Looking for special toys for special kids

holiday gifts wrappedIt’s just the first week of December, and the holiday commercials are already in full force. I remember watching all those ads while my son Gus was growing up, wondering if any of the toys advertised on TV would appeal to him. My husband Mike and I spent hours and hours searching catalogs, visiting toy stores, playing at music shops, filing through hardware stores, perusing gift shops, looking anywhere and everywhere to find a toy Gus might like, something he might want to explore.

Therapists told us it was good for Gus to be stimulated by different things. We gave him mobiles, wind chimes, tambourines — anything we could find that was colorful and made noise. By the time he turned 9 or 10, though, we just plain ran out of ideas. And as Gus grew, it was more difficult to muscle him in and out of stores on holiday shopping sprees. I still remember wishing for one place I could go for a list of toys especially good for kids with special needs. With a list like that, who knew? Maybe Mike and I might find something out of the ordinary for Gus, something we would have never thought of on our own.

Toys “R” Us to the rescue! The Toy Guide for Differently-Abled Kids is a free toy-selection guide for parents and friends of children with disabilities. Items featured in the Guide promote the development of specific skills, such as auditory, language, visual, fine motor, thinking and social skills.

Our son Gus is 28 years old now, living happily with three other guys in a group home in Wisconsin. I’m kind of out of the toy-buying loop now, so if any of you readers have other go-to places to find special toys for special kids, please leave a comment. I’m all ears.


16 ways to make holidays easier for a child with autism

I am pleased to introduce our new blogger Cathy Pratt. Dr. Pratt is the Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, and today’s post is the first of three we’ll be publishing by her about holiday tips

christmas tree drawingSocial stories and visual supports for the holidays

by Cathy Pratt, Ph.D., BCBA-D

While many happily anticipate the coming holiday season, families with sons/daughters on the autism spectrum also understand the special challenges that may occur when schedules are disrupted and routines broken.

The following tips were developed with input from the Autism Society of America, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Easter Seals Crossroads, Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at Logan, and the Indiana Autism Leadership Network. We update our list of suggestions annually, and our hope is that by following these few helpful tips as the holiday approaches, families may lessen the stress and anxiety created by the holiday season and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

  • Preparation is crucial for most individuals. At the same time, it is important to determine how much preparation a specific person may need. For example, if your son or daughter has a tendency to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her.
  • Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the date of holiday events, or by creating a Social Story that highlights what will happen at a given event.
  • Prepare a photo album in advance of the relatives and other guests who will be visiting during the holidays. Allow the child access to these photos at all times and also go through the photo album with your child while talking briefly about each family member.
  • If your child has difficulty with change, you may want to gradually decorate the house. For example, on the first day put up the Christmas tree, then on the next day decorate the tree and so on.
  • Engage them as much as possible in the decorating process. For some it may also be helpful to take them shopping with you for holiday decorations so that they are part of the process.
  • It may be helpful to develop a visual schedule or calendar that shows what will be done on each day.
  • It may also be helpful to inform them of the process for removing decorations, since this process may be disruptive for some individuals as well.
  • If having decorations around the house does become disruptive for some, it may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house.
  • If such a book does not exist, use this holiday season to create a picture book
  • Consider involving your son or daughter in the process of decorating the house.
  • Once holiday decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can be touched and those that cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.
  • Understand that with some individuals, decorations may not be feasible.
  • If you are traveling for the holidays, arrange to have the child’s favorite foods, books or toys available. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations.
  • Use social stories or other communication systems to prepare them for any unexpected delays in travel.
  • If your son/daughter is flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring your child to the airport in advance to help them become accustomed to airports and planes
  • Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying.

You can see examples of numerous visual supports on our website, and stay tuned for my next holiday post about ways to respond to a child with autism who begins obsessing about a particular gift or toy they want.

On a related note, Easter Seals also offers unique gift ideas for caregivers, including parents who care for children with and without disabilities. Many of the ideas are free and all are from the heart.


How do people who are blind watch TV?

comcast_292The only time we have our television on is when my husband is home. I can get a lot out of listening to shows on my own, but without being able to see, it’s too hard for me to search for programs. Mike can see, so he’s left to channel-surf for both of us.


And so, I was very happy to read Comcast’s announcement of a new feature to change the way blind or visually impaired people like me can experience television: a new “talking guide” will read the on-screen menu and navigation functions of their X1 platform out loud.
The Comcast website says the “talking guide” will be available to all X1 users and will feature a female voice that reads selections like program titles, network names and time slots. It’ll announce DVR and On Demand settings, too.


Over the past two years the Comcast Foundation has helped Easter Seals make a big difference in
the lives of people living with disabilities. Comcast’s new feature will give users like me a new level of independence and flexibility when we “watch” television – I can’t wait to get my hands on this new feature.

Learn more about Comcast’s support of Easter Seals.


Like my wheelchair? Me, too!

I am pleased to introduce Nathan Watt — an entertainer in the Great American Country Show at Dollywood — as a guest blogger today.


by Nathan Watt

Nathan WattMy name is Nathan Watt. I am a 23-year-old singer/songwriter and I was born with spina bifida. I have had 47 operations and spent a huge portion of my childhood just trying to stay alive, but with the help of God and my family I am thankful to be where I am today.

I ambulate using a wheelchair, and I can use leg braces to walk short distances when needed. This is the way I live my life, full of joy and to its full capacity. It’s always funny to me that people automatically assume that life in a wheelchair is painful and that I am bound or confined to the chair. I ask them to think about it this way: my wheelchair does not confine me, it frees me. Without my wheelchair I’d be stuck at home and living a fairly sedentary life. With my wheelchair, I am free to go anywhere anybody else can go.

Nathan backstage of Avenue Q

Nathan backstage of Avenue Q

My mom brought me up to be unstoppable. She taught me that where there is a will, there is a way, and that if I want something, I’ll have to work for it. I may not achieve my goals the same way everyone else does, but I achieve my goals. This attitude has helped me follow my dream of becoming a performer:

  • I received a full ride scholarship to Capital University where I earned a Bachelor of Music in Music Technology and Voice
  • While at Capital University, I played the lead role of Princeton in the musical Avenue Q
  • Later that year I auditioned at Dollywood
  • I graduated from Capital on May 3, 2014, and four days later I moved to Tennessee to start my new life as a singer in The Great American Country Show at Dollywood

Currently I am performing at Dollywood as the sole musician in the Christmas show “O Holy Night.” I know that when I get up on stage and sing, pop a wheelie, and entertain an audience that I am shattering the image most people have of a “disabled” person.

Nathan Watt and family

Nathan Watt and his family

Probably the best part of my job is when I am able to entertain veterans in our audiences. I have always had a deep respect for our men in women in uniform — many of my family members have served in the armed forces. My mother served six years and then left the Air Force to take care of me. My 90-year-old grandfather fought in the Battle of the Bulge and still has shrapnel in his leg. Another grandfather served on the 38th Parallel. Several cousins and uncles have served in the military, and my Uncle Mike still serves in the army as a recruiter.

It really didn’t dawn on me until high school that I would never be allowed to serve in the military. Instead, I take any opportunity I can to volunteer and sing for our troops.

For my grandfather’s 90th birthday, my mom and I wrote a song to commemorate what he has done for our country and family. You can listen to “I’ll Honor You” on YouTube now, and while you listen, just imagine how great it was to see my grandfather’s smiling face after we gave him this gift: he loved it!

I will never be able to repay what our armed forces do and have done for us, but I always enjoy singing our national anthem or performing for our veterans and military personnel. Performing for them is an honor because of the way they serve our country.


No regrets about caregiving

AmberandGrandmotherI used to think I understood what this caregiving thing was all about. But then I started working at Easter Seals.

Since starting here last summer, I’ve learned that caregivers are not just medical professionals at your local hospitals and nursing homes. They come in many forms, and in fact, there is no cookie-cutter mold for today’s caregiver. After taking a closer look at my own story, I realized that I’d been a caregiver myself several years ago.

My maternal grandmother, Irene, was an amazing woman. She raised 10 children, owned her own beauty salon, and eventually opened a home day care. Towards the end of her life she suffered a stroke, and then a heart attack, and was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived all of that, but things began to change — and change quickly — in 2006, when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My grandmother went from being this invincible woman to someone who needed her family’s support more than ever.

I was right in the middle of my sophomore year in college when I learned of my grandmother’s condition, and I made the decision to be there to assist my mother with my grandmother’s needs in any way possible. Family has always been my number one priority, and I made trips to Chicago on weekends and during holiday breaks to help my mother in any way I could — going to doctor appointments, helping with transportation, doing laundry, and so on.

And yes, like many people who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s, I didn’t mind answering the same questions over and over again. I didn’t take it personally when my grandmother no longer remembered my name. She was happy to see me because she knew I was someone who cared for her, and that’s all that mattered to me.

My grandmother died in 2010. It was a day I knew would come eventually — after all, it’s all a part of the process, right? That’s why I did all I could to be there to care for her whenever possible, because she had always done so much for me and my family.

Now, I have my memories, but most importantly, I have no regrets.


Letter to my high school self: What the doctor should’ve said

thrive-logoAs promised in my previous post last Wednesday, I submitted a letter this week to the Letters to Thrive blog. The site is easy to access, and it even has a What Should I Write About? link for those with writer’s block. Writing my letter was a bittersweet experience – I felt sad for my younger self while simultaneously feeling hopeful for the future. Here’s an excerpt:

13 November 2014

Dear Younger Self,
The blip on your popularity chart peaked off the screen last week when you returned to high school — the other kids think it’s cool to know someone who was in the hospital and was almost in a coma.
Right now The two shots you take each day are long-acting insulins, far too slow and weak to handle the carbohydrates in the popcorn you like to snack on, the ten-cent rice dish you buy to save money in the high school cafeteria at lunch and the ice cream you cheat with from time to time.
female-icon-blueThis was your third hospital visit during your high school years, and before you were released this time, your doctor declared you won’t live to see your 30th birthday. What you and your doctor don’t know right now is that later on in your life, people with Type 1 diabetes will be able to test their blood glucose levels at home throughout the day. They’ll use an insulin pump or take a shot of fast-acting insulin to counteract the sugar and carbohydrates in all sorts of foods. You’ll be able to be more spontaneous, you won’t have to plan every meal, and you won’t have to feel guilty when you snack.
What your doctor could have told you as you left the hospital this time was to keep taking care of yourself the best you can — that way you’ll live to enjoy these breakthroughs.

I hope this excerpt intrigues you enough to read the entire letter at Letters to Thrive. Once you’re there, please consider writing and submitting a letter of your own – our letters help Thrive create a community from shared life experiences.


Meet our top 5 candidates for a dream mentorship with Judd Apatow

This time last year, Easter Seals Dixon Center launched the first in a series of public service announcements focused on veteran employment. The PSAs were not the typical, tear-at-your-heartstrings videos that flood the airways. Led by an all-star veteran cast and crew, these 30-second spots use light humor to challenge public perceptions of returning veterans. The two PSAs were hits with veterans and civilians alike, and continue to air on broadcast and cable TV.

Looking ahead to 2015, the launch of our third installment in the series is shaping up to be the biggest one yet. This time, we’re collaborating with a famous Easter Seals friend who’s built an award-winning career around humor: Judd Apatow. Yes, you read that right—the producer, director, writer responsible for your favorite 21st century comedy is lending his support for a new Easter Seals Dixon Center PSA. In addition to being Hollywood’s favorite funnyman, Judd Apatow is a passionate supporter of veterans. He regularly employs veterans on his film sets and is excited to mentor an aspiring veteran filmmaker.

Earlier this fall our awesome partner, Veterans in Film and Television — a networking organization for veterans, created by veterans—put out a call to its 2,000+ members for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One deserving filmmaker will get to spend time with Judd Apatow. The selected candidate will then use his or her knowledge from the experience to direct the upcoming Easter Seals Dixon Center PSA.
To say we were blown away by the submissions is a complete understatement. Over 50 inspiring filmmakers lent their time and talent to create an original PSA concept and video pitch to Judd and our team. Helping review submissions was hands-down, the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It was amazing to learn about the candidates and their visions for where we could take this next PSA.

After carefully reviewing each candidate’s video pitch, concept, prior experience and portfolio, we narrowed the field down to five fantastic veteran filmmakers. Stay tuned for an announcement of our winner in early December. For now, we’d like to highlight the amazing contributions of our top five. It’s my pleasure to introduce in no particular order Kevin, Rebecca, Jim, Patrick and Brayden:

  • Kevin Resnick: Kevin is an award-winning writer, director, and actor who served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. After his service, Kevin made a career in acting, starring in several acclaimed films on the national festival circuit. Kevin’s writing and directing credits have screened in festivals worldwide, including the famed Cannes Film Festival.
  • Rebecca Murga: Rebecca works in Los Angeles as a writer and director. In addition to her work in film, she is a Captain and Public Affairs Officer in the US Army Reserve who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rebecca’s work has appeared on “Good Morning America,” “The View” and in “The New York Times,” to name a few. Rebecca’s newest endeavor, “War Ink” is a project that brings together videos and photographs of tattooed service members, in an effort to bridge the divide between veterans and civilian communities.
  • Jim Fabio: Jim got his start behind-the-camera as a Combat Camera Officer in the U.S. Air Force, producing documentaries and covering combat operations for the Department of Defense. Following his service, Jim continued to pursue his passion for filmmaking. He’s an accomplished director and producer, earning awards for his work in sports documentaries and music.



  • Patrick Mulderrig: Director, Actor and Navy SEAL, Patrick Mulderrig has done it all. Patrick’s used his keen sense of humor to develop, Team Guys, a comedic feature on Navy SEALS. Patrick’s also in the process of developing a web series.

  • Brayden Yoder: Brayden decided to pursue a career in film after first serving as a U.S. Army officer in Germany and Iraq. While serving as an officer, Brayden developed a passion for cross-cultural communication. He spent five years at the Film and Television Institute of India, developing his latest film, “Breakdown.”


We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all 53 applicants. The submissions were incredible and we look forward to working with these talented men and women for future endeavors. We encourage you to view their portfolios and learn more about Veterans in Film and Television. Stay tuned for the big announcement after Thanksgiving!


Women with disabilities write to their past selves

thrivesliderEaster Seals has been supporting mentorship programs for many years, and in 2012 we helped launch a mentorship program focused on young women with disabilities. The program is called Thrive, and the offline program is based at Easter Seals Massachusetts. We’ve just expanded nationally online at Easterseals.com/thrive so anyone can join in!

Last year Thrive’s program coordinator Sandy Ho helped launch a Letters to Thrive blog encouraging women with disabilities to write letters to their younger selves. I follow the Letters to Thrive blog, and I found Sandy’s letter so compelling that I wanted to share it with you Easter Seals blog readers.

12 June 2013

You’ve just begun college, and I gotta admit that you are already a different person than you were just a few months ago. But right now I am writing to you five years later from the future, and there is even more that will surprise you about yourself even though right now sitting in your dorm room you feel like you’ve got everything all figured out.

The truth is that you don’t have it all figured out. And I know that that scares you to admit. It scares you because it makes you feel alone and isolated, because you are holding onto some secret mystery that you think only you have to hold onto for dear life. Right now you don’t even know what that secret mystery is, it’s just a presence inside of you that you’ve become used to until the day you begin to give it a name and let others in on it too. Over time the secret doesn’t really become heavier or any lighter on your shoulders, it just becomes less of an elephant inside of you and more of a light.

Spoiler alert: You aren’t afraid to try even though up until now you haven’t experienced failures that will leave you in your bed for days, crying and refusing to talk to anyone. You aren’t afraid to jump into things and become involved even though those decisions may make you completely re-think the person you are, and what you’re capable of. But most of all you are unafraid to reach out to others and help, even though you will learn in that process parts of yourself you were too embarrassed to admit, and quite frankly felt like you didn’t know the words to explain what you wanted and why.

I will say that five years later none of those things have stopped being true. At least now you know what that secret mystery inside of you is. You know that it hasn’t really stopped being a mystery, maybe less of a secret because you have found so many others to share it with. But there are still some parts of it that are unknown, and I am so grateful to have discovered other disabled women whose experiences and willingness to come together allow the questions from yesterday and today to ignite your passions for tomorrow.

Love always,
Your future self

Sandy’s is just one of many letters that have been submitted to Letters to Thrive on Tumblr. Some are empowering, some are resourceful, some give advice, and some are empathetic. Letter-writers brag, vent and celebrate. one thing they all have in common? They’re all honest.

The Letters to Thrive is creating a community out of shared life experiences, and they’re looking to grow. If you are a woman with a disability, please consider writing a letter to your younger self and submitting it to Letters to Thrive. I’m working on a letter myself and will be sharing it with both the Letters to Thrive blog on Tumblr and here on the Easter Seals blog as well. Stay tuned!


Helping each other to teach a student who is blind

Seedlings LogoLate last month my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I flew to Orlando to give a presentation at the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children conference. I’d intended on giving examples of ways to teach young children about blindness, but that all changed after we went around the room introducing ourselves.

One woman there was a teacher trainer at Head Start in Tampa. That very morning she’d been told that a three-year-old who’d just enrolled is blind. “I have no idea what to tell the teachers to do with him,” she said. “I thought coming to hear you might be a good place to start.”

Another audience member taught sign language at a nursery school that regularly has teenagers who are blind come in as volunteers. She’d come to find out if there was some way to incorporate Braille in her preschool. Another audience member had taught at a school for the blind years ago. “I came just to hear what you have to say,” she said.

And so, here’s what I had to say: forget my presentation. We need to help this Head Start woman!

Okay, not really. What I actually said was, “How about we move our chairs and sit in a circle?” Everyone there had the handout I’d put together with lists of resources and ideas to teach children about blindness that they could read on their own when they got home, so instead of talking about that we all shared ideas and resources about how to include a child who is blind into a preschool classroom.

At the end of the hour the Head Start teacher trainer walked out armed with the Braille copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound that I’d brought along, and a list of names and email addresses others in the circle had come up with for her to contact for help. Most importantly, she left with reassurances from people in the room who had dealt with blindness before. “I bet you’ll be surprised at what fun this boy will be at Head Start,” the teacher who had taught at a school for the blind told her as she left. “You’ll all end up learning a lot.”


I’m not mad at my mother: I’m mad at Alzheimer’s

I am pleased to introduce Barbara Brawley as a guest blogger today – I have a strong feeling many of you blog readers will relate to her honest and thoughtful post about caring for her mother.


by Barbara Brawley

caregiver-senior-hands_317x224My mother has always been a strong person: physically, emotionally and spiritually. She has always been my best friend and confident. Over the years, we have traveled and done many things together.

I started taking care of my mother about 12 years ago after my father died. She has some physical issues and that has always been my concern, but about a year ago when she was 84, she was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease.

My mother is still able to recognize people and do many things for herself, but she has little recall. Caregiving is challenging. It can be a lonely job. It can be frustrating to provide her with constant reminders and repeat the same conversation we just had. One of the hardest things is that she is still aware that she is not remembering or moving as quickly as she used to when she was younger.

I try to do some deep breathing or count to ten before I speak. When I don’t do this, my anger shows. Guilt sets in. I remind myself to do better next time.

As I’ve reflected on my temperament, I realize I am not mad at my mother. I am mad at Alzheimer’s. I do not want this disease to take my mother away from me entirely. We have always been close, and I think that is a real benefit to us now.

We still laugh and enjoy our time together. My mother is still a strong person, but now, more than ever, she needs a sense of purpose, and she needs to know she is still loved. Alzheimer’s has taught us to live and enjoy the moment. When all is said and done, being together at this moment is all we have.

Cherish the good times together.