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June 18, 2020
by Beth

Podcast Summer Pause & Fall Invitation

Take a quick listen to our thoughts heading into our summer pause. We would love to bring more voices into the mix on the Oxygen Podcast when we reboot in the fall. Let us know if you or someone you know would like bring a new lens or important information to the conversation! Be well. And breathe.

With gratitude,

Tera & Beth

May 7, 2020
by Beth

Roll With It

We are in unprecedented times with this distance learning while [circle all that apply: working; cooking; caring for young, old and in-between; caring for oneself; struggling emotionally; teaching multiple kids multiple ways; struggling financially; grocery shopping; cleaning; disinfecting knobs and surfaces; other; etc.; and so on]. It is straining and uncertain for us and for our kids. This makes focusing, staying calm, getting our needs met, and thinking, remembering and learning more difficult.

Unprecedented (adj.): Never done or known before (Oxford Dictionary).

It makes sense to look at what we have done or do know to guide our steps. When it comes to distance learning, this may mean that school-at-home resembles school (recall early COVID-19 era pictures of smiling children at tabletops with pencils, notebooks, and iPads). We are all improvising. Let’s borrow what works from school and roll with all the rest. Does a certain schedule, familiar song, favorite subject, or silly activity from school make your child smile? Use it as a touch point in your day. Then, roll with the people, the feelings, the spaces, the opportunities, and challenges that present themselves each day. It’s all we can do.

I’ll describe what “rolling with it” looks like in our house. Here’s a little bit of background: I have two mid-elementary aged kids. I’ve been homeschooling my son who is on the autism spectrum and have had a year to find what works for us. We do schoolwork side-by-side. My daughter attends public (now virtual) school and prefers to work independently, pulling me in for occasional spelling help or technical support. I have a partner working full time from home and I am working part-time from home. We are still finding our way. But here’s a zoomed-in picture of what’s working when we roll with it.

Blankets here, blankets there

Possum reading in a hammock for extra sensory input.

We are all in comfort-seeking mode. Blankets are scattered around the living room. Both kids cozy up in a corner of the couch, pulling ample, white “cloud blankets” into their laps. A book or iPad resting on the billowing cloud is the closest thing we have gotten to a work surface lately. For my son who has been anxious these past weeks, a simple task or mistake can send him writhing to the floor in flight mode. I roll with him there, being quiet but present. A blanket “burrito” of deep, reassuring pressure also helps. We may finish the work laying on our stomachs, with him pulling the blanket tightly around his face to peer out–calm but wary. Outside, we’ve recently begun using a hammock for extra squeeze. My daughter likes to relax and draw there. My son wraps himself in hammock fabric, suspending himself face down in a possum-like position where he reads.

Routine: Just the skeleton

This newfound routine has become a skeleton for our days: 

  • Breakfast at 9:00; lunch at 1:00; dinner at 6:00
  • Academics mostly in the morning
  • One mid-morning break outdoors and another longer time outside in the afternoon
  • Your choice screen time in the afternoon
  • One job before screen time (dishwasher empty or dog walk)
  • Family dinner clean-up
  • Read-aloud time around 8:15
  • Bed by 9

We have let go of a lot. Daytime clothes are optional. Showers are less frequent. With all the time at home, we’re actually picking up some life skills (i.e. folding laundry, picking up, preparing meals). The kids need lots of support and consistency for this learning too.

We do small bits of academic work that total about 90 minutes or two hours each day. We break our time into pomodoros–25-minute units of time followed by five-minute breaks. According to the pomodoro technique, people learn best in small periods of focused time separated by short breaks. We limit screen time to this 25-minute block as well, using a timer to keep us accountable. The kids seem to appreciate the predictability, even though they still need extra “help” to end screen time. When the timer dings during academic time, we take a break whether we’re done with a task or not. Resist the urge to add one more thing. A moving target can be frustrating for kids. Breaks are meant to be proactive instead of reactive, making the transition back to focus time less difficult. Also, take a longer, more restorative break after four pomodoros of focused time. 

Extra Support, Flexible Options

We add extra support to the routine as we need to. For example, ping-pong-like attention and movement have kept my son from staying at the table long enough to fill up at mealtimes. We’ve found that a good audio book keeps his mind busy and his body still (or just squirming on his wiggle seat) for a little longer and it entertains us all. I suppose the audio book may feel more predictable and less socially demanding than dinnertime conversation. 

During academic time, casually offering the kids simple choices helps them enter in:

  • Do you want to grab a mint or a chewy snack to help you focus? Can I have one too? 
  • OK, do you want to do reading in your room or on the couch?
  • Do you want to read the questions or scribe*?

*I often write, or scribe, or my son. I’ll occasionally nudge the pencil in his direction though. If he’s thinking hard about something, I gently set the pencil in the notebook in front of him in case he wants to get his thoughts out. I sometimes deliberately misspell a word and he’ll grab the pencil to take matters into his own hands. Or, since I know he likes to feel helpful, I’ll tell him, “I didn’t learn in that way. Can you show me what you did?” 

Bucket Fillers

The idea of “filling your bucket” means figuring out what makes you feel good or what restores you and gives you rest and joy. The bucket analogy comes from a favorite book, Have you Filled a Bucket Today? I encourage all of us to recognize what our bucket-fillers so we can fill up when we’re feeling depleted. My daughter draws by herself in her room or goes on a bike ride with a neighbor. My son curls up with a book or swings outside. I morning yoga, gardening, and a daily body scan meditation keep me grounded. My partner organizes and tinkers in the garage to unwind.

Full Disclosure

This picture isn’t complete. In zooming in on the details, I’ve excluded a lot of factors listed at the start of this article. Life is messy right now and our minds are scattered. There isn’t enough time or energy. Multitasking school and work is an illusion. I have learned this, yet continue trying and experiencing the fallout of loud voices, big emotions, and dis-regulated bodies. Then I take deep breaths and return to the moment I’m in and the people I’m with. We are doing the best we can and we are rolling with it. 

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May 1, 2020
by Beth

Oxygen Mask Episode 12: Noticing, nurturing strengths

Episode 12 comes to you during a challenging time for all of us in this COVID-19 pandemic. Tera and Beth acknowledge the brain fog, fatigue, intensity, and interruptions that are weighing on us all. We have slowed down and are trying, daily, to be more flexible and gentle with ourselves and our families. That’s why our April podcast is finally showing up in May! Please extend these friendly attitudes to yourself as well. When you have found some rest and space, we hope that Episode 12 plants a seed of gratitude and appreciation as we talk about nurturing a strengths-based lens with our kids and our whole families.

Show Notes:

Book: Just Give Him the Whale! by Paula Kluth and Patrick Schwarz

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 Editorial Team

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 Editorial Team

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!

Your contributions help Communities Engaging Autism as we adapt to these trying times – innovating with our programming and content to reach parents, families and educators where they are.