Thursday, July 31, 2008

Look, Ma, no training wheels

Innovative program teaches youngsters with special needs how to ride a bike
Thursday, July 31, 2008
By Doug Oster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Zach Spanos rode his specially designed bike three-quarters of the way around the indoor track, then stopped. With a big smile, he flashed the thumbs-up sign to his mother, who watched from the balcony.

The 8-year-old from Mt. Lebanon is one of 40 children with special needs from the Pittsburgh region who took part in Lose the Training Wheels, a national program that uses innovative techniques to teach bike riding.

"These kids are able to ride a two-wheel bike -- they just don't know it yet," said Sharon Gretz, of Indiana Township, a coordinator for the Special Kids Network of Pennsylvania. Her job is to support new programs for youth who have conditions such as autism and Down syndrome.

She helped a group of parents organized by Zach's mom, Timme Spanos, make this event happen, along with the Children's Institute, which was the sponsoring organization for the Amazing Bike Camp held last week in the Iceoplex at Southpointe in Cecil.

"It's a rite of passage for young people to be able to do this," Mrs. Gretz said. "By being able to ride a regular two-wheel bicycle that looks just like their neighbor's bike, it helps them become more integrated and involved in the community with their peers."

Campers paid $175 to attend the camp. Some scholarships were available for children in need. Eighty percent of kids who participate nationwide are able to ride a bike independently by week's end. In some camps, every student will be riding by the end of the five-day program.

The children are taught on a bike equipped with special tires on the back and a handle that volunteers use to help steady the rider. The wheels are solid rubber and shaped to keep the bike upright, although they allow it to rock back and forth. Gradually, as the rider progresses and gets a feel for balancing, the wheels are replaced with progressively thinner tires. By the time the thinnest set of wheels is installed, most riders are on their way.

The teaching style of Lose the Training Wheels is what attracted Amy Guthrie, of Squirrel Hill, to the program. Her son Ben, 10, took off on the bike right away. "Hopefully, he'll continue to have that confidence," she said. "It's a really interesting process because it's so intuitive. Instead of teaching, the student discovers the balance."

Her family has struggled to get Ben to ride without training wheels, and she smiled as her competitive son actually was racing another boy around the track. "I like going fast," he said with a grin.

Sharon Colantonio held a clipboard, evaluating each of the riders to determine their progress. During the school year, she teaches at the School for the Blind in St. Louis, where she lives. For the past three summers, she has worked for Lose the Training Wheels as floor supervisor for the 75-minute sessions.

"When they make that transition to two wheels, their world explodes," she said. "They have opportunities to work with and be part of a peer group they have for so long been excluded from. It gives the family an opportunity to do something together."

Heidi Curtis is the mechanic and technician for the bikes, making sure everything keeps rolling. Ms. Curtis, 21, of Chicago, is an eight-year veteran of the program.

"You get them on those two wheels and it just amazes you. You'll see this huge change, and just seeing the smiles on their faces, that's what I get out of it."

Her favorite success story is about a boy who learned to ride during the week. The next day, his parents couldn't find him in the house, then he walked through the front door with breakfast for everyone from McDonald's. "His parents ended up locking up the bike at night," she said, laughing.

Some riders slowly worked their way around the track, getting a feel for the new bike, but others gave their volunteers a workout.

Cooper Quigley, 7, who lives in Chicago but will move to Peters next month, was very comfortable on his bike. "Because it kind of reminds me of races, like Speed Racer," he said.

The volunteer paired with Cooper, Laura Bradley, of Canonsburg, ran for the entire session, her face flushed after the workout. "Looks like I'm going to get in shape," Ms. Bradley, a special education major at California University, said with a laugh.

Cooper's mother, Laura, held back tears as she watched her son race around the course. "It was emotional. It was nice to see him having so much fun, doing really well and having some optimism that he's going to get this and have success."

Mrs. Spanos, who founded the parent group that brought Lose the Training Wheels to southwestern Pennsylvania, was overjoyed to see her son do so well riding around the track. "It was wonderful," she said.

Her son has a type of autism and is nonverbal, but words weren't needed as Zach smiled and pointed during the riding session. It's been a struggle to get Zach to take off his training wheels at home, and Mrs. Spanos believes learning to ride a bike on his own is an important step for him. "It's not something you just learn today," she said. "It's something that he can carry on for the rest of his life. Not only is it exercise, it's transportation, it's the social element; he's able to ride with the typical peers in his neighborhood."

John Liebrock, of McCandless, was on the balcony watching his 14-year-old son, Stephen, ride a bike longer than he ever had before. "We've tried to get him to ride a bike with his brother and sister, and he just won't do it," he said. Stephen is very athletic, participating in skiing, basketball, baseball, soccer and swimming. "You name it and he does it, except for riding a bike," Mr. Liebrock said.

He watched as Stephen rode for more than an hour, when normally he would stay on a bike for only two minutes. "It was wonderful ... he was having a good time, speeding right along," he said.

Stephen concurred, "I like it. I like going fast."

Katelyn Schultz, 15, of Crafton, has had a lot of trouble learning to ride a bike, according to her mother, Jeanine, who helped bring Lose the Training Wheels to The Iceoplex.

Katelyn is the only one in the family who can't ride a bike, so she rides along on a tandem with her dad.

"We've tried nonstop [to teach her]," Mrs. Schultz said. "Every time the ground becomes uneven, she becomes very frightened. We've always had an issue with the balance."

But Katelyn did fine on the specially designed bike, and her mother was thrilled. "It was very exciting," she said.

Her mother asked, "Do you think you'll be riding a two-wheel bike by Friday?" Katelyn smiled and nodded.

Every participant received a new Trek bike courtesy of GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. The bikes were handpicked to custom fit each child.

Mrs. Gretz wants to make this an annual event, but she needs other parents to form a planning committee that will be mentored by this year's parents.

She wants every child who comes through the camp to go home with something more than the ability to ride a bike.

"If they feel 'I'm good, I can do things'... If they can come out with that, wow, we have given them a real gift."

For more information about the camp or how to help for next year's event, call Jane Keim at the Children's Institute at 412-420-2209.
Doug Oster can be reached at or 724-772-9177.

Lifewatch: Listening training

DETROIT -- You hear what's going on around you, but are you really listening?

There is a new teaching tool that helps kids pay more attention to what's going on around them, and it can be especially helpful for kids with autism.

Some say, if you can change the way you listen, you'll change your life.

11-year-old Ian wants to be a skate boarding champ, and 14-year-old Jessica wants to be an actress.

But the question is, will listening training help them succeed?

9-year-old Ray is getting his first taste of listening training at the New Medical Foundation in Farmington Hills.

Enlisten is a computer based program that is supposed to train the ear to distinguish between language, music, and noise.

Ray's mom is hoping this will help him connect with people.

"I'm hoping because he will be a better listener he will be more aware of his environment. He'll make better eye contact he'll be able to work quicker," said Ray's mom.

Diane Cotman is the director of the New Medical Foundation.

She feels passionately about the listening technology after doing it herself. But seeing an autistic child break out of her shell really convinced her.

"In only 2 months she was able to hug her parents, and in the life of an autistic family that's life transforming," said Cotman.

The testing involves listening to a series of beeps, which helps determine your listening strengths and weaknesses.

After testing, the training involves weeks or months of listening to different sounds. There have been books written on listening training, but this is still very new.

Reported by Kristy Ondo

New York Autism Specialist Enlists Technology to Empower Parents of Children with Autism

"People need to know that Autism is NOT a mental disorder that is genetic and therefore untreatable. It is a biochemical and neurological problem that can be treated, once you know where to look for the causes of the symptoms!" says Dr. Gruttadauria. This issue and more will be addressed during Dr. Gruttadauria's teleseminar series.

Plainview, New York (PRWEB) July 28, 2008 -- When it comes to Autism, Dr. Michael Gruttadauria is an expert. Not only does he run the Long Island Spectrum Center, a facility that treats children with Autism, he has two children of his own that were diagnosed.

Day after day, patients come from all over the NY Tri-State Area asking questions about their Autistic children...and what can be done to help them. As a clinician, he patiently consults with families and examines and treats their children. But each day, his frustration grows...frustration based on ignorance, misinformation and politics.

There is (and always has been) a lot of confusion as to what Autism and the Autistic Spectrum Disorders are. This starts with a significant problem with the way Autism is classified; Autism is considered a 'mental disorder'. Since it has been classified as such since the 1940s, most physicians learn little to nothing about it. Its classification further breaks down Autism to be an impairment in social interactions, repetitive behaviors and problems communicating. With these 'defining characteristics', it is no wonder that these children are placed into a structured special learning environment accompanied by behavior modification with little to no medical intervention.

"I understand Autism to be a biochemical and neurological problem that alters the way the brain and body develop, and eventually results in the social, behavioral and communication problems that these individuals experience. These characteristics are symptoms, and the result of a multi-system breakdown that went undiagnosed!"

Dr. Gruttadauria states that, "We have let an entire generation of children slip through our fingertips and it is time to mobilize and get them back. If the top three defining characteristics were; under-connected brain circuitry, chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction and underlying autoimmune/inflammatory processes, we would see a very different treatment criteria established for Autism! In fact, based on the research, these three things are the true problems of Autism which eventually lead to the cognitive impairments."

This message is no longer going to be limited to Plainview, NY. Dr. Gruttadauria, with the help of David Craig Marketing, will be launching a FREE teleconference live on August 14th, 2008 at 7 p.m. EST to teach parents around the world about what they can do to help their children.

Just go to to register for this FREE one of a kind event!

He will be sharing some important information regarding some ground-breaking news in the treatment of Asperger's Syndrome, Mitochondrial Disorders and Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Dr. Michael Gruttadauria, Autism Specialist

Unique, web-based teleconference empowering parents to help their children!

Montessori education for autistic children

Montessori education has been proven to be an effective method of learning for children with ASD.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. This developmental disorder starts in childhood. There are many reasons for autism. The specific cause for autism is still unknown. Autism is treatable but at present there is no cure. These children could be normalised to some extent with the Early Intervention Programme.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD refers to the whole range of 'autistic style' symptoms with their varying degrees and differing ranges of symptoms and is used to describe those mildly affected to the most profound disability. Autism, Asperger Syndrome, etc are subgroups of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder) have a developmental disorder, which results in them perceiving and understanding the world in a significantly different way. Unless we understand and respect these differences we cannot hope to intervene successfully. Early support for the child will reduce their developmental delays as they get older, which includes appropriate methods of education, therapies, support from the parents and doctors.

Educational intervention remains the primary source of help. Montessori education has been proven to be an effective method of learning for children with ASD. Various specially trained teachers use specially structured programmes that emphasise individual instruction used in the education of these children. Many teachers use a combination of several methods. Some teachers attempt to identify an individual student’s learning style and modify the curriculum to suit the child’s learning style. For example many children with autism are visual learners. Teachers will use pictures, charts and visual representation while teaching these children.

Material developed for children with learning disability are often helpful. Teachers also use concrete materials i.e. Montessori materials for students who learn through the senses and the physical touch. The Montessori Method often uses the multi-sensory approach effectively. Number symbols are introduced in a multi-sensorial approach; arranging concrete objects and then number rods, where it becomes more sensible for the child to relate to the increasing order of numbers, smaller/bigger numbers, equal number and so on.

Tracing of sand paper letters and numbers for tactile and motoric memory lends to use of numbers and words linked with pictures and letters copied under the drawn picture.

The Montessori classroom provides an excellent environment for these children to develop social and communicative skills, which otherwise they would find very difficult to learn. Many activities provide daily opportunities for social interaction. The teacher should be on hand to help the child’s interaction. For e.g. she may need to provide the encouragement and the words that the child needs to join an activity or verbal support in sorting out a conflict.

The interaction helps the development of social behaviour, the set of ground rules which all teachers and children are expected to adhere to. These rules are regularly discussed and practiced through games of grace and courtesy. And they are very important for children with autism who will take longer than most to learn social requirements. E.g. Turn taking skill, greeting, speaking slowly, asking to be excused, and maintaining physical distance while talking.

The Montessori language and grammar materials are heaven-sent for teachers of children with autism. The reading and writing of 'command cards', for example, shut the door, open the windows when demonstrated give children opportunities to watch others speaking and acting out, using appropriate actions, intonations and behaviours to express what they understand from the words on the cards. (The Montessori Elementary Material, Maria Montessori)

In a crowded and noisy group, children can be distressed, so the quiet and calm atmosphere in the class room allows these children to participate in more relaxed circumstances and at their own pace.

These children tend to follow a rigid routine becoming very distressed when these routines are disrupted.

Montessorians know it is good practice to keep a simple daily schedule. Prepare children well in advance for any change in routine. Routines such as school trips, cultural materials such as time lines of the school day, calendars and clocks all provide a concrete representation of time and therefore an accessible reminder of the child’s routine.

These challenged children don’t generalise very well and a technique used to accommodate this characteristic is by giving them opportunities to practice skills in real situations e.g. a real apple is preferable to a wax apple just as real stories and songs to develop concepts.

The multi age group and non-competitive atmosphere advocated by the Montessori system values and encourages all children, not just those with special educational needs such as autism. The curriculum is taught based on the development of each child.

Research indicates that children can learn to overcome some of their autistic tendencies. Thus Montessorians have the skills to help them to do so.