My journey helping children diagnosed as autistic began in 2009.
I was an undergraduate English and psychology student at Otterbein University. First, I began working with children who were facing Autism Spectrum Disorders, or ASDs. Then — seeking a bridge between my personal, academic and clinical work — I discovered Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA includes systematically applying interventions to improve behavior.
Remarkably, I was able to put my lessons from both textbooks and experiences to work when serving as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2012-2014. I created a short, interactive lecture for fellow staff outlining ways to support future volunteers who have Autism. I taught my colleagues how to foster an inclusive work environment; one that not only accepts, but nurtures individual differences.
My work with individuals and families continues today at my Social Justice Practicum (SJP) training site in Chicago: An incredible agency known as ReachABA. I am now a Registered Behavior Technician and ABA therapist pursuing a doctorate degree in clinical psychology here at Adler University. My program emphasis? Working with children and adolescents, of course.
Barriers to Success for Those With Autism
There’s no question that my work experience has enriched my educational one. The simultaneous combination has opened my eyes to many things; including the fact that although people have a general awareness about ASD — one that’s notably increased during the past decade — action and advocacy is still lacking in several arenas. We have a lot of work to do.
Those not facing a diagnosis may not realize it, but there’s a significant void in programs for older adolescents and young adults with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ASD. Their ability to overcome challenges relies on their access to services. We must better equip families to navigate social inclusion by maximizing their opportunities to interact, to engage, and to lift a stigma that should have dissipated long ago.
Bridging the Resources Gap
We need a sustainable program for adolescents transitioning into adulthood and their respective families. So, I am creating one.
My concept joins professional volunteer and nonprofit organizations. It will instill transferable employment and adaptive living skills in participants, while also offering educational workshops for area professionals and paraprofessionals. Workshop participants may later serve as trained advocates in their neighborhoods and workplaces.
But, my program’s list of guiding professionals will not stop at therapists and educators. It will comprise administrators, managers, law enforcement officials, medical professionals, firefighters, and others. These community members will work side-by-side with adolescents and young adults. They will teach them specific life skills and provide insight about their careers. Meanwhile, parents will have access to advocacy and parenting sessions to help them better serve their families while simultaneously spurring activism.
All of these services will ingrain empirically based knowledge in parents, families, educators and employers. Participants will then be poised to provide and advocate for individuals affected by ASD.
A Grassroots Effort to Heighten Awareness, Rally Support
I started my program promotion by giving a basic introduction to Chicago’s Lakeview Rotary Club — a volunteer service organization I belong to that is part of a 1.2 million-member umbrella network. The brief demonstration was one facet of my multilayered project proposal. But, it was a key first step in sparking interest among benevolent-minded residents.
I moved on to attend the annual Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, where I sought information about how the organization can be instrumental in spreading the word. I will continue meeting with area Rotary Clubs — each is one of 33,000 worldwide — as well as other groups in the city that can garner volunteer support for my program.
Rotarians are invaluable resources for its implementation because they serve on advisory boards, provide professional volunteer hours, and may work as collaborators for professional skills training. I will also pursue partnerships among psychology and social work professionals and other community organizations, such as AmeriCorps.
Banding Together: What Can You Do?
As my crusade continues, I welcome program feedback and participation from those committed to moving this project forward. On behalf of individuals diagnosed with ASD, parents, caregivers and residents, let’s join forces to create a solution for all. We can build a safe, inclusive and sustainable organization that yields benefits for everyone involved.
The fact of the matter is: We are long overdue for change. It’s time to turn awareness into advocacy, and increase access to services in our communities. Together, we can work to eliminate the negative social stigmas plaguing our communities.