It Takes a World to Change the World

  • Marina Vaserman

    Founder, Open Mind School

    The founder talks about creative ways in which the school builds autism awareness in the community and removes barriers for children with ASD. All pictures were taken at the Open Mind School campus on a regular school day.

    Among other things, contemporary business relationships come with an expectation of emotional support. It’s at those difficult times when a family reaches out to me or a company shares their hope to meet the needs of a larger population that we realize that there are gaps in services. Avoidance is an understandable response but it can only last so long. It’s a life, it’s livable, but it’s not happy, loving, or full. I have a hunger inside of me to help others.

    Developmental disabilities constitute the number one minority group in the United States.  The rate of diagnosis in Silicon Valley is rising and the breadth and types of common daily living experiences need to change. All too often, families who have children with special needs face barriers to partaking in the activities that many of us take for granted. It’s only when community leaders modify some of the common barriers that we become a stronger community as a whole.  This dynamic requires nonprofits to play a larger role across the spectrum of community impact: Open Mind School is proud to lead the way. In the last 60 days, we have focused on two of the most difficult experiences families with children with special needs report (1) dining out (2) the gift of flight.


    Dining out is a common experience for many families. But for a family with a child with special needs, the idea of eating out can be overwhelming, especially at a fine dining establishment. Anywhere from 46 to 89 percent of children diagnosed with ASD display feeding challenges. Some children are sensitive to food allergies or follow a regiment of dietary restrictions as part of their intervention program. These difficulties along with negative public attitudes and the lack of support and understanding from restaurant staff can make the experience at restaurants rather daunting.


    Open Mind is on a mission to collaboratively create an appropriate dining experience. We provide a FREE Service Staff Sensitivity Training Workshop. We teamed up with occupational therapists from San Jose State University and created the ideal sensory environment. Children had a dedicated sensory friendly play area designed with natural lighting, low music/movie sounds, movement equipment, and room partitions. We included kid friendly food options with visual menus, AAC with pre-programmed food choices, and most importantly we helped to create a welcoming environment.  Open Mind School and John Bentley Restaurant were proud to launch a new initiative of Sensory Friendly Dining in Silicon Valley. In partnership we brought together dedicated professionals and exquisite food to transform the dining experience for families with children with special needs. This was uniquely a PLAY DATE FOR CHILDREN & DATE NIGHT FOR PARENTS.


    About the same time I started accompanying families to restaurants, I was asked to journey around the globe and help children with special needs fly.  For some families, years passed before they had the courage to try flying again, for others it was a regular struggle where they needed additional support. After trips to Los Angeles, East Coast, India, and Israel I wanted to explore local options to scale this intervention and make resources more accessible.


    When Open Mind was given the opportunity to staff volunteers for the AIR Travel Experience Project in partnership with United Airlines, we jumped at the chance to get involved. We were proud to have our educational consultant, Janelle, from our Autism Specialist Team coordinate the event. The purpose of this project was to provide an airport experience from curb to cabin and back to prepare families affected by autism for future air travel. In order to simulate a typical experience, the families were asked to pack bags representative of how they might actually travel.  At the end, we proceeded as a group to security and to the gate where we waited for our flight. We boarded our flight and had a simulated take off. We remained on the flight for about 30-40 minutes. During this time, families and volunteers ordered a beverage. Children were encouraged to use the bathroom. Finally there was a simulated landing and everyone exited the plane. We went to baggage claim and collected luggage and departed. The entire experience took about 3 hours and we were grateful to provide the support.


    Being supportive in various contexts requires an open mind. I do not judge restaurants, airlines, or other companies; I simply want to help. Every opportunity we have to create welcoming environments in our community where parents and students feel connected drives the mission of Open Mind School. I trust Open Mind School’s hard work is having an unmatched impact on our students’ lives through their lifespan. We understand that our student’s daily living experiences surpass the classroom walls and we’re ready to work hard to meet their needs inside and outside the school day hours. I search for ways to get involved in community impact and outreach because I have a deep love for what I do. It’s a burning passion to do what I can to help children communicate, learn, thrive, and be included in all aspects of daily living.

    As the school year kicks off, we come every day with the intention to love, the desire to teach, and with the understanding that every child has potential. These families are remarkable, their children are an inspiration, and this school is groundbreaking. Thank you for sharing our vision in Autism Bay Area Magazine. For without the caring and educated community members like you, there would be little hope for change in our system.


                      Marina Vaserman’s background is in the field of mental health and education. She has a graduate degree is in Educational Psychology from NYU with extensive experience in applications for learning and the brain in neuropsychology.

                Marina is an Intermediate DIR® Floortime™ provider and has additional training in PRT, RDI, Sonrise, and DTT therapies. She is currently receiving RPM training.


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