Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Horizons Club Visit (Kate Altman, M.S.)

The other night I had the pleasure of visiting the New Horizons Club, a social club in the Philadelphia area for adults on the autism spectrum.  I have visited this group a few times over the past couple of years, and I was shocked by how large it has grown; there were over 30 people in attendance at the monthly meeting.  In addition to meeting each month, members (usually in smaller groups) participate in social outings and activities.  These range from everything to a night of bowling to a weekend trip to the beach.  Group members are 18 years-old to middle-aged with everything in between.  Oh, and the group is nearly half female right now.

As I walked into the room (I was there to give a short, informal presentation), many of the group members cheered and greeted me warmly.  Everyone introduced themselves.  They asked about my baby and asked to see pictures.  As I presented, many members asked pertinent questions, shared interesting comments, and were an appreciative and supportive audience.  Several people disclosed their own stories and struggles, and one married couple even described how they fell in love.

I had a wonderful time with this group, and floated out of the meeting at the end of the night, buoyed by enthusiasm from the members.  I am in awe of how incredibly powerful and important a social group like the New Horizons club is for adults on the autism spectrum.  I desperately wish more such groups existed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

LGBTQ Adolescents: The Importance of Support (Kate Altman, M.S.)

Last week at the conference I had the privilege of attending an excellent workshop on treating adolescents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).  I was saddened to hear that LGBTQ individuals continue to have the highest rate of suicide and suicide attempts among adolescents.  I had heard this statistic before, but was hoping it had diminished recently.  I live in a very accepting community, work in a field that supports the fact that homosexuality is a biologically-determined sexual orientation (read about the American Psychological Association's position on homosexuality here), and have a gay brother I adore, so I sometimes forget how much adversity and rejection many (probably most) LGBTQ individuals face--particularly adolescents.  Pre-teens and teenagers--who are already at more risk for bullying and rejection than adults, regardless of sexual orientation--often face even more social and family hurdles than adult LGBTQ individuals.

Another interesting statistic I learned about in the workshop indicates that adolescent females who identify as lesbian or bisexual are even more at risk for teen pregnancy than their heterosexual counterparts.  The presenter hypothesized that parents and educators are less likely to talk with these girls about safe sex, because they either know or perceive they are gay or bisexual.  Furthermore, LGBTQ youth in general are more likely to abuse substances than heterosexual teens(another troubling statistic), and substance abuse can lead to unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancy.

Ultimately, the workshop elucidated how important it is that we support LGBTQ adolescents, and offer them excellent counseling options during this often difficult stage of development.  By ignoring and diminishing their needs, we risk literally losing these children.

Looking for more information on psychotherapy services for LGBTQ individuals?  Contact Alternative Choices at (215) 592-1333.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reflecting on Alternative Choices (Kate Altman, M.S.)

On Wednesday, after we wrapped up the workshop on positive psychology interventions for individuals with ASD, several audience members came up to me to ask about Alternative Choices and the services we offer. These were all psychologists who were interested in referring their patients to a practice that specializes in treating individuals on the spectrum. Unfortunately, a practice with this expertise is rare, so people are often very excited to hear about Alternative Choices. It feels good to be able to tell therapists, parents, and individuals with ASDs that I can refer them for help at a place that is well-prepared to meet their needs and exceed their expectations. The practice offers treatment not only for children and adolescents on the spectrum, but adults with ASDs as well; they also do comprehensive assessments to determine if a person should be diagnosed with an ASD (again, both children AND adults).

However, one of the main reasons I originally chose to contact Alternative Choices about doing a practicum there for school (which eventually led to employment) was not only the strong reputation for treating ASDs, but because it is also a well-rounded practice proficient in serving all kinds of populations and treating all kinds of diagnoses and issues. The therapists on staff do couples counseling, family therapy, individual therapy, and therapy with children and adolescents, and treat everything from depression and anxiety to trauma to postpartum depression (and much more). As a student and new therapist, I knew I would get a well-rounded experience. Now that I am often out in the community giving presentations, I am happy that I can refer people to a practice for a variety of reasons and know they will receive excellent care.

Interested in learning more about Alternative Choices? Visit this website and you can also call 215-592-1333 and leave a message so that someone can call you back to speak with you specifically about your needs.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Autistic Like Me": A Fathers Day Commentary by Robert Naseef

Film Director Charles Jones was speechless with excitement when he held his son for the first time. He put his feelings into words in his YouTube video “Autistic Like Me” which a a teaser for a documentary in production at

“When he arrived I had a son, a miniature version of me. I had someone to whom I could impart my values. For a father, a son is a mirror in which he sees himself, and I couldn’t wait to watch him grow. I would teach him everything I know in order that one day he would be a better version of me.” As I related to Charles, I reflected how I also wanted to be a better version of my father when I held my son Tariq for the first time 31 years ago.

Two and a half years later, the mirror broke for Charles when Malik Jones was diagnosed with autism. “It was like a rebirth, only this time I was devastated…I felt guilt, shame, hurt, and most of all cheated. Why me? Why Malik?”

For Charles and other fathers, especially those with autistic boys, the “broken mirror” leaves us powerless and shamed. We love our children and don’t want to fail them. This sequence occurs for men generally as described by psychologist David Wexler in “Men in Therapy”. “Autistic Like Me” resonates with the fathers who have watched the video with me in groups at conferences around the country and in my office in Philadelphia. Hearing from Charles has helped open up powerful and liberating conversations.

When it comes to emotions, there is a male imperative to “suck it up.” Expressing tender feelings is traditionally seen as weak. So men tend to cry on the inside, as my father told me he learned in the orphanage where he grew up. On the outside we may be grumpy and irritable, but on the inside we are hurting. Life doesn’t stand still and wait for us. Our families need us to express ourselves, and to show up and be present day by day.

Since expressing vulnerable feelings violates unwritten and unspoken male gender codes, asking a male how he feels evokes an automatic “I don’t know” response resulting in frustration and distance for his partner. So what helps men to express themselves especially when they experience a broken mirror when living with an autistic child?

What I have found in my work with parents of children with autism is that men can begin to learn this in groups of men or even in one-to-one conversations with other men who have a similar experience.Without the fear of performing poorly or being “wrong” there is a sense of safety from shame. When this happens, men then can begin to express themselves with women. This happens over and over at conferences and in my office.

Don’t start by asking a man how he feels. “Guy talk” helps in any situation such as:

  • Tell me your story...
  • What’s it like for you? (curiosity works better than empathy)
  • Tell me more.
  • I need to know to be your friend/ wife/ brother, etc.
  • Your child needs you.
  • It takes courage to open up and I admire you for that.
  • Let’s figure out a plan to go forward.

Listening and disclosing needs to happen more slowly for men as we are more easily overwhelmed by tender emotions. Living day by day this is how I grow and help others.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Positive Interventions and ASD (Kate Altman, M.S.)

This week I will be presenting a workshop called "Positive Psychology Interventions for Adults and Children with ASD" with Dr. Katherine Dahlsgaard and Tim Wilson at the Pennsylvania Psychological Association's annual convention. The convention serves psychologists and psychology students in Pennsylvania.

As the title indicates, our workshop will focus on using positive interventions in working with individuals and groups on the autism spectrum. Positive interventions (based on positive psychology, the scientific study of strengths: are tools that can help a person think more creatively and more openly, enhance mood, and build self-esteem. For example, one of the interventions we talk about is simply monitoring positive moods--taking the time each day to pay attention to positive moods when they occur (even if they are fleeting) and focusing on what they feel like physically (the stretch of a smile on your face) and internally (slower, clearer thoughts; flow of creative ideas).

Positive psychology and positive interventions often seem very simplistic in explanation, yet when they are exercised they can be profoundly effective.

What do you think of the notion of focusing on the positive in therapy (not exclusively, but sometimes)? What do you think about using these methods with kids, adolescents, and adults on the autism spectrum?

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Autism Journey (Liz McGarry)

After silently filing into the room, I hesitantly took a seat in a small wooden chair against the wall. The rest of my peers, a small group of fifth-grade students selected for this very special mission, joined me in the back of the room. Although we carefully eyed the five little children squirming in their desks, they didn’t seem to mind or even notice our intrusion into their classroom. Before the teacher could introduce us, a piercing shriek broke the silence. I quickly turned to my right to discover the source of the noise—a small child barreling toward me with the fury of a professional wrestler! Smack. Mrs. C darted across the room just as little Albert slapped my arm with all of his might. Fortunately, Albert did not have the strength of a professional wrestler. I wasn’t hurt, but I can’t say that I was too happy either. What just happened? “Sorry Elizabeth,” Mrs. C explained, “You see…you’re sitting in Albert’s chair.”

At the age of eleven, I was selected to be a student volunteer in Mrs. C’s autistic class: my first encounter with autistic children. But it would not be my last. My name is Liz McGarry, and I am now a junior at Tufts University studying child development and psychology. I am currently working as an intern for Alternative Choices, as well as the Center for Autism Research in Philadelphia. You might be thinking, after such a violent introduction to the world of autism, what would inspire me to continue to study it and pursue a career involving autistic children? For me, it was the desire to unlock the mysteries of the disorder and to help children like Albert who have so much trouble communicating even their most basic needs.

I now know a lot more about autism than I did in fifth grade, but I still have a lot to learn. New discoveries are always being made as I race to catch up on all of the interesting articles and research that is already out there. Family and friends who know of my “autism obsession” constantly forward me news clips or articles about autism, and I love passing them on to others. I am grateful for the opportunity to use this blog to share my journey toward an autism education, as I learn more about the signs, treatments, and causes of this mysterious disorder.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Pick Your Battles, Win the War (Kate Altman, M.S.)

“Pick your battles.” That’s the best piece of advice I learned from a (very strict, actually) behavioral therapist when I was new in the field.

I glimpsed my future yesterday when I had lunch with a good friend and her two-year-old. Or, I should say I ate my lunch while she chased him around the (kid-friendly restaurant) telling him things like, “Don’t take those toys. They aren’t yours!” and, “Stop playing with that water. That’s for washing your hands…you’re spraying people!” She’d sigh in exasperation as he’d inevitably respond with a resounding, “No!” while continuing to do whatever he was doing. At one point she turned to me with an expression of defeat and said, “The terrible twos. And I hear the threes are worse!” I was exhausted just thinking about it.

Discipline and boundaries are extremely important in raising children. They keep your child safe (“Never run into the street”), help them learn self-regulation, and make them sociable and likable so they can be successful with others.

However, constantly disciplining and going head to head with a child can actually backfire, plus it can lead to exhaustion and demoralization for the parent. Therefore, sometimes you just have to pick your battles; focus on what’s most important and be consistent with warnings and consequences. Parents who take a moderate, authoritative approach often seem to have a great deal of success in disciplining their children. Hopefully I will remember these strategies in a couple of years!