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An ADHD Dog Trainer Shows Special Kids How To Use Calm Energy

I have been writing articles about safe and healthy interactions between kids and canines for Pediatric Safety for over two years now, and in those articles I have shared numerous personal stories with you all… so I think it’s safe to say that through those stories many of you have gotten to know me pretty well. I have shared about what is was like growing up with ADHD and learning disabilities in a time where it was not really known about in my post: Growing Up With ADHD – Have Things Changed?“. I broached the subject of being in recovery from addiction in Kids, Pets & Your Holiday Party: Read this List (check it twice!) and I got into a bit more detail about it and also talked a bit about suffering for many years with low-self-esteem in Building a Child’s Confidence Through Dog Training“.

So now, I want to combine little bits of all of that into this month’s article, because being a professional dog trainer, and especially being a member of a wonderful organization like the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) has changed me. There are so many observations and realizations I have made about myself since becoming a member; both personally and professionally! The changes I had to make to grow as a trainer helped me take a new look at the struggles I had so many years ago and how I might have handled them today. It is my hope that in sharing this story with you, I may be able to help many of you who have dogs and also a child who struggles with ADHD. I hope I can potentially offer you a different perspective on how they may see and perceive things, not based on years of research, studies and statistics, but based solely on my own personal experiences… who knows, maybe some of those same tactics can help you and your child too.

Early on in my career as a dog trainer, I really did not understand why I did not do well with toy breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Chihuahuas, etc. It was obvious (even to me) that I did not do well with them, but I just couldn’t grasp the ‘why’ of it. So I shied away from them. I took all the calls for the mid-sized dogs (Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Wheaten Terriers…) large breeds (Golden and Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Huskies…) and even giant breeds like the Great Dane, Rottweiler’s and Mastiffs!. I was consistently successful with any breed that wasn’t tiny and typically nervous, so I referred those clients elsewhere. But I think deep down, it did bother me! Who wants to admit they cannot succeed in any area of their chosen profession? I sure didn’t!

But it was exactly this time, eight years ago, that I attended my first IACP conference!

To say that I ran the gamut of emotions- from excited to nervous, insecure, and petrified -would be a huge understatement! I do need to mention here that as a New Yorker, we all tend to talk a bit faster than most. I arrived at the conference a New Yorker with ADHD and extreme nervousness! Fortunately most of the other attendees acclimated to my hyperactivity pretty quickly… but I couldn’t help but notice how often words like, ‘Calm, tranquil, peaceful, and consistent’ were used in conjunction with the word ‘energy’ (ie: ‘calm energy,’ and ‘tranquil energy,’ etc.). Even the trainers who had their dogs with them … Both the trainers AND their dogs… were all so STILL! And my first thought was ‘CRAP! I can’t do that!’ I immediately flashed back to my childhood. It was a time in my life when the word ‘can’t’ first became my mantra.

But then came the main meeting…. And the main speaker, Cesar Milan, took the stage. His primary methodology is all about using a calm energy… building the dog’s respect for him by being assertive, firm and consistent…and CALM. At the end of his speech, when it was time for questions and answers, you bet I had some! But when I stood up to take the microphone to ask it, in my nervousness, the rapid speech was tripled, and my words seem to come out in a jumble, all tripping over each other! And Cesar, obviously having no clue what I was trying to ask, came to the edge of the stage, and in a calm and very thoughtful pose, looked at Peter, my husband, and asked, “How often is she this hyper?”

At this time the entire audience of trainers, all of whom had spent the last few days already with me and having already witnessed my hyperactivity, began to laugh… and in front of thousands, I began to cry. All that pent up nervousness, all of those hidden insecurities up until that point, all the overwhelming new knowledge (and with it, the self-doubt) came rushing to the surface.

I somehow regained my composure, eventually got out my question, and he answered it, but it was when we spoke afterwards that some things suddenly started to make sense to me. I envisioned myself arriving at a client’s home with a tiny dog, that is fearful and nervous, and me coming at them at a hundred miles an hour! How would I personally feel if I was afraid, and someone came at me like that? I was just lucky that I hadn’t gotten bitten yet!

As I thought more and more on this, other memories resurfaced…. How as a child, our dog Brandy would often come to me to rough-house and play, but if he wanted to cuddle, or just wanted to be calm and still, it was my sisters he sought out. As a kid, I took it as a personal rejection. Now I realize it wasn’t.

And I started to change the way I worked with my clients.

  • When I had to work with a small dog, when I arrived at the house, I had to take a few deep calming breaths before ringing the doorbell. And I found when I calmly and assertively greeted them, both owner and dog seemed more calm and receptive!
  • Another challenge I had was my impatience and aggravation sitting in traffic for an hour prior to arriving at a clients house…. So to combat that, I left an extra half hour earlier than I needed to to arrive on time. This allowed me to arrive, park near-by and do something (reading, listening to some music, etc.) to bring down my level of agitation prior to arriving at the person’s house… And amazingly, I found this not only worked well for the many small dogs I now worked with, but for the larger hyper pups as well!

When I tried to help my clients with hyperactive ADHD kids, and I would explain the importance of the kids being calm around the dog, there was one key fact that I forgot….

Almost anyone can be calm for an hour during a focused training session. But if I was able to curtail that hyperactivity full time, I would not have the diagnosis of ADHD! Was I seriously asking my client’s hyperactive kids to be calm full-time and expecting them to accomplish it?

I needed to figure out a way to help them interact with their dogs better, because I could physically see the different way the dog or pup reacted to the ADHD child versus older or calmer family members.

  • With the calmer children, the dog was more relaxed, did not mind lying next to them and even cuddling with them….
  • The ADHD child was filled with scratches and nip marks from the dog chasing them and jumping on them. Also a child that feels rejected by the dog that won’t cuddle with them will often try to ‘force the dog to stay with them’ by holding their collar or wrapping their arms around him. If a child physically restrains a dog and the dog wants to get away, there is a very high risk in that moment of the dog biting the child to free themselves.
  • My toughest challenge was trying to figure out a good way to explain these dynamics to the child as well as explain to the parents the potential risks and dangers in a way so that they could understand and be receptive to the necessary changes.

What we did (and what you can do)

  • The first thing I wanted to do was work with the child (and Mother) alone… without other family members present. (This made the child feel less self-conscious and more important – he was getting to work alone with the trainer)
  • Next, I wanted to show the child that they too can have a ‘cuddling session’ with the dog. I sat on the floor with the child and we just talked a bit about the puppy, and I asked him if he would like to be able to cuddle with the puppy too, and he looked so sad when he said, “Yes, but the puppy doesn’t like me that way.” This was my opportunity to explain to him that if all they did was run and go crazy with the dog that would ALWAYS be their relationship, so he had to show the pup that they can do this.
  • Next I sat side by side with the child, with my legs stretched out in front of me. I opened my legs a bit and I put the puppy on his back in between them, then gently held him in place. Once the dog had settled on me, I told the boy to gently pet all the way up, and all the way down the dog’s body, instead of quick rough movements in one spot, and to avoid the paws and ears for now, as they are sensitive areas on a dog that tend to get them easily riled up when messed with.
  • The little boy did as I asked, and then when the pup was nice and calm, I switched the pup over to in between Mom’s legs and we continued the gentle petting. It was important that Mom was comfortable with this and understand what she had to do if she was going to be able to continue this when I was not around.
  • After pup was relaxed with Mom, we instructed the child to sit the same way his Mom and I did, and then we calmly put the pup between his legs, and I let his Mom help him to keep the pup still and calm. We continued this, and much to the little boy’s delight, the puppy let out a huge sigh, and then closed his eyes!

When the pup was nice and relaxed, we got him up slowly and then put his leash on and all of us (Mom included) went for a walk. We worked on walking SLOWLY, and getting the pup to keep pace with the boy, instead of the other way around. The boy seemed to have a bit of trouble walking slowly for any length of time, so we practiced taking ten steps, and then telling pup to SIT. I praised the boy, and had the boy praise his dog (calmly and gently). We did this again and again…. Every ten steps we stopped and sat. The Mom told me she had never seen her son so calm and focused, and I pointed out to the Mom and the boy how receptive the pup was to his training.

A dog can be such a wonderful tool to help a child with special needs. All it really takes is a little know-how, some time, patience, and understanding. This is why they are so often used for therapy.

As an adult who has dealt with ADHD all of my life, I hope some of this helps you to help your child move out of the “I can’t’ Mantra, and into the “Wow… I really can!” all the while helping your child and pet build a safe and beautiful relationship!

Saturday at AMC, DC League of SuperPets is Sensory Friendly

New sensory friendly logoSince 2007, AMC Entertainment (AMC) and the Autism Society have teamed up to bring families affected by autism and other special needs “Sensory Friendly Films” every month – a wonderful opportunity to enjoy fun new films in a safe and accepting environment. Saturday, DC League of SuperPets is Sensory Friendly at AMC.

Enjoy the magic of the movies in an environment that’s a little quieter and a little brighter. Families will be able to bring in snacks to match their child’s dietary needs (i.e. gluten-free, casein-free, etc.), there are no advertisements or previews before the movie and it’s totally acceptable to get up and dance, walk, shout, talk to each other…and even sing – in other words, AMC’s “Silence is Golden®” policy will not be enforced during movie screenings unless the safety of the audience is questioned.

Does it make a difference? Absolutely! Imagine …no need to shhhhh your child. No angry stares from other movie goers. Many parents think twice before bringing a child to a movie theater. Add to that your child’s special needs and it can easily become cause for parental panic. But on this one day a month, for this one screening, everyone is there to relax and have a good time, everyone expects to be surrounded by kids – with and without special needs – and the movie theater policy becomes “Tolerance is Golden“.

Families affected by autism or other special needs can view a sensory friendly screening of DC League of SuperPets on Saturday August 13th. Tickets are typically discounted depending on the location. To find a theatre near you, here is a list of AMC theatres nationwide participating in this fabulous program (note: to access full list, please scroll to the bottom of the page).

Coming Soon: Bullet Train (Wed. Aug. 24th) and Minions: The Riser of Gru (Sat. Aug. 27th)

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Editor’s note: Although DC League of SuperPets has been chosen by the AMC and the Autism Society as this month’s Sensory Friendly Film, we do want parents to know that it is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for Rated PG for action, mild violence, language and rude humor. As always, please check the IMDB Parents Guide for a more detailed description of this film to determine if it is right for you and your family.

4th of July Strategies for Special Needs Kids

July_4th_fireworks - fun from a distanceThe 4th of July is an exciting holiday, but for special needs kids it can all be a bit too much. Think about it: fireworks are basically EXPLOSIONS! Things blowing up can be challenging for someone who is sensitive to loud noises. Also, fireworks can’t happen until nightfall, which may mean staying up late. For typical kids that may be a treat, but some special needs kids find a disruption in daily routine very upsetting. Also, barbecues and parties may bring unfamiliar and even dangerous foods to children on a special diet. Plan ahead, be prepared, and you and your special needs kid can have a great time.

Planning ahead is essential. Pre-pack a bag of comfort items, medications if necessary, and any foods that fit your child’s dietary plan. Many special needs children find that earplugs or noise-reducing headphones help in loud situations.

If you are going to a live fireworks display, consider a vantage point that is a bit farther away. You will encounter smaller crowds and much less noise, while being able to enjoy all the colors and patterns. We found a spot across the freeway from a show and were able to see not only that one but also several other displays in our area, without battling for parking or having to cover anyone’s little ears. Some shows even simulcast a soundtrack on a radio station so check your local listings.

Speaking of local listings, another option is to watch fireworks on television or on Youtube. You might even want to do this in preparation for a live show as part of desensitization (or as theatre folk call it, rehearsal). Rehearsal is a great way to prepare for a big event, and it can be fun, too. Role play a visit to a dentist or hair salon several times with your child, and be sure to switch roles now and then!

The following social story comes from National Autism Resources where you can buy many great tools, toys and other items to help on your journey with your special needs child. You can personalize this story to fit any holiday or situation.

Fireworks Social Story

Every year we celebrate my country’s birthday on the 4th of July. We celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks. Fireworks are a fun way to celebrate.

  • Sometimes fireworks make loud noises and have bright lights. That is OK.
  • If the fireworks get too loud I can cover my ears with my hands or put on my ear muffs.
  • If I don’t want to look at the bright fireworks, I can close my eyes or look away.
  • I can watch the fireworks up in the sky or I can watch fireworks stay on the ground. If the fireworks are on the ground I will not touch them. I will let an adult light the fireworks so that I will be safe.
  • If I am scared, I will hug my mom or dad. Hugging my mom or dad might help me feel safer.
  • After the fireworks end, I will clap. I will be happy that I got to see the fireworks.

JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION is Sensory Friendly June 22 at AMC

New sensory friendly logoSince 2007, AMC Entertainment (AMC) and the Autism Society have teamed up to bring families affected by autism and other special needs “Sensory Friendly Films” every month – a wonderful opportunity to enjoy fun new films in a safe and accepting environment. Wednesday June 22nd, JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION is Sensory Friendly at AMC.

Enjoy the magic of the movies in an environment that’s a little quieter and a little brighter. Families will be able to bring in snacks to match their child’s dietary needs (i.e. gluten-free, casein-free, etc.), there are no advertisements or previews before the movie and it’s totally acceptable to get up and dance, walk, shout, talk to each other…and even sing – in other words, AMC’s “Silence is Golden®” policy will not be enforced during movie screenings unless the safety of the audience is questioned.

Does it make a difference? Absolutely! Imagine …no need to shhhhh your child. No angry stares from other movie goers. Many parents think twice before bringing a child to a movie theater. Add to that your child’s special needs and it can easily become cause for parental panic. But on this one day a month, for this one screening, everyone is there to relax and have a good time, everyone expects to be surrounded by kids – with and without special needs – and the movie theater policy becomes “Tolerance is Golden“.

Families affected by autism or other special needs can view a sensory friendly screening of JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION on Wednesday the 22nd. Tickets are typically discounted depending on the location. To find a theatre near you, here is a list of AMC theatres nationwide participating in this fabulous program (note: to access full list, please scroll to the bottom of the page).

Still to come in June: Lightyear (Sat. 6/25)

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Editor’s note: Although JURASSIC WORLD DOMINION has been chosen by the AMC and the Autism Society as this month’s Sensory Friendly Film, we do want parents to know that it is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for intense sequences of action, some violence and language. As always, please check the IMDB Parents Guide for a more detailed description of this film to determine if it is right for you and your family.

Make Easter Happy and Healthy for Special Needs Kids

Easter is almost here, and like Halloween and Valentine’s Day the holiday celebrations Easter egg sachetinvolve lots and lots of candy. Many special needs children, along with many typical children, are severely affected by the synthetic dyes, preservatives, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients in treats. Simply reading labels and choosing all-natural products before filling eggs and baskets may just let your family have a more enjoyable holiday, and the habit of reading labels can improve the quality of life for you and your special needs child.

The non-profit Feingold Association has tons of information on medical studies that prove the link between these additives and increased hyperactivity, inability to focus and other symptoms. The site also offers a program and diet to eliminate these ingredients. Conditions that have improved on the Feingold diet include ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, MBD, TS and many more. Adopting the Faingold diet, or your own modified version of avoiding these ingredients, may not even mean a major overhaul of your family’s eating. According to the Feingold Association website, “Cheetos Natural White Cheddar Flavored Puffs are acceptable, but the orange colored Cheetos (with artificial coloring) are not. Duncan Hines makes a chocolate cake mix with artificial flavor – and another version without.”

So many caregivers of special needs children are searching for that magic pill, which may just be in the form of a shopping cart.

There are many stores that offer a wide selection of all-natural candy and treats, as well as items that are gluten-free, sugar-free and organic:

  • Whole Foods – Find your local Whole Foods here. (Whole Foods has partnered with Streit’s to offer all-natural Hannukah foods, fyi)
  • Trader Joe’s – Find your local location of Trader Joe’s here.
  • Many all-natural items are also available online, such as these All-Natural Jelly Belly jelly beans, which are also gluten-free, dairy free and kosher.

Know of a great store or product? Email me or share it with us all as a comment!

This Saturday 3/26 at AMC, KING RICHARD is Sensory Friendly

New sensory friendly logoSince 2007, AMC Entertainment (AMC) and the Autism Society have teamed up to bring families affected by autism and other special needs “Sensory Friendly Films” every month – a wonderful opportunity to enjoy fun new films in a safe and accepting environment. Saturday, King Richard is Sensory Friendly at AMC.

Enjoy the magic of the movies in an environment that’s a little quieter and a little brighter. Families will be able to bring in snacks to match their child’s dietary needs (i.e. gluten-free, casein-free, etc.), there are no advertisements or previews before the movie and it’s totally acceptable to get up and dance, walk, shout, talk to each other…and even sing – in other words, AMC’s “Silence is Golden®” policy will not be enforced during movie screenings unless the safety of the audience is questioned.

Does it make a difference? Absolutely! Imagine …no need to shhhhh your child. No angry stares from other movie goers. Many parents think twice before bringing a child to a movie theater. Add to that your child’s special needs and it can easily become cause for parental panic. But on this one day a month, for this one screening, everyone is there to relax and have a good time, everyone expects to be surrounded by kids – with and without special needs – and the movie theater policy becomes “Tolerance is Golden“.

Families affected by autism or other special needs can view a sensory friendly screening of King Richard on Saturday March 26th. Tickets are typically discounted depending on the location. To find a theatre near you, here is a list of AMC theatres nationwide participating in this fabulous program (note: to access full list, please scroll to the bottom of the page).

Coming Soon: Encanto and Sing 2 (check with your local SFF theatre for schedule)

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Editor’s note: Although King Richard has been chosen by the AMC and the Autism Society as this month’s Sensory Friendly Film, we do want parents to know that it is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references. As always, please check the IMDB Parents Guide for a more detailed description of this film to determine if it is right for you and your family.

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