Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From $200 to $2 Million: A Mom Finds Success in Serving Children with Autism

Win Choiceworks Visual Support System!
(See Below)

Whenever you are feeling like the world is against you, read this post about one extraordinary mom named Julie Azuma. I have to say that I'm ashamed to have sat next to her at meetings for years and hadn't the slightest clue how accomplished she was. This is before I had children and barely knew anything about autism or any other special needs.

Luckily our paths crossed again just a few months ago when Spencer's ABA therapist told me to visit a website called Different Roads to Learning ( to find tools to help my older son Logan (ADHD, SPD) who wasn't receiving ABA therapy. Soon I realized that this was Julie's company and was floored to find out what a tremendous figure she was in the world of special needs children. In 2006, Inc. Magazine even honored her alongside the likes of Martha Stewart and Michael Dell (Dell Computers) in their 26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs issue.

Julie's Story
Fourteen years ago, not long after her adopted daughter Miranda was diagnosed with autism, Julie decided to create a store that offered tools to help children with special needs. Her main motivation came from having experienced the frustration of not being able to find toys and other tools that were suitable for teaching her child.

Julie soon found out that it would cost her over $200,000 to open a store and while the idea was very new to many back then, Julie decided to open an online store instead. In the first year, she earned just $200 dollars and was very happy. At the time, the store was more of a hobby for this former high-powered apparel executive.

As the store grew larger, she developed Different Roads to Learning to become a resource for ABA therapy. Julie had found that ABA worked best on her daughter whose speech consisted of one word sentences when she started the therapy. "Within 6 weeks of ABA, she could say, 'I want juice please.'" While Julie says that Miranda's speech has not gone much beyond that point, she does respond better now and she credits ABA for much of her child's progress. "We really believe that the data on Applied Behavior Analysis indicates that that's the best intervention," said Julie.

Soon her "hobby" of providing appropriate toys and tools for families of children with special needs began to grow. Last year, she netted sales nearing $2 million dollars. This is amazing and yet it doesn't surprise me. Even though many schools and clinics order from Different Roads to Learning, as a parent, I think the store is really easy to navigate so I can quickly choose what I need. Many online stores sort of overwhelm me and leave me feeling that the site is geared towards professionals.

The site is indeed consumer-friendly and stocked with what I can best describe as "really good stuff." However, I think the greatest key to Julie's success is quite simple. That is, she gets it. She gets mothers of special needs children and the needs of their whole family. If we had a checklist of common crappy experiences of special needs families starting with the hurtful comments from ignorant family members to getting the run-around by the "best" medical experts, Julie could check every box on that list along with the rest of us.

She has even dealt with possibly the worst of all special needs scenarios: Julie was running an errand at a bank when her daughter Miranda had a terrible tantrum and so she had to restrain her. (Raise your hand if you've been there. Mine is raised.) A bystander, who didn't recognize that Miranda had autism, notified the bank guard and that's when the real trouble began.

"We told the security guard at the bank that Miranda had autism and they let us go but the guy had even called the police on us. I explained to the guy that she's autistic and she has these behaviors and he said, 'Well, I've never seen that before!'"

Julie understands how parents feel. She understands how frustrated and difficult their lives are. "We know they are not sleeping... Just making a call to us is taking a lot out of them." I couldn't have liked her more when she said that. There are so many times when I'm on the phone trying to get them more help but they are clawing at me and being so loud. I am always asked if there is a better time to talk and the answer is always the same: NO.

As I write about finding calm as a special needs mom, I admire how Julie took the circumstances of her life and turned it into a wonderful opportunity by helping others. I am hoping that this blog can become more than what it currently is but I don't know if I have what it takes to go beyond these boundaries. Having said that, Julie's story sure inspires me.

I asked Julie what advice does she have for us moms who are looking to be as successful as she is and she said she didn't really have advice to give except to say that the common denominator she sees in successful moms (in the special needs world) is solely this: drive. "They are driven and they know where there's a need," affirms Julie. She described that the passion that they have carries them beyond their own children and that those in the special needs world succeed because they want to help everyone. "I wouldn't want a parent to have gone through what I went through," said Julie.

Thanks to Julie, more people have access to better tools to help their children succeed. If only Julie could develop a tool to prevent ridiculous people from calling the police on us when we are just trying to keep our children safe from hurting anyone including themselves. Surely, that would be a bestseller.

The Transitions-Made-Easy Contest - (now closed)
Pictured above is Choiceworks, a kit that uses visuals to help children with social skills, develop appropriate responses and improve self-control. I think this product helps children with a variety of challenges including ADHD, Autism, and Anxiety. (Click here to learn more.) I love it for Logan because it helps him with transitions which is a huge issue for him. It also helps me get less frustrated with him. Lucky for us, Julie would like to give away a free kit ($80 value) to a reader that can best answer this question:

What do you do to help your child better handle transitions?

Please write your submission in the comments box on this post and keep it under 150 words. Include your email address with your answer so that we can find you. If you do not wish to leave your email with your submission, send me an email immediately after you submit your answer (with a detail or two) so that I know that it's yours. This post will be included in the "Readers Give Advice" section on this right side of this blog, so your contributions will always be there for anyone looking for tips. Deadline is Sunday, November 29, 2009 11:59 pm. Julie will be choosing the winner. Good luck and thanks for submitting your ideas.

Above photo: Julie and her daughters Miranda (bottom) and Sophie (left) at an outing a couple of year ago. Miranda is now 21.


Theresa said...

What do I do to better help my child handle transitions? This is a question I ask myself daily, some days hourly (if not more often!). I would say first and foremost, we do not have a lot of scheduled activities for our ADHD/SPD kindergartener. I see a lot of his classmates in boy scouts, soccer, baseball, swim lessons, gymnastics, etc. and we just plain don't do any of those. It's too much information for his brain to process (especially after a full day of school) and he really needs time to decompress (or "dehydrate" as he's explained to me). When we can't help a transition, it's all about maintaining routine. When the routine cannot be maintained, we explain why it's different and allow processing time and (a few) questions. Then we focus forward and move on. Snacks help. This is on a good day.

Lily said...

For transitions, we write on a sticky note all the things we are planning for the day, or outing, or whatever. Then he gets to cross them off as they get done. We use the alarm clock setting on my cell phone to tell him how much longer he can stay at an activity he likes before we move on. We tell him at all times what is going on, and we say what we mean and mean what we say, so he knows that no matter what behaviours he throws at me, I will do what I said I will. This means that he has learned not to fight me and decisions about transitions.

Penny Williams said...

I find something as simple as transitioning from one activity to the next to be one of the top 3 trouble instigators for my ADHD child. We always give a warning countdown before having to switch gears -- I usually give a 5-minute, 2-minute, and 1-minute warning leading up to each transition. At school, they have found that using a timer for work activities not only gives him a visual of how much time is left before a transition, but it also keeps him on task by showing him that the task he doesn't really want to work on has an end and it's coming fairly soon.

I am really looking forward to reading all the tips and suggestions on this!

pennywpenny [at]

Anonymous said...


Great information, thanks!

Transitions might be the most challenging issue we deal with; primarily because our kid's days are FILLED with them! What works one moment can be an 'epic fail' the next.

Timing and the language we use is critical: first, we always try to allow for enough time to transition from one thing to the next.

Second, I use "when/then" language to avoid things like "it's time to XX" or "we have to XX!" Instead we strive for "when you finish your homework, then you can use the computer". This technique also hands back some control to our kiddos --

Finally: I remind myself about what I have to do to remain calm; even if my child isn't.

Hartley said...

Thank you for the inteview Jenn!

For us transitioning requires having a “plan” in place, a transition object (Thomas the train), and warnings that include prep for the next activity, "We are leaving the park and driving to pick up your brothers" (leaving an open ended “we have to go” causes issues with predictability of the next activity, so they need to know that we are leaving one activity, to go specifically to the next).
I don't use the countdown warnings (10 mins, 5 mins). Time is an abstract concept. We use the term "last thing”. Example would be, "It is time to leave the park. You need to do a last thing before we get your brothers--would you like to do the slide or the monkey bars?" It gives a much more finite activity to transition from. Off the slide, hold hands, talk about next option, praise praise praise, hand him the train, and off we go.

I have done this my youngest son's whole life (he is 4) and if I can stick to it, it is succesful every time. Consistency is key.

Thanks again Jenn!

KEP said...

What do you do to help your child better handle transitions?

With my non-verbal 4-yr old child,
1. I first say where/what we are transitioning to, and
2. then I sign and say the activity we are changing to.
3. Third, I repeat my self about 5 times give or take all the while working up my enthusiasm for the next activity. Sometimes I get a smile & other times we just continue on without her acknowledgement. The key for us is this enthusiasm. If she thinks it’s something I look forward to, it seems she is comfortable about the transition.
This simple approach really has made transitions smooth for her.
The only pre-planning I need is knowing a sign for the next activity. Because her days become routine, I usually know the signs. So, armed with the signs, we can usually go through our day without transition hassles.

Sarah Broady said...

We have found a very helpful solution to tricky transitions. During our daily routine, and especially when things come up that interfere with that routine, we tell the kids (one out of our 3 boys has autism) about the change in plans first, in at least two-three different ways. If instead of eating lunch, then taking a nap, then playtime, we have to run an errand after lunch and before nap, I will say my son's name and tell him to look in my eyes. I know I have his attention that way. I will tell him "We are going to go to this place first, and then we will come home and take a nap." Then I restate it, and ask him, "What are we going to do after lunch?" "When are we going to take a nap?" Then, I make really good use of our oven timer. (I want a visual timer tracker, but until we get one, we're using the oven). I tell him I'm setting the timer, and when the timer goes off, we will go to "the place". Coming home, I restate a couple of times, "When we get home, it's time to take a nap."

He needs to know what to expect, otherwise, we will experience meltdowns. I have to know he understands what I'm telling him in order to expect him to follow my directions, so asking him to repeat back to me what I said - two or more different ways - helps reiterate to him what is happening, and assures me he understands.

stace-c said...

When my son was younger, and before we had a diagnosis of ADHD/SPD, we had a different schedule each day, which made life extremely difficult. I got the idea to make him a "planner". I would find clip art that matched the activities we were doing for the day, and then I would print out a new "planner" for each day. This way, he always knew what to expect next. Now that he is older and has twin siblings, I haven't been doing as well at preparing him for transitions. He still asks me for his planner sometimes, so I know he misses it.

Bobbie said...

What works..well I know what does not work. Yelling - does not work d=for anyone. Cryinig - not good, unless you laugh yourself silly after. Head in sand, another not so good choice.

What does work is patience, patience daily. Sometimes I have it sometimes I don't. My darling quirky son is adhd/asd and yes they can come all in one little person. I love everything about him.
He does not fit in a box, and that's OK. That is part of his wonderful charm. He always makes you think about something a little differently then you normally would.

Routines work best, list work well too. Idioms, they don't work.
Letting him have time to "reset" is good, trying to figure when that time may be is challenging.

I would love to find something that would be consistently helpful, that he could grow with and use as he gets older, that could grow with him too. I think school is still our biggest hurdle, especially now that it's Middle School.

But he is my love, and he teaches me so much daily.

Unknown said...

Our son initially had great difficulty transitioning until we started our own plan, now our son is always a WIINR.:
W> We always give him a WARNING that we are going to transition, for example ” 1 more minute”.
I> Next we INITIATE the move. At first this required assistance but now he moves independently.
I> We IDENTIFY where we are going while we are holding his hand and encouraging him.
N> We use NUMBERS to help him understand that there is a end point to the activity otherwise he gets anxious. We started counting quickly then we counted slowly, now he counts for us. Even though he doesn’t like some of these activities he is willing to participate because he knows there is an end.
R> Of course we always end with a REINFORCEMENT, (hugs, stickers, or even food), whatever works for your child.
Good Luck and Happy Transitioning!

Jenn said...

Stina, Great submission but if you want to be eligible to win, you must either include your email address with your submission or send it to me.

Donna said...

I don't know if transitions are harder on the ASD child or the parent dreading it. If at all possible we try to ease our 7 yr old non-verbal son into something new. We talk about it before hand to make it as familiar as possible. (We try not to transfer our anxiety at the same time.)So we don't build it up too big. We practice patience and take a break if he starts to get frustrated. A melt down is counter productive. We do something to burn off his frustration like jumping or rolling on a therapy ball, then bring him back into focus and try again. Eventually he gets it. Sometimes it happens fast and other times it takes days, weeks or longer. The key is not to give up.
Donna Rollison

Suzanne said...

What works best for my daughter to transition is the count down priming technique as well as the "First/then" technique.

I tell her first we are going to_____, and Then in 5 minutes we are going to_____.

Then I count down each minute ( 4 more until we get to the last minute. I pronounce "4 more minutes!, 3 more minutes! etc., etc.I start counting in seconds. Usually she will automatically start to go ahead and transition by the time I am counting 5 more seconds. Works great!


Jenn said...

Hi Everyone,
The contest is over and an email has just been sent to notify the winner. We'll post the information soon however, I just found out that there is a sale at Different Roads to Learning. You can go to and get 20% off sale off of everything except the super huge kits. It lasts until Midnight, Wednesday the 2nd of December. The promo code is NOV09

Bobbie said...

Thanks Jenn

Melanie said...

10 minute warning
5 minute warning
2 minute warning
1 minute warning
count backwards from 10 to 1, and then let him say "blast off!"

seems to work for my kiddo