Saving Time: Food on the Table

How much time does the average parent have for making dinner? None. How much time does the average autism parent have for making dinner? Ha! Your time is precious and so is your sanity. In addition, the task of creating a meal while dodging allergies, avoiding ingredient phobias or implementing doctor-prescribed diets can be daunting.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share a little about a website I’ve used to help keep my meal planning efficient without hitting the I’m-sick-of-spaghetti wall.

Food on the Table

Food on the Table

Food on the Table ( started out as a website to help parents find new, healthy recipes that took advantage of sales at local grocery stores. Now they’ve grown to help thousands of families and have iPhone and Android apps to help make the process even easier.

Meal creation

First off, Food on the Table’s (FOTT for short) recommendations for recipes are useful, not crazy complicated and don’t require lots of special ingredients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched for “chicken pasta with white sauce recipe” only to be inundated with a list of requirements that necessitate a trip to Restaurant Depot and 4 years of culinary training to compose. I’m just hungry, don’t have time and need something with spice! Thankfully, the list of recipes on FOTT also take advantage of prepackaged things to reduce the time to create good tasting dishes. Got food allergies? Got kiddo-won’t-touch-that-green-stuff syndrome? You can narrow down your search with categories or even specify ingredients to exclude. FOTT is not quite powerful enough to handle the most specific requests: Kay recounts to me how one of her son’s classmates in elementary school would only eat NutriGrain bars and Cheetos (his menu has since expanded). But then again, that grocery list is pretty short!

FOTT recipe categories

The layout is clean, pictures make your mouth water and hovering over each recipe pulls up info on local sales. Clicking on a category on the main page will bring up a list of recipes with that main ingredient, calling out the total prep and cook time on the right side. Clicking on a recipe will pull up the total ingredient list, with steps, ratings and comments from other users.

Make sure you’re really saving time by staying on task and not checking out that awesome spicy shrimp in avocado and summer tomatoes, with asparagus and crea … Focus Nathan!

Categories range from specific on-sale entrees like catfish fillet or bone-in porkchop, to more general things like pasta, shellfish, meat-free, etc. They include curated recipes (labeled original) as well as user submitted. You can also search for recipes that have been tagged with more specific information like gluten free or low carb to narrow the results. I couldn’t find any recipes tagged with casein free, but lactose free comes close.

Grocery List

Once you’ve picked a couple of meals, FOTT intelligently organizes your ingredient needs by category so you don’t have to spend an hour criss-crossing the store (no more cramped, dirty stick-notes for me!). You can see the estimated nutritional information for each meal and even browse all of the sales at the local store. I have an Android phone, but their iPhone app is just as functional.

FOTT recipes on Android

For a low-tech solution, you can also print the grocery list. Easier to divvy up for the fam! You can use the phone only app if you want, but creating an account online will allow you to synchronize lists as well as protect from data loss if you lose or upgrade your phone

Free and Premium

So what’s the skinny on the cost? The free plan lets you choose up to 3 meal-plans per week. Which is to say, not a huge help if you’re trying to do all your meal planning in one place. However, FOTT does let you add your own ingredients to the recipe list (you’ll just have to remember what they’re for).

The paid version removes that meal cap as well as opening up a larger selection of recipes. Cost ranges from about $10/month down to $6/month depending on the length of your subscription. If it helps you find more, better sales, I’m sure you can make up the difference, but I’ve only been using the free plan, so take my advice with a grain of salt (hehe).

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We’re Autism Labs and we make software for low-functioning autistic individuals and their families.

Transitioning Out of School … Geronimo!

(This is the 1st part in a series of blog posts about navigating the mine fields through special education and beyond. We will be examining relevant topics across ages 1 to 25 for special needs children and young adults … things that we learned ourselves through trial and error. Hopefully we may help you replicate the successes and avoid the mistakes.)

Parachuting photo: Flickr, eschipul

Last June at 22-years-old, my son exited the public school system and took the flying leap off the so-called “transition cliff.” Geronimo!! Thank heavens his parachute opened and he has  settled gently down into his new life without school. It was a little unnerving to wake up one day without the school special education services that we had relied on for 19 years. But with some very intense preparation and help from experts, we successfully transitioned him into adult life before that day.

Waiver Programs

Whatever your child’s age, it would be prudent for you to start checking into your state’s waiver programs and perhaps add your son or daughter’s name to the appropriate waiting lists. These are not entitlement programs but they do provide funds for specific services. Your child must meet specific criteria and there is always a waiting list no matter which state you live in. Some states have long wait times for these waivers. The earlier you are able to think ahead and get on these lists, the more likely that your child will be eligible during and his/her post secondary school transition. There are waivers that help pay for in-home care (put your child on this list as early as possible if you need help at home) and different waivers that cover a lot more. For some waivers, e.g., Home & Community-based Services (HCS), you may want to consider the timing before adding your child to the wait list so the waiver availability coincides with your child’s exit from school. For example, if your child will exit school at age 22 and the HCS waiver has a 10 year wait list, then consider adding your child to the list when he/she is 10 or 11.

For more information on waiver programs by state, check out

Begin Transition Planning

When should you start thinking about your child’s life after school? The earlier the better is the pat answer. That can be difficult because some of your child’s talents and interests may not blossom until they are in middle or high school. For example, we had no idea that our son would learn to love basketball until he was about 15 when he was spontaneously included in a family basketball game. Our family is very boisterous and he liked all the cheering and noise. In high school, he grew to almost 6 feet (another surprise) and was a deadeye. His basketball skills were honed through Special Olympics and we turned his love of the game into job, reward, entertainment, social, communication and recreational opportunities.

Some of the ways we interwove basketball into his life were:

  • He began sweeping basketball courts and picking up balls at the school gyms as a volunteer job.
  • We set up a token-based reward system for him and when he completed 5 chores or activities, he earned about 10 minutes for shooting baskets.
  • He is mostly nonverbal but he can say basketball pretty clearly. On his communication device, we created a screen that he can use to comment when shooting baskets. This reshapes his less appropriate yelling/cheering into conversation.
  • We started taking him to watch live basketball games which he enjoyed.
  • Even though he has absolutely no interest in watching television, we have been able to get him to watch parts of basketball games on tv.
  • We invite friends over to shoot baskets as a social activity.

As you can see, basketball became an integral part of his life. Before age 15 or 16, we would have told you that his passion was swimming. Given a choice between basketball and swimming, our son chooses basketball every time. We were really off the mark.

When your child is 14, you will want to start thinking about a long-term vision for your child. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) requires that transition planning begin by age 16  or younger (click on the IDEA logo for more information).  Some states require planning to begin earlier.

Consider requesting a Person-Centered Planning meeting from the school to help direct the process. Include your child if possible. Think about all the things your son/daughter enjoys and try to incorporate those into the plan. If your son or daughter is able, have them lead these meetings, write, or at the very least contribute to this plan. Shoot for the highest level achievement. You can always back off if it is not working. Be creative. An invested, creative, diverse team working for your child is the key to this process.

Click on The ARC logo to find a local chapter and ask for more information on Person-Centered Planning.


Transition Assessment

Ask the school for a transition assessment or hire an expert to develop one. This is a document that describes each transition domain (area), identifies the goals and lists the next steps for each goal to be realized. It should be a plan for a plan. You and the school can work from the assessment to investigate and develop the transition services your child will need. The transition assessment can be expanded to become your child’s transition plan and will be ever-evolving. 
Our son’s transition plan was written when he was 18 (we should have done this earlier). Even though he has exited school, we continue to update his transition plan. It’s a helpful tool for staff, teachers or professionals who will be involved in your child’s transition process and beyond.

Transition assessments and plans usually address the different domains of your child’s life. Our son’s transition plan has 6 domains: Employment, Adult Living, Social & Leisure, Behavior, Communication, Life-long Learning,. The number of domains may vary and have different nomenclature but the idea is the same.

Employment Domain

Generally, parents focus on the path to meaningful employment with a transition plan. If your child might be continuing with a post-secondary education (e.g., community college classes), he/she needs to be prepared academically. If you think he/she will be attending a trade school, perhaps have the school look for a job for him/her where appropriate skills might be learned. If you think your child should be employed, then get the school focused on employment opportunities through job trials.

You and/or the school do not have to do this alone. Your state should have a vocational agency that helps individuals with disabilities locate employment. Click on the U.S. Department of Education logo to find the organization in your state.  Click on the APSE (Association of People Supporting Employment First) logo for additional information on employment and employment ideas for individuals with disabilities.  APSE

Adult-Living Domain

As you can see, there are many very important areas that need to be addressed with a transition plan. Our biggest struggle was with the Adult-Living domain because our son lacks so many life skills required for independent living, is nonverbal and has absolutely no sense of safety. We followed an independent living model developed at the University of Kansas Beach Center for more significantly disabled individuals (click on the logo to learn more).
Beach Center

The consultant who worked with us on our son’s transition plan also gave us several interesting examples beyond the group home style of living too, like apartment living with staff in adjacent apartments. And I know of a family consortium model that is being set up in Ohio. There are many non-traditional ways to address this issue and allow your child to live more independently in the community.

Social & Leisure Domain

From a survey that I helped administer for a non-profit organization, I learned that most parents of kids with special needs worry first about what their child will be doing during the day when they are no longer at school, and second about friends and social activities. Some training may be needed to enable appropriate social interactions. Also small group activities are a great way to encourage socializing. When our son was in school, Special Olympics practices and meets were a good way to develop sports skills and some social / team interaction (click here to find out what sports are available near you). Now we focus more on mixed ability groups that include neurotypical young adults of similar ages.

Racers in the 50 mm race at the Special Olympicsphoto: Flickr, West Point


Behavior, Communication & Life-long Learning Domains

In our son’s world, behavior and communication were the big barriers to the rest of the domains. Without appropriate behavior and some type of communication, several other domains could not fully be addressed and accessed. His inappropriate behaviors are directly related to his difficulty to communicate so these were tackled with both Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and functional communication. As difficult as this was, we started ignoring all of his aggressive behaviors (hitting, pinching, hair pulling, shirt yanking) and praising him when he made requests appropriately through speaking, his communication device, pointing to an object or pointing to a picture. It was rough for a while and sometimes we had to retreat behind a wall or locked door, but eventually the only way he could get what he wanted was through an acceptable form of communication. We have seen a dramatic decrease in his aggressive behaviors.

At age 22, we started expanding his communication beyond his simple wants or needs into other areas. He seems to be enjoying this. Our kids can continue to progress with a plan that incorporates life-long learning. Do not overlook the importance of continued learning.

Transition Tips

Here are a few tips for parents who need help getting started:

Learn. These days, there are many transition conferences across the nation. Find one near you and attend. These will have lots of different ideas and information for you. The benefit of going to a local conference is that they will provide resources that are directly accessible to you. Conferences in other states led by experts can be great sources of federal information and a way to make connections, but local conferences are the most efficient way to find out a) what resources are near you and b) how to access them.
The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities has detailed transition information on Transition to Adulthood (the name has been changed from the National Information Center for Handicapped Children & Youth but the NICHCY acronym was kept) on their site.

NICHYCY  Wrightslaw  NDRN

Click on the Wrights Law logo for helpful information on Transition Services and parent rights.  There is an agency in each state that helps those with disabilities get the services they need. All state agencies are part of the National Disability Rights Network. Click on their logo for contact information for the agency in your state.

Network. Seek out other parents and professionals who are knowledgeable about transition in your area. Join a reputable organization that focuses on your child’s disability / disabilities. My husband signed me up for a committee with the local Autism Society chapter. It turned out to be a truly enlightening experience.
When you are looking for families to connect with, try and also seek out families who have a child / children that are at least a few years older than your child. This will mean that they have gone through some of the issues that you may be facing already, and you can learn from what did / did not work for them. Alternatively, find a website or blog that you can follow with transition tips if you don’t have time to join an organization.

Be creative. New ideas are a key part of the transition process. Parents sometimes worry so much about their kid’s safety, awkwardness in public, or inappropriate behaviors that they don’t welcome new experiences. Make contingency plans and be sure your child will be safe and has the necessary supports, and then trust the school or caregiver to handle it from there. Discard ideas that do not work out and further explore the ones that do.
Work the transition plan. Set up a transition team for your child.  It can include ARD (Admission, Review and Dismissal) team members, friends, family members, professionals or others. If your child loves music, invite a musician to a meeting. If he/she enjoys art, invite an artist to a meeting. Have the core team meet periodically (maybe every other month) to work the plan. Make assignments and have team members report back. We have found that inviting 1 or 2 new people to each meeting means more ideas and more discussion.

Adapt. Remember that your vision may need to adapt as options are explored. Don’t be afraid to scrap pieces of the plan and start over. The plan will evolve around your child and the better the plan, the more progress your child will make.

In our next post, we’d like to discuss issues related to supported employment.  Questions, comments? Send us a line!

Crowdfunding Autism

“Does he have it or doesn’t he?”
“What? What’s the word for it? How many letters does it have?”
– Six Letter Word (2012)

A powerful, gritty story of a struggling young mom, and a fantastic crossword solver. A trans-american chronicle of families embracing life as it comes. What do these tales have in common? They both spotlight autism, and each was made possible by crowdfunding.

With sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the ability to connect with people of shared interest and with just enough means, was made a little bit easier. From planters, to game consoles, to dollhouses for budding engineers, crowdfunding has emerged in the last few years as a fantastic route to getting support from the vast reaches of the internet.

This week, we step out of the lab to speak with two successful crowdfunding campaigns for autism, take a look at some numbers and ask: what’s the secret behind hitting your goal?

An Unlikely Parent

With a list of films like I’ll do Anything and The Last Boy Scout, Lisanne Sartor had been involved in creating moving stories for many years now and recently she found herself with an opportunity to create something special. Chosen along with eight other women to direct a short film as part of the American Film Institute’s Director’s Workshop for Women, Sartor wanted to draw upon her life experience as a mother of an autistic child.

Six Letter Word’s original Indiegogo pitch

While AFI’s workshop provides some training and equipment, funding was the responsibility of the participants, and after watching a friend raise the means to adopt a child from China, she decided to launch her own campaign for her short film, Six Letter Word.

Before there was crowdfunding, you would have charity auction, she says, putting money into raising money. “Those things are a lot of time and effort and you had to have a huge group of people helping you do it.” Now you can reach directly to the people without all the same overhead. To be successful still requires effort, Sartor insists. “I didn’t expect how much time it would take every day.” From creating blog posts, to promoting on facebook and twitter, she was constantly reaching out. And it worked. Every blog post brought in new donors, and by the time the campaign had finished, she had raised over $15,000; over $3,000 more than the initial target.

In addition to monetary resources, these sites can act as another channel to connect with the community. “I didn’t just have people contacting me with autism in their lives”. Authors, editors, composers all reached out, wanted to participate and help build the final product. Since the campaign started, Sartor has been featured on The Lady Brain Show to talk about crowdfunding, and Indiegogo approached her about becoming an ambassador based on her success.

What tips does Sartor give for those trying to leverage crowdfunding? Make your promotion video short, personal and be specific about what the funding is for. “People want to know who they’re giving money to.” She also recommended paying attention to the suggestions the sites already give. Indiegogo suggests, among other things:

  • Perks should be personal, unique and offer a tangible benefit to your contributors.
  • Start telling people about your campaign before it’s launched. In person, through email, on social media, blogs or your website; just get the word out as soon as possible and keep them engaged.
  • Post an update to your campaign every 1 – 5 days to keep everyone engaged and to increase your funding.

By the numbers

Kickstarter projects involve a fixed goal and set amount of time in which to attract pledges. If the goal isn’t met within the time period, backers do not contribute funds and the project gets nothing. If, however, the project meets or exceeds the target, the monies are contributed, and backers receive “perks” in return. For media projects like films and video games, perks might vary from a digital copy of the film or software program at the low end, up to a paid visit to the studio or workshop at the upper prize level.

There have been over 100,000 projects on Indiegogo and 73,000 on Kickstarter. some succeeded, some fell short and others are in the process of searching for backers. How many reach their targets? In 2011, Kickstarter published a success rate of 46%, but with Indiegogo the same metric doesn’t quite match. In that service’s case, creators have the option to set “flexible funding” goals, meaning any funds contributed will be exchanged, albeit with a higher service fee, regardless of whether the target amount is raised.

As of this post, there have been at least 256 projects on Indiegogo related to autism, totaling over $700,000 in donations out of $5.2 million requested, with a median project goal of $10,000. The median funding rate of 10% is substantially lower than Kickstarter’s 46%, but without the all-or-nothing constraint, creators on Indiegogo may tend to seek a higher target.

So what’s the secret? Jeanne over at AppsBlogger has a great post on Kickstarter projects, what types succeed and what factors may influence failures: Behind Kickstarter Crowdfunding Stats.

“Do whatever you can to get featured on Kickstarter. Projects that are featured have a 89% chance of being successful, compared to 30% without.”

Size of goal, whether you have a video, duration of project; all these may influence your crowd-funded (or unfunded) fate. At the very least, make sure to look at similar projects and learn from their examples. Sometimes your own experience is the best teacher, as our next story illustrates.

Round Two

The first time Richard Everts went to the well of the people, he wanted to seek funding for final stages of his team’s film: United States of Autism. They needed funds for post-production which was how the team pitched it, but that line didn’t resonate. People didn’t have a film background and couldn’t relate, Everts explains. His film chronicles a journey across America, talking to people in the autism community about life with autism.

Before Kickstarter, Everts’ non-profit, the Tommy Foundation had won $50,000 as part of Pepsi’s Refresh competition. To pay for additional filming costs, they looked to crowdfunding, but after 30 days, the campaign had garnered only 11% of the funds requested, and he headed back to the drawing board.

The Refresh project, he says, didn’t require anything from interested people, they just needed to vote. Kickstarter, in comparison, is much more complex: “We had a lot of people who were really turned off by that.” To back a project on Kickstarter, participants must create an account, link to Amazon for payment, and most significantly, actually hand over their hard earned money.

So he tried again, and in March of 2012, US of Autism re-launched on Kickstarter. They changed their marketing tack, including better perks and a simpler message: “’Help us finish the film’, people can get on board with that.”

United States of Autism (2013) trailer

The result? United States of Autism topped their goal of $10,000 in May of last year. Everts is happy about the result including the networking opportunity that resulted from the successful campaign. Asked if he would turn to Kickstarter again as a resource, Everts was unsure. “For smaller projects … you can probably pull something together”, but they’ll use it as a backup plan in the future.

What’s Next?

As for the next steps, United States of Autism is set to premiere in select cities, starting with New York, this spring. Sartor’s Six Letter Word is complete, and she hopes to turn support from a successful festival run into a feature length film. And many other projects like theirs will continue to raise funds toward worthy causes like autism. Perhaps you will join their ranks, and if you do, send us a line! We’d love to hear your story.

Thanks go to Lisanne Sartor ( and Richard Everts ( for speaking with Autism Labs about their journeys through crowdfunding.

Sorting and Matching Apps

Being able to associate everyday objects with like things, their pronunciations and purposes is a small but important step in learning to become independent. Whether it’s a spoon or fork, cat or bird, socks or sweaters, programs that teach sorting and matching should be in your educational quiver. This post explores how we decided on features that FaceUp Matching would have as well as the descriptions and thoughts on other iPhone and iPad apps that are out there. With the exception of FaceUp Matching, we have no relationship with any of the individuals or companies that created these applications; we just want to showcase anything that could help further your child’s education.

When I began creating our FaceUp app, one of the main concerns was that existing applications were too visually noisy or seemed far too immature for young adults with autism. Instead of cartoons and corny sound effects, we wanted to use real photos and human voices. Fortunately, I was more than happy to work with a simple design and real pictures because in many ways it let me focus on making a stable program quickly, in addition to being less distracting. We tested it with a young man who likes matching apps on his clunky touchscreen desktop computer at home, so it didn’t take long before he was up and running, and enjoying FaceUp during our field tests.

Before developing the FaceUp app,  we looked at a wide variety of apps that might work for the young adults with special needs. Here are some of the interesting apps that we found:

Sort it Out

This app teaches sorting through a variety of categories: types of transportation, toys, colors and more. Each screen presents the user with some way to distinguish the different categories and the user drags icons to the proper zone from a starting area. For example, toys are organized by shelves and you need to drag the basketball to the top shelf, doll to the middle and toy trains and cars to the bottom. Wrong matches are reset to the starting area.

I like the simplicity of the layout; it’s very easy to get up and running; and the sounds aren’t too distracting (and can be turned off). This will require some fine motor skills, so if both association and coordination are difficult, this app might be too advanced. The starter version is free, but you’ll only get 2 screens (which will probably become boring quickly). Upgrading to 12 screens will set you back $1.99

Itunes link for Sort It Out 1

Clean Up: Category Sorting


Another sorting app we’ve found is Clean Up. It’s pretty straightforward: 3 categories of items (toys, food and clothes) can be moved to their proper end destinations and the user is rewarded with a gold star and audio response. You’ll get 75 different items total, split among the different categories.

I love the clear photographs in the app paired with a no nonsense background, although the drawn forms look a little haphazard. This app goes for $1.99 on the app store.

Itunes link for Clean Up

Magic Sorter

By far the most comprehensive app in this group, Magic Sorter is actually 5 games in 1 and purports to aid in motor skill and cognitive development. The premise is simple: drag objects of different types or sizes onto the appropriate silhouette.

With lots of color and fun shapes, this app has potential to keep your rascal focused in for a long time. Pretty cheap too at $0.99

Itunes link for Magic Sorter

If you’ve tried and any of these apps and love them, or if they’ve completely useless and you think I’m crazy, send us a line! We love to hear your opinions. I plan on putting out more app reviews over the coming months so stay tuned!

Example Self-Care Curriculum

If you’re looking for information to supplement your current educational program, we’d like to share  some example material from our colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in collaboration with Community Choices.

 Autism Labs™ Example Self Care Package (PDF, 20MB)

This is a self-care curriculum for adults with developmental disabilities, including autism, offered over an 8-week period in the spring of 2012. It was developed through a collaborative research-to-practice partnership between the cooperative Community Choices and UIUC . Many of the tangible resources were created by The Autism Program (TAP) – an academic-community partnership.

This class was offered to a group of approximately five adults, 3 males and 2 females, 20-28 years-old for one hour and fifteen minutes per week. Instruction was given by two individuals, one full-time staff member (Community Life Coordinator) at Community Choices, and our colleague, Christy Nittrouer, a content-contributor for Autism Labs and graduate of UIUC’s Master’s of Science program in Special Education. For any questions or feedback, Christy would love to hear from you at

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Feel free to distribute and modify as long as you give attribution to Community Choices and Autism Labs.

New iPad App: FaceUp Matching

Today I’m excited to announce the launch of our first mobile application, Autism Labs™ FaceUp Matching™ for the iPad.

FaceUp Matching

FaceUp Matching helps hone visual and listening skills by showing a group of real-world photographs of everyday things and reinforcing correct choices with sound and sight cues. With kitchen utensils, cats, dogs and many others, the images stimulate learning with familiar objects without distracting gimmicks or cartoon images.

Beginners can start with errorless learning and match the card to a single card choice. For the more advanced, more card choices can be presented. The word associated with each card to be matched is pronounced as the card is presented. The number of card choices presented and even the card images themselves can be customized. Because individuals with autism are sometimes very sound sensitive, sounds effects can be selected from a set or can be turned on or off as needed.

This app was designed and developed by parents and siblings of young adults with developmental disabilities. We’ve put it through the gauntlet courtesy of a young man with autism and I-D. We hope other individuals with developmental disabilities will be able to enjoy it too.

Get it on the App Store!