December 14, 2017
by Shannon
1 Comment

What to Do When You’re Expecting Happy Holidays

The main thing that living with autism has taught me is to manage my expectations. I still stumble on this all the time, but during the holidays this awareness has transformed the season from stressful to festive. In the spirit of giving, I thought I’d share my top tips so you, too, can be a little more merry.

  1. Expect less and enjoy more
    Instead of lining up my holiday to-do’s, dragging my son from one activity to the next, I pick one holiday tradition I really want to share with him. One year it was a visit to Santa, the next was decorating the tree. When you reduce your expectations, it allows you to enjoy what your child is able to do, instead of lamenting what has gone wrong. Choosing one special activity also allows you to funnel all your resources into that event. Things become more manageable, and you find that the joyful memories from that event last through the weeks to come.
  2. Know your child’s limits
    When I want my child to join me in a tradition, I make sure I know what he’s capable of. Our first visit to Santa was not in a busy mall, but at a small neighborhood store. There was no line, little bustle. I also didn’t expect him to sit on Santa’s lap, smile for the camera and rattle off a list of wishes. The setting allowed me to model what I wanted him to do: sit on Santa’s lap, smile at the camera and chat a little. Those two pictures, of me on Santa’s lap grinning, and my son standing next to him with a sweet smile, bring back fond holiday memories.
  3. Prepare family and friends
    Food, gifts, noise and chaos… Sometimes the holidays feel like they were designed to make families living with autism miserable. But thoughtfully preparing your family and friends will make supporting your child easier. Let them know that he will open gifts later and follow up with a thank-you phone call. Warn them that she may not eat the traditional meal. Explain that the bustle of gatherings overwhelms your child.
  4. Plan ahead
    Know what food will be available at gatherings and bring your own food if your child doesn’t like what’s on the menu. Ask the host if there is a quiet space where your child can retreat if things get too overwhelming.
  5. Set up clear expectations
    For almost all community outings, I set up “rules.” We’ve got the grocery store rules, the restaurant rules. You get the idea. The holidays bring additional expectations of behavior. So set those up for your child beforehand. Having a response rehearsed to common questions from relatives will help. And so will a list of how to handle giving and receiving. My little guy loves candy canes, so I often remind him that the rule is to take only one. Of course, social stories about all the traditions, like gift giving, help a lot. List and post your rules for easy reference, read social stories many times, and give your child a chance to rehearse these scripts.
  6. Maintain that high
    You’ve arrived at your holiday event prepared. Your child is doing great, and you are delighting in their success. Now is the time to leave. You may want to stay and family and friends may be urging you to, but leaving on a high note will preserve those memories as joyful ones. Your child will feel successful and want to do it again next year.
  7. Bring it in-house
    My son will tolerate a lot more hustle and bustle if he’s in familiar surroundings. So we host a lot of holiday gatherings, spaced out over the months. This way we get to see everyone who is important to us, my son is able to participate fully, and I get time to clean up and prepare for the next event. Consider adding a new tradition around your child’s interests. My son loves to cook, so we host an annual cookie baking party. Festive and fun, it takes the social pressure off because he is doing a familiar activity while interacting with others.

With these tips, I hope you find ways to make the holidays magical and uniquely suited to your family.

Read all our holiday posts here >>

December books

December 14, 2017
by JeanneLovesBooks

Jeanne Loves Books – December

A Bear’s Year by Kathy Duval and Gerry Turley is a book about seasons and about a mother teaching her young about their world. It is also a book about hibernation without ever mentioning the word.

It is not a holiday book, but it is a wonderful seasonal book. It starts with winter, and we see the big mother bear asleep in her den with a window out to a world where snow is falling.

The text is large, spare and almost lyrical in its rhyme. The first page of the story begins,

Winter Bear 

drifts into sleep,

Earth’s snowflake blanket

soft and deep.

The illustrations are lovely and perfectly compliment the warmth of the story. They are large, but not busy. They also reflect the text. So when a “wolf wails a lullaby,” we can find a howling wolf in the illustration. This is so helpful when engaging a child in a story because you can then look together to find the wolf, talk about it and the child will have a wonderful image of a “howling wolf.” There is another wonderful illustration of a night sky with Northern Lights to illustrate “Northern Lights paint the sky.”

There is some very rich language in this book with limited text. In addition to Northern Lights, look for wail, cozy, lair, grubs, swarm, den, doze, scarce, and nestled. For nestled and cuddled, a demonstration is always wonderful!

Fun with Reading

  • Be sure to highlight and talk about words that are new for your child. Most children learn a significant part of their vocabulary from books.
  • Talk about what season we are having here in Minnesota.  How is our winter the same or different from what we see in the book?
  • Have your child nestle in close to you when reading and give a cuddle each time you reread the story.
loves books

November 20, 2017
by JeanneLovesBooks

Jeanne Loves Books – November

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani

Last time I reviewed Ernest, the Moose Who Doesn’t Fit and noted that it was a good book for expanding preschool and early grade school math concepts beyond counting.

Stack the Cats is another picture book that goes beyond counting to highlight simple and fun examples of more complex math concepts. In this case we see addition, subtraction and grouping.

We start with counting: The first spread shows a line drawing of a big, yellow, sleeping cat on a lovely green background. The facing page, which is solid coral, has large text that says, “One cat sleeps.” This is the pattern of the book: There are vibrant colors, large clear text, and fun illustrations – you want to reach in and touch those delightful kitties.

Vibrant colors and simple text continue until we get to three cats. The text says, “Three Cats?” and the illustration shows three cats one on top of another and it says, “STACK?” When we get to the number six we find that, “Six cats prefer two stacks of three cats.”  The fun continues as we see six sleeping cats and one sleeping apart for “seven.” On “eight” we find that “eight cats try to stack but….tumble.” The grand finale is that ten are too many and so they group in a variety of ways. The final page asks, “How will you stack the cats?” This last page literally invites the reader to start stacking items.

Fun with Reading

  • Talk about the illustrations:
    • What color/colors are the cats?
    • Which are right side up and which are upside down?
    • Which are big, medium or small?
  • And of course, count the cats!
  • Get some items to stack such as small boxes, stuffed animals, books. Discover all the stackable things in your home.
  • Reread the book and regroup the cats
pryes pints

November 4, 2017
by Editorial Team

Pryes Pints for CEA

What could be better than enjoying a craft brew while supporting families living with autism? Starting Wednesday, November 8 you can do just that. Visit Pryes Brewing Company, order a Session IPA, and they will donate $1 to CEA. We’re thrilled to be the charity that launches their program that supports local nonprofits and builds a stronger community for all families. It’s a fun place (try out feather bowling) with tasty craft beer and a wonderful cause. Be sure to visit and support CEA!

$1 from every Session IPA sold in the Pryes Taproom from Wednesday, November 8th – Sunday, November 12th will be donated to the Center for Engaging Autism.

About Pryes: The taproom was designed by the architecture firm Little Box Inc. and offers guests the choice to enjoy riverside views on the patio, share a pint with our patrons in the communal area, order pizzas in the parlour, watch a game of feather bowling near the court, or have a cozy conversation in the lounge. The taproom decor, designed and built by Atom Pechman of Form From Form, reflects the industrious aesthetic of craft beer production while combining the natural elements of the surrounding area.

  • Food: Made in-house by Red Wagon Pizza Co., closes 1 hour before taproom.
  • Growlers: Pre-filled (we do not fill growlers). No bottle fee!
  • Dogs: Friendly dogs are welcome on our dog-friendly patio ?
  • Fun: Feather Bowling (leagues Wed & Sun) scenic views, bike paths & Minneapolis Bouldering Project (coming soon).
  • Where: 1401 West River Road N, Minneapolis, MN 55411
mn orchestra

November 4, 2017
by Editorial Team

Sensory Friendly Concerts at the MN Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra has a new Sensory-Friendly Concert Series that will include three concerts in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium. The series ends with a full-Orchestra Sensory-Friendly Concert, under the direction of Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto. The first of these inclusive events occurs on Saturday, December 9, 2017, and features a duo of Minnesota Orchestra violinists.

“One of the greatest things about music is that everyone responds to it in ways that are unique to who they are,” says Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto. “I am thrilled to conduct the Orchestra’s first full-Orchestra Sensory-Friendly program, and to welcome those who might not have yet had the opportunity to hear live orchestral music in a concert hall.”

Sensory-Friendly Concerts are designed for audiences of all ages and abilities, including individuals on the autism spectrum and those with sensory sensitivities. While the musical experiences onstage follow formats typical to many family concerts, the surrounding experiences throughout Orchestra Hall are carefully designed to create a relaxed and inclusive environment for all attendees. Patrons can also access specially-designed online preparatory materials one month before each performance. Fidgets, noise-canceling headphones, ear plugs and quiet spaces are available at all concerts.

  • When: Saturday, December 9, 11:00 am
  • Where: Orchestra Hall – 1111 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55403
  • Cost: Free
  • Additional Dates: Tuesday, February 13, and Saturday, April 14, 2018

Small Ensemble Sensory-Friendly Concerts are free for attendees, but tickets are required.

Tickets for the July 14 full-Orchestra performance are $12 each.

Tickets for all events are now available at and by phone at 612-371-5656. Information about accessibility at each of these concerts is available at

September 15, 2017
by Shannon

Songs are Poems too

In anticipation of our celebration of the power of poetry, song and autism, we wanted to share part of the creativity we are celebrating. Brian Laidlaw recorded these original songs that were written by students of Unlocking Potential, our creative writing course held in August 2017 and made possible through an Arts Learning grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board. The tunes may be a bit familiar, but the words are all unique.

We hope you enjoy listening to them as much as we enjoyed creating them.

  1. Bullet Ants Blues by Max

2. The Poly Ticks Blood Sucking Creature Blues by the group

3. Ring of Ice by James

September 8, 2017
by Shannon

The Power of Poetry, Community and Autism

Few people master the art of effective communication. When you have a disorder like autism that directly impairs the ability to communicate, mastery can feel out of reach. Too often individuals with autism are seen as incapable of creativity, especially when it comes to writing and enjoying literature. Once we look closer, however, we see that the opposite is true. Poetry and song, with their inherent structures and patterns, are the perfect scaffolding upon which minds with autism build amazing things.

My hopes for Unlocking Potential were concrete, bring the power of creative writing to students with autism and teach educators how to use those tools in the classroom with students struggling with literacy. An Arts Learning grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board made it possible for CEA to bring the work Chris Martin and Brian Laidlaw do with individuals with autism to more families.

What happened in that classroom for five days in early August was so much more amazing than that. What happened was community building. Students who struggle to work in groups, who find social situations overwhelming and connections difficult to make, came together and built works of art. Each contributed, each was engaged, and they all left knowing that they can build beautiful, provocative things.

Yet, the real power of this experience lay in the creation of a safe space in which to be uniquely oneself. In that classroom, each student became empowered, individually. And that empowerment fed the collective creative process. So much of their lives are lived in spaces where they do not see themselves reflected.

For 10 hours this summer that changed. Students with autism created in a space where their “deficits” became assets, and their voices were celebrated. Thank you to Unrestricted Interest for sharing your artistry with families living with autism, and thank you to the Minnesota State Arts Board for seeing all the potential that needed to be unlocked. Through partnering, we give voice to lives that are rarely heard, and we empower individuals with autism to create, speak and share their unique minds.

Join us at Potential Unlocked! on September 16 and discover our anthology of poems created during this course. It is born from a safe, connected space that empowers young people who often feel adrift in society. At this event, our community celebrates their hard work, their creativity, and their extraordinary minds.

sensitive storytime

August 28, 2017
by Editorial Team

Sensitive Family Time at Maple Grove Library

Explore the library at your own pace and ignite your child’s love of reading at Maple Grove Library this fall! This time is set aside for families living with autism and other special needs. Literacy resources and family resources will be shared. Each child may choose a gift book to keep. Read with therapy animals, explore fun activities and meet Clifford.

  • When: Sunday, September 10, 10:00 am to noon
  • Where: Maple Grove Library, 8001 Main Street, 55369
  • because the library does not open to the general public until noon, please enter through the east front doors, which will be marked

July 30, 2017
by JeanneLovesBooks

Jeanne Loves Books – August

Ernest, The Moose Who Doesn’t Fit, by Catherine Rayner

Ernest is an endearing moose who is so large he doesn’t fit on the pages of his own book. “Luckily, Ernest is also a very determined moose. He’s not going to give up easily.”

This fun picture book tells a simple story but is packed with lots of concepts. It includes problem-solving, important math concepts about size, and it highlights perseverance and teamwork.

Ernest and his very small friend chipmunk want Ernest to fit on the book’s pages. They try lots of ways to make this happen. We see Ernest’s head and front on one page, we see his middle on another page, and there is a wonderful double-page spread where he tries to squeeze in, rear end first. But none of these attempts work because Ernest is just too big!

But then Ernest’s little chipmunk friend has a BIG idea. She gathers up tape and moose gathers paper, and together they work on their solution. “They are busy for a very long time…” Their solution is to use the pieces of paper and tape to make the book bigger. The last page folds out and up and graphically looks like it is enlarged with different pieces of paper and tape. It is a great surprise ending, and it makes the book big enough for Ernest to fit on perfectly!

The text is spare and large, but uses rich words like, “fetches,” “struggles,” “determined,” and “crumples.” It also includes terms like forward and backward. Finally, it gives very fun and concrete illustrations of size as Ernest keeps trying to fit on those pages. And his very small Chipmunk friend presents a vivid example of small – the opposite of large.

The illustrations of the gangly moose and small chipmunk are endearing and convey a surprising amount of emotion.

Fun with Reading:

  • Play with some of the math concepts in the book
    • Find several objects and a bowl and guess if the objects will fit in the bowl before trying to fit them in
    • Use some paper to see how much you’d have to use to fit your child in the book
  •  Refer back to Ernest in the future if something is too big to fit into something else, i.e. “This is just like Ernest being too big for the book’s pages isn’t it?”
  • Practice going forward and backwards with small children. Once they have it, do it in silly ways, like going zig zag but still forward or backward.
  • Talk about chipmunk’s idea to add to the book to make Ernest fit. Use it as an example of the statement that “two brains are better than one.”  Why is that?
  • Look for other examples of “big” and “small.”
  • The word “large” is highlighted in a large font in the book. The first few times you read it, run your finger under the word as you say it. On the third or fourth reading, pause and see if they recognize the word and can say it or say it with you. This is one of the techniques which helps children see that the same set of marks always means the same thing.

July 28, 2017
by Chris

Special Interests and Language Arts

August is giving me what we call “scrunch face,” his brow furrowed as he glares at the screen. We haven’t even finished the first line of our daily collaborative poem, and he already sees why it won’t work. We have challenged ourselves to write the world’s first Jazz Poem and now, because no word contains two consecutive A’s, it looks doomed.

Because seventeen-year-old August is finally getting interested in music, after years of avoiding it at all costs, I’ve been giving him a jazz primer. Jazz is the ideal first step because August finds voices intimidating; they tend to overwhelm him emotionally. We listen to Coltrane, Art Blakely, Miles Davis, and more. After a half-hour of close listening and conversation, we switch to writing. That’s when August suggests we invent something totally new, the Jazz Poem.

In the seven years since we started working together, August and I have invented nearly one hundred poem forms together: dinosaur poems, seasonal poems, escalator poems, even numerical formulas like our Fibonacci poem. As a young man with autism, August has a great affinity for rules. We invent each poem by, first, creating the rules. In terms of executive functioning, this is the planning stage, and August is quite adept at it. For this particular poem, we decided to take the word jazz itself as our launching pad. August notes that its most distinguishing feature is the double Z. I suggest that we focus on words that contain double letters, for example the word letters! He thinks this is hilarious, and so we push on giddily.

In the past, August and I have employed abecedarian forms, which basically means that the poems move through the letters of the alphabet as they progress. As often happens when we invent a form, our Jazz Poem becomes a mash-up of two rules: the double letter and the abecedarian. Every line will feature a double letter word, and we will progress through the alphabet. He volunteers to write the first line. And then comes the scrunch face.

Poetry is a terrific resource for students and adults living with autism. It transforms their devoted passion into creative expression, utilizes their innate understanding of the materiality of language, calls on their visual acuity in creating similes and metaphors, and it also plays to their strengths (making rules, following a plan) while offering them challenges (cognitive flexibility, social interaction). That’s a mouthful. New research has shown that the right hemisphere dominance shown by many on the spectrum leads to an inherently poetic brain structure, where metaphor is a primary force. And August is no exception, he’s definitely responded to this way of accessing the power of language.

Since our plan has just hit a roadblock, I challenge August to look for an alternative route. After a short time his eyes light up, and I can tell he’s solved the problem. The first line of our Jazz Poem becomes It’s like my anaconda ate a xylophone.

Not only did he exhibit the cognitive flexibility required to overcome our first obstacle, but he also referenced the last thing we listened to: Milt Jackson! As we continue writing he keeps upping the ante, including lines with double doubles like Stop gagging on that ragged note and then triple doubles like A silly tune will launch this poem.

Language for August is and has always been performative, the words are the action and vice versa. He may struggle with constructing an analytical argument, but when he’s free to let the music of language lead, the results would make Dizzy Gillespie giggle. Twenty-six lines later we’ve done something no one else has done before, and August has another reason to embrace his budding love for jazz.

Discover your voice and how to Unlock Potential, August 7-11!

There’s a course for educators too!