Looking at Mental and Physical Health for our Exceptional Individuals

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

As we look ahead toward the re-opening of school buildings and a return to face-to-face education, we will begin to see additional activities like forehead scans for fever, hand sanitizer or washing hands requirements, and the wearing of masks. While those will be important as we seek to regain healthy physical environments, we cannot forget what lies behind those masks; the individual and their mental health!

I can only share what I have experienced, heard from professionals in the field, or read in respectable articles. Anxiety rates, depression, and escalations have increased drastically. As neuro-typical adults, we have probably felt this anxiety during this time. A dear friend of mine who is a doctor on the front line with a teen who has some physical issues shared with me that the anxiety levels in her house are through the roof. Ironically, the major source of the anxiety there is from her husband who is worried for her well-being, his daughter’s well-being, and what this will mean for their family in the future. Their daughter has picked up on the worrying and has found her anxiety levels increased simply on account of that. However, she can actually process those feelings and express her concern to both her parents. What about those individuals who, after picking up anxiety from those around them, cannot process those feelings, express them, or even have someone with whom they can share them?

As we move into our next phase of life after this pandemic, we must keep the mental health of our exceptional individuals in mind. It will not be as simple as saying that “they will be back in school, so it will be normal.” It will not return to any sense of normalcy immediately. We need to understand that while we broke routines in shifting from face-to-face learning to virtual learning, we will also be breaking a newer routine of the virtual as we return to face-to-face learning. Add to that the fact that face-to-face learning may be adjusted to meet safety and health recommendations and may not be easily understood for some individuals. What happens when we cannot have lunch with our friends? What happens when courses like adapted physical education are changed or postponed to another semester? What happens when therapy time becomes a unique hybrid of face-to-face and virtual to protect against issues like this happening in the future? These are all events that can begin to heighten anxiety levels even after the return to a school building.

So what can we do? First, we must not live in denial. This pandemic, no matter what the news agencies state, caused a major disruption in learning. The shattering of the educational routine is something that is real and must be addressed and supported upon our return to the classroom. How can we do this? Look at ways of making learning a holistic process. Learning must become an area where we are not simply learning our numbers or letters. We need to take a look at how we can create lessons based on the individual needs and levels of our exceptional individuals that can be easily applied in multiple environments. What does that mean? Let’s break out just couple of areas here. Communication skills need to be presented in a way that can move the lessons to wherever the individual is located. SLPs can augment their face-to-face time with virtual sessions in school to make that transition to the home environment easier during a time of illness or day away from the building. Washing hands is something that should have a set routine which is followed everywhere. Even bus rides should have routines built in that demonstrate learning can take place in alternate locations. Thus, we must redefine routine to make it something which focuses around the individual, not the location.

Next, we must be aware of the need for some of our exceptional individuals, as well as some neuro-typical students, to have time and space to get away. Sensory rooms or spaces, and sensory items like socially and educationally-appropriate fidgets need to become acceptable and a new norm within schools and even workplaces. We need to work with all individuals and teach a level of understanding and tolerance for those who do not process anxiety easily. How do we make our learning environments more sensory-friendly? How do we as educators, especially in inclusive classrooms, move beyond the idea of “back in my day we….” and into an era where sensory breaks are part of the curriculum? Those are issues that are not pedagogical in nature. Those are issues that are directly related to mental well-being. If we are truly educating our students to become the best they can be, then we must give them the tools to deal with further anxiety in society. We need to be aware that the statement “I am getting them ready for the real world” in not allowing for sensory release is not factual. Instead, the truth of it lies in the fact that it is simply modeling what society is seeing in the “real world” and not doing anything to prepare for it. True preparation for dealing with that “real world anxiety” would include techniques for dealing with it; like sensory breaks, yoga, and meditation.

Finally, we need to understand that for some of our exceptional individuals, this is an event which will never fade from their memories. The actual trauma they may have experienced in this utter disruption of their lives will be similar to individuals who suffer from any level of PTSD. Please remember that PTSD is not strictly related to the military. In actuality, any major trauma can bring about its onset. We need to be conscious of this as our exceptional individuals return. We also must be supporting ourselves in this as we, too, have experienced the trauma of this pandemic at different levels. Thus, the best way for us to get ready to help our exceptional individuals is to make sure that we are supporting ourselves. Take time to center yourself each day. Find some time for you to relax and process all of this internally. Find some activity to bring you to a point of peace from which you can continue to make a difference in the lives of these individuals.

I thank you for all that you have done, are currently doing, and will continue to do. You, like our doctors and nurses, are on the front lines of life! We at School Health will be doing what we can to support you too. I am excited to announce two upcoming ways of us assisting you. First, we will be releasing a new video series at the end of this month. At the time of this blog, 15,000 of you had viewed our first series which focused on Working with Our Exceptional Individuals during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Our upcoming series is going to focus on Creating a Holistic Transitioning Model. We will be looking at changing our perceptions of transitioning from a linear to a holistic format; what that means and how we can do it effectively. I am also pleased to share with you that we will be hosting a webinar in August as we are returning to school buildings. This webinar is going to focus on the topic of anxiety and what our students will be facing as they re-enter school. Our guest speaker will be Dr. Maria Frankland from the University of Maine. Please stay tuned for specific information about that.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions at We are all in this together and will come out of this time stronger than ever!

Product Review: Giraffe Bottle Handsfree Drinking System

by Gabriel Ryan

GabeGiraffeMany people struggle to drink enough water each day. What if I told you I’ve recently increased my water intake by 60% just by trying out a different water bottle? Getting the right amount of water can be especially challenging for those who cannot reach or hold a water bottle easily.

Whether you are generally healthy or have any health conditions, without water, we run the risk of dehydration.  In a Harvard Health Publishing article, by Heidi Godman, titled “How much water should you drink” published 2016, updated 2018. The question is posed, “How much water a day should you drink?” the answer, according to Dr. Julian Seifter, Senior Advisor at Harvard Medical School, “There's no one-size-fits-all answer…water intake must be individualized, and you should check with your doctor to be sure you're getting the right amount.”

Like many people, I carry a water bottle every day. My favorite water bottle for many years has been the CamelBak 0.75L and the smaller version 0.4L. I like the silicone bite valve, multiple clear colors, durable design, and cap with the loop to cli it to my bag. I have found that the larger bottle is a bit too heavy for me to lift when full. The smaller bottle, I can easily hold but I drink it so quickly I am having to refill it often. Together with my family we ingeniously came up with a small bungee cord that could attach to the cap loop in case the bottle slid off my wheelchair tray or out of grip. Those of you who have had this happen while traveling in the car know all too well how frustrating it is to have your drink roll around the floor of the vehicle out of your reach until you get to your destination.

Giraffe BottleWhile attending the ATIA Conference in Florida earlier this year with the School Health Team, I learned about the Giraffe Bottle Handsfree Drinking System.  As mentioned in their resource material, “The Giraffe Bottle Hands Free Drinking System allows users with various abilities to stay hydrated. The system is designed to be flexible and easy to use. The solution is great for desks, wheelchairs, beds, tables, and more. Helps people with disabilities, injuries, or other conditions including CP (cerebral palsy) or MS (multiple sclerosis). Hydration is important to your body, heart, brain, and muscles. And depending on your mobility, getting a drink isn’t always an easy task. That’s where the Giraffe Bottle Hands Free Drinking solution comes in. The Giraffe Bottle provides the user with another level of independence and it also frees up the parent or caregiver.”

I’ve used a similar product with a flexible neck in the past, and although I liked the flexibility, the bottle was not clear and drinking tube not soft, so I discontinued use.  The Giraffe Bottle caught my eye right away with its flexible neck, clear bottle and soft drinking tube!  I decided to purchase one and give it a try.

Some of the key features and options when purchasing are:

  • The ModularHose neck is available in six lengths ranging from 9 inches to 36 inches, with an included drinking tube, valve and cleaning brush.

  • The 750ml bottle is clear with volume marking on the side and comes with a lid, cap and seal.

  • Replacement parts are individually sold. As you need to replace parts you can purchase just the pieces you need.

When my purchase arrived, I was able to use this product right out of the box, there was minimal assembly.  I purchased a modular bottle holder as well but so far; I have preferred keeping the bottle in the mesh side pocket of my backpack which is attached to the back of my wheelchair. (I’ll have to spend more time with the holders and attachments and review those in a future blog.)

My favorite features of this bottle are:

  • I have increased my water intake by 60% because I can independently give myself a drink whenever I want to. No more water bottles sliding away out of reach.

  • The modular neck is easy to reach and adjusts exactly where I want to position it and I can swing it away when not in use.

  • The bottle is 750ml which means I can go a longer time without needing assistance with a refill. The clear bottle lets me easily see the contents without removing the lid to peer inside.

  • The tubing is flexible, small, and soft. It is comfortable to drink from.

  • The special valve attached to the drinking tube- after your first drink following a bottle refill, you don’t have to sip on the drinking tube with enough suction to get the liquid from the bottle all the way through the tube to your mouth each time, the liquid stays in the tube near the opening, ready for you to drink.

One of my favorite features, the special valve, does have a minor drawback. I found that it is important to keep the end of the tube you drink from upright so that the water doesn’t spill out on its own. I also found that I have gotten splashed in the face by small amounts of water if the tube is bumped. I have a good sense of humor and it doesn’t bother me too much, but those sensitive to water splashed on them would want to make sure they keep that in mind.

This is a great product for those looking to increase hydration more independently. I have enjoyed using it and have received many compliments and questions about it in my travels. Stick your neck out and purchase a Giraffe Bottle today!

Choosing the Appropriate Fidget

by Terri Griffin

The change in learning environment can cause anxiety and distraction. Fidgets are an easy way to help learners and first-time teachers at home stay focused and on track, even (especially) when tasks seem dull, tedious, or boring.

Research shows that physical activity — even a little foot-tapping or gum chewing — increases levels of the neurotransmitters in the brain that control focus and attention. A subtle fidget tool may help block out distractions, fight boredom, and increase productivity.

People on the autism spectrum may find using fidget tools soothing and calming as the tools help them meet their sensory needs. For people with ADHD, the tools can provide a movement outlet that allows them to focus and concentrate better. Some people with anxiety may also benefit from using fidget tools.

The purpose of a fidget is to act as a sensory filter. It is a tool that can help with self-regulation, attention, and calming.  It is not a toy.  The wrong fidget, or a fidget used the wrong way, can end up being distracting or disruptive, the opposite of the desired effect.

Fidgeting must be deliberate to be effective. Intentional fidgets allow you to self-regulate in a controlled, constructive fashion. An effective fidget doesn’t distract from the primary task because it is something that the user doesn’t have to think about. It provides an activity that uses a sense other than the one required for the primary task. For example, a quiet manipulative using the hands while looking at or listening to the teacher can help promote increased focus.

Fidget tools should be used intermittently. People can become desensitized to the sensory benefits of an object, so use it for short periods at times when concentration is most needed or swap between fidgets over the course of the day.  When not in use, fidget tools should be kept out of sight.

Fidget tools come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. Not every fidget will work for every person. Different types of fidgets can meet different sensory needs. There is no one size fits all sensory fidget.

Many different items can be used as a fidget tool. They do not need to be expensive or even something purchased. Sometimes people find something as simple as a small piece of soft material.  What matters is to find a tool that works for the individual person.

Along with being quiet and safe, what makes a good fidget tool?

  • Can be used without causing distraction to the user or others around them

  • Can be used without looking, so the user can focus on the task or lesson

  • Meets the user’s sensory needs (e.g., texture, shape, sensation)

  • Fits the user’s physical abilities (in particular, motor skills and hand strength)

Some things to consider for choosing an appropriate fidget for your needs.

Who – Consider who will be using the fidget.  Do they crave or dislike certain textures? Do they like to pull or pinch or squeeze? Do they crave pressure or proprioceptive input? How much strength do they have to manipulate a fidget? Is the person an oral seeker – are they likely to chew and bite it?

Material – Fidgets are made in in a variety of material. Plastic, metal, rubber, stone, and latex components can create items that feel soft, squishy, hard, wiry, or malleable.

Motion – Some people are drawn to a fidget because of the motion used to manipulate it. Consider what form of movement is most soothing — stretching, twisting, flexing, building, spinning, shaping, clicking, etc.

Size – Many fidgeters like to keep something in a pocket, so that it is easily transported, discreet, and can be used without anyone seeing. Small fidgets can also be ideal for one-handed use and finger-tip manipulation. However, items that are a bit larger and chunkier can feel more substantial and engage more muscles and more parts of the brain.

Appearance – Even though fidgeting is primarily a tactile experience, what it looks like can matter. Some fidgeters are drawn to playful colors, looks, and shapes. Because memory and recall have been shown to improve when more areas of the brain are activated, additional stimulus created by the visual, auditory, and emotional experience of using a fidget tool is likely to have a positive impact.

Durability – Many fidget tools are fairly inexpensive and vary in durability and washability. Hard plastic and metal are likely to stand the test of time. Rubbery or gel-filled items tend to pick up more dirt and can be more difficult to clean.

Weight – Some fidget users prefer items that have a little heft or weight. Of course, they should not be too heavy or cumbersome.

Understanding the variety of sensory needs can help find the tools or resources that would be best for each individual. You may want to try a few to figure out which tools best help with calm and focus.


Stimming, short for Self-Stimulation, refers to self-soothing behaviors. For those who find repetitive motions to be calming, these fidget tools might be good choices: TanglesLoopezGyrobiSwingOssensory stonesmarble BoinksDimplpencil topper fidgetsthinking putty


Some with SPD find certain textures particularly soothing. Several fidget tools offer interesting tactile experiences. Here are some examples: Tangle Therapyspaghetti ballstextured sensory rulerVelcro stripssensory stonesfidget ballspencil gripsAku ring

Fine Motor

Fidget tools can also help build fine motor skills, strengthen finger muscles, and help develop eye-hand coordination.  These are some fidgets that provide dual benefits: LoopezGyrobiCaterpinchTwisterssqueeze fidgetsthinking puttypencil grips


Claflin, Carol, PhD. “The Benefits of Fidget Tools: What Research Says About ADHD AND SPD.” Retrieved from

Grogan, Alisha MOT, OTR/L. “The Quintessential Guide to Fidgets for Kids.” Retrieved from

Griffin, Kim, OT. “Top Five Tips for Choosing Fidget Toys at Home and School.” Retrieved from

Isbister, Katherine. “Fidget toys aren’t just hype.” Scientific American: The conversation. Retrieved from

WorkSMART Blog. ”Finding the Best Fidget Toy.” Retrieved from

WorkSMART Blog. “Finding the Right Fidget for Any Sensory Diet.” Retrieved from

Rotz, Ronald, PhD & Wright, Sarah. “The body-brain connection: How fidgeting sharpens focus.” Retrieved from

The Efficacy of Fidget Toys in School Settings for Children with Attention Difficulties and Hyperactivity

Mennillo, Michelle. “Stop touching things! The role of fidget toys”

Stalvey Sheryl and Brasell, Heather. “Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth-Grade Learners.” The Journal of At-Risk Issues. Retrieved from

Rohrberger, Amanda. “The Efficacy of Fidget Toys in a School Setting for Children with Attention Difficulties and Hyperactivity.” Ithaca College Theses.

American Occupational Therapy Association. Fact sheet: Occupational therapy using a sensory integration-based approach with adult populations. Retrieved from

Working with Our Exceptional Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

In 1951, a short story appeared in a children’s magazine, Boys and Girls Page, called, “The Fun They Had.” It was written by an author named Isaac Asimov who would later become one of the most distinguished science fiction writers of the 20th century. The premise of the story was that by the year 2157, all schooling would be done in the homes by computerized teachers. The young protagonists of the story find a real book in their attic and begin to wonder about what it must have been like to attend school with other students. Almost seventy years later, the idea of schooling done at home through a computer has come to the forefront due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I write this to you during the first day of “lockdown” in Ohio. We have already seen our schools move to an online format. Many districts and almost all universities have already begun to announce that the semester will continue without further face-to-face classes. Other states, like Kansas, are moving towards this same online-teaching format for all schools. In speaking with educational leaders throughout the country, the conservative expectation is that over 80% of schooling during the 2019-2020 school year will be completed as such.

What does this mean for our exceptional students? It means that there is going to be a change in routine which may create some issues for them. The first thing to remember is that scheduling is very important in a student’s routine. It’s a good idea to take a look at the structure of their day and try to keep it as similar to their regular school day as possible. The second thing is to realize that services must continue for them in a differentiated format. The Office of Civil Rights put out a letter describing this mandate here: On that page, they also have a link to the US Department of Education’s Information page regarding coronavirus here: Please stay abreast of the fact that we must continue the education of our students and that this situation is dictating changes in our sharing of information with all students.

As many of you teachers are moving into online teaching, I understand you are not sure where to start.  Right now, I have seen everything from teachers sending notes and quizzes via email, to those who have taken advantage of products like Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom, and Blackboard to keep learning going in as close to a typical situation as possible.  For those of you who do not know where to start, Dr. Kelly Grillo from the Council for Exceptional Children conducted a fantastic webinar last Thursday. You can check it out here:  Please also check out their resource listing as they have the most up-to-date listings of resources, especially those which are at no cost now to you or the schools.

I have also done several things in order to best assist us through this transition.  First, if you are on Twitter, please feel free to follow me @DrSmartEd as I am reviewing and retweeting ideas and other resources as I find and review them. I am also creating a video series on “Working with Our Exceptional Individuals During the COVID-19 Pandemic” on the School Health YouTube Channel: This video series discusses what we can be doing at home and during preparation. It highlights activities that can be done with household items as well as items which may either be lying around the school and accessible to parents or guardians in the home environment. I am discussing what others have shared with me and trying to give an overall view of how we can make this as effective as possible for all of our students. I am also going to be adding to my blog output which you have linked to here at:

Two things are of the utmost importance to remember when you are designing online lessons. First, communication is critical! You must be overly explicit in directions to the students and to the parents/guardians who are working with the students. This is important for two reasons. The first reason is what one might expect, clear communication will lead to the lesson or activity being done correctly the first time. It will be able to be completed without the need for continued questioning during any of the parts of the activity. The second reason is to create a structure around the lesson or activity, thereby creating a sense of security in the minds of both the student and the guide. We are all highly anxious and stressed right now. Explicit communication helps! If it is permitted by your district, phone calls or even video connections add another layer of psychological comfort to this situation.

Second, you want to be as understanding and caring as possible. Many of our exceptional students will be overly needy and seeking attention during this time. Many people are exuding feelings of stress and those feelings are not easily understood by those with exceptionalities. As we work with our exceptional individuals, it is important to be patient during this unique and difficult situation. The first person to be patient with is yourself! We are in uncharted territory here and there is no absolute right or wrong way of doing things. Have faith in your own teaching abilities and interact with your students how you believe it is best to interact with them, following the health guidelines designed by your state and educational guidelines set up by your district.

Use any and all resources at your disposal.  If you have questions, please reach out to me at and I will respond. Don’t forget to check out the video series too.

We will get through this together and be even stronger in our educational ways!

Addressing the Coronavirus with our Exceptional Individuals

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

The Coronavirus epidemic has flooded our airwaves and rightly so. We must be prepared for any type of virus which could create any type of sickness, let alone one potentially leading to death. I have had a number of individuals reach out to me and ask what is the best way to work with our exceptional individuals to warn them of this and get them to take positive action, without creating undue stress and fear. This really requires us to know the individuals with whom we are dealing and use it as a learning tool that can carry into other aspects of life.

The first thing we need to do is discuss how to stay healthy. Daily activities like washing hands thoroughly, sneezing or coughing into a facial tissue or elbow if a facial tissue is not easily available are two things to begin to review. Explain how diseases can be carried through the air and on surfaces. But, by properly washing hands, we reduce the number of germs on them. By sneezing or coughing into a facial tissue or elbow, we are making sure not to spread germs toward others.  After the sneeze, we need to wash our hands too. Discuss how hospital masks can be something which helps to reduce the germs coming in or out, but we still need to make sure our hands are clean. Also consider an alcohol-free foaming hand-sanitizer when hand washing is not possible.

Bring up how to properly clean our areas too. This is an excellent opportunity to establish a purpose behind why we put away our things, wipe down tables and trays, and throw away our trash. For those wondering, I highly recommend moving away from bleach-based wipes. Bleach leaves a residue which can be problematic for those who like to touch and put their hands or other objects into their mouths. It also has a distinct odor which can cause issues for some with sensory processing issues. So what is good to use? I am a big proponent of Clorox Hydrogen-Peroxide Disinfectants. They work as well as the bleach wipes, but address the two issues above with high success. Some use peroxide to clean and whiten teeth, so that concern is eliminated.  The scent issue is almost non-existent. Ironically, if you use Lysol Disinfectant Spray or products, you will see that one of the germs it works on is human coronavirus. The current outbreak is related to that and more severe, but we know that the folks at Lysol were doing their due diligence!

Several groups have been concerned about the anxiety associated with talking about death and viruses. First, you know the cognitive level of the individuals with whom you are working. If they are of moderate to higher cognitive levels, then share the news exactly as it is with them. There have been deaths associated with this and it is right for them to know. For those individuals of lower cognitive functioning, explain that one needs to be careful and take care of his/herself or bad things can happen. We know that some individuals may not understand the differences between various illnesses and we do not want them to get over-anxious anytime he/she has a cold. Explain that not all sicknesses lead to death. By taking proper care of oneself, one can stay as healthy as possible.

The next thing we want to discuss with them is healthy eating. Not all of our exceptional individuals will be taking vitamins as a supplement to their food. Thus, we need to emphasize eating as healthy as possible. Again, you know the individuals with whom you work the best. There are going to be situations where highly processed foods are the only choices available to these individuals. So discuss things like having a bowl of cereal or a slice of bread/toast in the morning. As the basis for this discussion, use the idea that eating in a healthy way helps to fend off colds. Make the adjustments you need to make to your discussions taking into account the individuals in front of you. If you think it’s appropriate, share what you eat and why.

Dressing appropriately is also another topic to bring up here. Again, relate it directly to your individuals. There may be some who do not have coats, gloves, or hats. If that is the case, maybe see what is in the school or institutions lost and found and share with these individuals if possible. Some of our individuals may not be able to dress themselves, but that does not mean that they should not hear this discussion. They need to be included so that they might have the ability for self-advocacy later in life.

The next item to consider bringing into these lessons is Emergency Preparedness. Start with what do you do if someone gets sick in the class? Discuss and create in a visual chart how to move and where to go. Keep it simple in the way the individual flow will go if someone does get sick. Let everyone in the class know that it does happen. You can also expand that to other emergency situations. Let them know what to do if you have external issues like a fire or tornado. It is again essential to have visual cues as to where to go if these situations occur. If you have an individual who would need to use something like an evacuation chair, like the EvacuaSafe Excel, teach the individuals to stay out of its way and let them know that it is for a specific individual. It is not a toy and is only used for safety purposes.

Basically, we are reminding our individuals of how to live a healthy lifestyle and complete certain hygienic daily activities. We are using the current events in an open and honest way to reinforce the importance of these daily health activities. Yet, we are not going immediately to the “do this or die” mentality that I have heard some in the public forum suggest. We are also using this as an opportunity to review emergency procedures. Having plans like this reviewed is important for all individuals. We are not avoiding the issue; rather, we are using it as a learning tool. Our exceptional students may be getting a lot of their “worldly” information from online sources. We need to recognize that fear and anxiety can form quickly when these sources are the basis for interpretation of global issues. Being cognizant of this and working to explain things in an applicable way can move to decrease irrational escalations. This event also gives us the opportunity to create those visual maps and plans that are good for all in the time of any emergency.

Finally, invite the school nurse in as a guest speaker. Have her speak about how to stay healthy. Let our exceptional students see that school nurse as a leader in health and wellness, not just someone you see when you are sick. When we approach this epidemic in a balanced manner, addressing the specific needs of our population at a level they can understand, we create the ability for them to live the best life they can!

Reviewing ATIA 2020

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

We have just returned from ATIA 2020 in Orlando! I have been attending and speaking at this Conference for the better part of a decade now, and I firmly believe that this was one of the best we have seen in many years. There were some consistent themes that ran through the conference and I wanted to share a few highlights with you.

First, thanks to social media and digital methods of communication, we saw a number of sessions occur during lunch breaks and immediately after the final presentations where individuals could gather based on topic, region, or group. ATIA’s sessions book up quickly with excellent presentations and presenters. That means our days get packed with information. What about those topics that were not addressed?  These informal sessions add another depth to what we can gain from gathering for ATIA. I also appreciate the fact that groups like the AT Makers and others can find times when they can gather and share ideas. This is a way to have our weekly or monthly chats be taken to another level. It also provides an opportunity to better understand the needs of each of our schools or centers in an effort to relate how various activities might or might not work for us.

I was thrilled by the number of people with whom I spoke regarding adults; both transitioning out of the school and into the workplace and at home. Adults with differing abilities are so often overlooked by the general public; yet they have so much to offer. There are a number of ways to make current workplaces accessible for our adults. We are already seeing a concentrated movement on the part of colleges and universities to better meet the needs of college ready students. Let’s step up that movement into adults.  There are a number of both software and hardware products that can easily adapt a workplace or collegiate environment.  Software like Read&Write and ClaroRead Pro do a great job of granting better access. Devices like the C-Pen, LiveScribe Pen, and Glassouse create a deeper layer of access and information gathering, while not appearing child-like. Even the specialized placement of TalkingBrix2 can give feedback necessary for doing and completing a job. We MUST NOT forget our adults and widen the understanding of businesses to the talents which they can bring to any company when given a chance.

Closed captioning for those with auditory issues and greater access to reading for those with visual impairments were other hot topics with many at the show. Part of creating access is to remember to have all the bases covered in what access actually means. Those of you designing websites need to remember to add closed captioning to videos you post. I saw some great new embossers which created smooth and complete braille documents; especially the ViewPlus ones.

As for newer products here in the US which impressed me, there were a couple which were of note. Abilia has a neat device called the MEMO Timer which is a personalized timer that can be carried or worn. It uses the idea of vertical timing with colors to provide the user with quick feedback. I also like that it can be used for anyone completing activities, and not just students. It is not yet available in the US, but that is being worked on now! Ablenet also demonstrated some of their newer versions of devices like the SuperTalker FT and the iTalk4. I love the fact that Ablenet is already creating their switches from earth-friendly materials so that they can be recycled. They are definitely ahead of the game there!

The biggest impression on me came from my friends at BJLive! Their sensory experience is amazing. They are redefining the idea of sensory room or sensory space and making it come alive for ALL age levels and locations. They are just beginning to introduce their concepts here into the US, and I will keep everyone posted on that. The applications of this are mind-boggling! They also have a new visual timer called the Resettea - it is pragmatic, researched, and has the high level of quality I have come to expect from them.

In all, this was an exciting conference and a great way to start the new year! I will be sharing other thoughts and insights with you along the way. Now I am off to CEC. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at


A 2020 Re-Vision for Special Education

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

Back in the 1990s, I recall speaking at a seminar with a number of school leaders. I was asked to speak on how my school was dealing with the rise of students with ADD (we were just beginning to see ADHD in medical reviews) and how we dealt with them in “standard” classrooms as “inclusion” was not a term being used. One of the other speakers was speaking about working with students as a whole and posed this question, “What if we taught every student as though they had an IEP?”

That question created mass panic to the attendees at that time. They were picturing the fact that each student would have a paper IEP and that they would have either a class of 30 students with IEPs at the elementary level or 5 classes of 30 students with IEPs at the middle and high school levels. That was not what the speaker was intoning. Rather, he was speaking about the approach to teaching by taking into account each student’s abilities along with the class material.

A few years later, I would have the opportunity to discuss the work of the late Dr. Gregory Knittel with him where he focused on the decision-making process of master teachers in classes. Dr. Knittel found that a Master Teacher makes a formal decision about once every 30 seconds in a class. Those decisions focused on the students and how they are interacting with the material. A Master Teacher was keeping in mind the ways that the students processed information and working to ensure that the opportunity for learning was there for all students.  He also found that those who were not master teachers only made formal decisions once every 90-120 seconds and those decisions focused on the material or behavior of the students, not on the actual learning.

So, what does all of that mean for our Special Education classrooms? What if 2020 became the year we began re-visioning special education? Yes, we are still going to have IEPs (digital and paper now) for our students. And yes, we will still have some students who need to be in specialized classes. But, let’s really get our school communities in line with an individual’s potential. Let’s create scenarios where our students come to appreciate ALL of their peers and not just those who excel on the athletic field or in the classroom. We read stories on a regular basis of how an individual with differing abilities is making a positive impact in the lives of other students, so let’s create that on a daily basis in our classrooms.

On my Twitter feed (@DrSmartEd) last week, I picked up an amazing story from my alma mater, Saint Ignatius High School. Every December, they have a Student-Faculty basketball game to wrap up a Community Day focused on service. This year had an amazing event occur. One of the seniors asked if his younger brother with differing abilities could get in the game. His brother was sent to the foul line (adjusted slightly) and asked to shoot a free throw. The young man made the free throw and it was like he had won the NBA Championship. The seniors all mobbed this young man and celebrated his shot. What a gift this young man gave to the entire school community watching. We need to capture the emotion of this and make it real each day.

We read about schools who are implementing coffee or snack carts. Let’s get more of those out there with our students who have differing abilities manning them. The life and social skills gained from this are tremendous, along with the desensitization of our neuro-typical students in interacting with these students on a regular basis. Let me know at if you would like ideas as to how to make something like this happen.

But it cannot stop there! What about having students with differing abilities read daily announcements. I have seen some schools who use video announcements use students with Down Syndrome or CP as co-anchors. What about having some of those students work together with the Speech and Debate team or Model UN group? Individuals with differing abilities make sensational actors and stagehands and can be part of school productions or videos. What about having some of the older students with differing abilities go down to the elementary and pre-k classrooms and read to those students?

In our transition programs, let’s get our hands “dirty.” So many schools have to put together their own kits for teaching skills to students. Let’s look at some of the alternatives and never put a job out of a student’s reach until the students have come to realize it is out of their reach. I know of a school in Texas where several of their students with differing abilities, including a young man with Down Syndrome, learned to weld! Let’s not forget the Dr. Stephen Hawking’s, Dr. Temple Grandin’s, Alexis Wineman’s (Miss Montana 2012 and first Miss America Pageant Contestant with autism), and Brad Cohen’s (teacher and administrator with Tourette Syndrome) of the world and use them as role models for ALL of our students. Again, feel free to reach out to me for suggestions on approaches.

To some of you, this may sound like pie in the sky. I completely understand and you are right, to a degree! The question for us becomes if you don’t start it in your school or community, who will? Education should always be about hope – hope for the future. We are bringing skills and abilities to our students which could positively drive their future lives. Ableism is an issue today and we are the ones who can begin to diminish its effects in our communities. Let’s look at what we are doing and focus on the approach. As we approach things with a “Yes, we can!” mentality, we inspire others to do so. There is no magic wand for this and it will not occur overnight. But it is teachers, administrators, therapists, and people like you who are making a difference and moving the world in the right direction.

You are a gift to this world as are our individuals with differing abilities! Let’s work together to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Let’s create that re-vision here in 2020 and keep it moving through this decade.

Lights and Sounds and Holiday Time, Oh My!

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

November winds have brought in a change in weather along with an anticipation of the upcoming holiday season.  The sights, scents, and sounds of this time bring back wonderful memories of the past for some. Unfortunately, those same sights, scents, and sounds may also trigger high levels of anxiety and a sense of overwhelm in others. When preparing for your holidays, whether in a classroom, therapy room, or home; keep in mind your students, clients, guests, and self. Please be aware that this is not a post focused on taking away holiday traditions. Instead, we can take those traditions and make them more accessible to everyone.

Let’s start in the classroom or therapy room. We exist in a day and age where holidays are celebrated in different ways. Some classrooms are permitted to decorate for the various holidays, while others are not. No matter what the guidelines of your school or center are in the decorating or celebrating of holidays, there are specific ideas to keep in mind. First, remember that there is an energy which flows through the very air at this time of the year. It is a sense of anticipation and excitement for many of our students. So, the first thing to create is a place that maintains calm. If decorations are permitted, put them out in a tasteful and purposeful manner. Have a set area of the room which recognizes those holidays but maintain one area that is holiday-free. If you already have a sensory space in your room, use that as the holiday-free area.

Watch the use of any scents in classrooms and therapy rooms which are not normally being used. For example, I have been in some therapy rooms which used infusers with scents like peppermint, lemon, or orange to increase focus and awareness. I have also seen the use of essential oils in both classrooms and therapy rooms. Essential oils which promote focus or wellness are in some rooms and create an engaging environment. However, be careful adding something new to environments. Although scents like pine, cinnamon, and apple might be appropriate in the home environment, they might be triggers and confusing in the classroom or therapy room. Be consistent with what you have been doing and do not cause confusion by changing the routine.

Be aware of lighting. Some individuals do not like lighting, especially the LED lighting of today. I have been in several sensory rooms which do use tree lights on the ceiling. But they use it as a matter of setting a mood. Therefore, using similar lighting in classrooms can cause confusion in some. Watch for the overall brightness due to the number of the lights too as it can be painful to some.

In the home environment, decorate as you normally would. Be sure to introduce each decoration and explain why you are putting it out. If it is something of a tradition for you already, share that information with others so that they understand the tradition. Invite the individual to help, but understand if they don’t wish too. Be sure to ask if they don’t like some traditions. For example, my son did not like watching the original version of the Grinch. Ironically, he did not like the scene near the end where the Grinch’s heart grows and the colors that flash out when this happens. So be aware that parts of television and movies can be something that causes some triggering. He still does not like that scene today.

Prepare all individuals for special meals and family gatherings.  Have practice dinners with simple ingredients. Perhaps, introduce foods and flavors earlier so that there are no surprises at the meal itself. Realize too that any cooking going on automatically changes some of the scents of the house. Again, have a place where individuals can go to “escape” the holidays. Whether it is a bedroom or area of the house or apartment not being used, introduce that as a safe space. Discuss prior to the gathering the location and what can be done there like reading or just sitting quietly. Have some noise-cancelling or noise-reducing headphones available in case the level of sound is what is creating the overload. Home should always have a safe place.

If you are travelling, think about the place to which you are going. How might you handle any escalations there? Keep in mind rooms where an individual can go to calm down. It is absolutely appropriate, if an escalation is taking place, to move the individual to a different location and let him or her watch a tablet or listen to music through headphones. I realize that it is not easy trying to explain behaviors like this to anyone, even family. I just spoke with a mother who dreads the holidays because her family does not understand escalations or how to work with them, believing the child to simply be ill-behaved. In situations like that, plan for briefer stays. Maybe even do some prep work with the family as a whole, although that is a daunting task in itself.

The final focus for the holiday season must be for yourself! Take time each day for your own special time. Find that activity which best fits your needs. For some, it might be hitting the gym, taking a run, riding a bike, or engaging in yoga. For others, it might be a cup of hot herbal tea and some time for reflection. The important thing to remember is that this type of time is essential. Please be sure to find that time, even if it is only 5 minutes, as you are critical in this whole process. What you have to do is to make sure that you are actually relaxing and re-energizing your body and mind. Some make the mistake of thinking that by simply reading a fictional book or vegging in front of a screen is the same. The reality is that those latter actions are simply avoidance tendencies which do not aid the body in overall relaxation. Find that activity which replenishes yourself as the holiday season can be even more stressful for you as you are dealing with so many issues, including hosting gatherings and getting gifts!

Be present to yourself and your needs. Then, you can be present to each individual and his or her needs. Remember, we can continue with holiday traditions and activities. We just need to create additional ways of access for everyone, even those with significant sensory issues.

May this be a wonderful season for you, your family, and all with whom you work! We here at School Health wish you the best!  If you have any questions for me, please contact me at

Social Media and Our Exceptional Individuals

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

The school year is in full swing. Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to attend this year’s Closing the Gap Conference and meet with districts and universities throughout the eastern half of the United States. There were the standard topics upon which I was asked to speak like sensory spaces, adaptive seating, transitional curriculum, and questions about specific individuals. However, there was one topic which caught me off guard. That topic was social media and how it is used by our exceptional individuals.

The most significant issue which teachers, administrators, aides, and therapists described was the fear of cyber-bullying. That is definitely a significant problem in today’s society as a whole.  We see reports every day about how our neuro-typical students have to face cyber-bullying.  Our concern is magnified when we think of how some of our exceptional individuals might have a harder time understanding and dealing with this. What I heard from some groups is that they try to keep their individuals off social media altogether. I am not a fan of that approach and here is why.

Back in the late aughts, I conducted a number of administrator trainings with the focus on being able to guide and assess teachers using digital information through educational technology. The biggest issue in many of their minds was how their teachers were using interactive whiteboards – most were using them as a screen on which images were projected. When it came to interaction, many classrooms only saw the teachers using them as a substitute dry-erase board (chalkboards for those of us from a different era.) As I took the various administrators through these sessions, I always ended with social media. Twitter had just begun and the opportunity for designing and growing one’s Personal Learning Network (PLN) was so revolutionary. Facebook had already begun its descent upwards. MySpace was already on its downward trend. There was one training where I had a superintendent interrupt me and say that social media was something his district would “never adopt as long as I am alive.” I had never had that vocal a response before so I asked him why. “I don’t care about what somebody had to eat last night. I only care about my kids passing their tests.” As you can see, his words still echo in my mind a decade later.

I thanked him for his candor and asked him if he thought his students were still going to use social media. He answered affirmatively and went on to add that they were kids and would do what kids do outside of school. I then asked him if role models were important to kids. He said yes. I kept going and asked if he believed his teachers were role models, to which he again said yes. So I asked him why he would not want his teachers to be the models for how to use something like Twitter or Facebook. I added that if his teachers were not going to be the role models, the most influential people on those platforms would be people like Brittany Spears (who had one of the largest number of followers at that point). So I asked him who would be the better role model for his students. As you might imagine, that line of reasoning caused a shift in his thinking.

I compare his thinking to the reasoning we are using today with social media and our exceptional individuals. I too am concerned with cyber-bullying. However, we often fail to recognize that cyber-bullying is now something we discuss in the news every day. When it is done covertly, it is bullying. But when it is done overtly, some hide behind their “right to free speech.” So how do we address this balance?

First, I firmly believe that to restrict anyone, especially our exceptional individuals, creates more of a desire to use these platforms. It also creates a gap between those individuals and their peers. My son recently began his collegiate career. Even though I have been on Twitter for over a decade and stay in contact with family, friends, and former students on Facebook, he was never big on using social media. He recognized that some of his friends were putting things on Facebook that were “silly” as he put it. He only joined the Facebook realm because some of his activities began posting schedules and other information online and he appreciated (as did I as a parent) the ability to have this information readily available. Texting became blasé for his peers and they became the SnapChat generation. It is amazing how deep their conversations can be via this platform. I have seen my son support others and be supported in ways not possible before. These students are also big into Instagram and I have been told that Facebook is for us “old” people! But the reality is that they are creating relationships which can span greater distances than ever before.

I bring these points up because social media is the way our young folks connect today. This is their world and not ours. They live in a global community which is much smaller than ever. It is as though the world is shrinking for them. Boundaries can be less strict. We have to understand that the days of having “pen-pals” and using rotary phones to talk to each other have been replaced by live video chats and cell phones with unlimited minutes. So who will be the ones to guide them and be their role models? We must be willing to take that role (even when SnapChatting is completely confusing!)

I follow a number of exceptional individuals on Twitter and never cease to be amazed with how much I learn from them. I am not at liberty to share their information in this blog but if you follow me at @DrSmartEd, you have probably seen me retweet or comment on their posts.  They let themselves be connected to the world beyond their homes. They also have the proper support that lets them pick and choose who to allow to directly connect with and who to block when necessary.

I had one group ask me why I thought it was good for even those with severe conditions to be on a social media platform. I explained that all too often, individuals only receive compliments or have contact with a small number of people. By expanding that group size, we can actually generate more positivity for these individuals. If they are of age, have them take selfies or have someone snap a picture of them doing various activities and create the posts. Find good folks to connect with (I follow the Dalai Lama!) Let our exceptional individuals interact on a positive level globally. These individuals feel constrained enough without letting them engage in activities that their peers do.

Will this eliminate cyber-bullying? NO! But by giving proper guidance and support, they can begin to see this negativity for what it is. We also can be there to translate the “bullying” going on overtly into distinguishing between facts and opinions. For those with more severe issues, we can guide them to the positive side of this world! We want them to be proud of who they are and what they bring to this world. We also want them to begin to understand that there will be adversity in this world and sometimes it will be directed towards them. By modeling for them how to deal with this negative feedback and how to block while reporting bullies, we are able to be there for them, even when we might not be around.

Please feel comfortable in having our exceptional individuals on various social media platforms.  Be there for them and don’t fear being on these platforms yourself. Model for them how to use these platforms correctly and how to be strong in the face of adversity. We will not find an answer to or get rid of cyber-bullying. However, we can equip individuals to better handle it when it arises. We can also have them comfortable with connecting with the outside world and being happy with who they are.

And if you have insights as to how this SnapChatting can be easier for us “old” people, please let me know!

Track My Route: Providing Special Education Transportation with Safety at Every Stop

Guest Blog by TMR Technologies

Technology in schools has continued to evolve in the past decade to improve the student experience in the classroom. Tablets, laptops, and smart devices have been crowding classrooms across the country, but school transportation has largely remained the same. TMR Technology is trying to bring school transportation up to speed with the rapidly improving technology available today.

TMR Technology provides schools K-12 with innovative software solutions to improve efficiency, convenience, and safety. Founded by a group of Indiana University students in 2017, we set out to solve a problem that each of us faced growing up; the trials and tribulations of taking the school bus. Our first solution, Track My Route, is a mobile application that tracks school buses for parents and students grades K-12. It uses real-time GPS tracking and provides a user-friendly mobile interface. The solution was created to help reduce both the morning rush atmosphere and the time that students are stuck waiting outside at the bus stop. Parents with busy schedules that rush to meet their child at the bus stop don’t have to guess when the bus will arrive, and school administrators can spend less time responding to calls from parents asking where the bus is.

School transportation for parents of special needs students can be an immense challenge. We take pride in helping special education programs overcome this challenge because that is where we got our start. Our Track My Route solution was first piloted in a special education cooperative in the Chicagoland area, and they are now our longest tenured customers. While working with the cooperative we were able to determine what our users needed from our solution for it to effectively improve their transportation experience. Most special education buses pull up directly to the students house instead of a stop nearby. TMR was able to take this into account to ensure our Track My Route solution can provide special education riders safety at every stop.

Cindy Lambrakis is the operations manager of special needs transportation at American School bus, and believes Track My Route can alleviate pain points that come with student transportation. "From an administrative perspective, Track My Route will help to alleviate the volume of calls that our dispatchers are inundated with on a daily basis. The drivers will be able to concentrate on driving and not radio chatter." She went on to discuss special needs transportation. "Structure is very important to a special needs child. Once a parent has put on that child's coat or safety vest, that child knows he or she is ready for the bus. When the bus is late, their routine was just stopped. This can negatively affect their behavior both on the bus and in the classroom. Track My Route will accurately let the parents know where that bus is, allowing the parent control on the timing of the coat/vest, ensuring everyone is ready for a great day. Planning for medication, bathroom breaks, doctors appointments, etc., is important to our parents. Tracking the bus times would be very valuable for the parents' management of these issues."

The cooperative fully implemented our solution to make it available to all of their student riders for the 2018-2019 school year. We are looking forward to providing them with their second year of Track My Route starting this fall and releasing several new updates for their users here soon. We are continuing to expand the user base of TMR within the Chicagoland area by adding Libertyville District 70, who will also be using Track My Route starting this fall semester. If you are interested in learning more about TMR Technology you can visit or email