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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!

July 16, 2019
by Beth

Choose CEA on AmazonSmile!

Shopping on Amazon lately? If so, please start your search from www.smile.amazon.com where Amazon donates a percentage of all your purchases to a charity of your choice. You’ll find us listed as “Center for Engaging Autism.” A little bit goes a long way and we appreciate your support!!

Details: You’ll use an internet browser to go to smile.amazon.com and login to your account (all your lists, shopping cart, etc will be the same). Currently, there is no AmazonSmile app and purchases via the Amazon apps will not donate a portion of your purchases to charity. When you login to AmazonSmile, you’ll be asked to select a charity and we’d love for you to choose us!! Click here for AmazonSmile Q & A.

July 16, 2019
by Tera Girardin

Oxygen Mask Episode 006: Information Overload

In Episode 6 of The Oxygen Mask we talk about wading through the mountain of information, options, advice, and opinions that come along with an autism diagnosis. Where do you begin?! Often we parents feel the need to jump in with both feet, read all the articles (hello, late night Google sessions), explore every therapy, make every appointment and do everything possible in the name of helping our child. But at what expense? Is it worth it? We’ll talk about how to be discerning with information overload and employ Oxygen Mask techniques to make healthy choices. (Spoiler alert:  Permission granted to not do all the things!)

Show notes:

Beth mentioned Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures.

Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud

Notice and then try to nudge your thoughts toward these mindfulness attitudes. The Oxygen Mask conversations are filled with gentle reminders and examples rooted in mindfulness.

Communities Engaging Autism will be offering fall 2019 and spring 2020 Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Special Needs Parents! This is a wonderful opportunity to practice breathing exercises, several types of meditation, yoga, Qigong, and more alongside supportive peers and facilitators. The goal is to see what works for you and to support you in carrying it through your day-to-day.

The Velcro and teflon analogy comes from Rick Hanson.

See details. Note: Dates/locations listed are for on our past offering. 2019-2020 dates/locations will be announced on Facebook or via our newsletter and blog. Reach out with questions!

June 30, 2019
by Beth

Back and Forth, Up and Down: Families, Community Integration, and Resilience

In April, Beth Dierker of Communities Engaging Autism co-presented with Amy Gunty and Pang Chaxiong of the University of Minnesota at the Autism Society of Minnesota’s Annual Conference. Chaxiong and Gunty both bring a family and cultural lens to their work in neurodevelopmental disabilities and Dierker connected with them thanks to the UMN LEND Program.  The three women’s presentation, entitled “Promoting Family Community Integration: The interplay of family adaptation, resilience, and culture,” wove together big ideas that resonated with participants. Below are some of the key ideas discussed.

Family Journeys

Dierker shared a “process map” of a family journey which combined her experience raising a child with ASD with concepts from studies on family stress, adaptation, and social support. “When we were feeling confused and exhausted,” Dierker recalled, “I just kept reminding myself, ‘We can’t be alone in this. Others have experienced this too. This must be part of a bigger pattern.’” She later found concepts and frameworks around family stress and resilience that resonated strongly with her experience—ideas that graduate students and researchers Gunty and Chaxiong had been exploring and contributing to for some time.

Community Integration

Chaxiong invited participants’ input on what community integration looked like in their lives and suggested that some key indicators of community integration might include:
• Having a support network
• Being able to work or contribute to society
• Participating in recreational activities
• Accessing public activities and community spaces

She pointed out that being integrated in community decreases isolation, increases socialization, and reduces stress and yet many factors make integration difficult for families impacted by ASD (i.e. difficulty/time navigating systems for support, stigma/lack of understanding). The presenters proposed that family community integration and family resilience may have a bi-directional relationship—the strength and growth that comes through the resilience process (discussed below) facilitates community integration. At the same time, being integrated into community provides the resources and support a family needs to adjust for crisis/stressors—a process that characterizes resilience.

Family Resilience

Drawing from research findings, Gunty explained, “Families of children with ASD experience more stress than families of children who develop typically or families of children with other disabilities. Even so, many families of children with ASD experience family functioning that is at least as healthy as other families and report that their child’s ASD positively impacts the family.” She shared the image below to illustrate how families constantly adjust as they try to balance stressors and resources in their lives and make sense out of their experiences in the process (labeled “meaning-making”). She highlighted examples of stressors and resources at the individual, family, and community levels and emphasized that the process of adjustment is dynamic and is unique to each family at any point in time. Gunty suggested that “crisis” happens at the point in time when a family’s stressors outweigh its resources. For some families and situations, crisis is resolved. For others, crisis becomes an almost constant state.

Gunty, 2019. (Adapted from Patterson, 2002)

Meaning making, culture, and resources

As the image illustrates, meaning making plays a pivotal role in the family resilience process. Dierker shared some insights around meaning making and noticing the stories we tell ourselves—examples drawn from personal experience and principles she learned in CEA’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction classes for parents of kids with special needs. Chaxiong and Dierker discussed culture as a lens through which we view, understand, and respond to our circumstances. The presentation closed with take-away tools for growing parents’ and caregivers’ resources and support systems.

Now what?

The topics of family resilience and community integration are deeply relevant to Communities Engaging Autism’s mission and vision as well as to our offerings like Family Meetups, mindfulness classes (look for opportunities in 2019-2020!), Lecture Series, and the Oxygen Mask podcast. Over the coming year, the CEA blog will look more closely at the work that informed this presentation and, as always, bring those ideas into practice in the work CEA does to empower and inform you. Thanks for reading!


Gunty, A. (2019). Rethinking resilience in families of children with autism spectrum disorders. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Patterson, J. M. (2002). Understanding family resilience. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(3), 233–246. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.10026

Email [email protected] for a full reference list from the April 2019 presentation outlined above.

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