Vitamin D & ASD: A Connection?

Vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight as well as through several foods, and is important for calcium absorption and mood.

Vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight as well as through several foods, and is important for calcium absorption and mood.

In the past few months, I have seen this question come up again: “What role do vitamins and other supplements play in ASD?” Most recently, the spotlight has been on Vitamin D.

The first article I read about was reviewing a small Swedish study which revealed that children with ASD had extremely low vitamin D levels at birth. Their siblings, who developed typically, had much higher levels of vitamin D. This brings about the question as to whether low blood levels of vitamin D predispose children to greater risk of autism, and if taking a prenatal vitamin D supplement could reduce this risk.

Included in the study were a number of Somali-immigrant families. Interestingly, doctors touched on the unusually high rates of autism in this population in recent years, and cited low vitamin D absorption capability as one possible factor.

A second article I reviewed looked at vitamin D’s influence from another angle. In a Chinese study, a toddler with ASD was treated with very high doses of vitamin D. The doctors noted that the toddler had borderline low blood levels of vitamin D when the study began, but after only two months he showed “dramatic improvements” in his symptoms and behaviors. Before getting too excited about these results, however, the doctors cautioned:

“It is important to note that this single case observation cannot be generalized to all patients with ASD. It is hoped that this case report will encourage researchers to conduct further long-term controlled clinical trials.”

Similar to how I felt when I reviewed the impact of Folic Acid with ASD, I am somewhat excited when considering the potential that natural preventative measures and treatments might have. However, it is important to remember that generalizations are hard to make when discussing autism. As they say, “If you’ve met one child with autism, then you’ve met one child with autism.” Still, I will continue to look for future studies to be released on not only vitamin D, but for other supplements as well.

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NED Awareness Week

This week is National Eating Disorders (NED) Awareness Week. As posted on, “In the United States alone, 30 million people will be impacted by an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Eating disorders can include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. These conditions affect all kinds of people and don’t discriminate by race, age, sex, or size.”

I was surprised to read how many people are affected by this disorder. I also learned that eating disorders are associated with other physical, behavioral and psychiatric conditions. Sadly, 65% of people with an eating disorder state that bullying contributed to their condition. And we know that media, with its emphasis on the “perfect look,” is a contributing influence to negative body image.

Diet-for-weight-gainOf course, of these 30 million people, there will be some who have intellectual disabilities as well, although their challenges with food and eating will somewhat vary. When I think of eating disorders in this vein I think of feeding issues, which can be a common and serious problem for families of children with autism.

I consider myself fortunate that Ryan did not experience issues with feeding. When he was young, I decided that whatever food I was cooking for myself would be what I served him. I often laughed when people asked him what his favorite food was and he would reply, “Lobster and salmon!”

While some children with autism have serious sensory issues and food intolerances, we find in children and adults with intellectual disabilities that there are often difficulties with swallowing, which can result in choking.

Because of these challenges, Autism Speaks has developed a Feeding Tool kit for families who are experiencing feeding issues with their children.

This guide helps answer the most fundamental questions surrounding feeding issues, such as: Why is feeding so hard, What makes it so hard, and What can I do to help?

What tips have you found that help with feeding time? Share your experiences below!

For a copy of the feeding tool kit, click here.

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World Thinking Day


This year’s badge for Girl Scout participation in World Thinking Day

Did you know that Sunday is World Thinking Day? Girl Scouts throughout the world created this day to participate in activities and projects that center around an annual theme. This year’s theme of “creating peace through partnerships” is inspired by the United Nations’ Goal to develop global partnerships for development.

This goal is about all countries, rich and poor, working with one another to create a global partnership that will benefit us all. In order for poorer countries to succeed, more prosperous countries must provide more effective aid, sustainable debt relief, and fair trade rules.

World Thinking Day not only gives the Girls a chance to celebrate international friendships, it is also a reminder that Girl Scouts of the USA is part of a global community—one of nearly 150 countries—with Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.


Girl Scouts of America represent global awareness through a multitude of fun and creative activities

We can take a page from the Girl Scouts’ book, both as an individual and as a community, to take time to think about how we all come together as global partners and support each other. In our BNI community, I’m thinking about how we can reach out to persons with disabilities in under-developed countries to help improve their lives.

We don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel in order to support this goal. There are several wonderful international programs that already exist. Two such ones that come to mind are Best Buddies and Special Olympics.

Best_BuddiesBest Buddies is a global volunteer movement that helps foster one-to-one friendships and integrated employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Volunteers annually contribute their time and services, a total that values $168 million USD!

LA2015_Primary_Lockups_4_color-01_webreadyThe Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Over 4.4 million athletes from 170 different countries have enjoyed participating in one of 32 sports competitions since its inception.

Our students are participants in the Best Buddies program and greatly enjoy it. Ryan’s been a Best Buddy for the last two years and has networked with typical peers from across the country as a result. It’s a very enriching and rewarding program, and best of all… it’s free!

What other ways or programs can you think of to achieve the World Thinking Day Goal?

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Presidents and Americans with Disabilities

In honor of President’s Day, I decided to reflect on some of the Presidents who played a significant role in improving the lives of children and adults with disabilities. Up until the 60s, most families were ashamed to admit that they had a child with a disability. President John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, who had intellectual disabilities, served as an impetus for the President’s push to establish the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961.

The Presidents Panel on Mental Retardation, 1961

The President’s Panel on Mental Retardation, 1961

Comprised of 27 members, the panel reviewed the country’s current intellectual disabilities programs, eventually presenting the President with over 100 recommendations for the first comprehensive federal approach. Dr. Gertrude Barber, our founder, was a member of this panel.

A year later, President Kennedy signed the Maternal and Child Health and Mental Retardation Planning Amendment, which incorporated many of the panel’s recommendations and provided planning grants to enable states to update their intellectual disabilities programs. A second piece of legislation provided funding for construction of facilities related to treatment and care of people with intellectual disabilities. At the time of its signing, President Kennedy stated: “Mental retardation ranks with mental health as a major health, social, and economic problem in this country. It strikes our most precious asset, our children.”


President Gerald Ford

The next major piece of legislation concerning people with intellectual disabilities was President Ford’s 1975 signing of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, since renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This special education legislation established a federal mandate of “free, appropriate public education” for children with disabilities. After the law passed, over one million children who had not been receiving any or very limited educational services were brought into public school systems.

Then on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed The Americans with Disabilities Act, the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities. “Today’s legislation brings us closer to that day when no Americans will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” President Bush said.

President Bush signs the historic ADA.

President Bush signs the historic ADA

Most recently, Obama made history by signing the ABLE Act, which provides lifetime saving capabilities for people with disabilities.

It’s wonderful that the United States continues to be a leader in supporting the rights of children and adults with disabilities. In only 50 years we’ve gone from sending people with intellectual disabilities “away” to celebrating their unique and valuable contribution to our society. As Americans, we can all be proud of the monumental progress our country has made.

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Valentine’s Day!

There are several popular legends surrounding the story of Saint Valentine. One is that he was a Roman priest who was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually martyred after being caught marrying Christian couples. At the time, helping Christians was considered a crime.Val Day

Another says that Valentine, who was a priest, defied the order of the emperor Claudius and secretly married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war.

Still another legend is that Valentine was imprisoned because of his refusal to sacrifice to pagan gods. While in prison, his prayers are said to have healed the jailer’s daughter, who was blind. On the day of his execution he left her a note signed, “Your Valentine.”

Today, whatever its origins, Valentine’s Day is known around the world as an opportunity to celebrate those we care about. At BNI, we celebrate with an annual Valentine’s Day dance for our high school students. The teenagers have a rare chance to get dressed up, and enjoy special punch and snacks. Villa Maria High School Honor Society students are invited to attend, and the students have a blast dancing the afternoon away! IMG_3046

Students also spend the week before selling Candy Grams to be delivered to “Your Valentine” the day before Valentine’s Day. The sender chooses whether he/she wants popcorn or candy and selects a Valentine card, which is assembled by the students and delivered to the recipient. Proceeds from the sale are then used by the students for their trips in the community.

At my house, I know we’ll be looking forward to the chocolate-covered strawberries!

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Teaching Kindness

Aesop QuoteThis week is Random Acts of Kindness Week. As I thought about the topic, I began to consider how kindness is taught. The rampant problem of bullying in our schools underlies a deeper issue – are we teaching our children to be kind?

According to a recent study, about 80% of interviewed youth said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

I think we can all agree that that’s not good. So the question becomes, “What do we need to do differently?”

It’s never too early for children to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high moral standards, such as honoring their commitments. I recall how as a youngster I signed up to play tennis, only to find that it wasn’t the right sport for me. However, my parents insisted that I continue for the season, as I had made a commitment to the team to play.

Learning to be caring is like learning anything else: it takes practice. Lots of it. This begins with the parents. Children need to hear their parents address each other as well as others in a respectful manner. This can be as simple as being polite to the waiter taking your order. Make sure your child understands that there is never an acceptable time to be rude to another person.

It’s easy to foster a caring attitude toward family and friends, but it can be more challenging to teach a child how to extend that to an unfamiliar person. Even though technology makes it appear that we are more connected than ever, the reality can be that there is a disconnect behind the computer screen. While the internet is a great platform to learn more about our globe and its challenges, it’s important to take this to the next level. I have always encouraged Ryan to learn more about and be open to different cultures and communities other than his own, but also to ask, “What can I do to help these people in need?”

Parents are a child’s first teacher. We have an important role to play as a mentor and role model. Even when you’re not aware, your child is observing you and seeing how you manage problematic or stressful situations. The way you respond is the way they will respond. Ask yourself: “Is this how I want my child to behave?” When I’m in a stressful situation, I find it helpful to take deep breaths. I have been teaching Ryan the same technique whenever he becomes anxious and overwhelmed.

This week is a wonderful reminder to all of us to be kinder to people and the world around us. Our world needs some extra kindness!

For fun activities to do with your child, visit the 100 Acts of Kindness Project Page:

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In the Public Eye

I began reading Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most, by Timothy Shriver this week. Although I was generally familiar with the story of Rosemary Kennedy, I was not aware of how much she inspired her family to devote their careers to helping the most vulnerable. Dr. Gertrude Barber served on President John Kennedy’s 1961 “President’s Panel on Mental Retardation,” which heralded the beginning of federal involvement and fiscal aid to states. Their report, a landmark in public policy history, provided 112 comprehensive recommendations that covered prevention, treatment, social services, research, and education. This report also marked the first time in the history of the United States that a President would be called on to include children with intellectual disabilities in the nation’s schools, and to create a new system of support for adults with intellectual disabilities.

One of the most disturbing takeaways from the book so far is the depth of shame families experienced when they had a child with a disability. It’s hard to imagine trying to “hide” Ryan from the public. How could I ever be ashamed of Ryan?

Grace and actress Lauren Potter.

Grace and actress Lauren Potter.

Hence why I was very pleased to see a third-grader with Down Syndrome front and center as part of a television commercial for McDonald’s during the Super Bowl. And in recent years, Glee, a popular Fox TV show, has cast a new member who also has Down Syndrome.

We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of Rosemary Kennedy! I’ll share more information about Fully Alive as I read further, but even without finishing it, I believe this is a book everyone needs to read.

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