirational in a practical manner:

“What we have to do now is to educate him so he becomes aware of what he is capable of and lives according to his capability.”

Isn’t that what all parents strive for and want for their children?

How the Rapid Prompting Method Gave Me A Voice

My son, Jeremy Sicile-Kira, wrote the article below about the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) which appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Autism File. If you watch the HBO movie on April 2, A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, you will see  Soma Mukhopadhyay teaching a child using RPM.

Litewriter

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How the Rapid Prompting Method Gave Me A Voice

Having Autism is hard enough, especially when it comes to communication for people who are non-verbal like myself. The Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) is not only a learning method but a door to open-ended communication for different people with autism. It is my good fortune to have been taught by Soma  Mukhopadhyay, who pioneered  RPM.

Soma, originally from India,  has a son with autism named Tito, who is the mighty inspiration  behind RPM.  Soma needed to create a method that would help him not only  to learn, but to communicate as well. Soma was frustrated with the schools in India, where they lived, because they wouldn’t accept Tito as a student. Just like they told my parents in France, where I was born, they told Soma that Tito was mentally retarded. I was “diagnosed” with mental retardation too, yet here we are both using RPM to discuss our similar past experience.

RPM is a method that  can be used with different people as it is adapted to the needs of each individual. Some are auditory learners, some are visual learners and the RPM teacher uses the learning channel that is best for that person.  RPM uses a “teach and ask” paradigm for eliciting responses through intensive verbal, visual and or tactile prompts.  RPM starts with the idea that all students are capable of learning. Despite behaviors, the academic focus of every RPM lesson is designed to activate the reasoning part of the brain so the students becomes distracted and engaged in the learning. The prompting competes with student’s self-stimulatory behavior. Continue reading »