Friday, December 30, 2011

Autism: When Purpose + Pride = Function. Erik's Ranch and Retreats aims to make this equation work.

Jimmy in 2007
Reagan kids 2011 Holiday Photo
In one of my first blogs, I wrote about the loss of Jimmy's smile - a giggly happy natural smile. Our family pictures tell a story of a young boy losing his way into a world autism full of confusion and illness.  Over the years, the lost natural smile was replaced with an unnatural forced flat smile - even that smile was rarely present.  His natural smile has been absent until recently.  Holiday photos show a different human being.  I often wonder why the change? Is Jimmy's art making a difference? I am sure that it is. Clearly, he is less trapped in the world of autism.  But why? Might it be his sense of purpose and pride that his art has given him? Is his art responsible for bringing back that beautiful natural smile. Certainly, this is part of the equation. Erik's Ranch and Retreats is an organization that aims to make the equation Purpose + Pride =Function work with their innovative model for young adults with autism . Jimmy will be part of their pilot project this spring.

Equations are logical and make sense to me.  Although many equations seem complicated, others are much simpler or the solutions might be more obvious  than we might think.  Kathryn Nordberg and the folks at Erik's Ranch and Retreat  may have found one of those obvious solutions to what many have thought to be a complicated equation.  The question is how to help young adults with autism flourish and thrive by leading a life with purpose, pride and function.
                Purpose is a word meaning an object to be reached; a target; an aim; a goal; a result that is desired; an        intention. Purpose's basic concept is an individual's voluntary behavior activity awareness. Wikipedia

Purpose is important for all of us.  Yet, people with autism are less likely to find jobs that focus on their interests and abilities.  In fact, they are less likely to find jobs period….leaving them dependent on others. Since Jimmy was diagnosed 16 years ago, I've said my goal was to make him a tax payer….that would mean that he had a job and purpose.   Erik's Ranch and Retreats will help develop purpose for people with autism that lend themselves to their strengths.

Jimmy and Karen Kaler at Eastcliff hanging his work Girl with Leaves 
Kathryn Nordberg's son, Erik, loves horses.  He rides weekly, cares for horses and thrives in this environment.  Erik is autistic and struggles to communicate.  Through Erik's Adventures, Erik's Ranch and Retreats will help Erik develop his skills taking guests on trail rides - a career many typical human beings enjoy.  Jimmy creates and shares his art. His work is enjoyed by many including University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and his wife Karen.  They recently purchased one of Jimmy's pieces for the University of Minnesota President's residence, Eastcliff.  Creating art speaks to Jimmy's strengths and help minimize his weaknesses. Jimmy will be part of Erik's Adventure's pilot project this spring where he will take guests to see his art on display.  Through this program, Jimmy will work on weakness like communication skills.  He is motivated to share what he loves - his art.  So, he is more willing to work on what is difficult for him, like language.

                Pride refers to a satisfied sense of attachment toward one's own or another's choices and actions, or            toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, or a fulfilled    feeling of belonging. Wikipedia

Pride in what one does is important for a sense of self worth.  Being satisfied in a career choice creates a sense of joy and accomplishment. People who feel good about what they do and who they are stand up straighter, look others in the eyes and have confidence. People with autism, if they do have career opportunities, are unlikely to be offered something that they love.  Erik's Ranch will help identify strengths in young adults with autism helping to create meaningful careers that will create a sense of pride in these people. Everyone deserves this opportunity.
             Function is an action or use for which something is suited or designed. Webster Dictionary

 Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle , wrote extensively on the topic of  happiness and its pursuit.  Plato used the word  flourish  in his definition and Aristotle wrote that "happiness is a self-sufficient state of the active individual" I believe that happiness is the Function that humans beings are suited and designed for.  Thousands of years after Plato and Aristotle wrote, these simple ideas are still true. 

I hope for happiness for Jimmy.  This means that his life should have Purpose, Pride and Function.  I believe that Kathryn Nordberg and the folks at Erik's Ranch and Retreat are hoping to do just this for young adults with autism.  Hats off to Kathryn and her team as they develop their model to help young adults with autism flourish and thrive finding solutions to the equation Purpose + Pride = Function

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Brain - Making New Connections

Jimmy Reagan - Medusa, Oil Pastel on Paper, 2011
Over the last six months, Jimmy's art has been growing in ways that continue to surprise me. The density of the colors, combinations of color and subjects are all evolving. He is changing in other profound ways as well. I delivered some of Jimmy's art pieces to be scanned for printing as few weeks ago.  As the printer perused the portfolio,  he remarked, "Jimmy's work is changing in such interesting ways. I've worked with some artists for ten to fifteen years and their work never seems to evolve. Jimmy's work is really growing.  This is so exciting" I thought this was interesting.  He also remarked, "Jimmy isn't inhibited by what others think." This is certainly true with his art. I was pleased by these comments and is caused me to think.  His tutor, Ron, stopped me on Friday after class and said I need to tell you about something that I've observed over the last several month with Jimmy - it is so exciting. Math word problems have always been a challenge for Jimmy.  Ron stated that Jimmy is now able to complete near age appropriate math word problems. This is a remarkable change. Jimmy is more engaged and seeming to be able to follow multi-step instructions in a way that is very different. All of these wonderful changes seems to be happening together. Is it a change in his health, the way the material/information is being delivered,  less anxiety, a sense of purpose, motivation to perform because of constant positive feedback or is his art changing the way his brain is actually functioning?   I don't know. But, certainly think this would be a fine research question to study.

 When Jimmy was 5, I was told by a very knowledgeable psychologist that neuroplasticity ends at age 6.  

"Neuroplasticity is a non-specific neuroscience term referring to the ability of the brain and nervous system in all species to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment.[1] Plasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes involved in learning, to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The most widely recognized forms of plasticity are learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage. During most of the 20th century, the general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by new findings, revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.[2]" Wikipedia

 My first thought was that this concept is ridiculous. If this were true, we would all cease to learn or develop complicated thoughts past age 6.  In terms of autism, this established idea allowed therapies to be reduced or eliminated  because the thought was that they wouldn't work and were not of value to be continued. Seems like giving up to me or an excuse to stop working with a challenging human being….how about trying to teach the skill in a different way since we all respond uniquely to ideas, concepts, etc... This is another one of those concepts that just didn't make sense to me. So, I didn't spend much time thinking about how things for Jimmy wouldn't make much improvement after age 6. I believed that his future was full of potential.
Since the human body is designed to generate new cells, why would connections in the brain be different? In her late 90's, Brian's grandmother asked me for suggestions for new periodicals so she learn more about mega bit in an effort to complete her daily crossword puzzles. Her neuoplastiscity certainly didn't cease at age 6.  She lost her hearing as a 10 year old and had to re-learn how to communicate. She died at almost 105 and was interested in and learning new things into her 100's. I recently attended a speech by a Dartmouth professor. He discussed the economics of healthcare and employment. He identified some interesting correlations and recommended: new career in your later year, as in your 60's, improves ones health and reduces healthcare costs. Does learning something new and having purpose make us happier and healthier?  My guess would be yes. Does it challenge the brain to develop new connections? I hope so.
So, what am I thinking….Jimmy is becoming a different more engaged and healthier human being. What is behind this drastic change? He is able to function in public settings that were previously nothing but frightening for him and us. As of late, his language output seems slightly improved.  I believe that his art is changing the way he thinks and is helping to make new connections in the part of his brain that has seemed to be so handicapped in the past. His interest in art has allowed him to be open to new things. He has found something that he loves that has given him a sense of purpose, worth and perhaps, has improved his actual brain function.