Colors of the Rainbow: Finding Ways to Support Youth on the Autism Spectrum

April is Autism Awareness Month, so what better way to honor youth on the autism spectrum than by learning about their experiences and getting to know some of the organizations dedicated to helping them grow up well!

“An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by problems with social interactions and communication, as well as limited and repetitive patterns of behavior,” said Holly Barszcz, clinical director at Cornerstone Autism Center. “It is important to support individuals with an autism spectrum disorder because, by providing them with proper supports, these individuals can have greater independence when completing tasks, learn skills that they might not have been able to complete in the past, increase their communication skills and interaction with others as well as even display skills appropriate for gainful employment.”

Read more on Indy With Kids.

Make the Change: Encouraging Nutrition for Families and Youth

Organic, sugar-free, fat-free, all-natural, fresh, non-GMO, low-calorie – with so many hot topic buzz words trending in the media and on food advertisements, nutrition can be difficult for anyone to navigate. It can be especially difficult for families to instill the value of nutrition in their homes to pass on to their children.

“Nutrition is the science of consuming and utilizing foods by our bodies,” said Christina Ferroli, a Purdue Extension educator in Marion County. “Nutrition is about eating what our bodies need – proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals – to grow, be healthy, be active and live a long life.”

Ferroli’s program provides educational programming for youth and adults about food safety, health, nutrition and more. Opportunities include the Nutrition Education Program and 4-H Youth Development.

Ferroli said that “youth development rests on proper nutrition where youth get the nutrients they need to grow and develop healthy minds and bodies through food. Not getting the nutrients in the amounts needed for growth and development set youth up for deficiencies.”

Carol Rice is the owner and chef at Stargazer Inc., a program that promotes nutrition and encourages healthy choices by providing culinary classes for youth. Rice’s curriculum includes “kid-friendly” recipes that help participants try healthy and tasty foods.

“In my years of teaching, I have learned youth are more apt to ‘buy into’ new things when they’re invited in the process from planning to preparing and picking new things to try,” said Rice. “Research some meals as a family, [and] pick a new [fruit or vegetable] weekly. Always make sure the recipes are youth-friendly, and try not to get to caught up in the calories and fat to where it’s no longer fun. Slowly implement healthier items to your menu and daily snacks.”

Continue reading on Indy With Kids.

Youth Employment: Encouraging Career Exploration

Jobs today are not like they were a few generations ago. Many Hoosier youth are struggling to find employers who will hire young people, and others find it difficult to develop personal and professional skills needed to acquire and maintain employment.

Molly Hansen, a Jobs for America’s Graduates specialist working at Decatur Central High School, said that adults can be supporters and motivators for youth who are looking for jobs.

“Youth need to feel empowered by parents and teachers to pursue a job,” said Hansen. “As youth supporters we need to help youth find jobs that can fit into their lives and benefit them on multiple levels, not just as something to make some easy money. We need to help youth understand the long-term benefits of obtaining a job.”

The JAG program encourages career exploration and focuses on helping students graduate high school and begin their adult lives on positive, productive paths by teaching them personal, life and employability skills that will “make them the most sought-after graduates for the world of work.”

Hansen works with teens to create resumes, practice interviews and research career opportunities. She also emphasizes professional and personal skills that will help youth find and maintain quality jobs.

“Communication skills are a key,” said Hansen. “Students must be able to communicate with family, schools and their employers to keep track of their schedules. Grit is another key skill students should utilize. I have found that many of my students do a fantastic job of finding a part-time job but struggle to keep the job once they have it. Students need to work on developing professional skills that will help them maintain long-term work. Students also need to demonstrate respect and a willingness to learn new work skills and complete the task at hand.”

Janet Boston is the executive director of Indiana INTERNnet, an organization that encourages employers, schools and students to offer and accept internships. She noted that students should be aware of “timeliness and appropriate behaviors, particularly with technology” and that they “really need to hone what we’re calling the soft skills, particularly written and oral communication.”

Furthermore, Boston mentioned that “employers tell us [that youth] really need to enhance their critical thinking skills…it’s not just absorbing information, but turning that information into meaningful projects.”

Read more on Indy With Kids.

Red Flags: Identifying and Preventing Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is an epidemic that is catching the eyes of leaders and concerned citizens globally. Though many people consider this to be a third-world problem, it is affecting families in every community, including Indianapolis.

Indiana statute defines human trafficking and sexual trafficking of adults and minors, but it is important to remember that victims and traffickers are difficult to classify.

“Traffickers can be anyone – any age, any race, any gender [and] any socioeconomic background. They typically have some connection to the victim,” said Kate Kimmer, Statewide Anti-Trafficking Coordinator with the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault, an organization that develops and coordinates victim services for adult survivors of trafficking. “Victims are equally as dynamic, but we are seeing trends that suggest particular communities and populations are disproportionately impacted by this crime.”

“Victims can be adults or minors,” said Karen Maher, Region 5 Coalition Coordinator for Indiana Trafficking Victim Assistance Program, which trains individuals around the state to identify and address trafficking situations while also finding ways to meet the needs of victims. “However, youth are particularly vulnerable due to lack of life experience, impressionability and their judgment and reasoning not yet being fully developed. Runaway [and] homeless youth, youth with a history of abuse and LGBTQI youth with a lack of support are especially at risk.”

Read more on Indy With Kids.

Looking Inside Ourselves: Supporting Children in Times of Grief

For many, the holidays are a time of joy, laughter and fun memories. For some, though, this season can be a reminder of pain, depression and mourning. This is true for many children who are grieving due to loss or trauma.

“Grief encompasses the thoughts and feelings we experience when we endure a loss,” said Elizabeth Boring, coordinator of bereavement services for the Hope in Healing Pediatric Bereavement Program, which offers grief support to families who have experienced the death of a child at Indiana University Health’s Riley Hospital for Children. “Mourning, which is heavily influenced by culture and society, is how we are able to express our grief as we journey through it. Grief is a natural response to death, but can also be a result of other types of losses such as changing schools, losing abilities due to injury or illness, divorce, foster care, etc.”

“Grief is our body’s natural response to change,” said Kelly Petersohn, hospice bereavement manager and youth grief specialist with Community Healing Hearts and Camp Erin, a Moyer Foundation camp for children and teens who are grieving the death of a loved one. “Grief is experienced after the death of a loved one as the bereaved learn to adjust to a life without their physical presence. Everyone experiences grief differently dependent on a multitude of circumstances.”

As Petersohn mentioned, it is important to remember that not all children grieve in the same way or for the same reason, but they all need support to find ways to handle their emotions in healthy ways.

“Grief is everything we experience inside ourselves when we experience trauma, be it a significant loss, death or traumatic event,” said Carol Braden, clinical director of programs and services at Brooke’s Place, an organization that provides support groups, therapy services and community education to help children, teens, young adults and their families. “Every person experiences their internal grief uniquely; therefore, how our grief is turned outward (‘grieving’ or ‘mourning’) is unique as well.”

According to Braden, it is important to note that youth often grieve differently than adults.

“Children cannot grieve as adults grieve. Adults cannot grieve as a child grieves,” she said. “We grieve where we are developmentally. The younger we are developmentally, the shorter the intense aspects of our grief will come out. The older we are developmentally, the more our being can sustain letting out the intense parts of our grief. The younger we are developmentally, the more we grieve through our play. Even adults grieve through play. At Brooke’s Place, we hold play with great respect, because we know this is how most children and teens integrate their grief story and learn to thrive in the midst of their grief.”

Continue reading on Indy With Kids.

Fair Society: Contemplating the Benefits of Paid Family Leave

Most parents can relate to the stress of tracking down a babysitter for an evening out. However, it seems that more and more parents are desperately struggling with the daily balance of work and childcare, especially after the birth or adoption of a new child. For many families, expanded paid family leave options could offer solutions that are not currently available.

Erin Macey, policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families (IIWF), defined paid family leave as paid time off from a job for a family member who must provide care for a newborn, newly adopted child, foster child or a child with a serious illness. Paid family leave could also apply to adults who care for elderly parents or spouses who suffer from serious illnesses.

“I’ve spoken to pregnant moms and expectant dads who are cobbling together their sick days to spend time with their babies when they are born,” said Macey, adding that, in her opinion, “a fair society recognizes the value of caregiving and supports it – systematically, not just through campaigns.”

Ambre Marr, the state legislative director for AARP Indiana, considers paid family leave to be a critical tool for all kinds of caregivers. According to Marr, approximately 840,000 Hoosiers provide care for a loved one.

“Family caregivers are the backbone of our long-term care system here in Indiana, providing care valued at $9.5 billion annually,” said Marr.

Paid family leave has been known to provide a number of benefits for the children and adults involved, from good health practices to a more productive workforce.

Read more on IndyWithKids.

Playing the Game Correctly: Preventing and Treating Concussions

Recently there has been a spike in media coverage regarding the dangers of concussions, especially as they affect professional athletes. But do parents and coaches know how to prevent and treat concussions when they affect youth?

According to Indiana University’s Health Center, a concussions is “a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head. Concussions can also occur from a fall or a blow to the body that causes the head and brain to move quickly back and forth. A concussion can change the way your brain normally works. Concussions are rarely life-threatening, and can range from mild to severe. They can occur even if you do not lose consciousness. Multiple concussions can have cumulative and long lasting life changes.”

Dr. Terry Horner, a neurosurgeon with more than 31 years of experience treating concussions in people of all ages, has worked with the Indiana University football team and the Indianapolis Colts and has also presented information about concussions to recreational sports clubs and homeschool groups.

“Part of our challenge is to try to educate not only parents and children, but also doctors,” said Horner, explaining that heavy media coverage has led to increased awareness, new research and changes to treatment methods in the past few years.

Read more on Indy With Kids.

Key to Success: Encouraging Parent Involvement in Youth Academics

“Education begins at home.”

That’s how David Patterson, marketing and communications director for Stand for Children Indiana, described the reason parent involvement is so vital to student success.

“When parents are involved in their child’s education, it makes everyone more accountable to perform well to ensure success for that student,” said Patterson. “It allows administrators to develop better policies, helps teachers provide more effective lesson plans and stresses higher expectations from students academically.”

Stand for Children Indiana strives to empower parents, teachers and community members to demand excellence in schools. One of their initiatives, Stand University for Parents (Stand UP), teaches parents and guardians ways to better support the academic success of youth and helps them build effective partnerships with schools. Since 2014, more than 350 Indianapolis parents have graduated from this program.

Crystal Feliciano is the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) president for Lawrence Township Public Schools. She says that parents can begin getting engaged in their children’s schools by attending back-to-school nights and parent/teacher conferences, joining the PTO or helping at school events. She also encourages parents to monitor their children’s grades, join community organizations and participate in “tutoring programs, college tours [and] specialty workshops that will help expose the children to different and exciting opportunities, as well as help them academically.”

“The reason why parental involvement in their child’s school is important is because the children, as well as the educators, can use the support,” said Feliciano. “When parents are not involved with their child’s educational journey, they run the risk of the child not getting his or her maximum benefit from the school system. The guidance counselors and teachers cannot do it alone, nor should they have to.”

Read more at Indy With Kids.