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Mental Health & School Shootings…

I thought I’d revisit this blog from my May Newsletter and post for my readers…  May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  No doubt it’s a time to give some attention to those suffering with this horrible affliction, sometimes in silence and other times screaming out loudly. I believe we all have an opportunity to try to garner more knowledge and get a bigger grasp on mental health.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that, “one in five youth ages 13 to 18 experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.”   Alarmingly, in the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 15-24.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, “US and international to date (June 2016) research suggests that individuals with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are responsible for approximately 10% of all homicides in the United States. For mass killings, the percentage is approximately 33%.”

With the recent Santa Fe, Texas school shooting, during these sad and unimaginable times for families, we hear the words, “Overwhelming grief…  “This horrific event.”  “The killer wanted his story told…”  Then, there are multitudes of analysis and debate about red flags, mental health and guns, albeit momentarily.

Yes, as is repeatedly stated in times like these, there is a necessity for a larger conversation.  But who should be having that conversation?  I watched a talk show where someone commented that there should be extreme punishment for these kids.  This person stated that these kids who commit mass murders come from bad families and that the death penalty should be automatically assigned to  them.  The person stated that ought to be law.

I thought of my son who suffers from mental illness.. whose anguish is real and debilitating.  His fear of crowds so enormous that going into the lunch line at school was simply unbearable so he opted not to each lunch for months.  His misery and distress, overwhelming.  His feelings of rejection due to being abandoned… His opinion of himself; self esteem, so low… his view of the world so wretched and dark, that he is absolutely convinced death is his best and only option.  The way his brain receives and processes some information is different from the rest of us… He only knows and believes what he perceives. Yet in a more rational and lucid moment, I see the shame in his eyes when he realizes how his actions are perceived by others and how outside “the norm” he sometimes operate.

All along the way getting support for my son, I would hear individuals with good intentions rationalizing what he does.  One of the most common statement is “lots of kids/teenagers do that,” when addressing a singular issue. What I know with absolute certainty is that we all view mental health illnesses through our unique lenses.

A challenge in having that larger conversation is helping society see the birds eye view exclusive to us, as parents or caregivers.  The question is how can we go about adding our exclusive point of view to those who research; make medical and legal policies?  Having our point of view inclusive in these conversations is vital, I believe.

Oftentimes the diagnosis our children carry is not singular.  There sometimes are co-occurring illnesses such examples as autism with ADHD, depression, bi-polar disorder, social anxiety, schizophrenia… just to name a few.  In some instances there can be one co-occurring condition with a diagnosis and other times a few.  With all this conflicting activities taking place in the brain of our loved ones afflicted with several mental health disorders, there can be tremendous “cross-messaging.”  The messages the brain send to those afflicted is so compelling, they simply override any form of logic. However, to these individuals suffering with mental health illnesses, what they are hearing in their head and feel compelled to do in the moment, makes perfect sense.  Sometimes it is a relief…

Next, is the stigma… With my son, I see how very hard he works to show the rest of the world that he is “A-OK!”  He is as normal as the next kid and there absolutely nothing “wrong” with him.  It almost appears that the stigma is a built-in part of mental illness for the patients.  A theory I have is that individuals with mental illness are more perceptive or “tuned in” to others and feel the shun, the surprise, the dismissal or rejection, subtle as it may be, that is projected on to them very early in life.  They work at finding ways to combat the feelings of judgement, rejection and ridicule they feel from others and the overwhelming shame they feel inside.

Additionally the fact that behavior is not an exact science, it takes years, sometimes a lifetime for individuals with mental health illness to be properly diagnosed and treated.  When kids/teens are developing it is almost impossible for them to articulate their feelings and what is going on inside their brain. A lot to consider for this national conversation, which is an imperative.

There is absolutely no justification for committing murder. None.  And yes, the time has come for that larger conversation.  My call to action to you, natural parents,  foster-adopt parents and caregivers is to please make yourselves included in this conversation!  The discourse is vital and ALL parents of children with mental health disorders must invite themselves to take a seat at the table. Our insight will prove invaluable.  We have children who are vulnerable… teethering… can be susceptible… who may need more support than we can sometimes provide.

Let’s start speaking up!

How You Can Help a Family Supporting a Mental Health Patient

Ways You Can Help A Family Struggling With A Mental Health Illness

by: Nellie Valentine
Families are overwhelmed when supporting a loved-one with mental illness.  Dealing with the erratic behavior, which sometimes lead to unsafe situations for their loved-one is just the beginning of the worry and stress they endure.  If their loved-one is suicidal, or threatening to harm others; processing that reality brings unimaginable overwhelm.  When these families reach out to you it is oftentimes simply to share their fear and anxiety.  Lending an ear and providing emotional support can go a long way.
The entire process is one of learning for families and their loved-one.  Each person experiences mental health illness differently.  If you are able to, research and get information about the diagnosed illness and pass it to your family member or friend.  Remember that supporting your family member or friend is simply that.  Supporting. Please do not try to control what they do with your information.  They will know when to use it, or if necessary pass it on to their loved-one suffering with mental health illness.  Please do not make them feel judged if they are not following your advice.
Nothing prepares someone for absorbing or processing the fact that their loved one has a severe mental illness.  Let alone attempting to end their life or threaten the lives of others.  When someone is supporting a loved-one with mental illness, they feel the stigma and isolation that is perpetuated with the illness.  They feel the judgement and unasked questions. Simply tell them you care and are thinking about them and praying for them and their loved-one.  Hearing caring and encouraging words can be a healing balm.  

Hitting Hurts Others – Books with Behavior Strategies

A Social Story Book that offers behavior strategies…  by Nellie Valentine

Many parents struggle with their children when they are exhibiting maladaptive behavior.  Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) often have a difficult time coping with rules regarding socialization and behavior.  We learn social rules, guidelines, etiquette, laws and even taboos from childhood through adulthood.  We are taught these rules by parents, teachers, peers and others in various ways, in order to shape the way we interact with others.  Over time we learn to intuitively access these rules in any particular situation to successfully engage with others.

“Many of our social rules make no sense to individuals with ASD and our behaviors in certain situations may seem perplexing or sometimes frightening to them.  In addition, we work out our social problems quickly and intuitively while individuals with ASD do this through logic and deduction, which involves a different part of the brain.”  – Sharyn Kerr – PhD

Social Stories are a wonderful way of relaying a message to all children!  Swanky Brain Social Story Books give children with Autism, ADHD & other neurodevelopmental disorders a new perspective on a behavior, action or event.  Our books help change behavior patterns and reinforce social skills. As the Author, I  believe our language resonates with readers, who find the books engaging.  They have simple suggestions and perspective shifting dialogue to which our readers can relate.  Having four children on the Spectrum has helped me create language and communication that is effective with my kiddos and I transfer them to my books!

In our Social Stories Book series, we encapsulate events; situations with words and vivid illustrations, while infusing behavior strategies. This is a concrete way to shape perspective, bolster appropriate behavior, reinforce social skills, planning and organizing. Throughout the years, I have found that using Social Stories independently or as a part of a behavior plan; has been tremendously impactful and effective for my children!  Additionally, I believe that Social Stories make a profound difference as repeated reading increases comprehension and allows for sustainability of a changed or new behavior or habit.

Can You Make A Picture? Hand-washing…

I was reminding my eight year with ASD to please lather his hands with soap before putting them under the water pouring from the sink-faucet.  I was reminding him that lathering with soap and warm water is what actually cleans his hands and if he simply lets the water pour off his hands, they are not clean.

My son stated:  “Mom, can you make a picture and put it on the wall?  That way I can see it and remember the rule?  Sometimes I forget all these rules I have to follow.  There are so many of them!”

Can’t say he is not a Problem Solver!

The Eject Button!

My daughter takes the bus to college – she is not yet ready to drive – and each day can be colorful with the many passengers she encounters.  On day a couple weeks ago she came home and said to me:

“Mom, there is this passenger who keeps arguing with the bus driver.  Every time she gets on the bus, Mom.  He picks her up at the same stop and takes the same route every day.  Yet she argues with him to make this turn and go that way and if he went that way he would get to her house faster.  She argues from the time she gets on the bus until she reaches home.  I’ve heard the bus driver try to explain to her that he takes that route because it is easiest with traffic at that time of day but she does not listen.  That is when I use my imaginary eject button.”

“For what?”  I asked her.  She said, “I visualize her propelling out the bus!”

“Where does she go?” I asked.  I was secretly very concerned about this poor woman.  My daughter replied… “She lands at her dining table eating dinner.  That way she cannot talk and chew at the same time.  I am sure she talks at her family the same way she does the bus driver.  They need some peace too, Mom.”

I wanted to suggest earbuds to my daughter but thought better of it at the time… 🙂

This Is A Friend Social Story Book

Cover page

Swanky Brain’s Social Story Books:

  • Developed For ALL Readers
  • Feature Vivid Illustrations
  • Help Change Behavior Patterns
  • Reinforce Social Skills
  • Feature Language that Resonates with Readers
  • Fun Reading & Learning that Engages and Sustains Over Tim

Check out our books at

Making Summer Fun! Dancing to “Despacito” brings Joy!

Having four kiddos on the Autism Spectrum can make life challenging.  However with the supports in place in our home, my kiddos are truly learning balance and how to have FUN!  When I am taking the kids out and about, my oldest tunes into the pop music station and seemingly every 20 minutes we are hearing this Summer’s hit song “Despacito.”  Everyone starts singing and boogying in the car.  At that time I am truly grateful for three things:

1) My kiddos have no idea of the translation of the lyrics to the song.
2) We are ALL tone deaf!  Yikes… No judgement here… 🙂
3) I am witnessing this spectacular event!

Additionally, we also have “Dance Parties” at home where we jam to songs like the current summer hit, “Despacito”; having some small intermittent moments of fun and pure hilarity!  This has been quite the evolution…

Some things I keep in mind when supporting my kiddos:

  1. Individuality: They are each on different parts of the spectrum.  Happiness is defined differently for each.  So there is no comparison made.  I encourage each child to be themselves and find comfort and contentment in their individuality.  To love who they are!
  2. Tolerance: Sometimes a child may be having a bad day.  So he then expects the world to stop and everyone else in the family to be droopy and in the doldrums.  It’s difficult and a tall task helping the other kiddos keep their sibling’s feelings in perspective.  Have empathy for their sibling while remaining focused on their goals, tasks and state of mind for the day. Not perseverate and become so drawn into that situation that the feelings permeate.  We work hard as a family with Autism not to allow the crossover behaviors.
  3. Happiness: Sometimes kiddos with Autism and ADHD are rigid and do not transition well.  So an impromptu “dance party” may not sit well with them.  I constantly weave fun into various aspects of their day or planned activities.

How New Habits & Behavior Can Form

A Creative Mind… And an opportunity to reinforce skills.

My seven year old with ASD keeps reinventing his world!  He recently took all his shoes out of the closet and decided to place them in his golf cart and another bin in his bedroom; boldly declaring:  “This is where I will keep all my shoes from now on!”   I looked at his adorable face and gave him props for his creativity and celebrated his ingenuity.  I took pictures of him with his new golf-cart-shoes-bin and left him playing with it for the remainder of the afternoon.

Then, when it was time to clean up his bedroom before supper, I asked him to put all his shoes back in the closet, gently responding to every mild protest he was giving.

Why did I do that?  I am always mindful of habits forming for all four of my children on the spectrum.  Sometimes, habits are created out of boredom.  Other times my kiddos want to be in control and begin a behavior to self-soothe or assuage anxiety.  Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain…  Kiddos with an ASD diagnosis can form and latch on to a new habit in a heartbeat.  That comes naturally to them and it feels right.  Then another symptom of Autism presents itself…  Rigidity.   When rigidity sets in, it is oftentimes partnered with combativeness and tantrum behavior.  By that time, it becomes very difficult and sometimes almost impossible to make them change that habit or behavior.  Behavior Intervention strategies have to be implemented to help revert the habit or situation.  Since my twenty years of experience make me all too aware of how quickly new habits are formed, when I see it in the making, I immediately and reflexively stop and ask myself:  Where will this habit lead us in two weeks, one month, one year?

In the case of the “Golf Cart Shoe Bin” I imagined a day when we were running late for school because we could not find a shoe. Then the situation escalating into a full blown tantrum, when I insisted that he wore another non-preferred pair.  Ultimately, not only would my son be late, but so would everyone else; which would result in feelings of resentment, long faces, with that knowing glare through the rear-view mirror conveying hurt feelings all the way around.

Having four children with ASD upset in a car ride on the way to school is not a pleasant experience!  When I weighed that scenario versus talking him out of the golf-cart-shoe-bin, it was an easy choice.  However, there is more to the matter…  It was teaching my son how to transition back and forth with more ease.  It was also teaching him that some things must remain the way they are for functionality.  He was being taught that he can be creative and have some fun in his bedroom.  Some things can remain the way he created them, others must return to their place, to the order they were in.  Finally, those neural pathways were busy at work adjusting and changing to help him acquire and maintain new skills.  It may have been a tad inconvenient addressing that matter at the end of a long day and having my son return his shoes to the closet.  When considering all the possible outcomes… it was worth doing to prevent him forming a new habit or behavior that ultimately would not work.


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for Adults

Here’s a note from a Mom whose son is receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for adults…

I am so grateful for Adult ABA. My son is now in his 20’s living with a diagnosis of Autism.  When he was younger it was not offered to us.  I had to wait until he was in High School to receive ABA.  At times I am envious of other families who receive ABA when their children are toddlers, wish we were that lucky.  My mind wonders how much more advanced my son would be if he had received the services at such a young age.  My son is what they used to refer to as “Asperger’s” or “High Functioning.”  Looking at his picture, you cannot not tell that he has a disability, it’s a hidden disability.  He struggles with food/textures, time management, social interactions/developing relationships and the big time waster he loves gaming.

Applied Behavior Analysis for Adults has been a godsend for my son; it has been a game changer.  ABA does not cure autism but it teaches him skills, as result of Adult ABA he is building a foundation; a building block to independence.  He is learning how to navigate this complex world we live in.  My greatest fear is that if something happens to me, what will happen to my son?  Who will care for my son?  So I fight, I push him to keep going forward, he wants to gain skills but at times he becomes complacent.  I advocate for the appropriate services that ensure my son receives the skills so he can become the best version of himself.  It can be challenging because he is a young adult, but he still has not developed the age appropriate skills.  He needs to be taught these skills.

My son holds a steady part-time job and is now in College pursuing an education for the career he loves.  I know that there are many families out there that have young adult children that did not receive ABA when they were minors and now the family is facing many challenges, I strongly encourage you to utilize the therapeutic intervention of Adult ABA. It’s never too late for our young adults!

We love to hear these stories about how our young adults can benefit from Applied Behavior Analysis.  Learn more about ABA here.

Childhood Trauma and Health

A must-listen for parents with children with conditions such as ADHD, Diabetes, Heart-Disease or other Mental Illness or Trauma (Foster/Adopt Parents please listen)…  
“The science is clear, early adversity dramatically affects health across a lifetime…The single most important thing we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say this is real and this is all of us.”

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris – TEDMED 2014
Click on the image to view Nadine Burke Harris’s Ted Talk