April 1, 2020
by Editorial Team

April: Join Us for Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month

Today we step into April, Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. This is certainly not the way many of us pictured it, but humor and creativity can help us adapt to this COVID-19 reality. In this spirit, CEA is celebrating in a few ways, and we hope you’ll join us.  

Explore these flexible opportunities! As always, please share what you find insightful and delightful.

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March 28, 2020
by Beth

Oxygen Mask Episode 011: Welcoming guests, unpacking mindfulness

In Episode 11, we warmly welcome our first guests, Kate Biederman and Jen Reiter, who have deeply shaped Communities Engaging Autism’s mindfulness course*. In this rich conversation, Beth, Jen, Kate and Tera unpack what mindfulness really is and the growth they’ve seen in themselves and others through practice.

*Our Spring 2020 course has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To stay informed of future offerings, subscribe to the podcast or visit our website to subscribe to CEA’s newsletter.

Key quote: “People don’t have less stress in their life…they’re just more equipped and resourced to handle what comes.” – Kate Biederman

Key points:

  • Defining mindfulness; noticing is powerful
  • Anchoring your attention in your body; being present in the moment
  • Consistency is key in growing self-awareness; do simple things, daily
  • Practicing in community with other parents is powerful

Show notes: 

LEND Fellowship

Communities Engaging Autism’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course for Parents of Kids with Special Needs

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Sebastian Gendry

Book: How to Relax by Thich Nhat Hanh

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February 3, 2020
by Beth

Oxygen Mask Episode 010: Appreciate the good

Join us in offering yourself a little love this February! In Episode 10, Tera and Beth recall positive, encouraging words and actions from people who have come alongside us and our families. These are beautiful moments that let us know we are seen and that our children are known and valued. Draw from our stories to recognize your own. Hold them up, have a good look at them, and thread them into a story of hope and encouragement. Take a listen and let this episode awaken or enliven your own gratitude.

Take-aways from this episode are really interwoven with Communities Engaging Autism‘s 7-week course, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Parents of Kids with Special Needs. There, we talk about the brain’s negativity bias (as Rick Hanson puts it, the good slips off as if on Teflon and the bad sticks like Velcro). It takes intention to balance out our brain’s defaults. The seeds that you water are the ones that grow; the muscles that you work are the ones that get stronger. Another offering begins April 7, 2020. Click here for details.

Each day this month, jot down a few specific, positive things people have said to you, ways others’ actions have encouraged you, or just positive, peaceful, or joyful moments in your day. Oh, and there’s an app for that. Three Good Things is a gratitude practice builder that’s gentle and simple.

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December 23, 2019
by Beth

Oxygen Mask Episode 009: Holiday Strategies & Solidarity

We hope you’ll take a moment amidst the holiday flurry to breathe, listen, and be encouraged. In Episode 9, we acknowledge the many ways that family gatherings are a lot for us and our kids and we talk through ways we can navigate:

  • Expectations! Ours own, those of others, those spoken, those unspoken, and those we imagine
  • Boundaries that are healthy for us and our children; respecting how your child copes
  • Identifying the most challenging activities and/or those with the most set expectations (i.e. large sit down dinners) and “bookending” that event with activities that are restorative for your child and meet his/her needs for down time or sensory input

Drawing from mindfulness principles, we challenge you to notice the stories you tell yourself as you engage with your larger family and friend circles. If a story of “not enough” with a side of shame or guilt is present, we encourage you to nudge your story toward self-acceptance and acceptance and celebration of the family you have formed. Remember, you’re not doing this alone—Tera, Beth, and many other special needs parents are right there with you. Best wishes for a peaceful time of togetherness and much rest afterwards!

Show Notes:

Beth mentioned Communities Engaging Autism’s course: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Parents of Kids with Special Needs. Here’s information about our fall 2019 session. A late spring offering of the course will be announced soon. Scholarships available.

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December 20, 2019
by Beth

Oxygen Mask Episode 008: Curveballs

The Oxygen Mask is back! Have you experienced a few curveballs in life when unexpected circumstances challenge you, forcing you to focus on one step at a time? This is often the time when routines or expectations that ground us slip away and we find ourselves more than maxed out. In Episode 8, which was recorded last fall, we reflect on curveballs that life has thrown our way and how we, fumblingly, do the best we can to respond and find our way through. Discussion points include:

  • How have you helped your child make sense of situations like the death of a loved one or a big life change when you are struggling yourself? 
  • What are some of your signs that you’re at your maximum capacity (or beyond)?
  • How can we respond when we react in ways we regret? 
  • What are our kids’ cues that they’re near or beyond capacity to manage uncertainty and stress too?   

Show Notes:

1) “Size of the problem” resource and guidance

2) “Expected and unexpected”: Why do we Use the Expected-Unexpected Social Thinking Vocabulary?; Youtube Video on Activity for Expected vs Unexpected

November 27, 2019
by Beth

Gratitude and Updates

Happy Thanksgiving! On behalf of Communities Engaging Autism, I want to express our gratitude for your support and involvement this year. CEA is poised for growth and we are excited to be connecting with so many of you as we shape our next steps. This post is both a gratitude practice and update on our latest activities.

  • Ale for Autism: Thank you for joining us! We were very pleased to see over 50 people at Pryes Brewing. We raised over $3,000! As CEA’s new Executive Director, it was a pleasure to get to know longtime friends of CEA and welcome newbies into the fold as well. Thank you so much to our generous donors!!
  • Mindfulness: Our course, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction for Parents of Kids with Special Needs, kicked off its fall session with 10 participants. Together, we have rooted down into powerful practices and gentle support. We’re grateful for each participant’s contribution and to St. David’s Center for sharing their space. Thank you to our facilitators, Kate Biederman and Amy Wink, for welcoming and guiding me as a new facilitator. We are excited to continue growing this program as we plan a Spring 2020 session and train additional facilitators.
  • Oxygen Mask Podcast: We are grateful for the positive responses we’ve heard from parents and professionals alike. As co-hosts, Tera and I often remind ourselves and fellow parents of kids with special needs: You are not alone and your wellbeing matters! Thank you to Tera Girardin for making this healthy resource possible. We look forward to welcoming featured guests to the podcast in 2020!
  • Fellowship Collaboration: As a community partner with the University of Minnesota’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilites (LEND) Fellowship Program, CEA has engaged three fellows to strengthen and inform our mindfulness work. Thank you, Adam Langenfeld, Muna Khalif, and Jen Reiter for listening, learning, and contributing from each of your unique backgrounds and experiences.
  • Family Offerings: Over the past year, we’ve experimented with family meetups at local parks. We’ve paused this winter to regroup and we look forward to growing whole family offerings for education and community-building. We are so grateful to Minneapolis Parks and Recreation’s Adaptive Recreation staff and Eloise Butler Flower Garden for collaborating with us on two wonderful meetup events.

In closing, I’ll share a metaphor that may resonate with you. We’ve talked in mindfulness about being open and accepting of our difficult emotions as they come and go instead of holding on tight and fueling them. I envision an open, relaxed hand compared to a closed, grasping fist. This metaphor informs my leadership of CEA as well. I enjoy offering up our strengths openly and flexibly. I am energized by exploring relationships based in trust and shared vision. It has been a pleasure to live into our strengths this past year and build on them with so many inspired partners and community members. So, with joy and enthusiasm, I welcome you to share your voice, insights, and guidance with me and with CEA. Thank you so much!


Beth Dierker

Executive Director, Communities Engaging Autism


October 9, 2019
by Jen

On the Trail Back to Me: Mindfulness as milestone

After my daughter was diagnosed with autism I had people tell me constantly, “remember to put your oxygen mask on first.”

Well-meaning, but annoying. I was traveling down the alaphabet trail ASD,IEP, SLP, BiP, OT, DRS, SE, ESP, OMG!! Traveling that trail without a map was overwhelming, yet I locked my focus on my daughter and gettting her everything she needed to thrive on her own terms.

My needs were put on the bottom of the priority list time and time again. For nine years, all my energy was put into advocating for my daughter on every front imaginable. I completely lost myself, but did not realize that until the Fall of 2018 when my daughter entered middle school.

I had succeeded in helping her grow and thrive into a sassy, confident young woman. I was depleted, felt alone and not sure how revive myself.

During a regular sleepless night, I surfed the Communities Engaging Autism page. Over the years, CEA had become a place where I found workshops and a positive, supportive community that was instrumental in helping me navigate this parenting journey. I wanted to see if they had any upcoming events that could help me through this rut. The answer was before right in front of me: A multi-week mindfulness class for parents of children with special needs; a night each week to learn tools to reduce stress adn to improve my interactions with my kiddo by being mindfully present. It seemed like a dream opportunity and something that would have called to me even before I became a parent.

I impulsively signed up and, a few weeks later, I found myself nervously clutching my yoga mat on a sub-zero winter evening. I wondered, “what have I done?”

I was warmly welcomed by our instructors and offered a cup of tea. I felt my nerves calming.

We introduced ourselves by sharing something we loved doing as kids. There was lots of joyous laughter and choruses of “YES!! me too!” Then we eased into our first breathing exercise.

Throughout the course, we shared our discoveries and our struggles with the exercises, without judgement from our peers or ourselves. I was surprised to find time seemed to fly by, I was peaceful, focused and, for the first time in a nearly a decade, struck by how good I felt.

Each week, we deepened our skills and our connections grew. We stayed in touch between weeks via a group app. We encouraged each other, shared resources, and cheered together as we noticed mindfulness influencing our parenting.

For me, the class and the practice offered tools I could grab hold of in the face of a thunderous meltdown from my daughter. I could stay completely calm and even share some tangible tools to help her navigate her anxiety with more ease.

Our times of family fun were improved as well. Instead of trying to foresee every possible hiccup I just focused on the current moment, then the next one and the next one.

My daughter recognized that I was more centered and that helped her stay more centered. Sleep improved, stress decreased. I found a version of an oxygen mask that helped me find myself again.

Mindfulness as self-care practice improved my parenting in ways I still am learning about months later. It connected me with a group of parents that are a continued support and joy. We meet quarterly to continue our mindfulness practice and share the beautiful, unpredictable parenting journeys with our incredible kiddos.

So, if you have always been interested in mindfulness, are a bit skeptical, or have no idea what to think about it, I’m confident you will find something meaningful and surprising. Give yourself the gift of self care and join us at the next session this October. Possibilities, a good cup of tea, and, perhaps, YOUR personal oxygen mask await!

September 27, 2019
by Beth

Oxygen Mask Episode 007: Your Relationships Matter!

Oxygen Mask is back after a summer breather!! In this episode, we talk about the importance of relationships to sustain and grow us as individuals. We reflect on friendships that have become anchors through tumultuous years. We discuss questions like:

What have supportive, essential friendships looked like over the years?

What relationship dynamics should we watch out for as special needs parents?

As always, we encourage you to trust the process when it comes to friendship. Reach out and let us know what makes a great, growing friendship for you and, very importantly, let us know if you’re feeling disconnected. [email protected]

Show Notes:

1. We mentioned some support group resources, emphasizing that the way groups are run is really important for a healthy dynamic. Here is a Resource Sheet on Minneapolis/St. Paul support group opportunities from Communities Engaging Autism’s website. There is so much more than what’s here, but this is a start!

2. Shared interests and pursuits are a great way to begin a friendship. This fall, Communities Engaging Autism is offering a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course specifically created for parents of kids with special needs. In the past, our participants have enjoyed a sense of solidarity and mutual support as they seek to improve their overall wellbeing through mindfulness practice. Learn more >>

September 3, 2019
by Beth

There They Go.

There they go. And here we are. It’s the first day of school. The build-up began months ago when the big yellow pencils were hung above the “Back to School” aisle. The supply lists, the bus schedules, and the open houses. We parents of kids with special needs have also been thinking about IEPs and “get to know me” sheets. We look hard for familiar staff that support our kids, often serving as re-entry anchor points for navigating new classrooms, peers, and teachers.

There they go. And here we are. Listlessness can stir up spinning thoughts and worry as we try to picture our children beginning a routine we don’t yet know much about. Stop. Breathe. Notice that listlessness and find your anchors. Here, I offer the tips for a successful school year from a teacher who has served as an anchor for many children and families. I hope her gentle guidance helps you anchor down and settle into this day of newness, and begin the year with confidence.

I have been teaching young children for more years than I would like to admit. Lucky for me, it’s a profession I love; observing, playing with, and teaching young learners. But I also love the fresh start every September brings.
Before school begins, my colleagues and I plan new learning activities and projects, and then wait for the new students to come walking through the door. Even with the best preparation, every day is a new adventure that doesn’t always go as planned. And that’s where parents come in. You can prepare your child’s teacher, so that we’re as ready as can be to teach your child.

I had some help preparing this list from my colleagues. Together we came up with the following six tips, and we all agree that knowledge is key.

1. Be open about your child’s challenges. The more you share with us about your child, the better teachers we are. Some parents choose to “hide” their child’s challenges, diagnoses, or learning styles from teachers, so that their child isn’t “prejudged.” When children have unique challenges, they follow him/her to school. When teachers are able to partner with parents from the very start, these challenges can be better understood and dealt with in a positive way. Please don’t keep secrets from your child’s teacher.

2. Keep in touch with your child’s teacher. Ask which mode of communication they prefer – phone calls, emails, notebook, etc. You know your child best, and your insights are always appreciated. If your child didn’t sleep well, is coming down with a cold, or had a rough morning, let the teacher know. It is so much more productive to be proactive rather than reactive to challenging behavior.

3. Tell your teacher what motivates your child. What are your child’s special interests? These interests can be used to build and foster your child’s relationships with teachers and peers. Let us know anything we can use to make your child’s day more successful: small rewards, special books, preferred activities and special ways to connect.

4. Don’t drill your child after school. Children live in the moment. School is school and home is home. As parents we want to know everything about the day. “What did you do today?” is a favorite inquiry. Typically when children get home they have an agenda that doesn’t include rehashing their school day. Most children are more willing to talk about it a bit later, once they’ve had time to “chill out” a bit. When you do ask about your child’s day, be specific: Who did you sit next to on the bus? What did you have for lunch? What story did your teacher read?

5. Treat home and school as separate. You and your child get to start the day over the minute he/she gets off the bus or walks through the door. If your child has a “bad” day at school, don’t feel that you need to give a consequence at home. In most cases the teacher has already dealt with the behavior at school. Often teachers just want you to have the information about a school problem, just as we like to know about a bad morning at home. We don’t report this information so you feel the need to discipline your child at home.

6. Be aware of homework. If your child has homework, respect their timing as well as your own need to “get it done.” Ask your child for input: “Do you prefer doing homework right after your snack or right after dinner?” When children are given a chance for input, they tend to be a bit more cooperative.
I hope these tips help you enjoy a smooth and happy school year.

Bonnie’s original post, A Teacher’s Top Tips for a Successful School Year, can be found at https://cea4autism.org/teachers-top-tips-successful-school-year/.

July 30, 2019
by Beth

Oxygen Mask: A Pause

Where’s the play button? Well, we’re following our own advice and taking a short pause to rest and enjoy this busy, beautiful summer. Listeners are telling us the Oxygen Mask Podcast has been an encouraging, powerful place.

Will you grow this good thing with us? Please take two minutes to share your two cents via our survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/BH9VL7ZThank you!!

Looking Back, Moving Forward

This pause is an opportunity to reflect on the thrilling and fulfilling six-episode streak we’ve had this spring. Where have we been? What have we covered? Where are we headed? Remember, the Oxygen Mask began as a collaborative project between Communities Engaging Autism and Tera Girardin as part of her LEND fellowship. CEA is so grateful for Tera’s initiative and creativity. We plan to continue supporting this flexible, inviting format to connect and encourage parents of children with autism and other special needs as well as the professionals and community members who support them. You’ll hear from us again in September!