EXPLORING DIFFERENT BRAINS – Episode 03: Ana Anselma TRANSCRIPT

HAROLD REITMAN, MD (HR)

Welcome to exploring different brains. My name is Hackie Reitman and we’re going to be interviewing today Ana Anselma. She is the head of the Social Minds center in Fort Lauderdale. Before I mess it up any further, we’re going to introduce Ana herself and have her tell you all about herself. Ana, you’re on. Introduce yourself to our viewers and listeners.

ANA ANSELMA (AA)

Hi, my name is Ana Anselma, and I am one of the founders of the Social Mind’s Center with my partner Doctor Savinelli, and I am also a parent of two children on the autism spectrum. My son has ASD and my daughter has Asperger’s. We opened the center three years ago and our center focuses on teaching children social communication, my children are part of the center and they were a big part of the reason that we opened the center, because we thought there was a gap in these services in the community, so Doctor Savinelli and I, their treating therapists,  decided we needed to start our own center to provide services for the autism community.

HR

How old are your kids now?

AA

My son is 12 and my daughter is 13.

HR

And how’re they doing?

AA

They are doing really well, they are in a typical classroom, and they are really thriving and they have really overcome a lot of obstacles, and I have to say that I am really proud of them for all they’ve been able to accomplish, considering how hard it is for them to navigate the neurotypical world.

HR

And what are their interests?

AA

My daughter is a tennis player, and she likes theater. My son loves computer gaming and skateboarding.

HR

That’s a good combination. I guess he’ll be using a Go-Pro. Now how old were they when they were diagnosed?

AA

My son was two years old. He got diagnosed because there was no language, he was non-verbal until he was four years old. My daughter got diagnosed a lot later, she was in 2nd grade and she was eight years old, and she didn’t get the traditional Asperger’s diagnosis because she didn’t meet all the criteria. That was one of the challenges that a lot of parents experience with kids with ASD. If they don’t meet the exact criteria of the DSNB, they don’t get diagnosed, but yet they have autism.

HR

Tell me about your evolution into the social minds center and therefore what services you provide, and where is it located?

AA

We are in Fort Lauderdale in Davie, about a mile from Nova University on University Dr. We started the center when my son was getting speech and language intervention and Dr. Savinelli felt like the next step for him was to practice all this language he had acquired in a more neurotypical environment, like in a social group. And at that time, he had some children that she could pair him up with, but we started the conversation of–you know it would be great if we had many groups like this, where kids that have difficulties communicating and sharing their thoughts or learning how to socialize and overcome their anxieties, could have the opportunity to practice in an environment that is safe and encouraging and with someone that can guide them when they kind of get off track, or don’t know what to do next. So, her and I started the conversation of “We should start social groups.” So we have several groups that each target a different skillset. The foundational skill, of course, that we are trying to build in all of the kids is social communication, but, our center, also–you can only see the back of this wall, but it does not look like a clinic. That was one of our main intents when we designed the center: that it would look like a community center where typical kids would go for afterschool programming and to do fun classes and it would not mimic a therapeutical environment, so the kids could have a place where it would mimic a lot of places where they would normally go to; like birthday parties or after school programming, so they can get used to that type of environment.

HR

Ana, so let me ask you, on that wonderful artwork you have behind you, Think, Learn, Live Differently I love that. Right now people kind of–whose brains are a bit different–it’s kind of like being gay 50 years ago, you kind of have to stay in the closet because you don’t want to get stigmatized and we want to make it easy, because the so-called “neurotypicals,” like the word you used earlier, are actually in the minority if you add up all of the different kinds of brains we got walking around.

AA

We do, and a lot of our kids are very talented, and they do have very special gifts, and we want them to feel proud of who they are and what they can offer the world. And I think we try and make all of our families here at this center feel like they’re not different.

HR

Do you treat any autistic adults?

AA

Yes, we do, and one of our challenges–actually, it’s funny you should ask that because when we first opened the center, that was our target market. Middle-school, High School and College students, and, we have found, Hackie, that it’s very hard to get some of those kids to come in. A lot of them have had not such great experiences in the therapeutic world, so, if they get any inclination that they are coming to a center that might be therapy again, they don’t want to come. And you know as children become young adults, it’s a lot harder for the parent to get them into the car and bring them into therapy, but we do have middle schoolers here, we do have adult children, high schoolers, a lot of them receive individual coaching from one of our psychologists, and she tries to help them. A lot of them have–we find that a lot older kids have a lot of anxiety, which you talk about in your book. So we have to kind of navigate and overcome that challenge.

HR

We find the same thing, and one of us has to remember–I want to put you in touch with some of the people from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, where we serve 12,000 at-risk youth. Now, when the Hackie Reitman Center on 3025 west Broward Boulevard, in the worst zip code in the world, 33311, just west of i95 near Martin Luther King Boulevard there, we found–when we first opened that center, we designated it as a pilot project for teen centers, because we find that teens were the toughest group to target. Everyone likes the cute little kids and not so much when–you know, you have a kid who’s already got a little bit of a wrap-sheet, had a couple of tough problems, and I think that there would be some common ground to find ways how we recruited youth at our teen centers; and what you’re doing by appealing to the youth directly as well as the parents, which is interesting, because we always feel, in terms of the parents, and the parent, and, we find that that at-risk community, which is a bit different from the autism community–but there are–if you ask them to raise their hands if you have two parents, nobody raises their hands. If they have one parent, only about half of them do, and, as you know in the autism world, a lot of times the–not to be sexist about it–but many times the husband heads for the hills and the single mom is left alone to earn the paycheck, battle the system, battle the school system, the medical system, the insurance system and then fight with a kid on top of it. What’s been your experience?

AA

Actually it’s interesting because we do have a huge dad community here. And I think, because professions have evolved, and a lot of people work from home, and a lot of our dad’s will come in and work here on their computers. I hope you get the opportunity, one day, to come to the center so you can see how we’re set up. A lot of the dads come and the moms take turns, sowe are seeing a lot of families shift their responsibilities in order to get their children equipped for success, and just flexing their schedules and so forth. So, we, fortunately, get the opportunity to meet a lot of the dads, and I’ve also learned how important it is to involve the dad, because I think that our tendency sometimes is to just target the mom, and I’ve really made an effort in these last two years to reach out to the dads and make separate appointments with them to come in, and involve them, because I think they can bring a really different approach than the moms, as far as equipping the kids, because they see it from a different perspective, and a lot of the times I find that they are very effective in taking the strategies home and working with the kids, and implementing a lot of the work that we do here in the center outside of the center.

HR

That’s excellent. That is great and great stuff. You know, you’re really doing wonderful things there, and you’re so positive in your approach, it’s really–you know, refreshing. What are your thoughts about the theater and arts programs that you have?

AA

Yes, we–in January we’re going to be starting a new curriculum. We have several curriculums that we use in the center. We are always researching for more, and one of them is called “Acting Antics,” and, this curriculum in particular has been addressed with the kids body language, voice tone and facial expressions. I think theater and drama is a great way to teach our kids to read body language, facial expressions, and, for them to become aware of their own body language and their facial expressions, because, you know, that’s non-verbal communication, and, our kids on the autism spectrum do struggle with all communication.

HR

You know, one of our summer interns, who’s in highschool, who’s wonderful and brilliant, we were interviewing him for one of the documentaries we’re working on, and, I was asking him if acting has helped him with his socialization, and, he very–he starred, by the way, in West Side Story over at the Broward Center for Performing Arts, and–

AA

I saw that. I went to that. Impressive I have to say.

HR

And he told me, “Well, one of the things that’s done, Dr. Reitman, (and he was on camera when he said this, he says) I can walk into a room and meet with someone I don’t like, and, because of my acting and training now, I can have them actually think that I like them.”

AA

He’s learning how to “Fake it,” which, we teach to the kids here in the center, too. You have to fake it til you make it.

HR

Yup. So, I asked him, I said, “Well William, that is so interesting. Now, when you walked in this room, you acted like you liked me. Do you really like me? How do I know?” And he got a little bit flustered.

AA

I think it’s a great tool for them, and I think they’re able to relate getting in character. Like you’re going to get into your character because–they don’t think like that. They don’t see things like other people do, but, if you tell them, you know, you’re going to get in character–and some of our kids really struggle with faking it. They really do, they don’t want to fake it, they are very concrete and they are like, “Well I don’t understand why I just cant be myself, and I can’t just say what I think.”

That’s one of our biggest struggles here at the center, we can’t always share what we think, because we can’t always offend people, but, we do it jokingly, and I think it helps them understand that, you know, the way you do behave impacts how people think about you. Which is, a lot of times, more than not, a big epiphany to them. They don’t realize they’re being watched and they don’t realized that they’re being analyzed by other people just by their behavior. They don’t have that type of awareness of their environment. So, I think one of the critical tools that we give the kids here is: people are thinking about you, and they are thinking about your behavior, and, you need to be thoughtful of that, and mindful of that. I think that helps them raise their awareness about their own behavior and how should they act. But, I think acting is a little bit of a shortcut to that, and that is why we want to–starting in January we are going to be doing that with our middle school group. We’ve also used a curriculum called “movie time,” and we use movies to teach them different social scenarios and social understanding by helping them try to decipher what’s happening in the movie, especially when the actors in the movie are not communicating and it’s a non-verbal communication scene, it is very very helpful to them.

HR

You have your finger right on so many of the cruxes of this social interchange that they come to. What is the biggest single thing, Ana, that you think that somebody like myself or other parents or other individuals don’t get about these different brains that you are so involved with? What is one point you might want to get across that people might be missing out on–if there is such a one.

AA

Yes, there is. I think, now, the big craze is social skills, and I think our kids need more than social skills. I would define social skills as telling a child what to say, when to say it, and in what scenario. Our kids need more than that, they need social understanding, they need to understand what other people may be thinking, and what their intentions are, because social scenarios evolve. Some of our kids are here in elementary school but some of them are in middle school, some of them are in high school, and, in every single season in their life, the social expectations are going to change, and our kids need to know, for themselves, how to find that information. They don’t know how to do that intuitively, they need to be instructed. So our goal here at the center is always to teach our kids to teach themselves, and what information they need to find out, because social scenarios evolve. So teaching our kids the social “rules,” only gets them so far. They need to understand that there is a whole social world out there that they constantly have to be learning about, because that is not an area of interest for them. We have to build that interest in them, and connect it to their future success. For a lot of our kids here at the center, I always tell them, you want to be a computer engineer, you’re going to have to work on a team, and, in order to work on a team, you want to know what your coworkers are thinking, and you want to know what their intentions are so that you can be better prepared for your presentation, and that’s the another thing that I think we need to do. We need to tie our education to our kids interests, because a lot of them are very bright, and they have great talents, and that can be a driving force for them like it was for your daughter with mathematics. I think we need to make better use of their talents to overcome their weaknesses.

HR

And I think that’s why one of the chapters in Aspertools on “Harnessing the hyper-interest,” instead of trying to discourage them–which is a segway into employment. You have a lot of experience with human resources; what do you see as the biggest hurdles to employment in segwaying from what you were just talking about into the employment scenario that is so important?

AA

I think, In the employment environment, the biggest challenge for them, aside from social communication that I spoke about, our kids tend to be a little bit inflexible because of their hyper-interests, like you were just saying, and I think we need to expose them and introduce them to, “yes they might find a job in their precise area of interest, but the chances are that they will have to be working on other projects that may not be related exactly to what they want to do.” So, we need to expose them and give them the opportunity to practice flexibility. We try to do that at the center a lot, we have them work on what they love and then we always tell them “alright, now we’re going to work a little bit on another project,” just to give them that exposure. And, I think sometimes parents, especially if the child is very good at something, they tend to overdo it on that, and then not expose them to other opportunities, and therefore it decreases their flexibility. So I think parents need to be aware, and need to be introduced to other things, because, the reality about kids on the spectrum is that they look for patterns, and they may find another area of interest in the exploration aspect, and this will help them with building flexibility, which, they will need in an employment environment, because our employment, our workforce today, is so team-based and it’s global. So you may be working with somebody in China, over the phone or Skype, and our kids need to be exposed to that, things may not always look exactly the way they had it pictured, and I think because they’re so concrete, Hackie, I think they need the actual practice. They need the scripting and they need the “okay let’s try this,” a lot of times parents spend way too much time telling our kids what to do and not showing them. That was another big reason why I opened the center because, here, we show them. This is what you’re going to do, this is how you’re going to do it, this is what it’s going to look like, and, I think, for employment, we have to do mock-interviews. We have to get them ready for an interview so that they can describe themselves in the best light possible. And then we need to train them on how to work in a team-based environment, and how to collaborate with other people, and how to communicate, whether it’s via email, via Skype, they need the actual practice in the situation versus the telling. The telling doesn’t always give them all the information they need to succeed.

HR

What do you think is the biggest hurdle to the goals that you are trying to achieve at your center?

AA

Oh boy. One of the biggest hurdles in my center, at the moment, is parent-training. That is actually my full-time job here at the center. I make sure all of the parents have the information that they need when they need it, because when Dr. Savinelli and I opened the center, our vision was that we would make the parents the therapists. And they wouldn’t have to stay with us forever, because that was kind of my route with my kids, I became as knowledgeable as possible in autism, just as you are, to help my child. That is my vision for every parent here, and I find that, just life gets in the way of that. A lot of my families have more than one child. They’re both employed. So, it’s not that they lack the willingness, I think sometimes they just lack the mental energy. I am always trying to reinvent and invent ways that I can get them the information and I can train them, in non-traditional ways, so that they can be the best-informed parent, so when they leave here, they know how to handle their child as well as we do. We don’t want to be the only resource in their life, we want parents to be the best resource. So I’m always–you know, that has always been a little of a challenge, and I think it’s a logistical challenge. And 2016 is going to be a big year for me in figuring out how I can get information to my families the quickest, and equip them the most effectively.

HR

Well, I–if I could just chime in on that, because I have an opinion on that. I think that the only way we’re going to be able to do that, moving forward, is by harnessing modern technology, as we’re doing right now. It’s the only way we can help lower the cost of all these things, too. There is no substitute for the human touch, but, I’ve got to tell ya, when I was recently down at the Dan Marino center to see what they’ve got going on in their adult center over on Andrews Avenue, what you were saying about the job interviews, they have a virtual job interview there, where the person interviewing you can frown, can make faces at you and you have to see what they’re doing.

AA

We are doing a great job in helping our kids get to that next level, absolutely, yes. And I agree with you on technology, we are talking here at the center, my team and I, about podcasts, doing podcasts for our families, but I also have to tell you our families also need the human touch. I find that many of my families come here and they do want their hands held.

HR

And they want a hug, too.

AA

Because it is a difficult journey, as you know, and it’s nice to be able to talk to somebody that understands, from personal experience, how difficult it can be, and, how, sometimes, you are just overwhelmed with all of the difficulty that we experience in society, especially our families that have so many difficulties with the school system. And that is such a source of stress for them, for the same reasons that you had the problems that you had with your daughter at the university, the school system is not as educated as they should be on ASD, considering the rising tide of the diagnosis. We have an enormous amount of children being diagnosed, but the school system is not keeping up with their training and their equipping of teachers in order to help our kids navigate the system more successfully. That is why, this last year, we started to go into the schools to help teachers get equipped on managing some of our kids, so that they could remain in a typical classroom. Some of our kids have the academic knowledge to remain, in fact, they have superior academic knowledge, but often are asked to leave typical classrooms because no one can give them the tools and strategies they need. So our team has been going into several schools and equipping the teachers, and the students, and most of this is paid by the parents, so that they can stay in the school. And we have had great success with that, so we are hoping that we can grow that component because I think a lot of our kids can stay in a typical classroom, they just need tools like your book talks about. They need tools, they need strategies, and, I think our educational system has kind of lagged behind on getting equipped with that need in the community. And, I agree with you, most of the kids in the classroom are not a typical brain. They are a different type of mind in the classroom, and when we go do observations in different classrooms, we see that, we see that the child that we are there for is not the only child walking to the beat of a different drum.

HR

Very well said. You know, it’s not just the educational industry that is lagging behind. I’m an M.D., and I’ve got zero training in this stuff, and we’re getting more and more–we find doctors, teachers, judges, they want to know. They want to be aware, and they are just not. So we have to change that. Now, before we leave, we’d like for you to give all of our different brains viewers and listeners all of the information about where you’re located, the services you provide, your address, your email, your phone number, your websites, I want a commercial from Ana Anselma, the wonderful, wonderful person of the Social Minds Center. You’re on.

AA

Thank you Hackie. We are the Social Minds Center, it’s in Davie, Florida. We are about a mile from Nova University. Our phone number is 954-533-2782, you can also contact us on our website which is Www.SocialMindsCenter.Com, and my email address is Ana@thesocialmindscenter.com and we specialize in social groups and teaching social communication to children on the autism spectrum and related disabilities. We also do consulting, so we train educators and organizations on best practices and teaching autism so that they can better accommodate their population at their organization or school. We have a team of Doctors and therapists that go into the schools and educate. That is a big part of our business, and we also do parent training, we’re very involved in that. We try to teach parents, who have been newly diagnosed, or have been dealing with different challenges with the autism, on how to better provide help for their children.

HR

Ana it was a pleasure.

AA

Thank you.

HR

We’ve been interviewing today the wonderful Ana Anselma of the Social Minds Center in Davie, Florida.

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