Welcome! I've been invited to join as a contributor to Autism Brainstorm. I thought my first blog would be a great way to introduce people to who I am, my background, and why I am here!
The Connection Factor
“You must be so patient” is a phrase I typically hear after telling someone that I work with children who are autistic. What many people do not understand is that the children I work with provide me with the hope that fuels my life. Those special connections inspire me and challenge me to ask the needed questions and advocate for understanding. From my earliest experiences learning about behavior and autism to learning ABA with a wide range of children to my current involvement in the community, I have realized that my work is not about patience, but about connecting with others.
I was sure I bombed my first interview for a job teaching in an inclusion preschool specializing in autism. “What would you do if a child bit you?” was the ill-fated question. I ran the scenario through my head, but no amount of college classes prepared me for that. Apparently, logically talking about why biting is not nice was not the correct answer. Although I extensively studied behavior, volunteered with autistic teens, and babysat an autistic child, I was still terribly unaware of how much there was to learn.
Most of my education was learning about the science behind learning and behavior. While it gave me a strong background in theoretical behavior, I wanted learn practical applications. To get more real life experience in my field I started volunteering at a local social group that paired college students with teenagers with autism. The goal was to practice social and life skills with an older peer. I was most certainly more anxious and worried during my first few meetings than any of the students I was supposed to be mentoring. What if they didn’t like me? What would we talk about? What if they didn’t talk to me? A stream of thoughts flowed through my over-exerted brain, but as soon as got to know them, their interests, and how they preferred to communicate, I finally realized they we were all just people that want to feel appreciated, supported, and to make connections with others.
That following summer I took a position as a caretaker of a 10 year old boy with autism and his older sister. None of my classes or volunteering prepared me for 8 hour days of one on one time. Between catching him when he darted away and keeping him entertained, I was exhausted by the end of every day. By the end of summer though, we were buddies. Even though he was not very verbal, we still found our special connection while playing trains together or singing songs. After that summer I had more appreciation for the parents and families, for all the love and care they give endlessly. I still think back fondly about that summer, remembering his smile when I arrived each morning.
All of these experiences laid a foundation for my future as a therapist and advocate. It took time and perseverance to learn how to connect in a variety of meaningful ways, and it would take even more in-depth hands-on experience to establish myself as an ABA therapist. Although I did not do so well on the behavioral questions in the interview at the preschool, my interaction with the children and willingness to learn a different way of teaching landed me a part-time job as a preschool teacher. The classroom I worked in had 18 kids, 6 of whom were autistic. The entire preschool was specifically tailored to providing an ABA-based curriculum that provided constant in-the-moment learning experiences.
I may have gone home and cried that first week of training, but I look back and realize that the intense and meticulous training is one of the reasons I’m a strong therapist today. My first two weeks were spent with a supervisor watching my every move. It was necessary that each action and reaction were carefully calculated. After an intense ABA crash course, I was ready to be on my own. I thrived in the fast-paced environment, providing the kids with a fun and supportive environment that provided them with constant opportunities to communicate and learn. I loved my job so much that I took it on full time. After a while I was promoted to co-coordinator, learning more about ABA programming and teaching parents how to implement similar programs in their everyday life. Most of the parents I guided were new to parenting a child with autism, may still grieving the loss of their vision for what was ahead for their child. Providing them with the skills and confidence to connect with their own child made a lasting impression in my mind.
A move across the country prompted me to find a new job, but I knew my purpose in life was to work with children on the spectrum. There were few organizations like the one I had just left, but I stumbled across a position as an in-home ABA therapist. I instantly realized how different ABA can be, depending on the provider. In my previous position, little attention was given sensory processing disorders and relationship building. There was no time to sit and play and just connect. The importance of a balanced, tailored program was intensely clear. Additionally, working in the home with the parents and siblings enlightened me to how ABA can support family life and connections. Teaching parents how to understand their child and showing them a different way of thinking is a unique opportunity that ABA provides. I was learning just as much from the children and their families as they were learning from me. Shadowing children in school provided me with insights to the opportunities for improvements in inclusive classroom and the dire need for educating teachers about autism and neurodiversity. The connections I made with the children, families, and teachers were the driving force behind my move into advocacy and building a supportive community.
My first experiences branching out into advocacy seemed to be a defeating blow. My internet searches led me to blog upon blog written by adult autistics who had many negative things to say about my profession. Many of them had been mistreated, misunderstood, and felt that professionals only wanted to turn them into neurotypicals-a most offensive goal. At first, angry and hurt, I eventually put my ego aside and re-evaluated my own perspective. I joined online communities, became friends with parents and autistic adults. Soaking up these experiences in order to take a critical look at the opportunities for change in ABA therapies, but also the opportunities to educate others and advocate for the autistic community. While I still believe ABA can be a wonderful way to give children the support and connections they need, I also realize that there is room to improve it so that it reflects an understanding of neurodiversity; finding that balance between celebrating the person and supporting them in ways that will ensure they will live a rich and fulfilling life.
My newest venture as a contributor to Human Spectrum is the next big step to advocating and educating others. It is my hope that I will be able to provide insight and prompt others to challenge their views and perspectives. I look forward to opening a dialogue that encourages others to embrace neurodiversity, celebrate differences, and make connections with others that will change the world.