Supporting Neurodivergent Teens with Technology Use: Navigating the Digital Landscape Together

Technology is ever-evolving and such a ubiquitous part of our lives. Our families often ask us: how can we best support our teenagers in this digital age? To discover some potential solutions, I recently read a book called “Technology’s Child” that offered some great insights. Let’s dive in and explore some of my takeaways from this book.

Understanding the “Why” is Key

Each teen uses technology differently and the resulting impact is dependent on their usage. It is important to step back and ask why a neurodivergent teen is so engrossed in technology. Is it about connecting with friends? Does it help them cope with life’s challenges? Are they trying to fit in with their peers? Knowing the reasons behind their tech use can foster numerous opportunities for conversation. It’s all about addressing the root causes rather than labeling their behavior as problematic.

Bringing Their Online and Offline Worlds Together

Many neurodivergent teenagers find community in online spaces. Platforms like fan fiction communities offer them a chance to express themselves and explore their identities freely. However, a common challenge occurs when these online communities don’t blend with their “real life.” Encouraging neurodivergent teens to bridge the gap between these two worlds can significantly benefit their mental health and self-identity. For example, a teen who enjoys Dungeons and Dragons may enjoy finding a D&D group to join through school or otherwise in the community.

Empowering Autonomy and Self-Direction

Empowering teens with a sense of autonomy and self-direction in their technology use is crucial. While technology companies often design platforms to keep users engaged for longer periods, we can help our teens become aware of these design tactics. Engaging them in open conversations about algorithms, platform design, and its impact on their usage can foster a sense of control. This awareness enables them to make more informed choices about when to start or stop using a particular platform

How Caregivers Can Support

Navigating the complexities of technology use is a challenge for both teens and their caregivers. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, “Technology’s Child” offers some valuable suggestions for supporting our teens:

  • Get Curious: Engage in conversations to understand why your teen is drawn to technology.
  • Celebrate and Validate: Celebrate your teen’s wins and interests on social media. At the same time, let them know it’s okay to have struggles and challenges.
  • Offline Engagement: Encourage and facilitate the creation of offline spaces and connections. Help your teen find ways to express themselves and hang out with friends beyond the screens.

There is no magic solution to managing tech use for neurodivergent teens. However, by embarking on this journey alongside our teens, we’re not just helping them navigate the digital world; we’re building resilience and fostering skills like self-reflection, self-regulation, and crafting well-being plans tailored to their unique needs.

Interested in discussing Beyond Akeela for your neurodivergent teen? Let’s Connect!

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Unlocking the Power of Mindfulness for Neurodivergent Teens

The practice of mindfulness has garnered significant attention in recent years. It holds the potential for profound positive changes in our lives. But a lot of the research on mindfulness has been conducted with a neurotypical population. It is important to explore the benefits and challenges of mindfulness practices with neurodivergent folks.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice; it can be adapted to cater to the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals. Here are some of the advantages demonstrated by research with neurodivergent participants:

Reducing Repetitive Negative Thoughts
Participants reported that mindfulness practices helped promote awareness of repetitive negative thoughts, and empowered them to manage their thoughts effectively.

Promoting Self-Compassion
Mindfulness fostered a kinder, more accepting attitude towards oneself. Participants reported a reduction in self-judgment.

Improved Sleep
Participants reported that directing attention to their body (body scan meditation) helped them fall asleep more easily.

Challenges in Mindfulness for Neurodivergent Individuals

While the benefits of mindfulness are evident, there are certain aspects of mindfulness practices can be challenging for neurodivergent individuals:

Sensory Overload
The heightened awareness of the present may lead to overwhelming sensory experiences. This is especially true for mindfulness practices that involve paying attention to smells, sounds, and taste.

Abstract Concepts and Language
Some mindfulness practices involve very abstract and metaphorical language that might not resonate with neurodivergent individuals, making it challenging to engage with the practice.

Techniques Involving Strong Vibration
Singing bowls and sound healing can feel overwhelming for those with sensory sensitivities.

Mindfulness Practices Ideas for Neurodivergent Teens

Repeating positive affirmations offers an effective alternative to focusing on breath. It boosts mood and self-confidence while fostering mindfulness.

Alternate Anchor Points
Instead of focusing on your breath, choose an anchor point in your body that feels comfortable to you. Some ideas include concentrating on your heartbeat or the rise and fall of your stomach.

Connecting with Nature
Take mindful walks in nature, observing plants, textures, and colors. Nature provides grounding and can promote a positive mood.

Active Mind-Body Activities
Activities like dancing, yoga, or martial arts that blend physical movement with breath, can help you cultivate a mindful state while staying active.

Art as Mindfulness
Creative pursuits like drawing, painting, or sculpting can serve as forms of mindfulness. The process of creating art enables complete focus and presence.

Mindfulness practices hold immense potential for neurodivergent teens. However, it is important to adapt mindfulness to meet your own needs by exploring different techniques. There is no mindfulness practice that is the best; the goal is peace and self-acceptance.

A Timeline of the Neurodiversity Movement

During Autism Acceptance Month, Autism advocates challenged schools and media to focus on accepting and celebrating folks with different neurological makeups.

In honor of this celebration, we reflect on some of the critical moments and publications in the evolution of the neurodiversity movement.

Critical Moments in the Neurodiversity Movement

1993 – Jim Sinclair gave a speech titled “Don’t Mourn for Us” at the International Conference on Autism in Toronto. In his remarks, Jim urged folks not to try to change their children or pity them but instead accept them for who they are. He did not use the word neurodiversity explicitly. However, his speech is often referred to as the birth of the neurodiversity movement.

1998 – Harvey Blume published his article “Neurodiversity” in the Atlantic. This was the first appearance of the word neurodiverse in literature.

1999 – Judy Singer published her Master’s thesis titled “Odd People In” and coined the term neurodiversity. She is often credited as the founder of the Neurodiversity movement.

2004 – Amy Harmon published her article “Neurodiversity Forever; The Disability Movement Turns to Brains” in the New York Times. This was the first publication on neurodiversity in a prominent newspaper.

2004 – Kathleen Seidel created the website after her children received an autism diagnosis. The purpose of the website was to honor the differences in human brains.

2005 – Susanne Antonetta published the first book on neurodiversity titled “A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World.”

2006 – The central theme of Autistic Pride Day, celebrated on June 18th each year, was “Celebrating Neurodiversity.”

2009 – Higher education institutions began researching and publishing articles on neurodiversity. One of the first articles published was titled “Student Experiences of Neurodiversity in Higher Education.”

2015 – Steve Silberman published his book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” spreading the framework of neurodiversity to a broader audience.

These activists’ profound efforts and contributions transformed how society understands neurodiversity.  Together they are helping create a more inclusive world. While we have a long journey toward an equitable society, we hope that these stories highlight the power research and advocacy can have.

Our teens at Beyond Akeela can make a big difference by sharing their stories, advocating for their needs, and celebrating what makes them unique!

Making Dorm Life Inclusive for Neurodivergent Students

We recently came across a comprehensive video by Stanford Neurodiversity Project on incorporating universal design principles to create an inclusive dorm community. The video was created by undergraduate college students as a final project for a psychology course and features two neurodivergent students sharing their experiences living in college dorms.

We reflect on the actionable takeaways from the video to foster an enriching living experience for all our campers.

Creating Activities with Structure and Intention

At Beyond Akeela, we consciously build in evening activities like trivia night, mini-golf, and bowling, that offer teens opportunities to socialize while simultaneously giving them the option to focus on the activity without feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to interact with others. Additionally, all our dorm lounges have a variety of games for teens to have more choices on how they socialize during their free time.

Being Mindful of Sensory Stimulation

We intentionally schedule most group activities outdoors or in a spacious room to minimize sensory overload. We also establish group norms for being mindful of sensory stimulation indoors, such as snapping instead of clapping and normalizing stepping out from an overwhelming space.

Encouraging Multiple Means of Communication

At Beyond Akeela, we understand that initiating a conversation about a challenge with an advisor or peer can sometimes feel stressful. Consequently, we encourage teens to harness the power of different communication modalities. For instance, teens can leave their advisors a note explaining what they want to discuss to frame the face-to-face conversation.

Practicing Compassionate Humility

Advisors at Beyond Akeela support campers using a strengths-based approach and center the teens as the experts of their experience. We seek to learn from our teens and intentionally incorporate their feedback to ensure they receive the individualized support they need to thrive.
Overall, the video emphasized how simple, tangible actions can profoundly improve accessibility and how accessibility allows every individual to tap into their potential. We carry these reflections with us as we continue to empower our teens by designing an enriching and inclusive community.

What Do Autistic Teenagers Want From Summer Transition Programs?

One of our families recently shared an article from Think College that lists overnight camps as a powerful strategy to prepare neurodivergent youth for post-secondary life. Summer transition programs can help adolescents build confidence, increase self-awareness, and foster community.

While attending camp has several benefits, we wondered what specific elements of a summer program that help neurodivergent teenagers succeed in post-secondary life. We set out to discover the answer and came across research by Emily Hotez et al. in 2018. They developed and implemented a week-long summer transition program for adolescents with autism. The researchers evaluated the program using interviews with the participants. Results demonstrated that a summer transition program for autistic teens could help teens self-advocate and engage with diverse peers in college contexts.

The program participants also had several suggestions for improving summer transition programs. Their recommendations align with our programming at Beyond Akeela. Here are the four elements that the teenagers highlighted.

Longer Programming

The participants felt more time was needed to practice the new skills they were learning. A 2.5-week program like Beyond Akeela gives teenagers the space and time to practice post-secondary skills in a supportive and engaging environment.

More Field Trips

The teenagers wished they had more opportunities to explore exciting locations independently. At Beyond Akeela, teens have numerous opportunities to go on college tours, adventure day trips, museums, and nearby towns. The teens independently explore these locations in small peer groups, exercising the skills they’re building at camp in new environments.

Interactive Learning

Teens did not want to feel like they were in a classroom all summer. They expressed wanting opportunities to learn through different modalities. All our programming at Beyond Akeela is interactive and hands-on; teens learn through activities, community service, group discussions, and practicing skills in a truly organic setting.

Programming That Aligns With Their Interests

Beyond Akeela offers unique activities, such as Dungeons & Dragons and Wilderness Survival. We strive to tailor our programming to our teens’ interests through choice-based programming to help them have a memorable and transformative summer.

You can learn more about our program here: Beyond Akeela Program.

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Success at ASD Teen Camp

Many families ask us how our program creates the social growth and increased self-confidence for ASD teens. Some of the most important work that we do occurs in the non-summer months when we set up the structure of our programming. We recently read this Harvard Business Education article about supporting neurodivergent learners in classrooms. The articles affirmed some of the practices we utilize at camp to create successful experiences for ASD teens.

Creating Community Before Arrival

Helping teens feel comfortable BEFORE they arrive is essential to our process. We meet with every teen before they arrive to go over the camp schedule. This ensures they know what to expect from the activities and when they will have downtime to recharge. Further, teens are invited to group hangouts over Zoom to connect with peers they will meet at camp. These steps, together, reduce the anxiety of teens upon their entry at camp. Most importantly, they increase their likelihood to take positive social risks which build lifelong connections.

Elective-Based Programming

Teens at Beyond Akeela are empowered to pursue their interests. Each camper selects activities, electives, community service options, and trips prior to their arrival. This increases their buy-in from the start, allowing them to get more out of the experience. Teens have a heightened sense of responsibility for their time at Beyond Akeela because they have selected a path that makes it their own experience.

Direct In-the-Moment Coaching

ASD Teens learn best by doing. At Beyond Akeela, they receive coaching from experienced staff mentors as they navigate their camp experience. Staff members develop rapport with teens quickly due to our 1:3 staff-to-camper ratio. Their relationship allows them to provide direct, honest, and compassionate social feedback to teens to enhance their social success. This same coaching model is applied to executive functioning skills such as time management, organization, and multi-step task completion.

You can learn more about the outcomes ASD Teens experience at Beyond Akeela here: Beyond Akeela Outcomes.

Let’s Not Lose These Stars on Earth- Neurodivergence in Indian Cinema

Reading aloud was the scariest thing for me when I was younger. I stuttered each time as I looked at the words dancing on my page and wondered how those jumbling letters translated into a meaningful sound. I kept thinking: What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so effortlessly? Was I not working hard enough?

I found the missing puzzle piece when I watched Taare Zameen Par (Stars on Earth). I finally felt understood. Taare Zameen Par (2007) is a Bollywood film that follows the life of 8-year-old Ishaan, who has dyslexia. Ishaan is kind, curious, and incredibly artistic. But, he struggles to adapt to the rigid ways of learning at school. The film explores Ishaan’s journey of discovering himself as he navigates the myriad of injustices of the Indian education system.

Taare Zameen Par was the first mainstream depiction of neurodivergence in Indian cinema and profoundly transformed how Indian culture understands neurodiversity. Policymakers, educators, and parents finally realized the true impact of oppressive learning paradigms on a child’s self-esteem. As I revisit one of my favorite movies, I reflect on my key takeaways from Taare Zameen Par.

The Power of Belief
Believing in a child promotes the idea that they inherently have all the talents they need to accomplish their goals. It helps children develop a strong sense of self. Ishaan’s art teacher’s belief in him allows Ishaan to share his talents, engage in his learning, and foster connections with peers.

Connection is Paramount
Ishaan’s parents send him to a strict boarding school as a punishment. But Ishaan did not need more discipline; he needed more connection. He feels ashamed, defeated, and isolated. Once Ishaan feels accepted and connects with his art teacher and peers, he thrives and excels.

Accessibility Matters
Assessments in Indian public schools primarily test a student’s ability to recall content.
Ishaan grasps the concepts he learns and understands how to apply them. But, he finds it challenging to recall the content he learned verbatim. Ishaan’s art teacher advocates for different modalities of teaching and testing. He teaches Ishaan spelling and mathematics through audiobooks, art, and play. He also requests that Ishaan be able to take his tests orally. Ishaan received straight A’s that semester and built his confidence.

Learning is Play
During play, children use all of their senses, convey their thoughts and emotions, and explore their environment. In the context of play, children test out novel knowledge and theories. Ishaan builds a boat with scrap during art class. He creates a rotating fan by winding up a rubber band. This mechanism creates tension and helps the boat move through water. He expresses his understanding and application of mechanics through his creation.

Learning should be joyful. It is not just about academics but about helping young folks become the best versions of themselves. We emphasize play, connection, and accessibility in our community at Beyond Akeela and aim to create a safe space for each teenager to feel supported and empowered to discover their unique strengths and identity.

Overcoming College Hurdles for Autistic Young Adults

Recently we joined a group called the College Autism Network (CAN). We are fortunate to have access to a network of higher education professionals who work with young adults with autism. Through this we gain insights into what the future of college life looks like for Beyond Akeela teens. One professional recently posed a question about the biggest challenges autistic young adults are facing in college environments these days. We gathered some interesting takeaways from the conversation.

All Students are Facing Hurdles

Many students, regardless of their neurological makeup, are facing a similar set of challenges in college. Most of the challenges shared in the thread were tied to student’s maintaining their mental health, being resilient in times of challenge, and feeling overwhelmed by their course loads.

Biggest challenge is Overcoming Setbacks

We noticed the most common trend college faculty shared was that students are having trouble recovering from setbacks they encounter in college. More students are showing an inability to continue or adapt when they face hurdles, which sometimes results in withdrawal from classes.

Effective Coping Strategies are Essential

Students finding the most success in college right now have a strong understanding of healthy coping strategies that work for them. This is why we talk with all Beyond Akeela teens about their coping strategies. They have to access these skills at Beyond Akeela, as everyone has moments of frustration or anxiety at camp. College life is no different.

Reliance of Phones/Screens

Several program directors noted that they are seeing more students relying on screens as their main coping skill. This has adverse effects on student sleep, personal care, and classwork completion. We’ve noticed a similar uptick in families concerned about their teen’s coping skills at Beyond Akeela without screen access. This is why we don’t allow screens at camp, so campers build a variety of coping skills.

Best Results for Those Accessing Support

Several faculty noted that autistic young adults are experiencing less regression than the neuro-majority because of the services they access in college. It is essential for college success to have the self-monitoring skills to understand when help is needed, and how to access it.

One of our goals at Beyond Akeela is to help teens develop a better understanding of the structure and areas of support they benefit from to be successful, and empower them to advocate for that support.

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Thanking Our Coaches

Dear Beyond Akeela Families,

It’s the time of year when we gather with loved ones, be they friends or family, and reflect on what we’re thankful for. This year we can’t help but think of all the “coaches” in our lives that we interact with in different ways. Everyone, no matter their neurological makeup or path in life, benefits from coaching. Simon and Arlo are now taking swimming lessons. We’re grateful they have coaches who have the patience and will power to teach them some basic water safety skills (we certainly don’t!). In both of our professional lives, we have colleagues and mentors that we look to for coaching and guidance. They help us navigate our careers and build a better version of Beyond Akeela every year.

Yet it’s clear to us who the most important coaches in our lives are. The Beyond Akeela staff members we work with every summer are truly incredible. We talk with staff a lot about the concept of being coaches for the teens they work with. While they facilitate activities, conversations, and spontaneous moments of fun, they’re always wearing a coaches hat, identifying ways to mentor and coach the teens they work with.

We’re so proud and humbled to work with staff members who dedicate themselves to the mission of Beyond Akeela. They uproot their lives for two months to be amazing coaches. Staff come in with a variety of backgrounds and a common passion for youth development. They self-select into a living and learning community. They work around the clock, and smile through the ups and downs of camp life. It takes a special kind of person to be a great coach at Beyond Akeela and we’re so lucky to have worked with so many over the years.

Who are the coaches in your life? Is there something you’re working toward that a coach could help with? We encourage you to think about coaches you’ve had the fortune of working with, both past and present. Share your gratitude with them.

Kevin & Kristin

Why Send Your Teen to an Asperger’s Summer Transition Program

There are many benefits to sending your teen to an Asperger’s summer transition program that we could share with you, but it’s probably best that we let our families tell you why…

Building Social Skills at Camp

“Jane gained so much from her time at Beyond Akeela this past summer, and now that she is off at college, with accommodations in place, some tutoring, and an outside executive functioning coach, she seems to be doing so well! She is being social, making new friends and has joined at least two clubs. We couldn’t be prouder of her and we believe we have Beyond Akeela to thank for helping her learn how to socialize again.”

Preparing for College at Camp

“I do not think we realized until this past month when we watched Tim settle in relatively smoothly to college that we understood the impact Beyond Akeela had on him. He has referred to his transition program several times, saying things like, “They told us about this at Beyond Akeela…”. He has gotten through the bumps more smoothly at Eastern because of Beyond Akeela. We are thankful.”

Building Confidence for College Transition at Camp

“Jonathan gets back from engineering camp tomorrow. I credit Beyond Akeela for giving him the confidence he needed to participate in this program. Being prepared for the college living situation, knowing he can do it, was one hurdle we all didn’t have to worry about. He is enjoying the schedule, the socializing and the project, and phones/computers are allowed and necessary. He’s chosen to be involved with optional activities rather than stay in his room on a device.”

“Sarah is much more self confident and feels much more prepared for college. She got off the plane and said to us “ I am so ready for college!” She really enjoyed the other campers and felt like she found friends she “fit in” with.”

Building Life Skills at Camp

“Joyce is socially more engaged and excited to interact with friends now that she is back from Beyond Akeela. She is more willing to take feedback and is keeping up with some of the improved habits she adopted, such as managing her time and schedule more independently.”

Beyond Akeela’s Asperger’s summer college transition program has been creating transformative experiences for teens for over 10 years, and we look forward to changing more lives next year!