Autism and Birthdays: 5 Ways Elf on the Shelf Can Help

This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs  over at Atypical Familia.

We adopted “Elfie” two Christmas’ ago. Our Elf on the Shelf really helped Norrin understand the magic of Christmas. Norrin knows it’s September and he’s already started giving me his Christmas list. I love that Elf on the Shelf has been a part of his understanding of the holiday season.

When I heard about Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition – I knew it was something I wanted to do with Norrin.

Tomorrow is actually my birthday. When I was talking to Norrin about it he immediately started reciting his birthday wish list. I explained to him that on my birthday, I get presents – not him.

Norrin will be nine in January and birthdays have always been tricky for us. We haven’t had a birthday party since he turned three. It’s easier to celebrate in school. And January is always a hard month to plan for since the weather in New York can be unpredictable. But we still want his birthday to be special and build anticipation to the day. I know Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition will help!

Now I know some parents are hesitant about Elf on the Shelf and feel the Pinterest pressure. But Birthday Elf is super easy and fun.

The Elf on the Shelf®: A Birthday Tradition tells the little-known story of how Santa’s finest helpers celebrate birthdays at the North Pole—and how you can invite your scout elf to share that tradition with YOU! Each kit includes special instructions for inviting your scout elf for a birthday visit, and a festive birthday outfit for your scout elf to slip into before the big day! Also available—the Birthday Countdown & Game and the Birthday Chair Decoration Kit.

5 ways Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition Can Help Your Child With Autism Feel the Birthday Magic

Build Anticipation. Unlike the holiday season, your Elf appears only on the day of your child’s birthday. You can use the Birthday Countdown & Game (or any other calendar) to count down the days until your child’s birthday and their Elf arrives. It gives kids something extra to look forward to.

Understand Birthdays. Many kids – including my own – have difficulty understanding that everyone has their own birthday. If you have more than one child in the home, the Elf – along with the Birthday Countdown & Game – can be your family’s way of distinguishing birthdays.

Sparks Imagination. Imaginative play doesn’t come naturally to Norrin. But he is getting so much better! Still birthdays can be such an abstract concept for him to understand.  We’ll read the book, talk about Elfee and birthdays. It all helps to connect the dots.

Communication & Storytelling. While counting down, talk about the days of week, talk about the months and other family member birthdays. Talk about your pregnancy and how excited you were the days leading up to your child’s birth. Talk to them about the day they were born – even if you think they won’t understand. Let them hear the story.

Feel Special on Their Day. I love the idea of the Birthday Chair Decorating Kit along with the Elf because it really makes a kid feel special. We don’t have big birthday parties for Norrin and I’m not the mom to go crazy with decorations. The Birthday Chair Decorating Kit is easy and fun. It’ll be nice that we can do something a little extra to celebrate.    

Catch up with last week’s post: Prompting Conversation and Communication With An Autistic Child

And from my other blog:


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Toilet Training A Child With Special Needs: Parents’ Top Tricks

I recently found out about Touchless Toilet Technology from Kohler—a way to flush just by holding a hand over the tank lid, where a sensor has been placed. It’s really cool, and it seems like it would have been an excellent potty tool when I was training Max. Back then, both of us needed all the motivation and temptation that we could get. Max was day trained at school for a long time before he finally became so at home, at age 9. One key thing I learned: Parents have to be just as ready as the kids are. Potty-training a kid with special needs requires dedication, and if you’re not diligent about whatever tactic you try, your child won’t get into the groove.

I asked special needs parents on social media for their best tricks and tactics for potty training a child with special needs. May the flush be with you!


“What finally worked was using star stickers on a chart. Nicholas got to put one on every time he went. It seemed to really work for him that way (even though I still had to more or less force him onto the seat each time).”—Sarah L.

“The Clean Pants Check. We did the usual sitting on the potty 30 minutes after eating or drinking, but instead of checking every 30 minutes thereafter to see if he was ‘dirty,’ we checked to see if he was CLEAN, then rewarded him. He is autistic and was not potty-trained at 4.5 years old. It only took one month with this method.”—Peggy M.

“Lukas is autistic. We did lots of modeling and letting him see us go. We are not a shy family. No pressure. A couple of months after turning four, he just went in and did it. That was it.”—Rebecca D.

“I put a Pull-up on over a pair of panties. She felt the wetness, which ultimately motivated her not to go in her pants, and I had the leak protection of a Pull-up.”—Crystal S.

“My son was very stubborn. Making him responsible helped. He had to get the Pull-ups from the drawer and throw them away. I bought toddler wipes so he could more easily clean himself. Eventually I think it just came down to…it was time. He was 9.”—Angela S.

“For nighttime training, two words: alarm underwear!“—Melissa M.

“For my grandson, I picked a weekend, I talked about it with him and told him when he got home from school on Friday, he would be able to wear Big Boy underwear that he picked out the week prior (Buzz Lightyear)…. The two days of potty training gave him the ability to understand what holding it meant, and he had had to tell somebody. He has had a few accidents, but we never went back to diapers. He will be 9 tomorrow and completely potty trained. They said he would never accomplish being potty trained…. HA!”—Barbara D.


“Avakid’s app See Me Go Potty. Seriously, worked like a charm.”—Faye C.

“We used potty-training DVDs and huge celebrations: woo-hoos, dancing, making a complete jack@$$ of ourselves.”—Devon B.

“Learning to point to icon on his speech app led to being willing to sign/verbalize needing to go. Didn’t happen until age 12 after trying many other ways.”—Peggy R.

“Repetition. We just did it over and over and over and over (you get it) until it stuck. Oh, and Reece’s Pieces.”—Patty H.


“I bought those little tablets that you throw in the water of the toilet, they come in all different colors. I guess it’s kind of like target practice: Once they pee on the little tablet it starts to dissolve nd turn the toilet water whatever color the tablet is.”—Stacy S.

A giraffe puppet trained mine! They wouldn’t do it for me, but they’d do it for the puppet.”—Kristen R.

“For my daughter, I painted her toenails while she sat on the potty. She was fascinated by watching me do it and it would keep her still and help her stay put for a few minutes.”—Rosie R.

“There is this funny song about poop in Brazil, with a video clip and everything. I used to sing it for my son, making voices and faces, while he tried to do number 2. It worked really well. This is the link. Yeah, it’s a poop singing!”—Andrea B.


“He wanted a doctor kit so I put a brand new one on top of the entertainment center out of reach and said he had to use the potty and get out of diapers to have it. Every time he asked for it I just said, ‘You know what you need to do.’ I didn’t push him to use the potty. One day he decided he wanted it enough and did it. He was almost 5.”—Jennifer R.

“Had a treat box in the bathroom filled with cheap toys my son loves from Walmart and Big Lots! When he did his thing, he would get to choose one.”—Kay T.

“I used Daniel’s favorite, M&M’s, plus I kept a potty chair in the family room for emergencies!”—April G.

“A Lalaloopsy mini doll as a reward for poop on the potty. I bought an eight-pack for $44. Best money I ever spent. After two years of potty training for poop, this finally seemed to work at the age of 6.”—Christie C.

“I told my son with Sensory Processing Disorder that we couldn’t go to Disney World the following week, because Mickey didn’t let kids his age who couldn’t use the potty into Disney World. I only told him this because his OT and I agreed he was not doing it purely out of stubbornness, at that point. I wish I had done it sooner because 48 hours later, he was completely day-trained.”—KLW


“Nothing worked. And we tried EVERYTHING! He just had to be ready. We finally just gave up, told him he could stop trying and wear Pull-ups as long as he needed to. He self-trained the next day. He was 4 and we’d been trying for two years. I think just stepping back and taking the pressure off, letting him set the agenda and be in control of the process was key for him. He has Asperger’s.”—Angela C.

“Wine. #formom.”—Katrina M.

From my other blog:

Kamikaze potty training

A happy ending to the toilet-training saga 

Potty training boot camp
Image of child looking at toilet via Shutterstock 

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Will Your Child With Autism Be In An Inclusive Class? Depends On Where You Live

Where you live can have a major impact on whether your child with autism will end up in an inclusive or segregated class, according to a study in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Looking through U.S. Department of Education data from 1998 to 2008, University of Kansas assistant professor of special education Jennifer Kurth found that “considerable variations exist among states in placing students with autism spectrum disorders in inclusive, mainstreaming, self-contained and separate schools.” Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just IQ and other child characteristics that determine what kind of class a child with autism will end up in.

On average, about 37 percent of students on the spectrum spent at least 80 percent of their school day in inclusive environments, reports Disability Scoop. Yet there was a wide range in stats, from 8 percent of kids in inclusive classrooms in Washington D.C. to 62 percent in Iowa. All in all, states in the Eastern U.S. have more restrictive placement rates than those in the Western U.S. The states that tend to favor inclusion: Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. States that tend toward more restrictive settings: Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Washington D.C. Surprisingly, Kurth’s findings did not indicate that state funding had a clear-cut impact on placement.

What’s the takeaway for parents of kids with special needs? Same as it always is: It’s up to us to make sure our children get the education and services that are the best fit for them. Educators and other experts may steer us in one direction, but as parents, we have the right to push for the educational settings in which we feel our children will flourish. We also have to work with the realities of our school districts, no matter what the law is. My son is in a private special needs school, and our district pays for it. Several years ago, I looked into the possibility of including him in a local public school. At the time, our district had fired all of the long-term aides and brought in hourly workers. Our district liaison said to me, straight up, that the quality of the workers was dubious and that my son was better off staying put in his special needs school. I could have pushed it, I could have tried to find my own aide, I could have done any number of things. In the end, though, my husband and I felt that the special needs school Max was in was the right choice for him.

Bottom line: Regional differences may exist in terms of classroom placement for kids with special needs, but parents everywhere know what’s best for their child.

From my other blog:

When special needs moms know better than the experts do

If only everyone treated people with disability like this Starbucks barista did

What got you through the early days of your child’s diagnosis? Group therapy


Image of child classroom via Shutterstock

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The Awful Prank On An Autistic Teen—And How We Can Prevent This

The web has been buzzing over a vile incident involving a 15-year-old with autism in Bay Village, Ohio. A group of teens asked him over to their house, purportedly to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge geared toward raising money for the disease. Instead, as the teen stood in a driveway in his underwear, a bucket full of urine, fecal and spit was dumped onto him from the roof. The boy’s mother, Diane, discovered a video of what happened on her son’s cell phone. Police say that the group of teens who committed it could face delinquency chargers. The parents released the video, hoping to raise awareness about bullying.

People have been justifiably horrified, with many speaking out against bullying. Last Friday evening, his community held a rally with people holding signs such as “No room for hate.” Comedian Drew Carey has offered $10,000 in reward money to help find out who was behind the incident. All over social media, people have denounced what happened.

As horrific as this assault was for this teen and his family, as extra-upsetting as it is to those of us who have kids with special needs, the outpouring of support has been heartening. Still, it’s sad that it takes a shocking incident like this for people to spread the word that people with special needs deserve respect. If that were to occur regularly, though, events like this could be avoided. Not entirely, of course, because there will always be rotten apples. But if kids were raised to treat peers with special needs as their equals, children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other special needs would be less subject to derision, exclusion and bullying.

This isn’t just about making sure kids with special needs are included in school’s anti-bullying messages; this is about parents talking with their kids about children and adults with special needs from a young age, so children grow up with that equality mindset.

Here’s a challenge for parents to take. It involves no icy water, just a willingness to help kids understand the diversity of people that exist in this world, and to talk about it with them.

• Explain to your child how everyone has differences, and that some kids and adults have ones that are more visible—and that different is OK.

• Point out even though a child may act, speak, walk or talk in a non-typical way,  in many ways they are like other children: ones who like to play, laugh, eat ice-cream, read bedtime stories…you know. That they feel happy and sad, just like they do. That they are kids.

• Help make kids aware of the ability in disability, and that everyone has their own kind of talents. If you do not have any kids or adults with special needs in your circle, google images of Special Olympics athletes—a good conversation starter. Or poke around blogs by parents of kids with special needs to help your child get a sense of what our children can do.

• Discourage the use of the words “retard” and “retarded,” which perpetuate negative stereotypes of people with disability. (If you don’t get what’s so wrong with them, watch this video.)

• Make this an ongoing conversation, just as parents regularly talk with kids throughout childhood about race, ethics and other all-important topics. Encourage them to ask you questions.

• Bridge the gap that can exist at parks, playgrounds, parties, when kids may be hesitant to approach a child with special needs. Encourage interaction. Tell them to just say “Hi,” as they would with any child.

I hope you’ll take this challenge. It’s not just for the sake of kids like my son—it’s for the benefit of your child, too. Teach your child to welcome and respect people with special needs and you will raise a better human being.

From my other blog:

30 ways to respect kids and adults with disabilities

If only everyone treated people with disability like this Starbucks barista did

Teaching a child with special needs to be his own champion


Image of ice bucket via Shutterstock 

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A Vacation And An Education On The Crystal Coast

Tomorrow, my kids return to school. But they had quite the education last week—not to mention the time of their lives—when we traveled to The Crystal Coast, North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks. I think the learning they glean through visiting new places is every bit as important as the kind they get in school. The trip was also a spectacular back-to-nature experience for us all.

We rented an oceanfront house from Emerald Island Realty. The isle is named after the area’s lush greenery, a gorgeous complement to the scintillating blue of the ocean. Ocean Watch West is a nicely kept five-bedroom duplex, with a jacuzzi in the master bedroom that both kids took over and occasionally let us use. Max especially enjoyed sitting on the deck in a rocking chair and looking out at the water. The house is literally steps from the beach; we just cruised down a short wooden walkway and stairs and…sand! We didn’t even need sandals.

Typically, there were barely any other people nearby on the beach, one reason the kids started referring to it as “our beach.” Crystal Coast’s beaches are spectacular, with sparkling, clear blue water and clean, fine sand. Every single photo I took looked like a picture postcard. The islands, 85 miles of coastline, are one of the only remaining natural barrier island systems in the world.

The kids’ favorite activity: anything involving water and sand. Sabrina practiced gymnastics and tried to skimboard. Max conducted floating experiments with a boogie board. They dug endless sand castles, cruised at dawn and dusk for shells and jumped over and into countless waves.

As hard as it was to tear ourselves away from the beach, there’s a whole lot to explore on the Crystal Coast. You can fish, go on dives (the Crystal Coast has more than 2000 sunken ships), canoeing, kayaking and sailing. Because Max is in the midst of a firefighter obsession we also dropped by some local fire stations, where he made some new friends. One day we headed to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, a place filled with thousands of aquatic wonders including a rare white sea turtle named Nimbus, river otters, seahorses (my fave), moon jellies (Sabrina’s fave), assorted snakes (nobody’s fave) and a 306,000 gallon tank with sand tiger sharks and gigantic green moray eels. There’s a hands-on area for touching stingrays, horseshoe crabs and starfish, plus talks throughout the day by staffers. Visitors can gaze through a telescope on viewing platforms to check out egrets and herons on the marsh. A treat: the Dinosaur Adventure exhibit, open till November 1, with large-scale replications of 11 creatures (Max’s fave). He insisted on including them in family photos.

Another activity that delighted both kids and adults: a double decker bus tour through charming Beaufort, North Carolina’s third oldest town (recently named America’s Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel). Originally a fishing village that dates back to the late 1600s, it’s filled with beautiful old buildings. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many houses with historical plaques in one place, 150 of them restored to their original glory. We spotted a couple of wild ponies across the harbor on the reserve named after environmentalist Rachel Carson, and spent a couple of hours at the Beaufort North Carolina Maritime Museum. In 1718, Blackbeard’s flagship , the Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground in the local inlet. It lay buried until the shipwreck was discovered in 1996, and the museum holds its treasures and artifacts. We also learned about the fishing industry, various boats and the U.S. Life Saving Service (today’s Coast Guard), and gawked at a gigantic sperm whale skeleton hanging in the exhibit hall. The kids enjoyed the scavenger hunt, where they had to find various items around the museum.

My kids haven’t yet started studying the Civil War in school, but they got an indoctrination at Fort Macon State Park, home to a Civil War fort. Built to defend the harbor against sea attacks, it was seized by Confederates in 1861, and stayed active through the Second World War. Visitors can fish, hike, swim on the shore and picnic. We wandered throughout the fort’s vaulted rooms, with replicas of a mess hall, a storage room and a keg powder room (the most important room in the fort; soldiers were not allowed to walk with shoes on, for fear of setting off a spark). There are also displays of soldiers’ quarters and life during the different eras in which the fort was occupied. We loved cruising the ramparts, which had glorious views of the Bogue Sound, Shackleford Banks and the ocean.

Since there was only so much land-lubbering the kids could take, we hit Cape Lookout National Seashore one morning. We checked out the Discovery Room at Harkers Island Visitors Center, listening to the songs and calls of seashore birds and finding out how wildlife living on the barrier islands survive. Kids ages 5 to 13 can get info on Junior Ranger activities here, earning a badge by completing an activity booklet. Then we took the Island Express Ferry Service on a three mile ride to South Core Banks, home to a lighthouse. En route we passed Shackleford Banks and spotted several of 110 wild horses, the oldest documented horse population in America. Sabrina and I climbed the 207 steps to the top of the lighthouse, built in 1856, and celebrated our endurance with incredible views. We also hit the Keeper’s Quarters Museum, learning about the folks who watched over the lighthouse over the years.

All that exploring and fresh sea air sure work up your appetite, an excellent excuse to dive into the area’s family-friendly eateries. Naturally, fresh seafood abounds. Over at Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant & Bar in Atlantic Beach, the eclectic menu was so tempting the kids didn’t even bother looking at the kiddie offerings. We shared scrumptious Fried Dill Pickles, Fried Green Tomatoes, Sesame Seared Tuna, a Grilled Steak Salad and a Mixed Seafood Grill with shrimp, scallops and soft shell crabs. Desserts were spectacular: Vanilla Creme Brulee, Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Pie and tableside S’mores (the appropriate dessert for a wannabe firefighter). I asked our server about the restaurant’s curious name. It comes from a childhood joke that owner Hallock Cooper Howard used to get wrong. It goes: Knock knock. Who’s there? Amos. Amos who? Now, the correct answer is “A mosquito” but Hallock always used to say “Amos Mosquito” and that’s the name her mom suggested for the restaurant.

We continued our culinary adventures at Circa 81 in Morehead City, introducing the kids to the joys of tapas (small plates/appetizers), although the serving sizes were generous. We started with yummy She Crab Soup and Clam Chowder, plus addictive Loaded Potato Soup, along with Sesame Tuna Salad, Spinach Salad and the Ashe County Cheese Platter. Emboldened, the kids went on to try Sweet Potato Quesadilla, Savory Stuffed Brie, Medjool Dates (stuffed with almond, goat cheese and sunchoke and wrapped in bacon) and duck breast. Next time I try to get the kids to eat something new I’ve made, I’m going to serve it on tiny dishes and call it tapas. Too bad I won’t be able to recreate the Circa 81 desserts: Decadent key lime pie, chocolate chip cheesecake and chocolate creme brulée.

The nice part about having a vacation house with a kitchen: You can totally ignore it and go out for lunch! The Village Market in Emerald Isle was a gourmet treat. The Chunky Chicken Salad sandwich (with red grapes, celery and pecans and lettuce on a croissant) was one super-tasty sandwich. Sabrina had an Asian Chicken Salad (grilled chicken, mandarin oranges, almonds, tomato and rice noodles on lettuce with sesame ginger dressing), breaking out from her usual chicken tenders. Dave loved the Greek Salad, with yellowfin tuna on top. And Max discovered he had a thing for Shrimp Corn Chowder. .

None of us had ever been to a food truck (a major trend) before the trip and The Dank Burrito Food Truck was a yummy, fun first. You find out where the truck is going to be by checking the Facebook page. It’s one super-cool ride; owner Clarke Merrell told us he painted it with a graphic designer. Max asked to sit in the driver’s seat, and pretended to drive the truck. Then he hovered by the ordering window, eagerly awaiting his side of guac. The mahi mahi burrito, carne asada burrito and jerk chicken burrito were fresh, super-tasty and generally outstanding.

Best place to be on a hot afternoon, besides the beach: fro-yo at Twisted Spoon in Morehead City. Sometimes, frozen yogurts have a chemical aftertaste but the kind here was fresh and delicious. Kid fave: Cake Batter. Plus all of the toppings! Parent fave: a TV area where kids can hang out, so you can have a few minutes of peace to lick your spoons clean.

No matter where we ventured, after we returned to the house we’d head out to the beach again, our home away from home. If it was dark, we’d sit on the deck and listen to the sound of the crashing waves. I can’t recall the last time the kids were that enchanted by something that didn’t involve a TV or iPad screen. It was yet another good lesson: Doing nothing but savoring the sea is entertainment enough.

Thanks to the Crystal Coast Tourism Development and Authority Center and restaurants for the Southern hospitality.

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Tags: | Categories: To The Max