A “Happy” Filter

There’s something about this “Bokehful” filter that imbues “happiness”… I mean, it’s like jumping in a pool of happy, bright-light bubbles…  (Which pretty much sums up how I feel about life!)

I was wearing my volunteer hoodie in this picture and that’s yet another aspect of living that feels so incredibly joyous and “right.” Sometimes we find passions later in the journey. . .

On the tougher days it’s especially important to find our “happy” filters – whatever they may be – because life isn’t  always so peachy (and neither are we. I’m sure not all the time!)

Maybe it’s a cup of coffee, a love note, or a listening to the laugh of someone we love. Maybe it’s a call to an old friend, listening to your favorite song, or curling up in the arms of your best friend. Whatever those “happy” things are, keep them on tap for the rainy days.

If you find yourself in short supply? Take a quick picture and slap on a slew of glowing bubbles. If nothing else, it’s worth a smile to see yourself surrounded in so colorful an effervescence. It lifts the mood just looking at it! (“What if I’m frowning,” you say? All the better! The juxtaposition of a frown face with all that bubbling brilliance ups the humor quotient –  laughing at the gloom is half the battle. DON’T underestimate simple tricks and tools!)

A bad-day band-aid? Maybe. But when you smile your brain actually begins to produce more of our “happiness” chemicals (hint: dopamine and serotonin?) so seriously…what’s the harm in that?

Um… N A D A !

What Are The Odds…? Sharing Our Stories And Offering Kindness In Return.

I received this note along with a purchase I made on eBay and it absolutely warmed my heart. I’d say “what are the odds?!” but then I really do believe the Universe finds away to align things for the good…

I wrote this lovely woman a note in return to let her know her words fell into loving hands, and to offer words of support…which she so readily deserves. She is hoping to help her son “chase his dreams” to which I said how blessed he is to have her, and that as a team they will succeed.  

I then shared this Audrey Hepburn quotation:

The world is made a much smaller and warmer place when kind hearts lead the way. 

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Autism Humor – I’m Taking It With Me

I have the honor to volunteer with many children with autism and there are some things that just go with the territory (aside from the fact that I’m always smiling – they light me up every time! 🙂 )

Many of the children I have the joy to work with like to bring personal items along with them to play time (or wear something they love.) We typically don’t allow them to bring toys from home, heaven forbid something is lost in the shuffle – the organization I work with has a TON of toys for the children to play with, so outside items could easily disappear.

Still, when they really WANT to bring something (for example, little felt pieces in the shape of animals) chances are a mountain will be made into a molehill by not going with the flow. Trying to separate them from a comfortable “known” can be a lot more trouble than it’s worth and frankly, at the end of the day, there’s nothing at all wrong with that (particularly in a less frequented environment.)

We do, however, have to keep a sharp eye out so that they also go home with everything they brought along!

Learning About Life Through Another Lens, And How Blessed We All Really Are…

Some weeks ago I started an ASL (American Sign Language) course online – I regularly volunteer with children with disabilities and had asked a mom (whose four year-old boy both has autism and is deaf) for some ASL resources. Her son additionally suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, which isn’t horribly uncommon with autism – when he comes to our volunteer play sessions, there are times that he begins to cry and it’s terribly tricky to discern what will make him feel more comfortable. While I was already interested in learning ASL (up to 50% of autistic individuals are non-verbal), this little guy was enough to get me on the road to finding a class…as soon as possible.

The awesome news is that I also volunteer with Special Olympics-driven skating sessions once a week that includes a number of children who are either hard of hearing or completely deaf. There’s nothing quite like being able to communicate with them – being able to sign even a single word is exciting! (I definitely have a way to go!)

A couple of days ago, though, I came down with a cold of some kind – as a result of contagiously coughing, I lost my voice – and I mean completely. Talk about being in someone else’s shoes…

Horribly uncomfortable a “bug” is for any of us, it’s nothing compared to what some children and adults have to deal with on a regular, and life-long basis. In a strange way, I feel thankful that I can’t speak because it’s an exercise in understanding what it *might* be like – while I consider myself to be one of the most empathetic people I know, it is impossible to fully understand anyone’s experience without being in their skin.

I have lost my voice on one other occasion – remarkably, I was 16 spending a month in France, with very little French under my belt. I guess life likes to test my ability to communicate (which – as is clear – is NOT always done with speech.)

In any case, it’s as the saying goes – you don’t always realize what you have until you lose it. I’d never anticipate not having the ability to speak was an easy road…but it is a welcome experience. (Now I’m not exactly encouraging anyone to go out to a concert and scream at the top of his or her lungs to deliberately subdue the vocal chords…I’m just saying, there is good to everything. Yes, including getting sick and losing a primary means of communication.)

Now my husband has a little bit of a challenge playing the guessing game as far as “what is my wife trying to say now?” He’s doing a remarkable job of deciphering, decoding, and understanding what I am trying to say, and that’s not easy to do! So I’m very fortunate to have the support and patience.

Going to the store is also an enlightening experience – I can’t say “thank you,” or “excuse me” as I normally would, nor can I respond vocally to others. That leaves me feeling a little bit awkward as reciprocal speech is one of the key forms of communication many of us learned from infancy. When I indicate with gesture and my lips that I have lost my voice, people either immediately begin to whisper or act altogether more gently – it’s incredibly interesting! (I actually can’t even whisper, as that puts more stress on the vocal chords than speaking does!)

The other side of it is that I’m derailed from my activities – in part I simply don’t feel up to them physically. The pain and discomfort though. . .I think about all the children with autism suffering from sensory sensitivities without the ability to say “those lights are hurting my eyes,” “this fabric makes my skin burn,” “my chest hurts….” What is life like for them? Many “behavioral issues” are a result of such a scenario – they don’t have a means to say what they are feeling.

For the children who are deaf or hard of hearing, thankfully they do have words at their disposal (albeit non-speech, hand / facial /body gestures.) I learned “sick,” “feel,” “bathroom,” and “okay?” as quickly as I could. Fortunately I’m learning many other words too…but knowing that it will take time, it’s important I know some basics.

Even if I was feeling better, my usual day-to-day would still be a substantial challenge – I can’t make a singe phone call, for one. I can’t ask for help locating a medicine at the store. If I were in an office, I’d have to type everything out (doable, but less efficient.) I certainly can’t breakdown a Ninjutsu technique the way I could by asking questions in class, and I definitely can’t teach or volunteer. I have to rely on gestures to talk to others I might run into in my own apartment building because I am utterly devoid of my usual method of communication…

So it’s been a remarkable few days…

While I’m sure it’s not fun to be around me while I’m loudly coughing, slower-moving, and unable to answer even the easiest question, I feel truly thankful for the experience. In fact, I’m taking the opportunity to review videos from the ASL course modules that I’ve already completed – I will hopefully be seeing the Special Olympics kids on Wednesday to skate and I know a few happy ones who use ASL exclusively. 🙂 

Autism And Other Pervasive Disorders – Idioms And Literal Language

I’ve been taking a graduate course in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) over the last few months and I’ve loved it so much more than I can say. Having been out of the school circuit for 17 years, it’s definitely been eye-opening across the board! But nothing beats the feeling of learning more about ASD and other pervasive developmental diseases – I’ve truly found my passion, and am ever eager to apply what I learn to my volunteer work with children, teens, and adults of varying disabilities.

In a recent discussion we talked about idioms – a type of “language” that we all use without really thinking about it. Neither, therefore, do many of us consider the implications on individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities and delays. As I prepared for the discussion, I realized that I couldn’t think of any I had used “off the top!” Sure enough, as I snooped about online, I discovered I use quite a few. For example:

All ears                                                It takes two to tango

Blessing in disguise                          Method to the madness

Chomp at the bit                                Not playing with a full deck

Cry over spilt milk                             Off his rocker

Curiosity killed the cat                      Once in a blue moon

Devil’s advocate                                 Over the moon

Silver lining                                         Piece of cake

Hit the hay                                          Speak of the devil

Hit the nail on the head                    Take it with a grain of salt

My classmates also came up with a hefty array of phrases, many of which I hear or say myself (“I lost my marbles!” comes to mind. 🙂 )  In combination with meticulous observation of my own idiom usage (for the purposes of this assignment) I found that I say them with relative frequency in every day speech. . .as does just about everyone around me. The funny thing is that I actually had to look up examples – using idioms is so much a part of our language that I wasn’t even aware. This sentiment was, as it turns out, shared by my classmates…

Having learned throughout my course that individuals with ASD often take language literally – truly at its face value – I am now far more attentive to my verbal language when communicating with them. Paired with deficits in social skillsets (such as joint attention, inability to read body language, verbal tone, cues and so forth), the literal translation of idioms could pose a substantial challenge during interaction. Our course has touched on the multitude of challenges that children with ASD face in the realm of communication (which includes a lot more than just “verbal language.”) The point has also been made that it isn’t always obvious to an outsider that someone with ASD won’t understand conversation, as some have a large (and impressive!) vocabularies.

I recall once saying (prior to my class, in a volunteer capacity) “you could be a pro!” to a child with ASD kicking a soccer ball. He asked what I meant and I realized that I didn’t say “professional soccer player,” which is what I needed to express in order for him to understand my meaning. While not an idiom per se, the language was not complete – an abbreviation I took for granted was not clear to him. This experience was eye-opening and I realized I needed to up my awareness when conversing with an individual with ASD. It is not at all a matter of intelligence – I find many to be incredibly bright…and they are! – more that I need to recognize the common trait of taking words exactly as spoken. I myself have a tendency to read into what I hear, sometimes taking comments as literal and serious.

Despite that English is my only fluent language, I always loved learning foreign languages in school. I remember purchasing books that offered slang and street French / Italian (even Latin!) so that I could perhaps utilize the language in the way native speakers do…or at least follow their conversation. Slang and idioms are a HUGE part of a culture’s social structure – they are thrown around with such frequency that not understanding them can pose a substantial language barrier as well as, at worst, flat-out social isolation. Think about learning a new language in school, then being immersed in that culture. The stream of communication of someone native to the language will be riddled with idioms – we all do it! We might then find ourselves saying, “what do you mean?” just like the child with ASD asked me.

This is a massive task for teachers because there are infinite ways in which idioms may present, and there are in the order of twenty-five thousand in English alone. (Wikipedia, as retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom ) We read an article written by Temple Grandin earlier in the course and she mentioned how she has to mentally retrieve visuals and concrete memories based on previous experiences to know how to respond appropriately in social situations – what a daunting task! When we study a specific technique in Ninjutsu (a current Martial Art of mine) we sometimes discuss that the founders of the Art did not always teach a follow-up submission or takedown with it – the reasoning was that there are so many permutations, the task would not only be overwhelming, but students would be trying to remember far too many combinations (diverting attention from the more important fundamentals.) Way to go, Temple, for mastering that ability!

In the case of language, however, not learning idiomatic expressions will absolutely leave a child at a disadvantage – out of the realm in which peers and others knowledgeable about their disabilities (and therefore able to accommodate), an individual with ASD may be left bewildered by the normal conversational style of society. Again, as above, potentially leading to isolation and less opportunity for interactions (which also means less practice!)

Teaching generalization is vital for the individuals, and I do think key idioms must be addressed. That all said, I think that a learning program must – as all instruction – be highly specific, and tailored to the individual with ASD. If he or she is at a level at which more can be mentally digested, perhaps more idioms can be taught – but I sincerely believe that core fundamentals of are crucial, and must – as an order of operations – be learned before attempting to master more descriptive, idiomatic expressions. (I did see, per the below, a plethora of visual representations of idioms, which would be a perfect way to introduce them to children with ASD!)

Giving Back

Every aspect of life is a journey and I suppose that’s the fun of it – nothing remains static and we always have the opportunity to grown and learn.  As we get older we are often bombarded with the idea that we have to be young, have to portray that image, or that it is simply too late.  None of that is true – there is so much beauty in getting older, and it is absolutely never – ever – too late to try, learn, do something new…especially when that “something” makes your soul glow or your heart beat.

I spent a long time in industries that I was, perhaps, “meant”…but not “destined”…for.  While life ebbs and flows, and is indeed rife with ah-ha moments along the way, I’ve realized that I just had a monumental epiphany. And that’s not only okay, but amazing…

I didn’t question my work in fashion – I’d loved so many aspects of the industry from early childhood that it made sense that I was heading that direction.  No matter we all thought I was primarily left-brained, I was incredibly drawn to the arts, performing sports, to fashion, to photography, makeup artistry – they were worlds so colorful and captivating that I sort of just “knew” that’s the broad arena in which I’d eventually land.  That said, my pedigree was – finally – to the contrary.  I did a double major in International Business and Marketing, not exactly the design and creative background required for a position in Product Development.  But, what I lacked in typical education, I made up for with enthusiasm and a no-bullshit work ethic.

I suppose throughout it all, I always had a feeling that something was missing – I didn’t have a name for the sensation, nor did I know exactly what, specifically, was absent.  I’ve always wanted to do more, be more, achieve more, so I believe I attributed the growing hollowness to that.  

But, it wasn’t.

The truth is, life for me is vastly more magical than it isn’t – I will always strive to be better each day, in every aspect of my life, and I will always have goals and aspirations.  So that sense of still seeking fulfillment might be there…but after having had more recent revelations, I’m willing to bet it will die down a bit.

I began working with children on a whim many years ago as an instructor in Karate – I wanted to get out of my home town (not to escape an increasingly prosaic routine, but to evade one person, of all things) and this amazing gift, so aptly timed, just fell into my lap.  I initially contacted the Sensei in effort to learn new Arts – my background was in the Korean Arts of Hapkido and Taekwondo.  Despite my lack of knowledge (or experience) in his Japanese styles, he welcomed me warmly, and with sincere enthusiasm.  In seeing my passion for Martial Arts in general, and, I imagine, my personality, he encouraged me to stick around and teach. Game changer.

I realized at that moment both the responsibility I was given, and that I was in the unbelievably fortunate position to offer inspiration to these children. You never know when such moments of motivation and revelation may occur. Knowing that I could provide a strong role model, not only by means of a physically active body, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, was a gift to be valued.

I was, and still am, more of the disciplinarian – it is incredibly important to me that the children enjoy their time at the Dojo (why bother otherwise?!) But it is also a place in which we discuss and learn core values – how to treat one another, the meaning of respect, responsibility, healthy living, honesty, courage, integrity… It isn’t just about how we control our own bodies and space, but how we affect others around us in a physical way, and beyond.  Our attitude matters. In some cases, we are reinforcing what is taught at home.  In others, however, we are providing a framework and structure that they child is not exposed to elsewhere – a framework that hopefully will help them blossom and embrace life fully, challenges notwithstanding.

I’ve continued working with children in Martial Arts simply because I love to do it – I appreciate the opportunity to instill positive values, to encourage and nudge potential, to lead by example, and to help the children develop important life skills.  Along the way, however – and frankly I don’t even recall the impetus – I began to look into working with Special Needs children.  The opportunities for children with disabilities is far less, and as a huge proponent of physical fitness, I realized I needed to be out there helping kids who are often denied the chance.

Having a BLAST and high-fiving!

By some great fortune there is a volunteer organization in my state that offers the kinds of hands-on activities I was looking for – they serve children with varying disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, ADHD, apraxia, and others.  None is so severe on the spectrum that they must reside in full-time facilities, but depending on the child, there might be some aggression, or major athleticism (as in, the “runners” who are hard to keep at one’s side!)  For me, though, that’s the fun of it – each child is different, and with my background in Martial Arts training and instructing, I feel very comfortable taking on the toughies.

My time with these children has been relegated to my 39th year of life (and some of my 38th) – my path managed to diverge rather drastically in some way, but I feel suddenly so much more aligned.  While it is not currently my profession to work with children with disabilities, I have made it my mission to find ways to help.  I have purchased several books to begin self-educating myself, and have reached out to others in the field whom I know are both honest and passionate.  It is in so many ways the beginning of a new journey for me, but life has a way of doing that…

Life presents us with opportunities along the way if only we remain open to them. When we listen to what our hearts are truly saying in between the beats, we allow a magic we may not have known existed the opportunity to unfold.  The gifts you will receive will be priceless…

Volunteering

This past weekend I had the wonderful fortune to work with children with disabilities doing an activity close to my heart – Taekwondo. ❤  My background is predominantly in dancing (classical ballet and ballroom), as well as in figure skating, but being a Martial Arts practitioner for many years, and an instructor, has proven to be not only incredibly fulfilling, but also life-changing. 

I moved to a new state some months ago, leaving behind a job teaching children Okinawan Karate.  I was eager to find an opportunity in which I could work with children again, specifically doing a physical activity.  I believe that movement of any kind is incredibly beneficial (for countless reasons!), especially for children, for whom creating this healthy, lifetime habit comes more easily. (If you are an adult who began fitness, for example, later in life, you know what I mean – if we start early on, embracing exercise as a positive, FUN activity, it is more likely that we keep up with it as we age.)  Learning spatial and body awareness, as well as how to interact interpersonally and physically with others are valuable life skills – Martial Arts definitely cater to both.  

I am blessed to be able to assist both at a Ninjutsu Dojo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, where I am also a student – working with children is always eye-opening, and I find that they teach me just as much!  That work aside, I was also eager to find a way to volunteer to guide those less able to participate in such activities – I don’t like to see ANYONE left out!  It is easy to take for granted that many of us CAN do sports…  When our routine takes over, we almost run on autopilot, dashing from one class to the next, sometimes even begrudgingly!  But. . .how blessed are we?!  For some individuals, the process of making a fist with which to punch a target may take many weeks of practice!

The disabilities this particular organization – KEEN of Greater DC – works with (for the Martial Arts Program) range from Autism, to Echolalia, to Cerebral Palsy – so the group is mixed, requiring different levels of guidance and instruction.  Though my background is not specific to disabilities, I find that working with these children comes very naturally – their genuine enthusiasm, eager curiosity, and love of playtime is absolutely contagious!

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(My own photo)

The activities we coached the kids through ranged from running about the room holding hands, to simple stretches, to punching and kicking targets.  We also hauled out an enormous, thick mat onto which they jumped from a mini trampoline – it was tremendously crowd-pleasing! 🙂

For a few of the children, these activities are “new” each week – they might need us to form the fists for them with our own hands, or have us demonstrate a couple of extra times.  For others, you can see exciting improvements over the course of the class (and over time.)  In both instances, though, you see a LOT of smiling, and hear a TON of giggling. ❤

The experience is so richly rewarding, I’d be hard-pressure to measure, or describe it! What we “get” from coaching is as much tangible as it is not – there is no recognition, nor compensation…but neither do I (nor any of the volunteers) want any such reimbursement.  There is, instead, a profound thankfulness that seems to fill each cell to the point of overflowing.  As an Empath, I cry as much for joy as I do sadness – I was moved to tears by the elated shrieks when contact was made with a target…or my extra “that-was-AWESOME” high-five! produced a flood of smiling.  How can you put a value on something like that?! 

The absolute jubilation that is felt all around makes every moment worth it.  These children face physical and mental challenges that most of their peers are unfamiliar with entirely  – the burden is a heavy one, and it prevents them from taking part in many school sports and extracurricular activities.  I was so delighted to find an organization that caters to allowing individuals with disabilities to experience the same fun and enjoyment with exercise and physical play.  Keen, incidentally, has only three main employees. . . and yet making a difference is SO important to them that they manage to offer twenty-seven programs!  

I will definitely be back for the next round – how precious a gift were the smiles and laughter.  Add to that the grateful nods of parents able to take comfort and joy in their child’s participation?  True blessing.  And then some.