An interview with Dr. Karen Clark, founder of autism TACOS

autismTACOS

“I want my audience to look at the individual instead of being SO focused on the next big intervention or technique,” Dr. Karen Clark

By Ron Sandison

Q. What was your greatest challenge raising a son with autism?

Funny that one of the greatest challenges in raising my son who has autism isn’t actually related to my son at all. It’s related to the world and society. It’s a challenge to watch people either stare or avoid us altogether. Like at the playground when he was younger. That kind of challenge continues today as he is entering his preteen years. There are certainly other challenges we have faced related to autism but that is a biggie.

Q. What advice would you give to a parent whose child was recently diagnosed with autism?

  • Read, read, read, and read some more. So much is coming out on this diagnosis that you really can’t stop reading up on it.
  • Be strong (because it will NOT be easy all the time). You’ll want to curl up in a ball some days and other times you are a roaring lion ready to go for the first person that looks at your child the wrong way. Expect the range of emotions and try to find the middle where you can successfully navigate life in a somewhat peaceful, productive, stable way.
  • Connect with other special needs parents! This will help you with the first two pieces of advice above. Other autism parents get it. You can lean on them to vent and ask questions.

Dr. Karen Clark 2

Q. When your son was diagnosed with autism, what was your greatest fear and why?

My greatest fear was what would life look like for this little guy? What would life look like for us, the parents? He was diagnosed at 24 months and 1 day old back in February, 2008. I recognized his behaviors as symptoms of autism well before that appointment, though, for I knew what the symptoms looked like from working as a teacher for 7 years.

Q. How can teachers and educators be equipped to teach a child with autism?

This is a hot topic for me. So, I firmly believe every single mainstream educator should have district-provided mandated autism-specific training each year. These kids are not going away. It’s not a fad, as some people would like to say. They will continue to be in our classrooms yet the teachers still today do not commonly get autism-specific teaching strategies in mainstream educator college education programs.

How do I know this? Through my own doctoral research I discovered that, in 2014, only 15-percent of college students studying to be teachers in general education programs received ANY exposure to autism. Of that 15-percent, most only engaged in ONE lesson on autism. Would anyone expect a construction worker to build a house without giving him or her a hammer? Teachers need the right tools and training to know what to do and be successful at it, as well.

Q. In your seminars you share information about the autism brain. How is the autism brain unique and what should people understand about it?

I will try to give you a snippet of what I have covered in my most recent lectures on the autistic brain. I really dive into the three main cognitive processing preferences of individuals who have autism. There are many theories out there about autism but these three are the most published and well-respected in research. They are the Weak Central Coherence Theory, the Theory of Mind, and The Executive Dysfunction Theory of Autism. The Theory of Mind deficit is actually one that scholars say is pretty much exclusive to autism. But why would I focus on these?

I will provide a graphic that will just touch on what these three theories entail. They are all pretty extensive as to what they mean behaviorally in those who have autism. I try to make educators and parents step back for a minute and really take a look at the WHY and the WHAT of autism. I want my audience to look at the individual instead of being SO focused on the next big intervention or technique. So, in my most recent lecture I connect the WHY, as in, why do individuals who have autism display certain behaviors in the classroom or out in the community. To do this, I explain how their brains process input. I also cover the WHAT, which revolves around the concept that behaviors = symptoms. Behaviors are not necessarily chosen by individuals who have autism. Their brains are processing information in a specific way. They often simply cannot help it. Educators and parents would never expect a blind child to read without a braille accommodation.

We should never expect a child who has autism to simply ignore a symptom, as well. We, as educators and parents, may need to help a child who has autism through a challenge but we certainly shouldn’t discount it or ignore it. We should 1) be aware of it, 2) accept it for what it is, and 3) assist as needed!

Sneak peek into 2018 TACO Talks! I am starting to work on a new lecture tour for next year. I can’t give it all away but it’s focused on A3: Awareness — Acceptance — Assist.

EducationalImpacts

Q. What inspired you to develop Autism TACOS?

As a parent and an educator, it was overwhelmingly obvious that there was a need for increased understanding of autism in the schools. My own doctoral research revealed such a desperate need for educators to have autism-specific training. As I pointed out in a previous answer, only 15-percent of teachers leaving education programs had ANY exposure to autism in their college classes. Being a former mainstream educator AND a mom AND a doctor of special education with a concentration in autism, I decided to roll up my sleeves and help parents, educators, and, well, anyone who wants to know more about autism to make the world a better place. Making a doctor’s appointment just didn’t seem to be the answer to all problems related to autism. There had to be a simple, easy-to-access resource for asking a question or discussing training for a group of first responders or even a PTA event in a district. There is just a lot of need for autism education out there.

Q. How did you choose the name Autism TACOS?

I wanted a name that really encompassed the whole range of services and options we provide but I wanted it to be unique, fun, and easy to remember. I wanted to move away from the clinical-type feeling of autism support organizations. So, TACOS stands for training, advocacy, consulting and other services. And who doesn’t love tacos, right?

Q. How does Autism TACOS help families who have a child on the spectrum?

Some areas related to autism help do not necessarily require hours of a parent’s and child’s time sitting in a clinical setting resulting in hundreds of dollars in fees. Why can’t autism support and services for families and community members, like teachers, first responders, even large corporations, be a bit more, simple, convenient, and personalized?

For example, sometimes parents have quick questions related to school matters. A quick email to TACOS with something like ‘My son cannot sit still during homework! Help!’ is easier than taking a half-day off work and the child missing school to get to an in-person appointment with a therapist across town. A 10-minute online chat with TACOS can tell them what all those darn confusing education acronyms mean, like FAPE, BCBA, 504, ADA, LEA, IDEA, and LD (I could go on and on). Further, leaders in business may want to understand their employees better and embrace diversity in order to create a culture of acceptance and productivity. In that situation, maybe a focus group with leaders of the company or a round-table lunch n’ lecture. All simplified options for autism-related help.

For those who prefer other options to doctors’ offices visits. TACOS offers help through extremely convenient avenues of communication, like email correspondences, chats, phone calls, and in-person visits. More in-depth lectures and seminars are an option for groups, too! I’ve conducted several talks on various topics for PTA groups, private schools, and church organizations. Basically, this company really takes a given need, whether family or organization, and provides a personalized answer as much as possible. Doctor appointments are certainly a needed part of autism, but they are NOT the only option!

Q. What are some of your goals for Autism TACOS?

I want to make a simplified and convenient delivery of support and/or education the new go-to for some areas of autism. If a concern is not TACO-worthy, I certainly proceed to recommend clinical help where appropriate.

Q. How have you helped your son learn social skills and handle sensory issues?

I always tried to remember that he is struggling and needs help instead of automatically assuming poor behavior. That can be hard during the stressful days. That keeps me focused on helping him through his challenges based on his lead. I followed his cues. If he was showing signs of being over-stimulated in a situation over the years, I tried to adjust what was going on to help him through that challenge.

I may lower the volume of the TV or put on a small fan in his room at night. Simple little changes can make all the difference for these kiddos. I also talk to him about his needs as much as possible, keeping the language simple, straight forward, and age-appropriate. That seems to have worked for William. Every kid is a little different so I encourage parents to figure out what works for their little one and run with it.

Please share a personal story of helping a family with autism.

Friends of a friend or family will sometimes message me for advice. For an example, about 4 years ago, a distant relative of mine connected me with her friend, a single mom of three kids who was really struggling with school issues for her first grader. The mom didn’t know special education jargon, what the school was required to do or provide, what was the best placement, etc. I messaged back and forth with her on social media and had calls with her for months until we really both felt her son was getting the best educational supports possible.

She was emotional and needed assurance that someone was listening, who understood her struggle of being a mom to a boy with autism, and that everything would work out. We still keep in touch and her son is doing great! That’s what TACOS is really all about.

autismTACOS

You can contact Dr. Karen Clark at autismtacos@gmail.com
AUTISM TACOS Facebook: www.facebook.com/autismtacos/

***

Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is a Board Member for the Art of Autism, and an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.

He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at sandison456@hotmail.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *