Independent Home Living Ideas for Your Elderly Loved Ones

Welcome to Irisada’s blog. We focus on solutions for families living with differently abled – loved ones so they can live life to the fullest.

As our family members age, their needs can change. To help them live life to the fullest, small adaptations to their everyday surroundings can go a long way. As we recently discussed activities for independent senior citizens, today we’ll be talking about how to adapt their physical and digital surrounding to their needs.

Adapting Their Physical Surroundings

Some doctors estimate that every year, one in three senior citizens suffers a fall at home. Not only can these falls be dangerous, they are avoidable. First, you’ll want to make sure to limit risks of tripping over wires, furniture and clutter, or having to reach too high in cupboards.

Specialists also advise making sure there is enough bright lighting, as darker places, especially stairs, can become dangerous. An 85-year old typically needs three times more light to see the same thing as a 15-year old, so don’t be afraid to deck the house with lights!

Making Bathrooms Secure And Everyday Hygiene Easy

If your older family member has mobility issues, you might want to adapt some of the rooms. Bathrooms tend to be especially tricky. Simply adding grab bars or a shower seat will make their daily routine safer and more relaxed.

You can go even further by making sure the shower enclosure is easy to access (no step, for example) or considering installing a wet floor shower. Since floors are sometimes slippery, nonslip mats or treating the floor with a nonslip solution can make bathrooms (and also kitchens and porches) less risky.

An example of an accessible bathroom. Photo credit: Walk in Showers and Baths Ltd, UK

For caregivers of elderly with very reduced mobility, consider investing in accessories that allow them to avoid the bathroom entirely. For example, an inflatable hair washbasin could be a good place to start. Your loved one will get all the benefits and freshness of a hair wash, without the inconvenience of being transferred to the bathroom.

Last but not least: toilet seats. Getting up and off the toilet can be tricky, which is why it’s advisable to have a higher toilet seat with armrests. You’ll probably want professional help for those kinds of installations.

Other Solutions For Everyday Inconveniences Around the House

Steps and stairs get increasingly awkward. Perhaps your elder could benefit from adding ramps in places where there are steps. You can also install a stairlift or additional railings to stairs in the house, depending on space and feasibility.

But if mobility is a real problem, maybe living on one floor would be safer and allow your loved one to stay independent longer. And though many people dislike the idea of using a walker, having one handy at home can help move around all day with minimal risk.

Many elderly people find getting up and out of bed (or a chair) harder. You can install railings and hoists or ropes to beds to help solve morning issues and buy rising or reclining chairs for the living room. Or if rising chairs are too much of an investment, consider rising assist cushions.

An example of seating assistance in action. The portable pillow cushions the fall when sitting down and assists the lift when standing back up. (Photo credit: Carex)

Last but not least, quite a few personal care products have been adapted for older citizens: nail clippers with magnifiers, zipper aids, shoe and sock aids, to name a few. Don’t forget small adaptations can go a long way, like clocks with bigger numbers, or vibrating alarms for those who are hard of hearing.

Using Technology to Stay Safe and Enjoy Life

Not all adaptations are physical: everyday technology can come in handy since many of today’s elderly people are connected. In fact, some of them actually still have a thirst for technology. And that’s great, first and foremost to stay in touch, as avoiding social isolation is vital to stay psychologically healthy. Simply installing and explaining Skype, Facebook or Whatsapp could make a big difference.

Some of our favourite apps come connected to physical objects, like this app that comes with the Smart Pill Box and keeps track of medication.  Other great apps include Fall Detector, which has a self-explanatory name, and Sudoku or game apps.  We like them because they encompass three aspects of life: keeping track of health, alerting loved ones if something happens, and of course, having fun. 

We hope this article helps with adapting your loved ones home and phone! Remember to send us your comments and suggestions.

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How To Spend Time with Your Loved Ones If Dementia Settles In

Welcome to Irisada’s blog. We focus on solutions for families living with differently abled – loved ones so they can live life to the fullest.

Recently, we’ve been focussing on activities and lifestyle adaptations for elderly citizen’s. Today we’re going to talk about a more sensitive subject: how to spend time with a loved one suffering from dementia.

Warning Signs That Your Independent Elder Needs More Help

Many families struggle with this development. When an active and independent loved one shows signs of no longer being able to take care of themselves, it’s incredibly difficult to determine just how much help they need. And understandably, most elders want to stay in their own home as long as possible, which makes the subject even more sensitive.

It can be hard to figure out exactly how much help your elder needs. (photo credit: Pixabay)

Generally speaking, there’s no absolute rule, especially if your elder doesn’t suffer from a specific medical condition. We found this great guide, (provide your email to download) by Leslie Kernisan, a practising geriatrician. It helps you evaluate what part of your elder’s lifestyle or health might be problematic, and identify suitable courses of action, as well as conversation starters. Thus you can really talk about solutions to specific questions, rather than just tell your loved one that you are “worried”, which might sound too vague from their standpoint.

Calibrating Activities for Elders With Dementia Like Conditions

The important and over-arching rule is to find failure-free activities as satisfaction stems more easily from doing than from an intended outcome. Just because a person has aged and changed, doesn’t mean they don’t need to cultivate their sense of self-worth. In turn, spending time in engaging and satisfying activities limits anxiety, stress and sundowning behaviour. The virtuous cycle helps with everyday life and might even slow the progress of the illness.

Before moving on to examples of activities for people with dementia-like conditions, we’d like to share this Ted Talk by Alanna Shaikh. We like the empathetic and relatable way Shaikh explains dementia (in this case Alzheimer’s disease).

 

What stands out is how many activities have been struck off the list, and the need to find extremely simple, hands-on alternatives.

Examples of No-Fail, Fun Activities For People with Dementia-Like Conditions

Everyone is different, so you’ll want to calibrate these activities according to your elder’s tastes.

In the early stages, your elder might still enjoy playing cards, like memory games or solitaire. They might enjoy Hua Hee, a memory card game specially developed for ageing family members. If your elder still wants to play their regular games, cards with bigger numbers will be easier to read.

An example of a memory box (photo credit: Home Instead)

If they still like looking at old souvenirs or special mementoes, you could make a memory box to rummage through or try this talking photo album, which helps your loved ones recall the memories in the pictures. Jewellery boxes also often have similar functions, though sometimes the memories – or lack thereof – can be overwhelming. You’ll also find that sensory activities help bring back memories, by activating their sense of smell or touch.

Some elders derive satisfaction from activities resembling household chores. You might find they love sorting cutlery, or folding towels and clothes. They will feel like they are doing something worthwhile. And at the same time, they can’t really fail these activities. Some will even enjoy cutting out coupons, for example. This means they have to be safe with scissors, so keep an eye out!

Remember, you can stay creative with your activities: make a (simple) puzzle that represents a special place, set up arts and crafts activities, create themed boxes with fabrics or materials. You know your elder best!

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Independent Living for Your Active Elderly Loved Ones

Welcome to Irisada’s blog. We focus on solutions for families living with differently abled – loved ones so they can live life to the fullest.

Today we wanted to branch out to the older generations in our families. As our parents and grandparents age, their needs and habits change. This article will be dedicated to lifestyle changes that will help your family spend more quality time together. Watch out for our next article that will give you tips on adapting houses for better ageing in place.

Activities For our Active Elders

Often, we barely notice that our elders are ageing. Then we realise that the long hike we enjoyed together actually wore him or her out. Maybe he doesn’t react so well to heat anymore. Or she just seems worried about extended periods standing. It might be time to start changing or adapting the kinds of activities you suggest. Change doesn’t have to be drastic at first, depending on your elder’s abilities.

How fit can grans and gramps stay? (From a very fun series by photographer Dean Bradshaw)

It might seem frustrating if you think in terms of negatives – i.e. what you can’t do anymore -, so stay goal orientated. What’s so great about the hiking? Maybe it’s getting close to nature, or having time alone to chat, or a yearly pilgrimage to an important family landmark. Once you find the reason you love your activity, you can adapt. You could find less remote nature spots or bring a hiking pole to provide stability and help relieve joint stress. Or have a one-to-one dinner together. Perhaps you can drive to that special place. You’ll find new sources of enjoyment together.

You can also discover activities you’d never tried together. Introduce activities that they can comfortably enjoy throughout their golden years, also known as low impact activities. For example, petanque (a stationary version of boules invented to accommodate a former player who developed rheumatism), aqua aerobics and ballroom dancing will work for elders who like to move. Pottery or crafts activities will appeal to people who are good with their hands. And more experiential hobbies like tea appreciation keep the senses sharp.

Things To Do In Singapore

For our Singapore based readers, there are venues in town that are particularly well suited to older citizens. Nature enthusiasts will love the very cool and accessible Gardens by the Bay, the River Safari and the National Orchid Garden.  There are typically rest areas but just in case, you might want to consider one of these smart walking canes so your active elder can take breaks when they tire.

All these places have wheelchair rentals and many have discounts for seniors. The River Safari, in particular, has shaded walkways throughout the entire park, making viewing of the exhibits more comfortable. But do note that once you start the walk, the next toilet stop is a slight distance away, near  the panda enclosure.

The Gardens by the Bay host over 5,000 species of plants – and 2$ daily wheelchair rentals!

Garden lovers will also enjoy the therapeutic gardens, coupled with therapeutic horticultural programmes. The outing will be full of health benefits!

For history fans, the Asian Civilisations Museum and National Museum of Singapore are free for residents, and the galleries are wheelchair accessible and air-conditioned, of course. Generally speaking, many cultural activities are easily accessible to your ageing loved ones. A trip to the cinema or the theatre is a great bonding experience. Just remember to call up and check that they offer accessible seats if your elder is wheelchair bound, and arrive a little earlier than you normally would, so there’s no risk you’ll have to rush.

On a side note: you can still encourage your elder to stay active and practice sports on a regular basis. Singapore boasts quite a few options, including the People’s Association’s Active Aging programmes, Active SG‘s endeavours to find the right sport for each elder, and courses at the Asian Women’s Welfare Association‘s activity centres. NTUC Senior Care Centres also offer social day care and a range of care services for different needs.

We hope this article will help you with your active and independent elder. Before we leave, we’d like to finish with this inspiring video by the Institute on Aging.

Additional links

Here are some additional wheelchair friendly products that make your trip simpler:

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New Year, Same Promise, Exciting Developments

The old year is closing, the new one is coming. We thought now would be the right time to reflect on 2017 and give you a taste of what is yet to come. As you know, our goal is to become the go-to platform for families in search of solutions adapted to their developmental differences. We’ll continue to pursue this goal.

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Photo credit: Aaron Burden

2017: Developing Community and Awareness

Those of you who’ve followed us from the beginning know Irisada is still young. As the online platform grew, we also wanted to get to know our community better. So just under two years ago, we opened a Facebook page.  This year we worked on strengthening our community of followers and pursuing socially responsible goals.

We held several fun giveaways, including Hua Hee card games to help fight against dementia and Senseez Pillows for kids with sensory needs. We also held a fundraiser to give back to the community when we launched T-Jacket (a vest that helps autistic children relax by simulating a hug) on Irisada.

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Part of our aim is also to build awareness around a wide range of conditions and explore the kinds of products and anecdotal tips that help families live fuller lives. Over the past six months, we focused on different conditions, striving to share tips from other parents in similar situations. Here’s a quick recap in case you’ve missed some of them:

2018: Same Promise, Exciting Developments

With already more than 300 products available for a range of conditions and abilities, we’ll be continuing to find the best solutions for your families. We’ll expand product ranges and cater to new conditions, including those linked to mobility and the elderly, to give you more choice.

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As for our community, we’ll be actively discussing specific points in our specialised Facebook groups. One such group is already running (The Discussion Group for Solutions and Tools for Special Needs), feel free to join, and we welcome suggestions for groups you’d like to see set up.

In terms of blog articles, we’ll be delving deeper into some of the conditions already mentioned, reach out to us if you have specific topic suggestions.

We look forward to the coming year with you. Keep following us on Facebook and Instagram. Get in touch with comments and suggestions. And of course, send us product ideas or reviews. You are the reason Irisada exists, you’re part of our story!

Last but not least: Happy New Year and thanks for following our adventures!

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Tips for Travelling with a Wheelchair

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. We’ve chosen a slight variation this week, as the festive season approaches: travelling with a family member with limited mobility.

The festive season is almost upon us! Off we will go to those end of year get-togethers, where we’ll eat copious meals and of course, give and receive gifts. We will probably spend hours in transport to get there, alongside hundreds of millions of people around the world.  At Irisada, we wondered: how do families with wheelchair users cope?

We spoke with Pascale and Hervé, whose experience of physical disability is relatively recent. Hervé suffered a stroke four years ago and is now hemiplegic, with slowed mobility and frequent wheelchair use.

Ensuring the Destination is Accessible

Pascale is in charge of logistics. Her motto is to always prepare for whatever might go wrong. “Whenever we travel, book a room or even visit friends, my first thought is to understand if Hervé will be comfortable and able to move around. I always look at photos, and often call for more information,” says Pascal. The obvious reason, being to confirm how accessible the destination really is, the second being to limit the unknowns in the equation. “We can’t improvise anymore – unless we already know what might be problematic.”

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It’s not always easy to find accessible bathrooms

“When renting, the most important rooms to look at are definitely the bathroom and the bedroom,” she explains. “The bathroom is the scariest place for people who aren’t steady on their feet. Especially when the floor is wet.” So Pascale always makes sure there’s enough space for Hervé to walk around comfortably, or even use his chair if he needs to. They also bring their own material: the invaluable shower stool, a portable shower bench, shower mats and a couple of suction grab bars for the shower.

As for the bedroom, the couple is most vigilant about how the bed is placed in the room. It can’t be too close to the wall, and height can be an issue.  “We recently travelled abroad, and found ourselves confronted with an unusually high bed, which was a big problem.” Hervé wasn’t as autonomous in those conditions, so they’ll be on the watch in the future. As they like to have breakfast in bed and Hervé spends a lot of time reading, they also bring an Invacare Backrest so he can sit up.

Choosing the Right Mode of Transport

So far the couple has tested travelling by car, train and plane. “At first we would only travel by car,” says Pascale, “because we felt more autonomous.” The first few trips were long, perhaps even too long. “I remember once we crossed the border and couldn’t find a place to stop for Hervé to use a bathroom. That was unnecessarily stressful.” They have got better at evaluating how long they can drive without wearing Hervé out. For them, driving is still the most convenient mode of transportation.

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Quan Peng’s inspiring travel story has been picked up in China (for more, see links section)

“We’ve only flown once since Hervé’s stroke,” says Pascale, “and it was not a satisfying experience.” The small awkward spaces, lack of adjustable seating and overall poor organisation did not make them eager to fly again. “I suppose we’ll try again in the future, but it will require more organisation.” Meanwhile, taking the train can be either a smooth ride or a bit of a fiasco. “So far”, says Pascale, “the TGV service in France has been amazing, but in the only other country we’ve taken the train, customer service was less than average.”

Making the Most of the Celebration

Once you get to your party or your holiday home and the room is buzzing with chatter, how do you make the most of the celebration? Both mentioned that in his case, he tires faster in noisy environments. Moreover, Hervé prefers to stand than sit in public, which is also physically tiring. “I like to know there’s a quiet place he can retreat to if it becomes too much,” adds Pascale.

One reason Hervé stands is to maintain eye contact and connect more. “When I sit, I prefer people to come down to my level – sit or bend – so I can see their faces,” says Hervé. “But if I’m in my chair, I don’t want my disabilities to become the centre of all my conversations.” Little things count.

Generally speaking, Hervé is conscious that his social interactions are still distorted by his handicap. “Sometimes people want to give me a hand, but they don’t know how, and that can stress me out,” he says. If a friend or stranger tries to help by holding his immobile side, they will unbalance Hervé. “It’s difficult to ask someone not to help you, or to do it some other way.” Similarly, he needs to draw a line. “Often I’ll say that I don’t need assistance with a certain task because otherwise, I’ll regress!”

And in the end, surrounded by family and friends, his stress and preoccupations evaporate. Good food, loving people and fun gifts have a way of doing that.

Additional Links

Looking for some of our sources? Here are a few we browed on the web. You can send us more by commenting below:

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Diagnosing Sight Loss in Children and Adapting

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. We’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say about raising children who are blind or have sight loss. 

This month we interviewed Lea Lay Hong, Vision Teacher at the IC2 Prephouse of Singapore, who specialises in assisting those with sight deficiencies in learning how to adapt. She is also the mother of two children with visual impairments. The elder now studies in a polytechnic school and the youngest is still in a mainstream high school. Both are national para-swimmers!

Step 1 – Red Flags and Diagnosis

We asked Lay Hong what telltale signs could alert parents as early on as possible. Some symptoms seem more obvious than others: if your child is bringing things close up to their faces to look at them or shows signs of ocular discomfort (like rubbing their eyes excessively), a trip to the eye doctor could be in order.  She advises also to consider the child’s eye movements (are they jerky?) and whether the child is directing their gaze at people and objects.  Does he seem interested to look at people speaking to them? Does she startle easily when you pick him up, does she seem surprised when someone starts speaking near her?

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Homer, the celebrated, blind poet of Greece

All these signs may not specifically mean that your child is blind, but they can help initiate the right discussions with your doctor. Then, and only then, can you start testing your child’s eyesight to discover if there is a problem. It’s important to remember that “a definitive diagnosis is not possible at the first or initial visit”. In fact, Lay Hong explains that “many conditions are progressive so a diagnosis may not be possible until some years later

 

As the medical investigation continues, parents and caregivers need to move on to finding ways to help the child continue to learn. As says Lay Hong, “What is important is not so much the diagnosis per se, but knowing what your child can or cannot see, and how to ensure they are still able to learn like their peers.

Step 2 – Finding Support and Becoming Empowered

As with many conditions, most parents go through a grieving phase when they find out their child will have a different life path than expected. Moreover, “because visual impairment is a very low incident disability, chances are [the affected parents] do not know of anyone else going through the same ordeal as they are.” Thus Lay Hong stresses that parents should find support networks as soon as possible. There they will get emotional support – or counselling when needed – as well as knowledge and insight regarding their child’s education process.

“Remembering that the child learns differently, and knowing what adaptations or modifications are needed to enable the child to learn is important,” says Lay Hong.  There is no “one-stop” solution, but there will be a combination of adaptations that will give your child the tools to reach their full potential. Moreover, Lay Hong is optimistic and ambitious for kids with sight loss. She states that they don’t usually have slower learning curves than other children if concepts are presented to them in accessible ways, i.e. tactile methods.

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Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy and musical genius, blind since shortly after birth.

For completely blind children, however, the learning curve might be different as “their acquisition of information is linear, moving from one to the other. It is difficult for them, especially at a very young age, to understand complex relationships between objects, ideas, etc.” In this regard, common difficulties may include using concepts like “otherness” and “permanence”. In the first case, blind children sometimes have trouble with the use of pronouns – I, you, me, them – and in the second, they may cling to objects and people, fearing that once they let go, they will disappear.

Step 3 – Fun, Games and Everyday Life

A recurring theme in bringing up kids with sight loss is how to ensure they are included in games and activities with their peers. Parents sometimes worry that they will be left out, or games are difficult to adapt. Yet, according to Lay Hong, certain simple good practices can go a long way to helping them interact.

They should be included in all family activities, mealtimes, outings, shopping, etc, as much as possible,” she says. Other tips can be easy to implement even outside family circles. For example “conversations directed at them should begin with their names, so they know they are being spoken to.” And when in group situations, telling them how many people are in the room (as well as their names) and encouraging them to call out to those in the room to organise activities or games, helps them become more autonomous.

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Marla Runyan, legally blind, competed and won in both para and able-bodied competitions

According to Lay Hong, any game can be adapted. Want to play football? What about using a ball with bells inside (and possibly smaller teams) so that everyone can find the ball? Cards with Braille or other tactile methods mean they can be part of fun games. Lay Hong notes that visually impaired kids are frequently left out of games because the rules aren’t explained in an accessible way, or others simply assume they cannot play.

Final Words – Always Assume the Impossible is Possible

Lay Hong encourages parents to never take no for an answer. “Do not accept when people tell you your child can’t do something because he can’t see,” she says. “Find out, if there are different ways to go around doing the same thing.” Sometimes you will have to advocate and be strong to make sure your child has access to quality learning. So read up and stay up to date.

And most importantly, remember that you know your child best, and are his or her best ally. You will be constantly explaining how your child is unique, so find simple ways of getting the right message across. For example, “instead of saying “My child has constricted field of vision due to retinitis pigmentosa”, you may simply say “my child has difficulty seeing things around him, and may need some help when moving around, especially going down the stairs, or if there are obstacles around him”.”

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. 

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Sports for Kids with Hearing Loss: Keys to Success

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children who are deaf or are hard-of-hearing. The previous article in this series can be found here.

“Deaf kids can do anything but hear well”

But apparently some with aided hearing do hear amazingly more than a regular hearing person. But we digress. When we asked Bianca Birdsey, a medical doctor and mother to deaf twins, about extracurricular activities she immediately enumerated her kid’s hobbies. Her children really can do anything: from karate to dancing, including team sports, they are busy!

Duck-hee Lee is an South Korean Teenage tennis sensation

Duck-hee Lee is a deaf South Korean Teenage tennis sensation

Tips for helping kids do sport fall under two main categories. On the one hand, adapting social behaviour and communication patterns, and on the other, finding equipment and technical adjustments. Furthermore, “the challenge is more around socialising,” says Bianca, “especially if people see implants or aids and assume they won’t need to accommodate.”

Adjusting to Deaf or Hard of Hearing Team Members

Listening to Bianca talk about her experience, it seems that many of the adjustments are minor. For example, Bianca explains to coaches that her children will need more eye contact, and lips should not be hidden. These adjustments meet the child halfway, as she learns how to adapt too. As a result, her kids have developed “special powers”, and she marvels at how they can now lip read backwards in a mirror during ballet class.

Tamika Catchings was the star player of the Indiana Fever WNBA team and an Olympic gold medalist. Image courtesy of lovewomensbasketball.com

Tamika Catchings was the star player of the Indiana Fever WNBA team and an Olympic gold medalist.

A good way to make the sports environment more inclusive is to teach coaches, teachers and fellow team members a few words in sign language. Involving the team, by giving them 10 new signs is a great way for them to bond. What’s more, we suspect being able to sign a little might even give them an edge over competitors if they want to share secret information during a match!

Use these Adjustments to teach your Child to Advocate for Themselves

Bianca is very aware that her children will need to learn to advocate for themselves in the future. “What’s important for me is their confidence,” she says, “and I want to model how to advocate in a nice, calm way.” In this respect, a sports environment is a great place for children with hearing loss to realise that asking for accommodations is normal.

In rare instances where coaches put up resistance, Bianca wants her children to see that they are worth fighting for. More than just sports, her children need to know “they are loved unconditionally,” and should not take no for an answer when it comes to their social needs.

Equipment and Technical Adaptations

In some cases, technical gear might be required. Swimming comes to mind, as kids with implants might have a difficult time keeping them dry. Solutions do exist, like the ListenLid Swim Cap, so these children can develop their full athletic potential. In other sports, bigger helmets might be the answer, as well as headbands to hold aids and implants in place. We even saw some creative braiding while surfing for ideas, by the mother of a very athletic teenager.

Terrence Parkin is a deaf olympian swimmer

Terrence Parkin is a deaf Olympic medal winning swimmer

Sometimes technical adaptations are easy for schools and training centres. For example, the dance school Bianca’s children attend turns the base to the floor so they can feel the beats. We bet the experience is also enriching for the hearing kids, who are getting a different approach to dancing.

All Worth the Effort…

Most of all, Bianca is really proud of her dancing deaf children. “They absolutely love their dance concerts, they seem confident and happy. And they have the biggest smiles!” she says. Which goes to show deaf children really can – and should – do anything.

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

 Final Takeaway

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Photo credits: Duck-hee Lee (L’Equipe), Tamika Catchings (lovewomensbasketball.com), Terrence Parkin (Michael Steele/Allsport/Getty)

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Playing with Children on the Spectrum: Developing Faculties and Playtime

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children on the autism spectrum. Previously we wrote about the diagnosis stage here and helping parents here.

All parents know that play is fundamental in a child’s development, be they neuro-typical or facing specific challenges. But playtime is also a unique moment to interact with your child and create bonds. We spoke to Delia Yeo, a speech and language therapist, and Ladislas de Toldi, co-founder of Leka, to know more about how play can help children on the autism spectrum develop skills and bond.

Playing and Engaging with People

Games stimulate and motivate children, through fun and the desire to win. Yet both experts stress that children on the spectrum often have difficulty engaging with playmates, remembering  rules or using all the concepts necessary to win.

Therapists like Delia “look at several aspects of how the child plays to understand how he or she understands the world”. Like an alternative mapping, Delia is able to identify what types of play are easy, which ones are hard. She chooses specific types of games accordingly centred on internal feelings, external sensations, sitting, physical activity, etc.

In some cases, Delia has to teach a child to play before she can teach them skills through play. She starts with simpler games, ensuring she can interact and engage, before moving on to complex games. Most importantly, she has to look for what the child enjoys. “I choose the game depending on the child’s interest, [so] they [will] have a gleam in their eye and connect”.

Games and Technology

Traditional games like hide and seek, puzzles, swings or anything another child might play are used to help autistic children learn skills. Nowadays, thanks to technology, new games have emerged, some of which are more high-tech than anything a neuro-typical child will use.

Take Leka, for example, a small, round, ball shaped robot developed by a French start-up with specialists in several countries. The robot uses artificial intelligence and is designed to help children progress on their cognitive, motor, social and communications skills. Less intimidating than a human, the robot interacts directly with children, setting the rules and congratulating them when they succeed. They get a real sense of accomplishment when they are able to crack the game. Amongst other games, Leka plays hide and seek and Simon Says, and new games are added every week.

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Leka, the robot, happy face

“The most important thing”, says Ladislas “is figuring out what each child enjoys. It’s the only way to open the door. And if they only like Dreamworks animated movies, then so be it.” In fact, Leka are very humble in their approach. They advise parents and organisations consider all their options before investing in Leka, because at the end of the day, their objective is to make sure the robot is bringing out the best in children.

“There are so many incredible new ways of interacting with children on the spectrum now. I’m impressed by some apps on the iPad, that have non verbal children interacting with the world, and I’m stunned by how apps like Sidekicks are helping people with autism communicate with their families.” Children on the spectrum can greatly benefit from technological playthings, which unlock new opportunities to learn and communicate.

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A child plays with Leka the robot

Is All Play Work Disguised as Fun?

Delia recommends that “parents should always play without a teaching goal in mind”. The tendency to test their child might take all the fun out of playing. Just the act of spending quality time together and fostering engagement is valuable. As they play together, the child will learn some things naturally from them, in a softer, less goal oriented way.

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Family play time, in this case with Leka the robot

“My advice is to simply follow your child’s lead. Join and imitate her at first, and as your play grows, her ideas will grow too. You’ll be “teaching” by supporting her experience in play”. As you do so, Delia suggests introducing your ideas and small challenges into games. They will encourage your child to problem solve around them, or create unity in a scattered game.

Delia recalls an autistic teen who was brought up with very little play. “He was very compliant and would carry out tasks, but seemed robotic and detached.” Recently, as she has worked around discovering what he likes and doesn’t like, and developing his ideas through play, she has seen the teen grow in confidence and become a real playmate. “He used to interact because he was supposed to, not because he wanted to. Now he’s pulling his weight in our interaction!”

Happy playtime!

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

  • For more about Leka you can also visit here. Leka is currently looking for financial partners. Contact Ladislas at ladislas@leka.io for any inquiries,
  • An example of a sidekick app,
  • A review of Ron Suskind’s book on using Disney sidekicks at home to communicate with their son Owen,
  • Link to the film about using Disney sidekicks. 
  • Autism Speaks has a very long list of apps here

Note: all photos in this article are curtesy of Leka

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Diagnosing Hearing Loss in Children

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children who are deaf or are hard-of-hearing. The following article on hearing loss and sports can be found here.

Studies show that over nine out of ten deaf and hard of hearing children are born to hearing parents. This makes identifying hearing loss and adapting very difficult for families. We spoke to two mothers of deaf children who are happy to share some advice.

The Silent Handicap

Hearing loss is invisible. Many children can go years without ever being diagnosed. Bianca Birdsey, medical doctor and mother to deaf twins, recalls being politely hushed when she expressed her concerns. When she noticed oddities in her children, “people would say “it’s their normal!“”  she recalls. “They would think I was paranoid because I worked in paediatrics.” Bianca even asked a day care teacher if they noticed anything unusual about the twins, “and at the end of the day, she said “there’s nothing wrong with them”!

It took a dramatic scene in a public setting, with one twin crying for her mother, who was standing a few feet behind her, for Bianca and her husband to confirm their intuition: the girls just couldn’t hear. Stories like these are apparently quite frequent in South Africa. Bianca says many children there aren’t diagnosed until as late as five or even later.

Of course, diagnosis can differ greatly from one country to another. Tara Teo, founder of Irisada, gave birth to her daughter in Norway, where children are automatically screened. However, after the first check the nurses told them to come back two weeks later, as there might simply be “water in the ears.” The next test was also inconclusive, mainly because her daughter was too agitated to get good readings. It took an additional two months to finally get consistent readings of one ear and discover Heidi was profoundly deaf.

The Language Barrier

Why is an early diagnosis so important? The first two reasons are linked to how the human brain develops at that early age. Firstly, the early months and years of a child’s life are those where the brain learns how to structure language.  If they are diagnosed too late, they may have missed this critical phase and be left with learning difficulties.

Why? Because deaf children can only access language via visual aides until they are taught sign language or have hearing devices (if their family chooses to). Most families don’t sign at home unless there is already a deaf family member. This means that until a child is diagnosed, they often have absolutely no means of communicating and structuring thought with others.

The second very important factor, is that a child’s brains learns early on how to differentiate frequencies, especially to pick out human voices from other sounds. Tara’s daughter was given hearing aids and cochlear implants at a young age, but she needed lots of additional speech therapy to learn what to listen to in a sound. She’s also working hard to reproduce speech sounds, as she wasn’t exposed to them as early on in the belly as other babies.

Follow Your Child’s Lead

Both parents stress the amount of pressure they were under. “You’re making all these decisions for them” says Bianca, and some people have very set opinions on what is best for deaf children. Some of these decisions can be expensive in many countries, which can make it even harder. There can also be an impression that once your child has aids or implants, things will just miraculously get easier. In fact, the operation or “switch-on” is often just the beginning.

The mothers both laughed when they recalled their children’s reactions as the implants were turned on: pure horror! Bianca even jokes that there’s no point spending hours thinking up the first sentence you’ll speak to your child, as they won’t have a clue what the sounds mean! Imagine coming from a world of silence into a world of continuous noise. A great deal of energy goes into adapting to hearing.

Mothers with a Mission

Bianca’s advice is to “trust yourself”. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the politics around deafness, just follow your child’s lead. “There’s no right or wrong choice”, she says “as long as your child is progressing”. In Bianca’s case, meeting and socialising with deaf adults broke the spiral of grief. In part because she came to terms with a realigned vision for her twins’ future, and also because she was able to master sign language faster. Learning to sign, as a family, allowed them to bond like they never had before.

Tara, meanwhile, was frustrated with how difficult it was to get adapted headbands for her daughter as Heidi’s ears were simply too small to keep the devices in place. She spent hours online, searching for something that would keep the implants in place. She realised there was a gap in the market, and how useful it would be to be able to provide a small solution that could have a potentially huge impact. She felt how wonderful it would be if parents free up time they were spending sussing out where to find special products, to spend with their children instead. With this conviction and simple goal in mind, she founded Irisada, the very platform you’re reading on now.

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

  • Facts about hearing loss
  • Bianca’s blog, on her experience of bringing up three kids with hearing loss
  • A preliminary list of famous deaf people, to get you started with imagining your child’s future
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A Child I know is on the Spectrum: What Do I Say and Do?

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. This month we’ll be looking at what parents and specialists have to say on raising children on the autism spectrum. Previously we wrote about the diagnosis stage here.

When parents find out their child is on the autism spectrum, it can be difficult to explain to their friends and extended family what this entails. Similarly, often people are unsure how can they can show their support and create bonds with the child.

The First Key Reactions

One of the key messages for friends and family is that each child will be unique. We asked  Lisa, who writes the Quirks and Chaos blog to give us some insight on what a family with an autistic child might need. Her view is that parents are also very different. In her case, hearing the word autism was “devastating” in the beginning. She needed people to listen and sympathise, without ever minimising her feelings, while she mourned the loss of plans and dreams for her son, and fretted about his future.

Kyle Jetsel from the Autism Laughter Therapy is also cautious about the first interactions with a parent that has recently discovered their child is on the spectrum. He warns against upholding false expectations. As a parent with two autistic children, he knows first hand that raising these children can be difficult at times, and may entail considerable sacrifices. Of course, overall, each family learns to love differently, grows and can thrive with their child, but parents should be prepared going into the adventure to “decide they will come out happy”, without trying to “fix” their child.

google-santa-autism

Google Autism, Santa, by Lisa Smith, Quirks and Chaos

If you want to do additional research and be part of the parents’ lives, Lisa also advises asking them which book they recommend you read to better understand their child’s case. “The autism spectrum is so wide, the book I recommend might not be the same book your friend might recommend to you.” Showing that you want to read up and better understand will also reassure the parents on your desire to accompany them on their journey.

Interactions Within Defined Social Circles

You may know a family with a child on the spectrum, but not be close to the parents, and still want to do what’s best in social settings, or help put them at ease. Birthday parties and school events come to mind, as it can be difficult to anticipate what sort of interactions the child and their parents can manage and enjoy.

While social environments can be stressful for some people with autism, they also help improve social skills. Lisa’s son Tate attends a mainstream school, and many of the children there have grown with him. In first grade, Lisa gave a talk to the class about autism and explained some of Tate’s behavioural differences.

boys-say-hi

Boys Say Hi, by Lisa Smith, Quirks and Chaos

“I remember asking the students to promise me they would always be as nice to Tate as they were that year,” says Lisa. “Those students have made a huge difference for us. When one of them sees Tate struggling to pull on a jacket or find the correct page in a book, they jump up to help him. I’ve been out in public with Tate before and kids have come up to us said “hi”.” According to Lisa, none of these children get the same thing out of a friendship with Tate as what you’d normally expect, but their acceptance of his difference has given Tate a social network of sorts.

Interactions in Broader Social Networks

Lisa also encourages Tate to interact in public, even if it means telling a waiter that he will need more time to process information. Even though interactions with her son can be rather “strange”, as she puts it, and although relationships with him tend to be one sided – with Tate talking about his interests but mostly uninterested by whatever others may want to talk about -, these relationships do help Tate grow and develop. In fact, Lisa also points out that her son has created real bonds, mostly with adults – in part because they are more predictable than children -, and though these relationships take time – and humour – to build, they have had unbelievable impact on his development.

If you are confronted with the case of a child on the spectrum in your community, time and patience can help alleviate the initial awkwardness you may feel. Look to the parents for guidance if you interact with the child or their family. Most importantly, in the words of Lisa: “remember that an autism diagnosis is not nearly as scary as it first sounds. All the fears and apprehension will begin to fade somewhat after a time.”

not-scary

We’re doing just fine, by Lisa Smith, Quirks and Chaos

Additional Links

Some additional links for parents looking for more information. Please also suggest more to us, which we can add to the list.

Note: all images are curtesy of Lisa Smith (Quirks and Chaos)

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