Inclusion ~ Evan, Shine Your Light!

I wanted to finish off 2016 with one of our favorite moments of the year. Prepare for some guaranteed happiness as you witness what happened when one of our clients was given the opportunity to conduct his school choir. Evan is one feisty, adorable guy who never fails to make me laugh during our sessions together. His communication through spelling is strong – but Evan has a way of getting his point across with or without the letterboards! Evan’s video of his conducting debut went viral but when his mother told me the entire story,  I knew you all needed to hear it too!  Evan’s mom, Elizabeth Zielinski, agreed to share Evan’s story with us as today’s guest blogger.  Enjoy and kick off the New Year by sharing this story of joy!!  ~Elizabeth, Elizabeth & Evan 

My son, Evan, is 11 years old, autistic, and unreliably verbal. He is in fifth grade in public school, placed in a self-contained classroom, with various opportunities throughout the day where he is included with his neurotypical peers in the general education setting.

Some of Evan’s behaviors prevent him from being fully mainstreamed into general education classes for safety reasons. But with our insistence and with our school’s cooperation, he is included in many experiential learning opportunities and also in extracurricular events. One of those events was the recent fifth grade winter chorus.

His dad and I were told he would be included last Fall, and we hesitated to give permission because we didn’t know how well he would do with the sensory stimulation. But we had a lot of faith in our school’s remarkable music teacher, Mr. Charlie Ring, and trusted that he would ensure Evan’s experience was a good one.

Leading up to the event Evan grew excited and told us that he was going to be a guest conductor of one song. He showed us his plan for approaching the front and leading the chorus.  We were naturally entertained and thrilled to expect this.

When the afternoon school assembly performance arrived, I waited expectantly to see Evan’s debut as conductor. To my disappointment, it didn’t happen. I approached Mr. Ring to ask why, only to learn that it was never part of the program, but a way that Mr. Ring was helping Evan to participate in rehearsals. Evan didn’t seem to realize that it wasn’t going to happen for the actual performance, or if he did, his unreliable speech meant we didn’t know what he expected or hoped to have happen.

And that’s when the magic started. After I asked my question of Mr. Ring and we realized the misunderstanding, Mr. Ring only asked if I thought Evan would be able to do it without a formal rehearsal. I said I thought he would. Right then and there, Mr. Ring starting planning the changes to include Evan as guest conductor in the evening performance for the community.

Prior to the second and last performance, Mr. Ring explained to the rest of the fifth graders what the change to the evening program would include:

Missing from that video was the round of applause Evan got from his classmates before the announcement that he would be conducting, proving that acceptance comes naturally to kids when given the opportunity.

Evan waited patiently backstage, but you can see the anticipation on his face.


And then, show time. It was the second performance of the day, he had been wearing his uncomfortable show clothes for hours, and he had to stand on risers and pay attention; even though singing along was not an option for him. Anyone who knows him would tell you, all of that alone was a lot to ask. But toward the end of the show, this happened:

No one had seen him do this before, but he showed us that it was worth the wait. As of this writing, the video has been viewed over 50,000 times on Facebook and another 1,300 times on YouTube; and has been shared hundreds of times worldwide. Based on the comments I’ve received; it has touched a lot of people.

What I love about this is not just that my son had a moment of joy and celebration. It’s also that everyone else shared in that with him. It wasn’t just the joy on his face in the video that touches me, it was the appreciation of his fellow fifth graders and the audience when they watched him have his starring moment. There are some chuckles, but not at Evan’s expense.  They are just seeing him have an entertaining experience.

The most important thing we have learned about inclusion through this experience is that it doesn’t mean building events around Evan’s needs, oversimplifying his experience, or putting him into a fully neurotypical environment and seeing how long he can last before extracting him. What it does mean is being open to and creative about those moments that allow him to learn and grow like any student wants to do. That requires seeing him with the best of expectations about what he can do, and trusting that no matter what happens, everyone will grow from it.

Finally, the awesome Mr. Ring sent Evan a celebratory gift after the fact: he now owns the conductor’s baton he used that evening as a reminder of his starring moment.




Creating Social and Communication Opportunities

We are often inspired by the creative strategies our families find to make education and communication on the letter boards interesting and meaningful. During a Skype consult, Jasmin explained how she created social and communication opportunities between her son, who spells to communicate, and her nephew. Jasmin graciously agreed to share her fantastic strategies as today’s guest blogger!

Guest blogger bio: Jasmin Dutton is one of our GKTC moms from Quebec, Canada. She has been an avid homeschooler to both her sons for the past 7 years. After months of attempting to teach her son to point on her own, Jasmin and Wyatt took off on the boards after observing a GKTC workshop in March 2016. Jasmin enjoys gardening, and the outdoors in all seasons. She likes to emphasize a love of nature, curiosity and social contribution in her teachings.

Beyond the Boards

What has always attracted me most to Growing Kids Therapy Center is the emphasis Elizabeth and her team places on community building and collaboration amongst their students. This is something I’ve always wanted for my son but due to so many challenges, have struggled to create.

This past summer I have been determined to make it happen. So I took everything I have learned from coaching my son on the boards and put it into helping him connect socially.

Tolerance – for socializing: not outside the house, zero with strangers, tricky with same aged peers, and requiring structure and support. So it would have to be at home, someone older and familiar and well planned. There was also no way Wyatt would tolerate being left alone with anyone. This was not going to be respite. I would have to be present and directing the engagement.  Luckily, my 17 year old nephew lives nearby so I got in touch with him and made arrangements for him to come by for an hour a week to “hang out” with Wyatt and me.

Skill Goal – the challenge here was socializing so it would be over the top to work simultaneously on learning new physical skills. We’ve stuck to familiar activities that Wyatt excels at, such as cooking and swimming and have participated in them as a team, with me coaching both guys in the activity and creating opportunity for them to work together.  I was able to model for my nephew how to interact with Wyatt

Cognitive Goal – having always homeschooled my son, conversation can get pretty stale around here. I wanted my nephew to bring in conversation that would expose Wyatt to what teens are up to; the music, hobbies, and interests. Conversations were started around where my nephew was going to college in the fall, what his course load looked like and what he had to accomplish to be accepted into his program.

Response Level – well, response level wasn’t something I had thought too much of in the beginning, hoping really, that Wyatt would just stick around, but it was something that developed organically over time.  During one occasion, I came up with an activity Wyatt and his cousin could do together.  I would ask his cousin questions regarding his interests, he would then write his answer in invisible ink and Wyatt would use a developer pen to reveal the answer (we have linked two cool options if you want to try this at home!). Wyatt was pretty enthusiastic about the activity and I asked if he wanted me to ask him questions as well, and he agreed. So I quickly ran to get his board and took turns asking the guys each a personal interest question, trying my darndest not to cry at what I was witnessing.

This has been such a huge success for Wyatt that I have recently hired another teen (still familiar but less so) to come by during the week, and am using the same goals with her as I do with my nephew. I still need to remain present and help guide the interactions but my son now has the opportunity to collaborate. This fall, I will definitely be planning out more ways to use the boards during their times together. The experience has given me a burst of confidence and motivation to look closely at the opportunities I want for my son, envision what that could look like for him and make it happen.


Jasmin, thank you for sharing your fantastic ideas for developing new relationships for your son! For many of our kids, building in opportunities for peer communication requires creativity, I know so many families will benefit from these great strategies!

~Elizabeth and Jasmin

Remember. Honor. Teach.

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about my older RPM “kids”, who are not really kids at all, but young adults. These young adults, in their late teens and early twenties, are without a doubt, the most selfless, caring individuals I have ever met. Throughout their writings are consistent themes of desires to: make meaningful contributions to society; form strong friendships; learn; educate; gain independence; help other nonspeaking kids; and hold worthwhile employment. I take their words very seriously and am constantly thinking of ways to help them meet their goals. So, my friend and fellow RPM provider, Meghan Pennington told me that she and her client, Camille, were participating in Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery, I thought this was the perfect opportunity for these young adults to be of service and hang out together!

So, EARLY morning, on December 13, we set out on our first RPM Young Adults Outing! My crew: Meghann, my GKTC counterpart and RPMer extraordinaire (yes, there are 2 Meghann/Meghans in this story!); Christie, my partner in crime; and Linda, willing friend and adventurer and I met up with our band of young adults –Ben, Huan, Emma and Paul at the metro to ride to Arlington Cemetery. Because our young adults have expressed a desire for independence, this was a parent-free outing, and we “companions” agreed to be as un-parental, un-clingy, yet responsible as possible! Better than any words I could expend telling you about our day, I think these pictures tell the story best!

It was a loooong metro ride into the city!  What should have taken 20 minutes took 2 hours!

What should have taken 20 minutes turned out to be a loooong metro ride into the city! Overcrowded trains and long waits at the station did not diminish our fun. Ben and Emma took it in stride, enjoying the trip!


Waiting for the next train to come through was a great time to hang out and chat.

Linda, Meghann and Paul are decked out in wreaths!

After arriving at Arlington National Cemetery we picked up our wreaths. Linda, Meghann and Paul are decked out in wreaths and leading the way!

After arriving at Arlington National Cemetery, we got our wreaths.

After arriving at Arlington National Cemetery, we got our wreaths.

We met up with fellow RPM friends, Camille, Meghan and John!

We met up with fellow RPMing friends Camille, Meghan and John!










Ben and Meghann read the name of the veteran and pause in remembrance before placing their wreath.

Ben and Meghann read the name of the veteran and pause in remembrance before placing their wreath.

Huan chooses where to place his wreath.

Huan chooses where to place his wreath.

Emma places her wreath.

Emma lays her wreath on the gravesite.









Meghan and Camille have a moment of silence.

Meghan and Camille have a moment of silence.

Paul views the miles of grave markers now adorned with wreaths. It is a stunning reminder of all who have served this country.

Paul views the miles of grave markers now adorned with wreaths. It is a stunning reminder of all who have served our country.

The gang befriends some soldiers, thanks them for their service and gather for a picture!

Our gang befriends some soldiers, thanks them for their service, and gather for a picture.

We stop talk about what we have learned today. Ben writes, I AM SO HONORED TO BE HERE SHOWING RESPECT FOR OUR VETERANS.  Paul spells, THIS IS BY FAR THE BEST DC OUTING EVER!

We stop talk about what we have learned today. Ben writes, I AM SO HONORED TO BE HERE SHOWING RESPECT FOR OUR VETERANS.



We decide to avoid the metro lines and walk into DC to catch the metro there! We pause for a group photo on the Memorial Bridge.

We decide to avoid the metro lines and walk into DC to catch the metro there! We pause for a group photo on the Memorial Bridge.

And who can resist a photo opp in front of the Lincoln Memorial?

And who can resist a photo opp in front of the Lincoln Memorial?

After a clocking in 4.5 miles of walking for the day, everyone was HUNGRY! The kids used the boards to spell out what they wanted for lunch and ate every bite!

After a clocking in 4.5 miles of walking for the day, everyone was HUNGRY! The kids used the boards to spell out what they wanted for lunch and ate every bite!

The "old adults" were worn out from the day, but the young ones had energy to spare!

The “old adults” were worn out from the day, but the young ones had energy to spare!

As you can see, our first RPM Young Adults Outing was a huge success and will not be our last! My kids are constantly challenging me to think of new ways to involve them in the community to: learn; educate; be of service; and show the world they are smart, talented and have something to contribute. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting things to do (Don’t worry, I have ideas in mind for my elementary and middle school kids too!).  Our challenge to you is to get together with your kids and RPM friends and see what you can contribute to your community! ~Elizabeth

Game Review: Ready, SET, go!

It’s a familiar story: you’ve got a board game that your younger child absolutely adores (and wants to play ALL the time), but your older child finds it too simple or too boring, and if you have to play it one more time you’re ready to scream. It can be really tough to find a game that can bridge across ages and cognitive abilities to provide challenge and entertainment for the whole family.

Enter SET. It’s a card game (bonus points for portability!) that has players racing against one another to find sets of visually-related cards. It doesn’t require that players read or have sophisticated mathematical skills (if you can count to three, you’re good), so younger kids aren’t at a disadvantage.  

How to Play 

The game’s manufacturer offers an excellent tutorial and online game here, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. The primary objective of the game is quite simple: find more sets (groups of three cards) than any other player.  Each card is defined by four features: color; number; symbol; shading. A set is a group of three cards in which each feature is either the same on all cards or different on all cards. [It sounds confusing, but it’s really not that hard once you get started.] When a player sees a set, he or she calls out “SET!” and picks up the cards comprising their set. Play ends when the whole deck has been played and no sets remain, and the player with the most sets wins.

Why Play?

Practice Expressive language.

Although SET doesn’t require much language at all (the only time a player really needs to speak is to announce a set when s/he sees one, and even that rule can be modified), any group game is a good chance to elicit speech. With clients on the autism spectrum, we often use games to model and practice friendly competitive banter, such as I won! Good game! Let’s go! At their most simplistic, SET cards allow for the practice of basic conceptual and linguistic terms such as color, number, and shape. Have children verbally label the cards as they pick up a setOne green squiggle. Two purple diamonds. Three red ovals. 


Metacognitive skills, the ability to think about and talk about one’s own thinking, usually begin to emerge in the early school-aged years (though, of course, when exactly this takes place is a topic of much debate among researchers and educators). Metacognition is a critical component of independent learning, since knowing about knowing is important for integrating new information with prior knowledge and for building good study habits.  Encourage metacognition while playing SET by asking the child to think aloud: have him or her walk you through the thought process they’re using as they perform a visual search of the cards to find a set.  

Work on pattern recognition.

The goal of the game is to find the most SETs, based on visual patterns among cards. Players are continuously executing a visual search across the array of cards, looking for items that conform to patterns along the dimensions of color, shape, shading and number. Sometimes, a SET will just pop out*, while other times a lengthier serial search is required. Over time, players can train themselves to become better at recognizing these visual patterns.

Enhance cognitive flexibility.

Players are simultaneously evaluating cards on multiple dimensions. Sometimes, you might determine a set based on every dimension being different across the cards. Other times, a SET might be comprised of three cards that are all the same on each dimension. More complicated still, on a given SET, you might have to assess each dimension independently; for some factors all cards might be the same and on other factors each card might be different. You have to accept that different rules apply throughout the game. Cognitive flexibility is a concept related to executive function, so this game can be a great way to help kids with difficulties in executive function.

You can play quickly between structured activities in a therapy session.

A single round of the game can take mere seconds. Lay out the array, find a set or two, then do a few more minutes of /r/ practice. Repeat.

It will entertain players from 5 to 105.

I began playing SET at the age of seven, and I still have fun with it every time we bring it out, mumblemumble years later. This game has traveled with my family to the beaches of Florida, the California mountains, New York’s Central Park, the Rocky Mountains, and on every single camping trip we’ve taken in the last several years. I guarantee it’ll be enjoyed by grandparents, parents, typically developing kids AND those with special needs. (I promise, I’m not a spokesperson for the manufacturer and am in no way compensated for this review. I just absolutely love SET and hope you’ll find ways to incorporate the game with your family or clients!)

And, of course, there’s an app for that.

~ Melanie

* an actual term in cognitive science

Wordy Wednesday: The Language of Kindness

August 11, 2012 marked the Great Kindness Challenge. That got us thinking about the particular vocabulary and language associated with kindness and reminded us that EVERY DAY is an opportunity to practice kindness! Thus, this week’s Wordy Wednesday was born: the language of kindness!

Click to download one image per page with words.

We’ve wracked our brains and searched the web to come up with images that depict kindness. From helping with chores, to giving a present, to smiling at someone in the supermarket – the opportunities to perform acts of kindness are endless.

Click to download 4 images per page, perfect for working on comprehension!

Just as there are many ways to show kindness to others, there are many ways to use kind words this week!

Click to download one image per page without words, good for practicing the vocabulary of kindness!


1. Acts of kindness are just that: actions! What a great opportunity to practice using verbs! Be sure to play around with different tenses: we can talk about how actions happened in the past, what’s going on right now, or what will take place in the future.

2. Many of this week’s images depict interactions between people. Use these pictures to talk about the ways in which people interact and communicate. What sort of exchanges do you have with a stranger? With a friend? With family? How are these interactions different? What do they have in common? Practicing acts of kindness is a fantastic social skill!

3. Because many of our images this week show multiple players involved in actions, they offer excellent opportunities for practicing a few of the more challenging linguistic constructs.

  • Work on pronouns. “He is giving her the flowers.” “She is opening the gift.” “They are all smiling.” If pronouns are a bit too challenging initially, don’t be discouraged! Pronouns can be a bit abstract, so begin by using more concrete terms for your child or client. “Jack is giving the girl the flowers.” “Sally is opening the gift.” “The kids are all smiling.”
  • Interactions provide excellent opportunity for working on complex grammatical structures involving subject, objects, actions, and agents. “Who is giving the flowers?” “Jack is giving the flowers.”
  • Practice varying sentence structures. “Bobby gave flowers to Emma.” “Emma got flowers from Bobby.”

Click here to download flashcards (6 images per page), perfect for printing out and laminating!

4. Our kindness pictures are perfect to practice receptive and expressive language!

  • To work on receptive language (comprehension), use the 4 picture option. Have your child point to the appropriate picture as you ask questions: “Who is helping?” “Who is sharing?” “Who is smiling?” Remember to use lots of task specific praise, “I love how well you are listening!” and “Great pointing!”
  • Practice expressive (productive) language by showing the child a single picture and asking him or her to label it or describe what is happening. For more verbal children, use our pictures with printed labels to practice reading skills.

5. Offer these pictures as prompts for either written or oral storytelling. Ask the child to provide the backstory to a picture, and encourage detail and imagination in responses.

6. Challenge your clients (or your children or yourself!) to participate in a Kindness Challenge of your own! How many of the activities that we’ve shown have you done in the last week? In the last month? How many can you do in the week ahead? What acts of kindness will you do that we haven’t thought of?

How will you use these pictures and incorporate the language of kindness into your life this week? Let us know down below in the comments!

Happy Wednesday,
Melanie and Elizabeth

Plant a kiss….

Summer time is the perfect time to take your speech and language practice outside! Here is a fun activity featuring Plant a Kiss, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I discovered this book and wrote about it for Valentine’s Day.  It is one of those books that transcends age – written simply enough for a toddler with layers of meaning  fully appreciated by adults. Rather than give you a summary, click on the picture for a video peek! The only thing more enjoyable than reading the book is planting a kiss yourself! Here is how I planted a kiss with the help of my little niece and nephew.


  • Small pots (bonus if you paint and decorate them yourselves!)
  • Potting soil
  • Seeds of your choice
  • Spanish moss (optional)
  • Hershey kisses (if you want to get fancy, insert your own message)
  • popsicle or craft stick and paper to make a sign


Assemble the pots, dirt, seeds, moss, helpers and coffee (optional but recommended).

Fill pots with dirt!  Messy fun!

Plant the seed!

Add the spanish moss.


Top with a kiss and a sign!

Now PLAY!!!!

This is the perfect sequencing activity. If you like, use our pictures to order your project.  Have your child put the pictures in order. Follow each step, being sure to talk about what you are doing (tons of verb practice here)! We gave our planted kisses out to family members and friends. Now our love is growing and blooming in their yards!

Growing Kids wants to share our love and a copy of Plant a Kiss with you! Enter our Plant a Kiss Give Away! Each time you like, share, comment on our blog or Facebook page, your name will be entered into a drawing. Become a new blog follower or Facebook fan and you will be entered twice! One name will be chosen by random selection July 28, 2012 at 11:59pm.

Hoot, Hoot, HURRAY!

Growing Kids Therapy Center is delighted to introduce our newest addition – Melanie Tumlin, MS!  Melanie joins the practice as a Cognitive Developmental Specialist.  She will be directing our special projects to include: Social skills groups; home based therapy; and Yoga for Kids with Special Needs! Melanie will also be a regular contributor to the Growing Kids Therapy blog and is starting us off on a series of blogs featuring unique board games to bolster speech, language, cognitive and social skills!  Join me in a big WELCOME and HOOT, HOOT, HURRAY for Melanie!  ~Elizabeth

Hoot Owl Hoot! 
A board game from Peaceable Kingdom.

Players: 2-4
Ages: 4+
Time: 15 minutes

The owls have been flying far and wide, doing whatever it is that owls do all night.  Now it’s almost dawn, and you’ve got to help get them back to their nest before the sun comes up!  Players work to advance the group of owls* (3, 4, or 6 owls, depending on how difficult you’d like the game to be) along a path of colored spaces, but all the while time is ticking closer and closer toward morning.  All players must work together to bring the owls safely home in this race against the rising sun.

Game play is pretty straightforward.  Each player draws three cards from a pile containing both color cards and sun cards and places them face-up in front of him.  If you have a sun in your hand, you must play it on your turn, which brings the sun one step closer to morning.  If you have only color cards, then you can choose any single card and move any one of the owls to the next available space of that color.  The manufacturer recommends the game for ages 4 to 8.  However, since it requires no reading or counting skills (only color-matching), it’s probably suitable for someone a little younger; on the flip side, grown-ups won’t be bored silly because there is a bit of strategy involved.  (A few unnamed adults in my life have admitted actually liking it!)

Social Skills 

Like most games geared at the pre-k and elementary age groups, Hoot Owl Hoot promotes taking turns and following the rules.  But what sets this game apart (and makes it one of my favorites) is that it’s a cooperative game.  Unlike your typical game, where it’s everyone for herself, this isn’t a game where one player wins and the rest lose.  Instead, players need to strategize, coordinate their moves, and collaborate to beat the common obstacle (in this case, that pesky sun).   The need for cooperation means that players have to use their words and communicate to help one another reach the common goal.

Cognitive and Communication Skills

The nature of the game encourages lots of dialogue between players (“If you move this owl to the next purple space, he’s going to fly really far!” “If you made this move, then I could do this, and we’d get two owls home to their nest!”).  In addition, as players discuss their options, they practice putting events in sequence and holding that information in short-term memory until a later turn.  The game’s premise (getting the owls back to their nest before sunrise) also opens possible discussions about owls and their habits and habitats.

Secretly, my favorite part of the game (not required by the rules, but strongly suggested) is getting to hoot loudly as you fly an owl over his friends and closer to the nest.  That’s plenty of opportunity for practicing those H sounds!

And because I think this game is so fantastic, we’re giving away a copy of Hoot Owl Hoot! to one lucky follower of Growing Kids.  Every comment, like, or share of this blog post between now and Friday, July 13, 2012 at 11:59p EDT gives you one entry into our drawing, so tell your friends!

~ Melanie

*Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?!?