The Internet is both my salvation as a parent and the bane of my existence. You can find anything, any opinion, any oddball group of people uniting to discuss their shared obsession. At the best of times, you can get some really great information, advice, support and ideas from the right website. Or you could waste 45 precious minutes playing a Space Invaders game you stumbled across ... or so I've heard.

If you're parenting an autistic child -- or any child for that matter -- there are plenty of sites out there dying to separate you from your hard-earned cash. Some of them are worth it and some aren't. However, there are some really great sites out there offering, for some altruistic reason, their goods for free. We love you. And here's the Broadfeet salute to some of our favorite sites with free stuff for parents and kids:
We credit Starfall with teaching Billy the alphabet. Designed for teachers and parents, the site has pre-reading and reading activities, including an animated alphabet that Billy loves! After you graduate past the alphabet, there are animated interactive stories that teach phonics, and well as games to promote reading skills. Downloadable coloring and worksheets accompany each level. Educational materials are also sold in the Starfall store, but there are plenty of free goodies to enjoy. Our favorite interactive stories are "Peg the Hen" and the "Car Race."

We're big Baby Bumblebee fans and have the complete set of DVDs and flashcards. For more on the program, click HERE. To get to the free stuff on their website, though, click on FREE DOWNLOADABLES on the left-hand side of the screen. You can download books and flashcards, educational posters, handwriting practice sheets and more. The page is a bit of a mess so scroll through carefully to find all the options.
Speaking of mess, this wonderful site hasn't met a font it doesn't love. Design challenges aside, though, the content is awesome. There are a million easy craft ideas from masks for Mardi Gras to a "Litter Bug" for Earth Day. There is almost too much information here: songs and worksheets on music theory, books to print, homework help, games involving dinosaurs. It's like wandering through an online thrift shop where everything is organized according to the whim of the owner; but then, I like thrift shops and every time I go to this site, I find something new and delightful.
Puppets are a great rainy day activity, but when I'm sleep-deprived and not firing on all cylinders, making up interesting stories is a bit beyond me. Acting out Mommy and Daddy's last fight about the right way to organize the dishwasher is not really as compelling to the kids. has a searchable library of free scripts of classic and new stories (specify in the search whether you want religious or non-religious scripts). Kids don't really care whether you have an actual puppet theater or not (you can make one easily out of a big appliance box), but if you'd like a good one, Amazon has a selection such as the tabletop theater shown here.
Ever get halfway through singing a kids' song you thought you knew and realize that you don't know the words? Kididdles has the lyrics, midi files of the tune, and even sheet music for an impressive library of songs. There are also downloadable activity sheets to accompany favorites like "5 Little Ducks," "Three Blind Mice" and "Farmer in the Dell." Well-designed site that you have to join, but it's quick, easy and free to do so.
I was singing the praises of to my Circle of Moms when one of them pointed me to this tres cool site where audio stories are FREE. Everything from fairy tales to bible stories to original stories by the creators is available to keep your tike entertained in the car or stroller or preoccupied in the doctor's office waiting room. New free stories are uploaded every week, and downloading is a simple as a right-click of your mouse.
This site can be a bit overwhelming, even though it's well-designed and organized, simply because of the volume of content. As the name suggests, it's about education from birth to returning to college and everything in between. We spend most of our time in the area, checking out the preschool-appropriate recipes, science projects (yes, science projects), games and crafts. Do you know how to play Jan-Ken-Pon (Japanese Rock Paper Scissors)? Have you ever hatched your own preying mantis? Me neither, but if we get the urge, has the instructions.
This site boasts 16,000 worksheets! In other words, every kid's nightmare and every exhausted teacher's 15 minutes of peace. But there are also Flash-based interactive storybooks, thematic teaching units based around various holidays and subjects, and free downloadable software that includes a Bingo game and several interactive math, phonics, geography and spelling programs. Warning: click on Funtime only if you aren't susceptible to waste time on bad versions of '80s video games.
I highly recommend a picture schedule for any preverbal child, whether autistic or normally developing. It helps them understand their day and teaches them to make choices, an important step in strong communication skills. We used a digital camera and took our own pictures (of lunch, bathtime, teeth brushing, etc.) and printed them out, but that can be very time-consuming. There are plenty of places online where you can buy starter icon packages, but this site has some great support tools for getting started with a picture schedule, providing a basic package of icons completely free.
Just hilarious videos. A teacher makes his own animated stories to teach lessons about owls, frogs, sharing, bullying, etc. My personal favorite is "A Few Facts About Owls."

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I cannot cook. My father always said that if you can read, you can cook, and it is true that I can follow directions, but that, to me, is not really cooking. Cooking skill is that magical sense -- at least it seems like magic to me -- that tells you to add a little more of this or that to make food taste better. If one ingredient is missing from a recipe, I am at a loss. I have no idea whether 1/2 teaspoon of paprika is essential or is one of those things you can leave out. I have no more idea what to substitute in its place than I would know how to change an oil filter (do oil filters get changed?).

Before I had children, it never occurred to me to want to learn to cook. When I lived on my own, it seemed like a whole lot of effort for very little reward. After all, if I cooked it, then I would end up eating it, and no one knew better than me how inedible my cooking was. Once when I lived in California, we had a minor earthquake, and some man -- I can't remember if he was with the gas company or the stove company (is there a stove company?) -- came to check that there was no leaking gas after the quake.

Horrified that I might be breathing invisible gas, I rushed him inside my apartment and in the direction of the kitchen. After a very brief inspection, he said, "OK, two things. First of all, your stove is electric, so I'm pretty sure you're OK. Secondly, it's still wrapped in the plastic it was delivered in ... so you haven't turned it on with that wrapped around it .... have you?" I had been in that apartment for 8 months at that point.

Once I got married, there was still no reason to develop an affinity or skill for cooking. I happen to marry an excellent cook who loved to spend time in the kitchen. I loved to hang out there with him, chopping things under his instruction, sipping a glass of wine and talking. David can cook anything with barely a glance to a recipe, but no matter what it is -- turkey sandwich or Christmas dinner -- it takes two hours. I'm not kidding. If he invests less than 120 minutes in the process, he doesn't feel like he's done it right. His culinary skills are truly awesome, but if you're really hungry, he's not your go-to guy.

Our schedules have gotten so busy with both kids, his full-time job, Billy's therapy appointments and life in general that we're usually not able to actually think about eating an adult meal until well after 8 p.m. On the Chef Dave clock, that means that if he's going to cook dinner, we're going to be eating after 10 o'clock.

Enter my new favorite kitchen device: the Crock Pot. Despite its hilarious (to me) name, it has been a lifesaver for our family. My mom bought me a cookbook of crockpot recipes, and I discovered that anyone -- ANYONE -- can cook with a Crock Pot. And it cooks on low all day and is ready for the adults to eat as soon as the little demons start snoring in the evening.

I'm not saying I never heard of a Crock Pot. I'm a Southern woman; of course I know what a Crock Pot is. They were lined up across long tables at every church pot luck, family dinner or company picnic throughout my life. But I thought they were difficult to use, and I thought you could only cook delicious, fattening Southern food in them ... because the people I knew who had them were really good cooks who always cooked delicious, fattening Southern food.

To my surprise, I found that even I could operate a Crock Pot. The directions: Plug in. Turn to "low." Come back in seven hours. Awesome. It's like cooking with a curling iron.

And I found all kinds of recipes in my new cookbook and online. I've made Chinese Beef and Broccoli (from my cookbook - see above), Chicken Tikka Masala, and a healthy Butternut Squash Soup. A couple of my favorite sites are and (which describes more than my Crock Pot).

Dave was dubious about the Crock Pot at first; he's suspicious of simple cooking. I don't know whether it was the tastiness of the final results that won him over, or the fact that I shared with him that it took seven hours to cook. But he's a believer now.

I still don't know how to cook. But I can fool people. And at the next family get-together, I'll have a Crock Pot of my own to add to the line. Watch out!

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