January 5, 2021 – Newsletter

| January 6, 2021

It feels so good to write 2021 and put 2020 behind us. Though the last year was dark with fires, COVID, and economic uncertainty there were times of light and laughter. Autistry ended the year with stunning success stories.

We supported 20 students taking several different courses at College of Marin and…all the students not only passed but most passed with As!

A huge round of applause for our Drama students, the COM professors Molly Noble and Lisa Morse, Autistry staff Gabrielle Haggett-Molina, Phil Lewis and Benji Harrington for a wonderful online theater experience. The students performed scenes from You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown directed by drama major, Michelle Samuels. The students also performed monologues for their course final. We look forward to more collaboration with the COM Drama Department in 2021.

Drama Class Monologues

And kudos to Program Manager Claire Watry who lead her team (Cindy Clogston and Ellie Lastra) in supporting seven Autistry students taking English 120. All seven students ACED the class! These guys studied very hard, never missed a class, and helped each other by reviewing each other’s work and giving helpful feedback. Many of them are going on to take Creative Writing this spring semester. We are looking forward to the stories they will tell.

Shelby Green and Rhoda Robertson guided three students through the new STSK:Math class. They practiced everyday practical math and learned how to write a budget and how loan payments work (yes, you end up paying a lot more when you factor in that interest!). They each did a final project where they shared a portion of the class that they liked or wanted to learn more about. One student chose to do a presentation on needs and wants and how best to manage them (I could use that advice!). Another focused his presentation on budgeting. And one student, wrote a song that encourages growing your own business and gave advice on the best ways to do that. Practical projects that were made fun!

Shelby and Claire also supported one of our students as she followed her path toward becoming a medical assistant. She took Medical Terminology and Medical Administration Procedures. These are not easy classes but she aced both of them and will not doubt continue this success in 2021. The healthcare industry needs this Autistry student!

We continued the paid internship program with the horses at Cadence Farm because, hey, plague or no plague horses need to be exercised, need to eat, and they keep on pooping! Our interns are doing a great job and are becoming skilled equestrian support workers.

Working at Cadence Farm

Sara Gardner and Dan Coppock added to their Cadence chores by supporting four students in a very demanding Multi-Media class focusing on PhotoShop. The students created movie posters, book covers, and fantasy self-portraits – Alter Egos! Elf in the Meadow, Raging Unicorn, and the Angel in the Outfield:

Alter Egos

Sunday we started the year off with a battle royal! Our Dungeons and Dragons players had landed themselves in prison. In order to win their freedom they had to outwit their Goblin guards. In a series of clever games, masterly role-playing and lucky D20 rolls, they are now poised to break free. More to come next Sunday as we continue this weekly adventure led by Dan, Michaela Callahan, Samantha Gardner, and Tamera McNeil.

Goblins Attack!

Presidio & Ferries 28

We plan to resume paid internship activity at the Western Railway Museum as soon as COVID passes and the facility opens up. Dan is now on the WRM board and enjoys meeting with other train enthusiasts online to discuss museum issues. He has also designated a project for Autistry – rebuilding the Presidio and Ferries 28, a double-ended, single truck trolley car which resembles a short version of a California Street cable car. It is a mere hulk so lots of work to be done!

Looking forward to a great new year!

2019 End-of-Year Newsletter

| November 25, 2019

Another year of rapid growth and development at Autistry! We have grown so quickly that I only just realized it has been a year since the last newsletter. The silence is not from lack of cool news to report – more like lack of time to report it!

New students – Fall semester 2019 we supported 20 students taking classes at College of Marin. And, as of this writing (a week before finals) all the students are passing their classes. The students are really challenging themselves with college level courses in Geology, Biology, English, Drama, and Art. Several students are also taking a Study Skills class to improve their academic abilities and prepare for next semester.

We welcomed several new students into the Core Workshops on Friday and Sunday. They are coming in from Sonoma, Oakland, San Leandro and as far south as San Mateo. The pull to create additional Autistry locations is getting stronger. We would love to create a network of studios. If you are interested in starting an Autistry in your area contact us – we are open to exploring the possibilities.

New programs – In 2019 we launched two new programs, the Autistry Skills Adaptation Program (ASAP) and the Paid Internship Program (PIP). ASAP is a 6-month program providing targeted training to young adults transitioning from high school, post-high school programs, or individuals seeking support to become more independent. Although designed to prepare individuals for entry into the Autistry Comprehensive Adult Program the Autistry Skills Adaptation Program also prepares individuals for other vocational or education programs. ASAP is vendorized by the Golden Gate Regional Center.

The Paid Internship Program (PIP) began quietly and then took off. Our partnerships with the Western Railway Museum and Square Peg Foundation proved to be so mutually beneficial that we added several more interns to each work site. At the museum, the students are learning basic maintenance skills as well as developing new workplace abilities – painting, climbing up scaffolding, working as a team, and even how to drive the electric work vehicles. This summer we will begin training on how to drive some of the trolley cars and engage with several of the restoration projects.

At Cadence Farm, in addition to keeping the horse stalls clean and dry, the interns learn how to wash and groom these magnificent retired thoroughbred racehorses. And, as the students gain more confidence and form relationships with the horses, they are taught how to train and exercise them. This begins with guiding the horse through a series of paces – walk, trot, and canter. An exercise in trust for all concerned.

New opportunities – In July, Autistry received a large grant from the Department of Disability Services. The grant is to support the expansion of our current community partnerships and the development of new partnerships. We are looking for new organizations in addition to the Railway Museum and Cadence Farm to provide work experience for our students. The grant also supports the training and certification of Janet and Sara to become Person-Centered Trainers to train Autistry staff as well as other community organizations in soon-to-be mandatory PCT practices.

In October, Steve Earle, famed singer/songwriter once again held a benefit concert for Autistry, this time at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. It was a sold-out success. Steve’s performance was powerful and his shout out to Autistry was eloquent and passionate. The evening filled our hearts and went a long way toward filling our funding gap.

New adventures – And we had fun! This summer we went on two adventures with the Environmental Traveling Companions (ETC). In June we kayaked to Angel Island and spent the night in the old Quartermaster’s House. And in August, we shot the rapids of the south fork of the American River. These were both challenging, exhilarating, and amazing adventures. To start 2020 off right, we are planning a cross country skiing expedition with ETC in January.

As I am having a trouble finding quiet time to write newsletters please join us on Facebook to keep up with all the news, view the great photos and videos, and stay in touch!

We are entering the Giving Season and hope that you will continue to support our students through your generous donations. Check out Giving 2019 on our donation page.

Wishing you all the happiest of holidays,

Janet, Dan, Sara, Matt, and the Autistry team

Giving 2018

| November 23, 2018

Autistry Studios builds independent adults.

Becoming independent is not a passive process.
It takes courage and an inner fortitude to challenge oneself to learn a new skill, break an old habit, or create a dream.

Autistry is a therapeutic/educational Maker Space celebrating its 10th year providing programs and services to autistic teens and adults and those with other developmental, communication, and social issues.

The services Autistry provides go well beyond the funds provided by the Regional Center and the workshop fees. As with most nonprofits, Autistry relies on the support of the community to continue to offer unique and effective programs and to expand those programs as the needs of our students change.

Make donations on our Donate page

Your donations have a great impact:

Sew much help! $50 buys 24 1,000 yard spools of thread, assorted hand-needles, pin cushions, seam rippers AND a pair of fabric scissors for creating costumes, quilts, puppets, and stuffed animals!
Art supplies keep Autistry artists painting dioramas, fine art pieces and fabulous character clocks. $100 buys a set of 53 tubes of acrylic paint, 3 quarts of gel medium, AND 12 natural bristle brushes.
Support the Autistry Excursion groups as they explore local attractions throughout the Bay Area: 20 bus rides, 10 SMART train trips, AND 10 tickets to the Asian Art Museum are just a few of the ways we would spend $250.
Hands-on learning requires hands-on materials. A $500 donation purchases 10 sheets of plywood, 5 new blades for the jigsaw, AND 4 new ShopBot bits – enough material for at least 20 cool projects.
We are what we eat! $1,000 provides nutritious lunches for one full month of Autistry Workshops AND buys groceries for the Cooking with Gabrielle workshop where students learn to make complete meals.
Saddle up! Through our partnership with the Square Peg Foundation Autistry students gain essential equestrian work skills – horse grooming, ranch maintenance, and the care of saddles and bridles. $2,500 covers transportation costs and essential protective gear – work gloves, sunscreen, and work hats.
All aboard! Autistry is partnering with the Western Railway Museum to create a unique skill-building internship program. A $5000 donation purchases safety equipment (work gloves, protective eyewear, safety vests) and covers transportation costs for a full summer of hands-on work experience for 2 Autistry crews.
Opportunity funding helps low income families access Autistry Core Workshops. $10,000 donation creates sliding scale options for at least 5 new Autistry students. Help us help them!

World-renowned Scientists Join Autistry Board

| October 22, 2017

SAN RAFAEL, Calif., Oct. 17, 2017 – Autistry Studios, a therapeutic /educational makerspace providing programs and services to teens and adults with autism, announced today that Clifford Saron, PhD, research neuroscientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and the MIND Institute at UC Davis, and Gordon Lithgow, PhD, Chief Academic Officer and professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging have joined the Autistry board of directors.

“We are honored and excited to have these two brilliant scientists working with us as board members,” said Founder/CEO Janet Lawson. “Autistry is expanding our programs and extending our reach and their help and guidance will be invaluable.”

Autistry is entering its 10th year offering hands-on maker workshops where students create fabulous projects based on their own ideas including robots, dioramas, stop-motion animation, Raspberry Pi and Arduino computers. Lawson points out that the projects are not recreational. They are preparation for employment. The process of creating projects strengthens job readiness by practicing vocational and social skills.

The company recently added the Autistry Comprehensive Adult Program (ACAP) addressing the specific and individual needs of autistic adults in the areas of Education, Vocation, Life Skills, and Physical Fitness. ACAP is supported by the Golden Gate Regional Center.

Autistry Studios Fundraiser for Busy People: A Non-Event Event

| October 8, 2017

How to Contribute to a Non-Event Event:


Step 1: Look at your wardrobe for appropriately formal yet professional Gala wear



Step 2: Franticly search for someone to watch your kids/cats/parents

Step 3: Relax! Forget about the first 2 steps, you don’t actually need to go anywhere!



Step 4: Make a donation online or by mail in any amount! http://bit.ly/DonateToAutistry



Step 5: Accept our thanks! Gifts of $100+ acknowledged on our unique donor wall.

Step 6: Encourage others to join in!
• Forward this invitation to friends and family
Join and invite others to our Facebook event page at http://www.bit.ly/NonEvent
Post images in our online albums.


Step 7: Join us at our end-of-year open house to see the studio and celebrate. Saturday December 2, from 4-6pm (But only if you feel like it!)






♥ Illustrations by Steven Waite

Seven Going On Three

| September 13, 2016

The Prolonged Developmental Phases of an Autistic Child

*This is a paper I wrote in 2001 when my now adult son was nearing his seventh birthday. It was written for a graduate psychology class, Phases of Human Development. I found it in a box as I was going through old papers and realized that 15 years later I am still watching my son create his identity and I still believe that language is key to his development.*

7 goiing on 3At first glance my son, Ian appears to be like any other seven-year-old. He has a lithe and agile body, clear gray eyes, and a wide infectious grin. He walks boldly across a balance beam, swings high on the schoolyard swings and screams with delight as he slides down the slide. But when one stops to study him it is soon apparent that Ian is not a typical seven-year old. He does not join in the games with other children. He does not respond to conversational or social cues the way one would expect. He does not venture out into the playground without a designated adult as an anchor. And, when alarmed, he responds with the intensity and total physical reflex of a trapped feral animal. Ian is autistic.

No one knows what makes Ian autistic. It may be a damaged neural pathway in the brain. It could be a chemical imbalance causing receptive and expressive language aphasia. It could be a central nervous system dysfunction. We may never know the exact cause of his condition but it is clear that the effects of this condition, lack of language and social skills have had a profound effect on Ian’s personal development.

Before we discuss what Ian lacks let’s look at who Ian is. Ian entered this world with his arms outstretched and a victorious gleam in his eye. Thomas Verny (1988) contends that a child’s prenatal experience, what he feels and perceives in the womb, “begins shaping his attitudes and expectations about himself” (p. 12) He also argues that the mothers attitude toward her pregnancy influences the in utero experience. If he is correct that may explain why Ian is such a joyous, sensuous, and confident child.

The nine months that I carried Ian were the happiest months of my life. I was 38 years old, healthy and living in a very supportive environment. My husband was in grad school and several of our friends were starting families. It was perhaps the only time that I had no doubt about what I was doing or what my purpose in live was. I worked in a local library and took classes toward my masters’ degree in library and information science. I gained fifty pounds and loved every ounce. My world was shaped and defined by my pregnancy.

I spent hours rubbing my tummy and talking to my son (the amniocentesis had shown that he was a boy). Verny states that at five months the fetus is “as sensitive to touch as any one-year-old”. (p. 37) This may be the reason that Ian is such a sensuous person. Unlike many autistics who find touch to be over stimulating, Ian is calmed by human contact. Rubbing his back will relax him when he is stressed and when he is upset he will ask for a hug. Verny cites studies that indicate that fetuses actually learn in the womb. It may be that by responding to Ian’s prenatal movements with rubbing motions he learned that touch can be a calming agent.

Just bornAt the very end of my pregnancy I developed serious high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia. I was hospitalized and all my bodily functions and Ian’s were carefully monitored. The condition worsened and I had an acute seizure during labor. What had been a very peaceful pregnancy became an extremely stressful and dramatic birth. With the onset of the seizure I was rushed into an operating room and Ian was delivered by emergency C-section. In discussing the work of Dr. Sontag, Verny describes the affect of maternal stress on a child as “heightening a child’s biological susceptibility to emotional distress.” (p. 54) This may explain Ian’s extreme physical response when alarmed. The best description of his behavior in these situations is that he ‘goes feral’. His eyes widen, his body tenses and, if cornered, he will lash out. Could this be a learned response from a time when the situation was dire and he was truly trapped?

After that dramatic entry into the world Ian’s first year proceeded fairly normally. His growth and physical progress closely followed the normal developmental charts and he met most of the developmental milestones during that first year. (Mussen 1979) He rolled over at three months, began to crawl at seven months and took his first steps at nine months. Though he made cooing sounds, he was not very vocal. Studies have shown that American infants vocalize 25% of the time (Mussen) whereas Ian made noises no more than 10% of the time.

Baby Ian with DadHis first few weeks of life he was most comfortable when wrapped tightly in a receiving blanket – a swaddling trick that I had been taught at the hospital. When securely wrapped he would be calm. In times of “alert inactivity” (Mahler 1975) Ian was more interested in inanimate objects then he was in people. For Ian, people were like great pillows made for snuggling. He rarely engaged in peek-a-boo games nor did he respond to children’s rhyming games. But when on the floor with his toys and stuffed animals he would coo and study them intently.

The first clear developmental milestone missed was the smile. Typically, an infant will smile at 2-4 months of age. Margaret Mahler (1975) argues that this social smile is in response to the mother’s face and signals the beginning of the symbiotic phase. Though Ian did not smile it was around this time that he began to reach up and gently stroke my cheek while I nursed him. That reaching out could have been an indication that he had begun “to dimly perceive need satisfaction as coming from some need-satisfying part-object” (p.48) and thus had taken the first step along the road to individuation.

Baby Ian 1Mahler suggests that the smile response may be influenced by the “holding behavior” of the mother. She cites several cases where the mother’s less than optimal mothering techniques have prevented the infant from smiling. These mothers may have indeed been immature or narcissistic as Mahler states but they may also have had non-smiling babies – babies who were perhaps expressing themselves in other ways.

When Ian was eight months old, in the midst of what Mahler calls the First Subphase – Differentiation, we painted one wall of his room light blue. Up until this time I had no indication that Ian was retaining information about his world. But when I set him down on his changing table he reached up and patted the newly painted wall. He then looked carefully around at the other walls then turned his gaze on me. He had a quizzical look in his eye as if to say, “Why not paint the whole room?” This was a clear indication that he had “hatched” from that tight little symbiotic existence and was more engaged with his external world.

His awareness of the new wall color is also an example of Ian’s ability to “retrieve a schema related to [his] present experience and to retain that schema in active memory while [he] compares it with the present in an attempt to understand the discrepancy”. (Mussen, p. 136) This new ability, the enhanced retrieval of information from memory is, according to Mussen, the foundation for intellectual development. This was also our first external validation that our son was a fully intelligent being.

drinking milkIt was around this time that I realized that Ian had a distinct and unique way of interacting with the world. We were visiting a friend one day and Ian was crawling along her kitchen floor. He was headed directly for the dog’s water dish. My friend was concerned that he would either drink from the dish or knock it over and she started to remove it. Thinking that the water might be fun for Ian I asked her to leave the bowl on the floor and let him get wet and assured her that I would clean up any mess he made. Instead of making a mess however, he sat next to the bowl and peered into it. He then gently hit the side of the bowl and watched the ensuing ripples spread across the water’s surface. He became totally concentrated on this action and repeated for nearly 15 minutes hitting the side of the bowl with varying degrees of effort. So, where normal games of peek-a-boo and children’s rhymes held little interest for him the dog’s water bowl captured his imagination.

After this incident I began to take note of the types of activities that attracted him. Hinges fascinated him. He would open and close a cupboard door endlessly staring at the hinge. The pliability of paper intrigued him. He would slide a piece of paper over the edge of a table or the end of the couch and watch it bend. At the playground he would study the roundness of the car tires in the parking lot rather than slide down the slides or swing on the swings. I took all of these as evidence that he would be a scientist like his father. Later I would discover that these activities are typical of autistic children.

And yet, he seemed in most respects to be developing normally. At nine months he was walking and thrilled with the discoveries this elevated vantage brought him. Characteristic of Mahler’s Subphase Two – Practicing, Ian would toddle off while looking over his shoulder to be sure that I was still watching. And we did the classic dance of letting go and gathering up, of running away and running back.

After Ian’s first birthday I noticed that he was not meeting milestones in the popular literature. He was not interacting with his peers. He did not imitate adult actions. He did not stack blocks in towers of four or more. He did not verbalize. His vocabulary at 16 months consisted of three words: milk, cookie, and up. And yet his behavior on some levels was quite sophisticated. He showed evidence of empathy, which is one of the indicators of Mahler’s Rapprochement Phase. My mother came to visit us and Ian spent a wonderful week playing with his grandmother. At the end of that week my husband, who had been away on a business trip, returned home. Ian’s attention now switched to his father. At one point Ian left his father’s lap and went to hug his grandmother. He patted her on the back in a comforting gesture as if to say, “I haven’t forgotten you, Grandma!”

Ian on the lawnHe was in daycare and although he was quite different than the other kids – he didn’t interact with his peers and he would attach himself to one caregiver at time – he did adjust to me leaving with what appeared to be normal separation reactions. At first he experienced a rather intense anxiety when I left him but after the first couple of days he accepted the fact that I would leave and he seemed confident that I would return for him. Thus indicating that he had some level of Piaget’s Object Permanence – an awareness that I continued to exist even though I was not present.

The coping mechanism that he developed at this time and to some extent he still uses was to attach himself to one caregiver – the teacher, an aide, etc. – and give his attention only to that one person. In this way he made that other person a surrogate or substitute mother so that he would continue to feel safe and secure. One could view this behavior as similar to that of “Wendy” in Mahler’s study and say that Ian had “an overwhelming need to remain the narcissistic baby”. (pg. 162) But I think it more likely that without the appropriate language to facilitate his understanding of mother’s absence Ian needed to create a substitute mother.

After his second birthday we became very concerned with Ian’s lack of language development. Not only did he not use language to communicate even the most basic needs, he showed no interest in symbolic play. At this age one would expect a child to be entering Piaget’s Preoperational Stage of cognitive development – making car noises as he pushes around a block of wood, using a stick as a gun, or creating scenes with his stuffed animals. Ian did none of these things and was rather nonplussed if we tried to engage him in this sort of play.

Our pediatrician felt that it was too early to tell if there were serious developmental issues at play within our child. As Ian seemed so typical in other areas – height and weight were certainly within the bounds of normal, he made good eye contact, was very physically coordinated. We were told that he was most likely a “late talker” and that one day he would surprise us by speaking in complete sentences.

Our mother/child relationship seemed to hit a plateau when he was around 30 months old. Although he didn’t cling to me in an obviously aberrant way he didn’t ever truly let go of me either. He was always acutely aware of my presence in a room and I knew that he needed me on some very deep basic level. We had an extraordinarily strong bond. Though he was virtually non-verbal we communicated quite well. When I didn’t understand him he would push me where he needed me to be and guide my hand to the object he wanted.

It was at this time that he began a long period of night waking. He would wake up around 3am and recite entire scenes from Winnie-the-Pooh videos. At first I thought this was clever but I soon realized that it was an obsessive/compulsive behavior and that Ian was not entirely aware of what he was doing. The only way to pull him out of his recitation was for me to enter into the story and take the part of one of the characters. Having me enter his fantasy world seemed to jolt him back into reality and then I could gently rock him back to sleep.

Ian at 3Just before his third birthday Ian was diagnosed autistic. For the last three and half years we have worked intensely on his language skills. Mahler notes that the development of language is crucial to the process of individuation. The ability to name objects and to express ones desires is fundamental to the child’s ability to control his environment. Ian had come a long ways in his non-verbal world but in order to truly differentiate himself from me, to stand on his own, he needed to express himself and make himself understood by others. Without language Ian was in a developmental limbo. He had reached Mahler’s Fourth Subphase – Consolidation of Individuality and Emotional Object Constancy but with no verbal tools he was unable to achieve the main tasks of this stage: “(1) the achievement of a definite, in certain aspects lifelong, individuality, and (2) the attainment of a certain degree of object constancy.” (p. 109)

He was three years old before he could say Mommy and almost four when he finally used the personal pronoun, I. Mahler stresses that the Fourth Subphase is a period when verbal communication develops rapidly and aids in a child’s progress toward individuation. Not only does a child develop a lexicon of self-defining terms but he develops a sense of time which allows him to have concrete expectations about the comings and goings of his mother and therefore to “tolerate the delay of gratification and to endure separation.” (p. 116) With no sense of time, no strong language ability and few social skills Ian’s progress through this phase has been seriously prolonged. He continued to rely on a mother substitute (usually a caregiver or teacher’s aide) rather than developing an internalized concept of mother.

tunnelAs Ian’s language improves he is beginning to hit the milestones of cognitive development. He is engaging in symbolic play. He now routinely builds complex worlds of train tracks and station houses, populating them with stuffed animals and doll figures. He is becoming far more independent and often pushes me away or sends me out of his room so that he can have privacy. He no longer needs me to sleep with him at night though he will often call out for me to tuck him in or perhaps just to make sure that I am still there. He is also becoming very aware of sexual difference – pretending to confuse the gender of his classmates so that I will correct him and often announcing with confidence that “Ian is a girl” and waiting for my response. He is developing a sense of narrative, an understanding that first we will do this and then we will do that. All of these elements are building blocks for the creation of his distinct and quite unique self.

My son’s development, though far from the norm in terms of temporal space, shows a clear progression along the path of individuation. I may never know what makes him autistic but I may get a glimmer of what makes him Ian.


Mahler, M.S., Pine, F., and Bergman, A. (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. New York: Harper Row.
Mussen, P.H., Conger, J. and Kagan, J. (1979). Child Development and Personality. New York: Harper Row.
Verny, T. and Kelly, J. (1981). The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. New York: Simon & Schuster

Michael’s R3ptor – an OT Perspective

| August 15, 2016

On January 9, 2016 at Autistry Studios, we met Michael, a friendly young man, who was working on a project, building a Lego MindStorm R3ptor, with an Autistry mentor. Michael’s hands were shaky and he was easily frustrated when pieces did not immediately fit together. “I can’t do this. Help me.” This was a common phrase we would hear.

Michael needed 5 minute breaks after 10 minutes of working with mentors. Breaks included talking about animals and using a stationary bike to stimulate his senses. By the end of the month, we realized his frustration levels would decrease in quiet, well-lit rooms, so we retreated to the library to continue working on his project. Here we focused on orientation transference from the picture to the object. Many times, the object got turned around when brought close to his body.

IMG_6111Each week Michael increased the number of steps he was able to complete on his project over the course of a 4-hour workshop. We saw that frustration levels continued to decrease. As his project gradually but steadily neared completion, we were both excited to see all of the progress he had made. In addition to his actual project, Michael began to physically alter his posture. This allowed him to access his project with greater ease and with greater comfort so that each work session became longer.

michael at eventWith our project almost done, it was time to create a poster and prepare a speech because he was scheduled to present and speak at the annual Autistry Maker Banquet on March 19, 2016. Michael chose his favorite pictures, cut them out using a straight edge cutter, framed them, and independently prepared his own speech! We videotaped him, allowing him the freedom to practice on his own. “I feel good about presenting”, he said. On the night of the Maker Banquet, he looked around the crowded room and said “There are too many people”, so we used calming techniques and positive reinforcement, including practicing his speech. As a result, Michael was able to get up on stage in front of a large group of guests to demonstrate and describe all of his hard work on his project over the past three months.

Michael smilingLooking back these last 6 months, we were fortunate enough to spend time with Michael at Autistry Studios and it is difficult to truly fathom the amount of progress he’s made in such a short period of time. From an ergonomically biomechanical standpoint, his improvements in posture, with relevance to both sitting and standing activities, can be generalized to many different settings while engaged in meaningful activities. Earlier on during our working sessions, Michael constantly needed reminders to carry the boxes of Legos closer and perpendicular to his chest, as opposed to either further out in front of him or angled diagonally upward. These reminders became fewer and fewer as he gradually took to observing proper body mechanics with greater independence. Additionally, he began moving his chair closer to the table to allow for improved postural control. This proved incredibly helpful especially when working with and manipulating some of the smaller, more precise Lego pieces. Finally, he began using his legs more often when lifting heavier objects from the ground as opposed to using the muscles in his lower back.

Selecting and working diligently on preferred activities at Autistry Studios has allowed Michael to not only make gains from a biomechanical perspective, but also from psychosocial and behavioral standpoints as well. As mentioned previously, we observed marked decreases in levels of frustration while working on his projects over a timespan of just a few months. Regulating himself appropriately while observing social rules of conduct during lunchtime was a strength of Michael’s, but being able to endure through times of difficulty and push onward while working on his projects was a remarkable feat to witness, especially when noting low baseline levels of activity tolerance when we first met him.

IMG_6058The duration and frequency of rest breaks while working on his project has decreased, indicating greater patience and ability to persevere through challenging obstacles. Michael has also demonstrated increased flexibility when receiving denied requests or when working with changes in routine. For example, when we discovered that his R3ptor projects was missing a piece, he was able to skip the step, work ahead, and patiently wait for staff to purchase the missing relevant Lego piece. Finally, daily conversational skills have also improved. Michael is better able to remain on topic and participate in social reciprocity with peers or staff during conversations while maintaining appropriate distance between himself and others.

Erin Chaffee and Bryant Luong

Autistry Newsletter – December 22, 2015

| December 22, 2015

You rock. Really. We met the $5000 Gear Wall Challenge!

With your generous donations we met the Roberts Shoes Fund $5000 Matching Challenge! Our 2015 Autistry Gear Wall is still growing and with that growth comes new opportunities for our students. New tools, new programs, and new scholarships. And we couldn’t have done it without you. 2015 Autistry Gears will be going up until Dec 29th, so there is still time to join the chain!

IMG_0044I’m a little choked up thinking about the year that has just flown by. We had a lot to celebrate at the Autistry Family Potluck this past Saturday night:

Steven Waite, one of our very first Autistry students, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics from Sonoma State University. Steven has blossomed into an expressive sculptor with one of the sharpest, wryest wits I know. Like most graduating college students, he is a bit anxious about what the future has in store for him. But I know his intelligence, his wit, and his creativity will carry him wherever he chooses to go. And the Autistry community will support him and encourage him all along the way.

Sara and Ian studyOur son, Ian Swearingen, passed his math class at the College of Marin—the third college-level course he has taken! We are so proud of how independently and conscientiously he studied. Next semester he will take an English class. Ian graduated high school with a certificate and he is determined to get his GED. Sara Gardner has mentored Ian through these early college semesters. And together they are pioneering and prototyping how Autistry can support continued education for our students.

Amanda and April at preschoolAmanda Meeuwsen and April Evans both passed their first online college course, Theories of Personality, an introduction to psychology. They have shown us another way that Autistry can support adult education and we will be hosting more online learning in 2016. Amanda and April also successfully completed a semester internship at a local preschool and they will be taking an online course in Early Childhood Education in the spring semester. At Autistry, we believe that learning is a lifelong endeavor and we encourage our students, our staff, and ourselves to keep turning the pages of the book of knowledge.

If you weren’t able to join us on Saturday night—and especially if you were—here are some photos from the party.

party pix

We are so thankful for you! It takes lots of hands to build and sustain a high-quality program like Autistry Studios. Thanks for the many ways you cheer us on.

With much gratitude,
Janet, Dan, and the Autistry Team

Listening to, But Not Hearing, Temple Grandin

| June 10, 2015

temple-grandin-speaking“Don’t mollycoddle autistic kids”.* How many times have we sat in an audience with other parents, nodding our heads when Temple Grandin gives this advice? After she speaks, we applaud. We get our pictures taken with her, post them on the refrigerator and on our Facebook page. We even get our children to pose with her and hope they will be as successful as she has been. But have we really heard what she is saying, and do we put her advice into practice?

Every program – special ed, vocational, social skills, etc. – will tell you they believe in a strengths-based approach. They want to develop the talents and skills of the individual. However, too many programs shy away from insisting that students take personal responsibility. Too many programs do not ever push students beyond their current limits, and too many programs do not insist students persevere in the face of difficulty. Whether autistic or neuro-typical, in order to grow one must wrestle with obstacles and overcome them.

There are three common responses I hear from ASD students when faced with any difficulty, mistake, or problem:

“It was an accident.”
“I’m doing my best.”
“It’s not my fault (I have autism).”

Instead of teaching a student how to overcome a mistake or a problem, someone carefully taught the student how to say these three things. These three phrases constitute at best an excuse for remaining stuck and performing poorly, and at worst these are a prayer for failure.

“It was an accident.” In the Autistry workshops many things can go wrong. Tools break. Computers stop working. Paint spills. And items get lost. None of these things happen all by themselves (well, maybe the computer malfunction!). But often when a tool breaks a student will look at the tool with astonishment and exclaim, “It’s not my fault. It just happened.”

And, it may seem like it just happened because it occurred outside of their awareness. But does that make it an accident, or is it an unintentional event? There is a difference between an accident and an unintentional event. An accident is generally understood to be an event without an apparent cause. An accident can’t be foreseen or prepared for. There is no culpability in a true accident; no one is responsible for the event. An unintentional event has a known cause but occurs without intent, forethought, or awareness.

As parents, teachers, therapists, and mentors it is our job to help our students broaden their awareness. When we simply accept “it was an accident” as a reasonable explanation for breaking an object, spilling paint, or knocking over a milk container, we implicitly allow them to remain unaware of their surroundings. We prevent them from increasing their abilities.

Mindfulness – focusing on the present moment and becoming more aware of yourself and your surroundings – is an important practice for all people, but for those with ASD it is an essential mindset for becoming truly independent. By making excuses and denying responsibility, we give away our power to change.

Mindfulness also relieves anxiety by giving us back control of our environment. When we understand that if we are aware of the position of the paint can, we are less likely to knock it over, then life seems less random; there is less to fear. And fear, especially fear of the unknown, is at the root of most anxiety.

Temple Grandin: “You have got to keep autistic children engaged with the world. You cannot let them tune out.”

“I’m doing my best.”
It is admirable to strive to do one’s best but if one sets the bar too low, “the best” is no longer a meaningful challenge. Change and growth come from breaking through barriers and going beyond your best. Too often “doing my best” is a euphemism for “I don’t want to work any harder.”

We do our students no favors if we applaud a mediocre performance or achievement as if it were stellar. I am a total believer in encouragement and positive reinforcement, but I also believe in a lifetime of raising the bar. If we continue to challenge our students (and ourselves) they will rise to heights greater than we can imagine.

Again, it is our role as mentors to hold high expectations for our students, to believe in their abilities, and to challenge them to take risks. Often we have to confront our own perceptions and assumptions. We must let go our doubts and our fears. There is a popular saying in the disability community: the dignity of risk. By wrapping our students in cotton wool, keeping them safe from all pain, we send them a very clear message that we do not believe in their strengths or abilities. We rob them of the dignity of overcoming obstacles – standing on their own two feet, being independent.

So, the next time a student says “I’m doing my best,” respond with “Great. Now see if you can do even better!”

Temple Grandin: “The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic, because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.”

“It’s not my fault; I have autism.” The diagnosis of autism may be the reason that some aspects of life are harder, but it should never be an excuse to give up trying. Typical pathways and toolsets may not work for ASD individuals. But that just means we need to find alternative ways to accomplish goals.

One of the best lessons we can give our students is how to problem solve given their personal constraints. Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses, so each of our solutions will be different.

If holding productive focus for long periods of time is an obstacle to finishing a project, then work in smaller time segments. Take breaks that help rejuvenate your focus and reinvigorate your attention. Learn your unique work rhythm and let others know that you get the job done, just in smaller increments.

One of the obstacles for ASD college students is their inherent and real difficulty transitioning from one environment (whether physical or metaphysical) to another. This makes it very hard to take a large number of different classes in a full course load. We have found that when allowed to take just one or two classes, they will do far better.

If sensory input overwhelms you, figure out what works to filter out sound, smells, touch, etc. Many folks find that as they get older their sensory issues diminish. So test yourself periodically rather than assume your level of sensitivity is the same.

By practicing mindfulness we become aware of how our minds and our bodies work. Some people think in pictures and need to draw images to understand concepts. Others use facts to build up solid arguments to support their understanding. And there are those who see patterns and find connections in the world that others do not see.

I have autism is not an excuse – it is a declaration of self.

Temple Grandin: “If I could snap my fingers and become non-autistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am.”

*mollycoddle: to treat with an excessive degree of indulgence and attention

Autistry Newsletter – January 14, 2015

| January 14, 2015

2015 has opened with a bang at Autistry! Lots of new faces: students and staff. New projects are starting and older projects are being completed. We are all overcoming the temptation to linger in projects that we love so we don’t have to strike out into the unknown territory of a new project. So the motto for 2015 is Done is Good!

Here are just a few of the wonderful things being created (and finished) in the workshops:


Brook and Josh w/train

Josh finished the Amtrak F40. He has mastered the art of decals.



Nat and his hat

Nat wearing the mock-up of his new hat design. He’ll make it out of thin foam and cover with felt.



Alex with legos

Alex painted a Lego still life for Play-Well TEKnologies (aka the Lego Store).



Oliver takes a CU

Oliver takes photos for a comic book story with Thomas the Tank Engine.



Pierce making a pirate ship

Pierce working on a pirate ship that we hope will be a prototype for more to come.



Dan and Lauren w/phones

Lauren teaches Dan how to program his new iPhone!



Ben and his house

Ben finished his bird house – an exact replica of his home.



Claire at the bandsaw

Claire learned to use the bandsaw to create a cool diorama.



Avery with hatchet

Avery with his hatchet.
Watch out world!



John mockup

John with the first pass at a sword. More work to do!



Jacob with sword

Jacob cut a large sword on the ShopBot – not quite finished yet!


This is just a small selection of the many amazing projects happening in the Studio. My personal resolution for 2015: Post More Newsletters!