I've been working on a course to help parents teach their autistic kids how to go out in public successfully, and researched one of the main reasons families stay home: eloping.
If you don't know what eloping is as it pertains to autism, consider yourself very lucky. Like the traditional definition of eloping, in which people run away to get married, eloping in autism means a child or adult runs away from school, home or elsewhere without a caregiver. It happens every damn day and it's rarely the fault of teachers, aides, parents or caregivers being careless or inattentive. Oftentimes, the child is very clever and sneaky about it, and disappear in a matter of seconds.
Autism occurs more frequently than it used to, but even back in the 80s ... whether it was the 1780s or the 1980s ... there were plenty of undiagnosed cases.
When you have a child with autism or work with those who have special needs, you become intimately educated about autism's symptoms. And if you have a relentlessly curious mind like I do, you can't help but wonder about some historical figures when you hear about their unique behaviors.
In particular, three famous people stand out in my mind as likely undiagnosed autistics: POTUS 3 and Mt. Rushmore face Thomas Jefferson, artist Andy Warhol and rock icon Kurt Cobain.
If your kid is like Tosh, he eats the same 10 things over and over again. And chances are, one of those things is chicken nuggets.
The problem is, very few processed chicken nuggets are safe for any kid to eat, much less kids with autism. And they're gross. Not surprisingly, McDonalds chicken McNuggets are among the worst. They contain MSG, which will keep your child up at night, and TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone) which is a petroleum-based food preservative that is a cause of ADHD and neurological damage. Plus, the dipping sauces also contain MSG and food dyes, which also cause neurological damage.
I don't know about you, but Tosh doesn't need any more neurological damage. We've had our quota for a lifetime, thank you.
McDonalds is easy to pick on, but chicken nuggets from Jack in the Box, Burger King, Wendy's, Popeyes and the popular Chick-fil-A aren't good options, either. Chick-fil-A removed TBHQ but still uses a lot of MSG (which is probably why their sauce is so amazing and addictive).
And then you have to wonder how much of that "chicken" is actually chicken. McDonalds and other brands carefully state their nuggets are made "with" white meat chicken. Notice they don't say the nuggets are made "from" white meat chicken. That with is a red flag that there is a significant portion of other chicken parts and god knows what else in there. And current food regulations don't require disclosure of how much.
Even the Tyson's and other chicken nuggets you get at the supermarket - sorry, even the cute ones shaped like dinosaurs - aren't actual whole pieces of chicken.
Plus, they contain MSG. Removing MSG from Tosh's diet was the single most effective thing we did to improve his sleep, so if you want your kid to sleep through the night, don't feed them food that contains MSG or one of the hundred sneaky names food companies use instead of MSG, like yeast extract, soy protein concentrate, sodium caseinate, modified food starch, natural flavors and the innocent sounding spices. HINT: if they don't list out the spices, they ain't spices.
And we haven't even touched upon the gluten. Honestly, when it comes to processed chicken nuggets, the gluten is the least of your worries.
So where does that leave parents of a child who only eats chicken nuggets. In a tough spot. It's scary when your child only eats a few foods, but even scarier when you learn those foods are making their autism symptoms much worse and even possibly giving them brain damage.
Thankfully, making your own chicken nuggets is pretty easy and MAN OH MAN they taste so much better than the processed crap.
Healthy chicken nuggets
Adapted from Chicken Tenders recipe from Cooking for the Specific Carbohydrate Diet
1 to 1 1/2 pounds of chicken breast meat, cut into nugget sized chunks
1 TBS dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
any other seasoning you may like, such as crushed red pepper
1/2 cup blanched almond flour
1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
(Okay, this isn't a dairy free recipe, but the parmesan cheese makes it so delicious! To make it dairy free, just use 1 cup of almond flour and eliminate the parmesan.)
3 TBS avocado, coconut or olive oil
1. Heat the oil on medium heat in a deep skillet.
2. Beat the egg and mustard together in a large bowl. Add the chicken pieces and mix until coated, like this:
3. In a large, deep plate, use a fork to mix together the almond flour and spices.
4. Dredge each nugget in the flour mixture.
5. Put the nuggets into the pan and cook for 5 minutes on each side. To cook the chicken all the way through, you'll need to cook it until it's pretty brown, like this:
For food safety, I suggest cutting the larger nuggets in half before serving, just to make sure you've cooked them all the way through. After you've made them a couple of times, you'll get the hang of it!
Enjoy your guilt-free chicken nuggets! I like to eat mine with hot sauce or Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce.
Christmas can be a tough time for autism families, because there are so many popular holiday traditions kids with autism just can't handle. One of the most common is a photo with Santa.
Great news! More than 400 shopping centers across the country are hosting sensory-friendly Santa events on Saturday, Dec. 2 and Saturday, Dec. 9. Most events happen right before the mall opens, so that autistic children won't be overstimulated by crowds and the shopping centers can create a sensory-friendly atmosphere with lower lights and soft or no holiday music.
Specially trained Santas, who will take cues from parents and/or caregivers, will allow each visitor to take his or her time to approach Santa, and take photos standing next to or behind the child if they wish, instead of requiring a seat on Santa's lap. Santas can also kneel down next to wheelchairs for photos.
The event requires a reservation, so that children won't have to wait in long lines. Instead, families can arrive shortly before their preset appointment and approach Santa as they are called. Quiet activities will be provided to keep kids busy.
The events, which are available in all 50 states and in five Canadian provinces, are sponsored by Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs, which is a company that provides Santa and Easter Bunny photos in shopping centers and other venues. Meeting Santa is free, but photo packages will be offered for sale.
To find a location near you and reserve your spot, visit this Autism Speaks webpage.
You might also like: 5 Christmas gift ideas for kids with autism.
This weekend, we needed a break from the heavy, cheesy, pumpkin-y flavors of Thanksgiving. Strawberry jam thumbprint cookies hit the spot!
These cookies are grain-free and dairy-free, but do contain some refined sugars in the jam. However, they're not super sweet and strike a nice balance between healthy and decadent. If you'd like to make them free from refined sugars, you can make your own jam. I just used some strawberry jam I already had in the fridge because I wanted them to be quick and easy, which they are.
Parents of developmentally disabled children suffer from a very difficult form of depression called chronic grief. The loss we have suffered cannot be relieved by the normal grieving process.
Why? Because it is ongoing; there is no closure. We may feel good most days, but we suffer constant triggers - IEP meetings that detail our child's limitations, seizure activity, judgment in public, isolation from family and friends, social media posts featuring children achieving milestones - and with each trigger, our loss is experienced over and over again as if it's new.
According to psychiatrists who specialize in chronic grief, the root cause is the gap between our reality and the expectations we had for our children and our experience as parents. We imagined something very different from what we've received. Our reality seems cruel and unfair for our children and for us.
This loss is even harder to accept because of the stigmas surrounding our ability to allow ourselves to feel the loss we've suffered as parents. We're told we must be grateful for what we have, so to grieve our loss feels selfish.
Christmas is right around the corner, and if you're still stumped about what to get your kid this year, here are some more ideas that will appeal to kids with autism. (Check out my other list here!)
Cozy Sack Bean Bag Chair
Amazon has some great deals on these bean bag chairs, and they have very good reviews. They provide good pressure for laying on to watch movies or play on an iPad, and they are sturdy enough to withstand jumping on them like a crashpad. They also have a removable, machine washable cover. They come as large as 8 feet long! The best Amazon deals are on the 6-foot models.
If you've signed up to bring a Thanksgiving dish to the office or a family get together, have I got a recipe for you!
These pumpkin spiced pecans are so amazingly delicious, everyone will be addicted to them after just one nibble. You will be crowned the Martha Stewart of your office or family for your genius dish.
Little do they know, these only take five minutes to make.
And guess what? They are autism diet legal! Most candied pecan recipes use butter and refined sugar. This recipe doesn't use butter. It's sweetened with honey, and because of the smooth texture of honey, butter isn't necessary.
Last week, I observed Tosh's classroom. I've been nagged by a feeling his severe class isn't the best placement for him, and wondered if he shouldn't be in a mild-moderate classroom instead.
The fact that he doesn't fit into a severe or mild-mod class is a topic for another day. I'd rather talk about something else I noticed while I was there.
Tosh's class, like nearly all special ed classrooms and behavioral therapy settings, use a rewards system to encourage good behavior and performance. He does the work, he gets a reward.
Fundamentally, there's nothing wrong with that. Life is all about work and rewards. You do the work, you get a reward, whether it's a paycheck or the satisfaction of a job well done.
However, in this case, Tosh was being rewarded too frequently. I didn't time how long he was required to work (non-preferred activity) before receiving his reward (preferred activity), but it seemed very short. Much shorter than specified in his ABA goals last year.
What's more, the little bugger expected a reward EVERY SINGLE TIME he did something.
Spirulina, otherwise known as blue-green algae or the less appetizing name pond scum, is a popular natural health remedy. It was a staple in the Aztec diet and is considered a sustainable food source. The United Nations identified it as a primary tool to fight global malnutrition and NASA is researching how it could be incorporated into astronaut diets on missions to Mars. It's been used to treat victims of arsenic poisoning and was used to treat children exposed to radiation after the Chernobyl disaster.
Spirulina a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and is especially effective in treating the brain and liver. It's also very rich in protein: 50 to 70 percent protein by weight, compared to about 27 percent for red meat. Spirulina is also a good source of B vitamins, vitamin K, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, manganese, potassium, iodine and zinc. These are all excellent benefits for people with autism.
One thing spirulina does not do is chelate heavy metals and toxins from the body. That's the work of chlorella, which is another form of algae. The two are often confused. I suppose you could also make chlorella popsicles if chelation is what you're after.
There are so many health benefits to spirulina, I was intrigued to see if I could put it into a popsicle. Tosh began eating popsicles earlier this year and they are his favorite treat. His ABA team uses them as a reward at the end of his sessions. I had been providing them with relatively healthy popsicles made from fruit and natural sugars, but I've never been crazy about giving him a sugary treat when ABA ends at 7 p.m. because it sometimes spoils his dinner and makes him hyper at bedtime.
So I decided to hit the kitchen and make him popsicles that are good enough to be considered a meal. These popsicles contain enough healthy ingredients on their own to qualify; spirulina was my attempt to swing for the fences. I'm proud to say we've scored a home run! Tosh absolutely loves them.
Heather Anderson is a natural health educator, writer, blissfully happy autism mom, fintech marketer and lover of life in Southern California.
Please join me on this autism journey. Let’s create a positive, supportive community in which we can learn, grow and prosper. Where the focus isn’t just on your autistic child, but on your own personal growth as well.