Empowering Connections: Sophie’s Potluck, A Special Journey

In this uplifting interview with Amy Hart, the driving force behind Sophie’s Potluck, we delve into the story of Sophie, a vibrant 14-year-old on the autism spectrum. Amy shares the inspiration behind starting Sophie’s Potluck and the unique experiences they offer to the  community. From the adorable blue peacock logo to the diverse array of activities, this initiative aims to create a supportive and inclusive space for families. Discover how Sophie’s Potluck is fostering connections and providing opportunities for growth.

Tell us a little about Sophie.

My daughter Sophie is 14 years old and an 8th grader in the Pittsburgh Area. Sophie is on the autism spectrum and and can’t always communicate her needs.
Sophie's bow

Sophie’s signature bow

What drove you to start Sophie’s Potluck?

During the winter, I was looking for new activities that I could do with our friends. We typically paint monthly at Splat: A Make and Take Art Studio in the Pittsburgh Area, Pennsylvania. Everyone really enjoys themselves each time and my friend, John Novogurski, (who created and runs the Sophie’s Potluck webpage) and I thought it would be fun to do something more frequently. So we came up with the idea to run the website so we can notify people of our events, and let people register online.
close up of teenager painting

Getting creative

I am always looking for new opportunities for Sophie to try and then ask friends to join us. Then I started thinking of ways that we could really start to explore some venues that we wouldn’t typically think of going to. With a little brainstorming and lots of support, I began emailing different places all over the city. We hope to grow from here.

logo with a peacock snuggled next to a cooking pot

Sophie’s Potluck logo designed by April Watt Little and Cheri Foote

Your logo is an adorable blue peacock cuddled next to a cooking pot. What’s the story behind this image?

I always have a bow in Sophie’s hair to keep track of her, and she loves peacocks. It started as a little inside joke, but John came up with the name because when you host a potluck, everyone brings something to eat. So with Sophie’s Potluck, we wanted everyone to bring their best! My friends April Watt Little and Cheri Foote collaboratively took the name and created the logo for us.

What kind of activities do you offer?

We work with all kinds of venues to bring a wide array of experiences to our special needs friends. Our first “official” event was a 45 minute zoo encounter, where the educators there taught us about arctic animals, and brought a few animals (some arctic, some not) out for us to see. It was a wonderful experience for our friends! Our upcoming events include a trip to a farm, we’re building our own terrariums, and creating our own bath bombs! Many other events are in the works.
Children exploring the zoo

Sophie’s Potluck Zoo Encounter

Are there opportunities to volunteer?

Yes! With some events, we are limited to the number of people that are able to participate. However, when we have the space, we LOVE to have volunteers come and join us. 

Are there opportunities to host events? 

Absolutely!! We are open to try anything! You can contact John or me on the Sophie’s Potluck website.

Any ideas or advice for parents and caregivers with autistic loved ones?

I think that we as parents and care givers are a village that need to learn from each other. I have also found that we just need to ask and many people are interested in helping us, as a group, gain new experiences and learn about the world around them.

Sophie’s Potluck not only serves as a platform for unique and enjoyable experiences, it also stands as a testament to the strength of community and collaboration. Amy’s journey is fueled by a desire to explore new possibilities for her daughter and others. As the initiative continues to grow, offering a range of activities and welcoming volunteers and event hosts, it becomes a shining example of the power of collective support. For parents and caregivers on the autism spectrum, Sophie’s Potluck offers not just events but a village of shared experiences, proving that together, we can enrich the lives of our loved ones and learn from one another.

Four Quick Tips for Picky Eaters

People have all kinds of reasons for food aversions or avoidance.  Sensory (like experiencing strong or “weird” tastes, loud noises that crunchy foods make when chewed, uncomfortable pressure on teeth and jaws when chewing), motor (slippery or soft foods may hard for a person to control in their mouth without accidentally gagging) or negative memories like choking or being at a sad event when eating a food, all may affect one’s “food future”.

Some people may also have obsessive compulsive disorders that dictate how, when, and how much they eat, or hidden mental and emotional rules dictating things like if foods are “allowed” to touch each other, be eaten “out of order” or that one must avoid eating an odd number of  things (like grapes) vs. an even number.  Best wishes to the family chef – or to you yourself – if food variety is limited by disabling conditions.  But fear not, here are some ways which may help anyone eat a wider variety of foods.

1. Put favorite foods with all the food you are offering

Picky eaters may gravitate to certain foods, and this can lead to making special dishes just for them. Try putting their favorite foods as part of a selection of a variety of foods. Putting everything in the middle of the table creates a sense of similarity rather than sending the message, “Your food is different from our food”.

Real family experience: Michael’s daughter, a picky eater, always stuck to her favorite chicken nuggets. By placing them alongside a variety of dishes, he noticed she became more open to trying new things, feeling like her choices were part of the family feast.

child selecting food from table

2. Add flavor little by little

Choose a preferred food and add a tiny bit of flavor in the mix. For example, a person who loves plain pasta with no sauce might enjoy having the option to dip the pasta, or simply add a very small, almost undetectable amount of sauce into the pasta to give it a subtle hint of flavor. If the hint of flavor is tolerated, gradually add more over time.

Real family experience: Eva, who preferred plain pasta, discovered a love for subtle flavors when her mom introduced a small amount of sauce. Gradually, she started experimenting with different sauces, turning mealtime into a flavorful adventure.

child thinking looking at pasta

3. Deconstruct complicate dishes

Serving a dish that has multiple ingredients can look and taste overwhelming. Try offering ingredients that they can choose and assemble as they like. For example, taco night might feature tortillas alone with a separate bowl of each filling. People could eat each item separately, or combined as they choose. 

Real family experience: The Smith family found that deconstructing lasagna into separate components allowed their son, with sensory sensitivities, to enjoy the meal. He happily assembled his plate with the ingredients he liked, turning a potentially overwhelming dish into a customizable delight.

lasagna ingredients on table

4. Add variety to familiar foods

Try favorite flavors or textures in different foods, and note how they are similar. “These are raisins. They’re soft, sweet and chewy just like the gummy candies you like.” Or “You love Goldfish crackers. Here are cheesy square crackers that can go with them.” You also might try using a favorite dip as a way to try new food “dippers”. Begin with their favorite food and dip, say carrots and ranch dressing, then add a new food, like one piece of celery, to allow a little more exploration.

Real family experience: Mark’s son, a fan of Goldfish crackers, was introduced to new flavors by pairing them with different-shaped cheesy crackers. The explanation, “These are like the ones you love,” made trying new snacks feel like a natural extension of their preferences.

goldfish crackers and round crackers

 

Four tips for picky eaters details in blog post


By experimenting with these family-friendly tips, you can turn the dinner table into a joyous experience for everyone. Remember to include favorite foods alongside a variety of options, creating a sense of togetherness rather than emphasizing differences. Gradually introduce flavors to cater to individual preferences and consider deconstructing complex dishes for a more manageable experience. Adding variety to familiar foods and using favorite dips as a gateway to new tastes can further enhance the positive, inclusive atmosphere at the table. Celebrating each unique palate is the key to creating lasting memories and fostering a sense of togetherness during mealtime.


Interoception: Body Awareness Exercises

What is Interoception?

Many of us understand and explore the world through the five senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. But there’s another important sense called interoception. This sense helps us become aware of signals from inside our body, like feeling our heartbeat, noticing when we’re hungry, or realizing we need to use the bathroom. 

Interoception means feeling and making sense of (sensing) messages from inside our body, like when our stomach tells us it’s time for a snack, or when our heart starts to race. We don’t focus on these messages all the time, but there are moments, like when we have to speak or present in front of the class, or when we’ve seen something scary on television, or have been very late for something important, that we might feel our heart thumping really hard. Different parts of our brain keep an eye on these inner signals, making sure everything is working well and trying to give us awareness (giving us a heads-up) in case we need to make a change, like get a snack, take a break, or use the bathroom.

Think of it this way: your brain acts as a helpful guide, noticing things like when you might need a drink because you’re getting a bit thirsty. It’s like your body’s alarm system, making sure everything stays just right. The balance – when things are all working right – is called homeostasis. It’s the way our body works to keep us healthy, safe, and feeling comfortable, almost the same as when we sweat to cool down if we’re too warm. For some, awareness and response are automatic, but for others, there can be a disconnect. Body awareness exercises can help develop better interoception and lead to homeostasis – a best state of health and safety. 

Body Awareness Exercises for Autistic People

Body awareness exercises for autistic people can help them develop a better understanding of their internal sensations and emotions. These exercises can be adapted to interests and sensory preferences, so look for teachable moments in your daily routines and preferred play activities. 

Sensory Exploration – Outside In

External sensory experiences have an impact on what happens internally. When engaging in sensory exploration, be mindful of how each activity either calms or excites you.

  • Use textured materials like fabrics, sponges, or sensory balls.
  • Dig into sensory bins. Note how the textures and movement feel, and notice its calming effects.
  • Explore different textures (sand, playdough, textured fabrics) and discuss how each texture feels against the skin.
  • Engage in mindful eating activities, paying close attention to the tastes, textures, and sensations while eating.
  • Lie down on a large sheet of paper and have someone trace your body outline. Then, color or label different sensations you feel in each body part.
  • What’s that smell? Choose favorite scents and talk about how the fragrances make you feel. 

brightly colored sensory bin

Movement Games

  • Simon Says: Play a game of Simon Says with movement commands that target specific body parts (touch your toes, clap your hands).
  • Dance or Follow-the-Leader: Encourage imitation of various movements and poses.
  • Lie down or sit comfortably and guide attention to different body parts, and notice sensations, tension, or relaxation.
  • Child-friendly yoga poses that focus on different body parts, such as Tree Pose, Cat-Cow, and Bridge Pose, can promote body awareness.
  • Tense and relax different muscle groups while discussing how it feels to tense and then release the tension.

four children in yoga poses

Mirror Activities and Emotions

  • Stand in front of a mirror and make faces to recognize facial expressions associated with different emotions. Imitate your mirror partner’s gestures and expressions.
  • Mimic different body movements and gestures to increase self-awareness.
  • Act out different emotions and discuss the physical sensations associated with each emotion.
  • Use a visual “emotion thermometer” to help identify and rate your current emotional state and associated physical sensations.
  • Guide someone, or have someone guide you, through a calming and sensory-rich imaginary experience, such as walking on a sandy beach or exploring a forest.

Mirror games with adult imitating child

Breathing Exercises

  • Inhale slowly through the nose, imagining inflating a balloon in the belly, and exhale through the mouth to deflate the balloon.
  • Hold a feather close to the nose and practice inhaling and exhaling gently to make the feather move.
  • Place a small object (feather or cotton ball) on your stomach and breathe in and out to make the object move.
  • Blow bubbles

father and toddler blowing bubbles


Interoception and Occupational Therapy (OT)

Occupational therapy (OT) for interoception involves structured interventions and activities designed to enhance awareness and understanding of internal bodily sensations.

Assessment and Baseline: Begin with an assessment to determine current level of interoceptive awareness and identify specific areas of difficulty. This baseline will guide the development of a tailored intervention plan.

Education: Provide information about interoception and its importance. Communicate that internal sensations provide valuable information about their body’s needs and emotional states.

Individualized Goals: Collaborate to set interoception-related goals and track progress over time.

Communication Skills: Learn to communicate internal states to others. This is particularly important for people who struggle to express their needs or discomfort.

Visual Supports: Use visual aids, charts, or diagrams to help understand and express internal sensations.

Biofeedback: Use biofeedback devices to visually or audibly represent physiological processes like heart rate or breath. This helps make the connection between internal sensations and these processes.

Hygiene Routines: During hygiene activities, notice how different sensations change during tasks like brushing teeth, washing hands, or taking a shower.

Environmental Sensations: Explore different sensory experiences in the environment, such as temperature changes or textured surfaces, and discuss how these sensations affect the body.

Mindfulness Practices: Incorporate mindfulness techniques, such as body scans and mindful breathing, to help focus on internal sensations and recognize changes as they occur.

Emotion Regulation: Teach emotional awareness and regulation strategies. Identify bodily cues associated with different emotions and develop coping skills to manage emotional responses.

Social Interaction Activities: Incorporate activities that involve social interactions, helping to recognize and respond to social cues related to emotions and bodily states.

Daily Journals: Keep a daily journal to record experiences, emotions, and bodily sensations. This practice promotes self-reflection and awareness.

Interoceptive Challenges: Gradually introduce activities that challenge interoceptive awareness, such as eating spicy foods, engaging in physical activities, or meditating.

Visit the OT ToolboxWhat You Need to Know about Interoception


Interoception is often referred to as the “hidden sense,” and this hidden sense helps us understand  body signals, like hunger, thirst, and emotional states. This self-awareness fosters a sense of well-being and it can help us communicate needs more effectively. By honing interoceptive skills, we can help recognize and manage internal messages, leading to greater self awareness and self regulation. 


Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank Creates Flexible Space for People with Autism and Hidden Differences

Autism Connection has made a couple visits to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to talk about hidden differences. Maria Montaro, Corporate and Community Engagement Manager, organized the sessions, and she surprised us with adjustments the organization has made over the past few months. Creating an inclusive, flexible environment has become a force that drives the Food Bank’s mission.

Training and Consultation

Maria recognizes the importance of getting multiple perspectives, and training is one of her top priorities. Autism Connection had the opportunity to include Tanaya Hairston, an Achieva Early Intervention employee who has volunteered for sensory friendly performances at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Her insight as a volunteer working with people on the autism spectrum was invaluable. The group shared experiences, brainstormed solutions, and created a plan of action.

Tanaya smiling into the camera holding a peace sign with her fingers

Tanaya Hairston smiling with excitement about sharing her experience

Adjusting the Environment for Inclusive Volunteer Opportunities

After the talk, Maria took time to take Autism Connection on a tour of the facility to show what ideas we shared were implemented. The results are stellar!

  • Clear signage and directions upon entering the building
  • Adjustable lighting
  • Quiet spaces
  • Easy access to sensory aids
  • Visual cues that provide direction and set expectations
  • Magnifying lenses
  • Noise canceling headphones
  • Comfortable, adjustable seating
  • Cushioned floor mats
  • Tasks broken down into one or two steps at a time
  • Breaks when needed

Understanding Universal Design

A big part of the discussion was about Universal Design. The primary focus for this approach is to create flexible spaces that can be adjusted according to individual needs. What works for one volunteer may not work for another, and sometimes needs of one conflict with the needs of another. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank recognizes that we can address each person’s needs by making adjustments catered to the individual. 


Autism Connection of Pennsylvania thanks Maria and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for demonstrating their dedication to creating inclusive spaces that can be adjusted to suit the needs of their volunteers. We can’t wait to see what developments they have in the future.

Find tips for creating similar environments: Autism, Hidden Differences and Volunteering

 


Autism, Hidden Disabilities and Volunteering

Running an organization that accommodates volunteers with autism or hidden disabilities requires understanding, empathy, and flexibility. Here are some tips to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all volunteers:

  1. Educate all staff and volunteers: Provide training to all staff and volunteers about autism and hidden disabilities. This can help create awareness and promote understanding among team members.
  2. Flexible scheduling: Be open to flexible scheduling to accommodate volunteers’ needs. Some volunteers may thrive with consistent schedules, while others may prefer varied hours to avoid sensory overload.
  3. Designated quiet spaces: Create designated quiet spaces where volunteers can take a break if they feel overwhelmed or need some time to recharge.
  4. Clear communication: Use clear and concise communication, both in person and in written instructions. Avoid figurative language or ambiguous directions, as some people with autism may struggle with interpreting them.
  5. Visual aids: Use visual aids, such as charts, diagrams, or picture schedules, to help volunteers understand tasks and processes. Visual cues can be beneficial for those who have difficulty processing verbal information.
  6. Buddy system: Implement a buddy system pairing volunteers with autism or hidden disabilities with experienced and understanding volunteers. This can provide additional support and make the volunteering experience more enjoyable.
  7. Task preferences: Allow volunteers to express their preferences for specific tasks they feel comfortable doing. Tailoring assignments to individual strengths can increase motivation and confidence.
  8. Sensory considerations: Be mindful of the sensory environment. For example, dimming bright lights, minimizing loud noises, or providing noise-cancelling headphones can create a more comfortable atmosphere.
  9. Regular breaks: Schedule regular breaks for all volunteers, ensuring they have time to rest and recharge as needed.
  10. Positive reinforcement: Recognize and celebrate the efforts and contributions of all volunteers. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in boosting self-esteem and encouraging continued participation.
  11. Accommodate communication preferences: Some people with hidden disabilities may have specific communication preferences (e.g., email, text messages, or written notes). Be willing to accommodate these preferences to facilitate effective communication.
  12. Encourage feedback: Create a culture that encourages open feedback from volunteers about their experiences and any additional support they may need.
  13. Avoid sensory overload: Limit the number of simultaneous tasks or activities that volunteers are expected to handle. Overloading the senses can be challenging for individuals with autism or hidden disabilities.
  14. Patience and empathy: Above all, approach each volunteer with patience and empathy. Recognize that everyone has unique needs and challenges, and a supportive and understanding attitude can make a significant difference.

By implementing these tips, you can foster an inclusive and adjustable environment where all volunteers can contribute their skills and feel valued in an organization’s mission.


Autism Guide for Bathing and Showering

Helping an autistic adult who is struggling with bathing can be a gradual and patient process. Here are some strategies to provide support and encourage personal hygiene:

  1. Understand their sensory needs: Sensory sensitivities can make the bathing experience uncomfortable or overwhelming. Take note of any specific sensory triggers and try to minimize them. For example, they might prefer a certain water temperature or specific bathing products.
  2. Establish a consistent routine: Set up a daily or weekly bathing schedule to create predictability and structure. Routines help them know what to expect, and knowing what to expect can reduce anxiety. 
  3. Visual supports: Use visual schedules or step-by-step picture cards to help them through the bathing process. Visual aids can provide clear instructions and reduce anxiety about what comes next.
  4. Gradual exposure: If the person is anxious about bathing, start with short sessions and gradually increase the duration over time. Offer positive reinforcement and praise for each successful attempt.
  5. Accommodate preferences: If they dislike traditional bathing methods, explore alternatives like sponge baths, using a washcloth, or taking a shower with less water pressure.
  6. Incorporate special interests: Integrate their special interests or favorite activities into the bathing routine to make it more enjoyable. For example, if they love a specific toy or sensory item, allow them to bring it into the bath.
  7. Choice and control: Offer choices within the bathing process. Allow them to choose the soap or shampoo scent, the bathrobe they want to wear afterward, or the time of day they prefer to bathe.
  8. Use social stories: Create social stories or videos that depict the importance of personal hygiene and the benefits of bathing. Social stories can be an effective way to explain new or challenging concepts in a relatable manner.
  9. Create a sensory-friendly bathroom: Make the bathroom a comfortable and calming space. Use soft lighting, add sensory elements like scented candles or essential oils, and provide familiar and preferred towels and bath products.
  10. Modeling and participation: Show the individual that bathing is a regular part of daily life by modeling the behavior. Consider taking baths or showers together initially to provide support and encouragement.
  11. Offer rewards: Consider implementing a simple reward system for successful bathing attempts. This could be earning tokens for each bath, which can later be exchanged for preferred items or activities.
  12. Seek professional support: If the challenges persist, consult with professionals, such as occupational therapists, who specialize in working with individuals with autism. They can provide personalized strategies and support.

More guidance and videos available on Autism Self Care.


Remember, each person is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Be patient, understanding, and flexible in your approach, and celebrate any progress, no matter how small. Building a trusting and supportive relationship is key to helping the autistic adult feel more comfortable with the bathing process.


Mr. Messado Delivers Sensory-Friendly Magic

On April 2, 2023, Liberty Magic hosted Mr. Messado’s School of Magic’s first sensory-friendly show. This performance was part of a collaboration between Autism Connection of PA, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Liberty Magic, and Mr. Messado himself. His show required minimal changes because he is a natural working with all children.

During the hour long performance, audience members took active roles in the magic tricks, and Mr. Messado seamlessly flowed with participants’ excited responses, and reveled in their joy. 

Learn more about Mr. Messado’s School of Magic.