Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Autism and the brain: PSTS and the altruism zone

Functional brain imaging continues to deliver some startling claims.

Follow Me Here...: 01/21/2007 - 01/27/2007

… Researchers at Duke University have shown with functional MRI that the degree of activation of the posterior superior temporal sulcus [PSTS], a brain region activated when people observe others' actions but not perform them themselves, correlated with personality ratings of subjects' degree of altruism…

The capacity to have an interior experience upon watching someone else's behavior similar to the experience of performing that behavior yourself may be a basis of the sense of inherent congruence between others' feelings and thoughts and our own, the ability to have a so-called 'theory of mind', which is an important developmental achievement for humans. As suggested in the article, this body of work may help explicate the neural basis for certain conditions, in which I am interested in my work as a clinical psychiatrist, in which the capacity for empathy or mutuality break down, such as antisocial personality disorder or autistic spectrum disorders.

… Two good starting point reviews of the nascent field of social cognitive neuroscience, which is built on these and similar observations and speculations, are these papers by Rebecca Saxe of MIT (Current Opinion in Neurobiology) and the Friths of London (Science). And, while I was browsing related materials, I came upon this paper by Chatterjee (Journal of Medical Ethics), which you might find intriguing if you are interested in this area at all. ...

FMH has some good links to explore. It’s worth remembering that sweeping claims in the neurosciences have a history of being wrong.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Friendship circle: a volunteer faith-based program of outreach to special needs families

I received a press release today on the “Friendship Circle” a rapidly expanding faith-based (Chabad-Lubavitch) outreach and support program for autistic persons and their families. I can’t vouch for the program, but I’m ok with passing on the press release and and a note from their web page. I’ve not heard of anything like the “Weinberg Life Village” — it certainly sounds impressive! (emphases mine)

Children challenged by Autism, other disabilities share laughter,  love and life lessons with Teen volunteers

West Bloomfield, MI:  The Friendship Circle now embraces over 4000 members internationally and includes a 22,000 square foot facility built by love, and it all grew from the simplest of questions, first posed in 1994.  "Who in the world is most in need of a friend?"

The first voice that came from the community was a mere whisper, but was finally clear. It came from a child.  A child challenged and isolated by unusual physical, mental, or emotional needs is missing a most important ingredient in the recipe for happiness, a friend to call their own.

It was not to be the only answer. As the Friendship Circle sought teen volunteers to develop as special friends of the little ones, it became clear that the gift of friendship enriched both parties. Teens grew and bloomed from the simple acceptance and unconditional love they experienced from their younger friends. As one teen volunteer phrases it, "When I am with these children I feel calm and soothed. I know there are no judgments being passed. I know they don't care what I look like...together we live in the moment, enjoying each second of each other's company". Or as another teen puts it, "I have learned that one hour a week is enough to change a life forever".  Teen volunteers have gone on to establish new Friendship Circle chapters near their colleges just to continue to enjoy the special bond they share with their young friends.

There was yet another answer to that original question. Parents of the special needs children were given the gift of a few hours each week when they knew their children were safe and being entertained by a friend. That precious time might be spent in activities as mundane as paying bills or having an uninterrupted telephone conversation, but are a gift by any measure. "We love our daughter unconditionally, and to know that others love her as well, even with all her behavioral difficulties, brings such a sense of peace to us", writes one mother.

Just twelve years later, a tiny 3 non-profit program that began with just eight volunteers in the Detroit area has grown to include more than 50 chapters across the U.S., Canada and Australia. It has also built, through private contributions, the 22,000 square foot Meer Family Friendship Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan. It was developed by consulting with a group of parents of children with special needs, therapists, educators and professionals from around the world.  The heart of the Friendship Center is the Weinberg Life Village, which gives the children and their friends the opportunity to practice activities such as banking, scheduling and keeping appointments with the salon, dentist or doctor, navigating traffic signals and buying tickets for the 22 seat movie theater. All this is in preparation for their eventual integration into society. Unlike the real world, there is no hurry, and skills can be practiced again and again. Best of all, they have a great time..

"Our mission for 2007 is to expand our circle of friends", states Executive Director Rabbi Levi Shemtov, "There is so many more programs that we can start and more families and volunteers that we can embrace if we would have more charitable funding. We feel confident that the organization has reached a place where it is ready to grow on many levels."

 For more on the Friendship Circle, please visit www.friendshipcircle.org, local chapter links can be found at www.friendshipcircle.com.

There’s more about the organization on their web site. They have expanded a bit beyond special needs …

The Friendship Circle - About Us, http://www.friendshipcircle.org/page.aspx?pid=47

The Friendship Circle provides assistance and support to the families of children with special needs as well as to individuals and families struggling with addiction, isolation, and other crises.

In addition to helping those in need, the Friendship Circle empowers and enriches its network of volunteers, the majority of whom are teenagers, by enabling them to reap the vast rewards of giving of themselves.

The Friendship Circle was founded in 1994 by Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan, a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch. Since then, the Friendship Circle has been providing assistance and support to the families of children with special needs as well as to individuals and families struggling with addiction, isolation, and other crises through our Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House.

The Friendship Circle is committed to serving all members of the community regardless of religious affiliation.

In addition to helping those in need, the Friendship Circle empowers and enriches its network of volunteers, the majority of whom are teenagers, by enabling them to reap the vast rewards of giving of themselves.

The Friendship Circle consists of five parts - volunteers, children, parents, staff, and supporters. The true beauty of the Circle is how all of the elements link together to form a seamless community of friendship.

Just as a circle has neither end nor beginning, our community offers promise, hope and love that have no bounds. Who can say who benefits the most from the Friendship Circle programs - the child with special needs who learns how to ride a bicycle, or her parents who get a much needed break, or the volunteer whose spirit soars to new heights?

Through a wide range of services, projects and facilities, including the Morrie and Sybil Fenkell Volunteer Club and the Friendship Circle Fellowship Program, the Friendship Circle is able to touch the lives of thousands of people each year. The success of the Friendship Circle has inspired similar programs throughout the United States and Canada. By offering guidance and instruction to these organizations, the Friendship Circle is able to welcome many more families and volunteers into its midst.

The Meer Family Friendship Center was opened in 2005 – home of the Ferber Kaufman LifeTown building (opened in April) and the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House (opened in September.)

The majority of the Friendship Circle’s innovative work with children with special needs takes place at the Ferber Kaufman LifeTown building, a 20,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility, which serves as a therapy and activity center, social meeting place, and hub for our network of volunteers, professional staff, and supporters. The most striking feature of LifeTown is the Weinberg Life Village, a unique, interactive world where children with special needs, our Special Friends, can have fun while they practice important life skills through role play.

At LifeTown, children with special needs and their parents and siblings find a place that has been specifically designed to meet their needs. LifeTown is more than a community center or a therapeutic facility—it is a house of friendship.

The Chabad-Lubavitch are a branch of Hasidic Judaism with a strong emphasis on emotional connection, community interaction, and the integration of good acts with spiritual observance. Jewish clients might anticipate a certain amount of quiet (or not so quiet) proselytizing, but Christians and atheists would probably be left alone. I don’t know how they’d do with Islamic clients.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Scientific American on the "pillow angel"

The News Editor for Scientific American comments on recent media excitement about the care of a severely disabled child: Pillow Angel Parents Deserve Credit, Not Blame: BLOG: SciAm Observations. I agree.

Lesson: No black keyboards for the visually impaired

I learned a lesson, that I passed on via an Amazon review:
Amazon.com: Microsoft Digital Media Pro Keyboard: Electronics

I bought this keyboard under unusual time constraints for my mother's Mac Mini. Yes, Microsoft does supply a quite good driver driver for OS X that enables all the features.

As an OS X keyboard it's not bad if one remembers to turn on F-Lock (OS X makes good use of function keys but XP does not, which is ironic if one knows the history of the function key). There's no 'eject' button but it's easy to remap the 'Messenger' key to be an eject button. It has a sleep and logout button that are very handy; note that the the modern Mac keyboard lacks both of these.

The main problem for an elderly or visually impaired person, however, is that the black keyboard with white lettering just doesn't work. It's also very complex and daunting with lots of special functions of dubious utility, and some of the most useful buttons (sleep, log out) are tiny. The numbered favorites occupies a lot of wasted space and are pretty worthless for most of us.

Not a bad keyboard, though a bit whizzy and silly, for most OS X and XP users. It's not a good choice for the elderly or visually impaired however.