Sensory Summer

Since last fall, I have been engaged by the Madison Children’s Museum (MCM), to help facilitate the implementation of a generous 3 year grant it received to improve its services to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families. This has been a unique opportunity to bring together parents, self-advocates, providers and educators to engage with MCM staff in order to map out a strategy that will not only improve MCM’s services to this group of children and their families, but to provide a national model for other museums to improve their services.

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After my first meeting with MCM staff, I noticed this light on the main floor of the museum and it truly represents the vision of the incredible staff with whom I work on this project . Deb Gilpin, the Executive Director, has been very supportive of this truly unique project. The project lead, Sandra Bonnici, pours a tremendous amount of effort and passion in order to make sure this project succeeds. She considers it, “a great opportunity to truly understand community aspirations and challenges for people on the spectrum and their families and to collaborate with the ASD and SPD community improved experiences and genuine inclusion for these children and families both at MCM and within the museum field.”  Her very capable colleagues, Heather Davis, Kia Karlen and Anneke van Lith, have provided the support she needs to carry this project to fruition.

After getting substantial input from the Advisory Group, MCM staff realized that the museum needed to conduct an assessment of itself in order to determine both its strengths and weaknesses when serving children on the autism spectrum and their families. Fortunately, the enthusiasm of the Advisory Group has resulted in a steady flow of participants eager to help with that assessment. University of Wisconsin Professor Karla Ausderau has recruited some of her students to help with this assessment, which will include gathering information from museums around the country to determine what they are doing in terms of serving children on the spectrum.

In additional to a professional assessment, Dr. Ausderau recommended that we use the museum itself as perhaps the most critical assessment tool. As a result, the museum is now engaged in planning a Sensory Summer. While the museum is still working out details and will get more input from the Advisory group, the basic idea is twofold:

  • Provide free passes to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families over the summer and request that they fill out on-line or paper surveys to let the museum know which parts of the museum work well for them and which do not. Of course, the museum will also seek information regarding suggested improvements which it could make to enhance the experience of these children and  their families; and
  • Schedule 4 sessions when the museum is normally closed (early weekday evenings and weekend mornings) to allow children on the spectrum and their families to enjoy the museum without the normal chaos of many other children participating in the many activities which the museum has to offer. During these sessions, the museum will create some quiet and sensory spaces and provide some assistive devices that may help some of these children enjoy the museum more. The museum will also engage well trained friendly observers to make note of what works and what does not work with the children who attend these sessions.

Before Sensory Summer begins, we will engage a planning committee composed of volunteers from our Advisory Group, and the museum will contract with an expert trainer to provide basic autism and sensory processing training to its entire staff.

In my nearly 25 years of disability advocacy experience, this is the deepest engagement I have seen a non-disability public entity voluntarily take on to better serve a generally underserved group of children and their families. This is truly systems change at its best. It is voluntary, enthusiastic and inclusive. I am truly honored to help the Madison Children’s Museum become a national (and perhaps international) model for how to best serve children with autism and other sensory processing disorders in a public museum setting.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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The Air we Breathe

It seems so simple. Unless we have asthma or another breathing disorder, we never think about the thousands of breaths we take every single day. Perhaps that is why the human race is often inclined to take the air we breathe for granted.

In my recent travels to Israel and Mexico, while my wife and I enjoyed our visits with friends and family tremendously, the air pollution in both countries was visibly obvious.

In Israel, everyone called the pollution  haze, but it is fairly obvious that the virtually constant haze contains significant air pollution. In Mexico City, I could tell the air pollution was not as bad as the last time I visited 25 years ago, but nevertheless, it was constant and still significant.

Upon our return to Madison, we immediately noticed the clean air, both visibly and in our lungs. We literally breathed easier.  Especially noticeable was the clean air this past weekend at our vacation place on Goose Lake in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin.

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I am not an air pollution  expert. Nor, am I suggesting that Israelis and Mexicans care about clean air any less than Americans do. In fact, the challenge of clean air is a global challenge as the atmosphere moves all over the world.

Asthma rates are soaring and exposure to pollution caused by vehicular traffic is one culprit. Indeed, the traffic in Mexico City and in much of Israel was horrendous, both of which are a result of both population increases as well as improving economies.

While the United States has made great progress in cleaning our air since the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, that progress is under threat, as the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 13 times when he was the Oklahoma Attorney General, has been called, “the most hostile EPA administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.”

The bigger puzzle is why, in an era when everyone knows about the negative health impact of air pollution, anyone would want to relax air pollution controls. Many argue that the current administration is beholden to big business and industry resulting in its desire to relax anti-pollution regulations. Yet, our President, the CEOs of industry, and Scott Pruitt must breathe the same air as everyone else.

Indeed, we are one world, with one atmosphere. We pollute it at the peril of every single one of us. No one is immune. Everyone must do their part to keep our air and other national resources clean.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Mexican brother, Mexican son

I have previously written about my Mexican family and the efforts we make to stay connected despite thousands of miles between us. Recently, I had yet another wonderful opportunity to reconnect, this time in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico’s two largest cities, which are both vibrant and fascinating with a rich history. On this occasion, my cousin Miky’s daughter Natalia, was getting married. Since I consider Miky a brother, as we lived together in 1973-74 in Oak Park, Michigan, when we attended 9th grade together, despite having recently returned from Israel, we certainly did not want to miss Natalia’s wedding. In fact, my wife and I also flew my son in from Israel, where he is attending college, so he could attend the wedding. To further cement the family bonds, I convinced my brother and sister to bring their families to the wedding as well, as neither had been to Mexico to see our family there in a long time.

There are many reasons why I consider Miky as a brother. Not only did we live and go to school together for a year, but we share many attributes. We both work for ourselves and seek to make our own way in the world. In addition, we both prioritize family connections. We married the same year (1982) and both continue to have happy and fulfilling marriages as we approach our 35th anniversaries. As you can see below, my wife and many others also think that Miky and I look a lot like each other.

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Mi hermano Miky

Of course, the wedding was beautiful and so much joy was shared by those in attendance. In fact, at one point during the party, my wife turned to me and said,

“Mexican people are the nicest people I know.”

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Father/daughter dance: Miky & Natalia

While we could have returned home after the wedding, we had another important stop to make in Mexico. In 2008, Miky and his wife Alma asked my wife and I if they could send their son Miguel to live with us for a year and attend 8th grade in our local middle school. We were glad to do so and continue what is now a 3 generation tradition of having a Mexican family member live with one of our family members (Miky’s Aunt Nitchy lived with my mother for 2 years as teens). Now, Miguel is on the verge of finishing his undergraduate degree at the Panamerican University in Guadalajara and we wanted to see his life in Guadalajara.

It was well worth the extra time and effort to visit Miguel in Guadalajara. Not only did we enjoy Guadalajara, with side trips to Tequila (yes, that’s where they make it) and Tlaquepaque (a beautiful artisan town), but more importantly, we saw where and how Miguel lives and goes to school. We got to know his lovely and charming girlfriend Vanessa, and it warmed our hearts to see how he has grown into a truly fine young man with a bright future ahead of him.

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Miguel with his second mother, my wife Sheryl

On the last evening of our stay in Guadalajara, the breaking news popped up on our phones that the U.S. had bombed a Syrian air base, as we were going out to dinner with Miguel. Sheryl and I expressed our fears of how this bombing could potentially unravel into World War 3, if Russia and Iran reacted violently. Listening with a son’s concern, Miguel said, “you can always come to stay with us in Mexico where you will be safe.”

My wife and I were deeply touched by Miguel’s genuine offer in many ways. First, he truly understands that we are family in the deepest way. We will always be there for each other to protect each other. In addition, perhaps without intending to make a political statement, he made a very profound one. With all the anti-Mexican bias coming out of the White House, thinking about the possibility that we might actually be safer and better protected in Mexico was both ironic and heartwarming.

We will continue to maintain our strong family bonds with my Mexican family. After all, with a Mexican brother and a Mexican son, how could I do otherwise?

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.