World Autism Awareness/Acceptance Day and My Life's Path to Autism
April 2nd is autism awareness/acceptance day and every year I strive to bring awareness and acceptance of autism to the public. I have done month-long Facebook autism education campaigns, specialty fundraising events and helped with autism awareness/acceptance projects (e.g., donating books about autism to the public library).
This year, I am sharing the story of my path to autism here with you as I hope it might inspire even just one person. I hope to give a new perspective and to maybe help someone to take a chance on autism and to find the fulfillment that I have over the years. I have been working in the field with individuals with autism for about 25 years now and I can honestly say I have never looked back, not once.
I began on my path in 1988 when I started my undergraduate degree in psychology at Queens College. I was just starting out, very unsure of my path but open to possibilities and eager to get started. It was before we had all the technology that we have today, so I had to register the old-fashioned way, by running a card through a machine. If you were lucky, the card came out with registered courses, if you were not, then the card came out blank. I was not so lucky. Each time you registered you had to wait in a line of about 50 or so people.
After the second round, I went to sit on a bench and review the bulletin to choose another set of classes. At that time a young “nameless” woman approached me and said I know it is difficult to find classes, let me help you and she sat with me and opened the book. She immediately pointed to an introduction to psychology class and said how about this class?
I had never taken a psychology class but it sounded interesting and I agreed to try it. Needless to say, I went to register and the class was open and I was registered for the course. I was ready to begin my college experience. The “nameless” woman did not work for the college and to this day I believe she was a guardian angel who set me on my path.
It was in that psychology class that I became fascinated with child development and research. My professor was truly an inspiration and she loved teaching and working with children. She even brought children into the class for demonstrations with us.
It was an exciting class and left me wanting more knowledge on this topic. I went on to declare psychology as my major and loved every minute of it.
During my undergraduate studies, a professor showed a film about students with autism (Dr Lovaas' 1987 research) that opened my eyes. After seeing the film, I truly felt as though I had found my calling in life. I went to meet with a professor for advisement and was referred to the psychology doctoral research lab. After spending some time with the faculty member from the lab, I was welcomed into the lab as a research assistant. During this time, I conducted research with infants with various forms of disabilities such as down syndrome and hydrocephaly. As the years passed, I came to know the other research assistants who were in the psychology doctoral program. I began to learn more about the program and I applied to the doctoral program directly from my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.
My love of school and passion for autism and behavior analysis led me to go directly into a doctoral program. I remember thinking if I am going to have a voice for people with autism then having my Ph.D. would only make it more likely that I would be heard. So here I am now all these years later hoping to make a difference today and every day.
I also owe so much to the first three boys with autism who I met along this path who truly fueled my passion for teaching and inspired my dedication to individuals with autism.
I first began working with a student with autism in a respite program, he was 18 years old and engaged in some challenging behavior. Although I was nervous, I quickly realized that I had many skills in my repertoire and now I just had to begin to apply them. I started to see progress in the student and it was very motivating and made me want to learn more so that I could be a better teacher for my students.
I then started working with a two-year-old child with autism in early intervention and saw the changes happening literally before my eyes and I knew that this was my passion and that it always would be. There was no turning back now.
The next student I met was different from the other students, he was 11 years old and he had some more extreme behavioral challenges. He would engage in very destructive behavior and could leave a classroom in shambles within minutes and he also would engage in self-injurious behavior by biting his arm. He was also charming and sweet and very lovable. He was my greatest challenge so far and I welcomed it. I knew that he would teach me even more than I would ever teach him. And I was right he did, every day. We did work through the behavior together and ultimately, he no longer engaged in those behaviors but instead used his language to communicate with everyone around him and to gain the attention he needed. He still holds a most special place in my heart all these years later.
These students and the many since have truly shaped the person and educator that I am today. So, I am ever thankful to the nameless woman who changed my path and for all my students and their families who have helped me progress through it.
I had been working for QSAC for about five years in various positions (which I think is good to do by the way – to generalize your skills) when I was approached by a colleague in the field (Dr. Joanne Gerenser) who was planning to open a school for children with autism on Long Island and they were looking for a program director. To me, it was a dream come true as it was my life’s dream to run a school for children with autism and to finally make a difference in their lives all day and not just for a few hours here or there. I was excited about the thought of it. I applied and ultimately was offered and accepted the position at Eden II’s Genesis Program. I spent the next 15 years trying to make The Genesis School an exceptional experience for the families and the students who attended. I also felt that we were providing the teaching staff with a rare opportunity to learn about autism and even when a teacher resigned to accept a position in the public schools, I knew that meant that there would be one more experienced teacher with behavioral expertise out there helping students with autism.
Over the years, I have worked in case management, early intervention, non-public and public schools, adult services, residential services, a behavior clinic, outreach, advocacy and family support services. During these years I have also come to have two family members with autism which only inspired me more.
During my clinical work, I have dedicated some of my time to working with educational attorneys who work as advocates for individuals with disabilities. I have worked on cases for the past 15+ years and have served as an advocate and an expert to the attorneys serving both as an active member of the committee on special education and as an expert witness testifying on the behalf of a child with autism. I have had services re-instated, prevented services from being reduced, helped students find an appropriate placement or an increase in services or a least restrictive environment. I have worked hand in hand with attorneys helping them to protect individuals with disabilities. I believe we are all meant to be advocates for the students we serve, even if it may sometimes be difficult to be that advocate.
During this time, I was also continuing to teach in higher education. I always felt that the two complimented each other. I began teaching as a first-year doctoral student at Queens College and never had a semester go by in which I wasn’t teaching. I started out teaching an Introduction to Psychology class and hoped that I could inspire some students as I had been inspired. Years later, I began teaching first as an adjunct at Hofstra and later at CW Post/LIU in the psychology department in their BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) program. I realized the potential of having a BCBA course sequence at Hofstra. A few years later I became a full-time faculty member at Hofstra University and I developed an advanced certificate program in applied behavior analysis. I am now a Professor at Hofstra and I direct the advanced certificate programs and I feel that I make an impact with the many students who take my courses and who are out there teaching and making their mark on the world.
I am fortunate that I have the opportunity to both teach and direct programs for students with autism. Through the years, my role at Eden II’s Genesis Program has morphed and changed and I am currently overseeing the Long Island Programs and supporting the Long Island Leadership team. I am so grateful for all the people I have met along the way who helped me to be the person I am today. I do believe that I have made a difference in the field of autism on my path over the years but I have much more yet to do. I enjoy working with individuals with autism and teaching my students at Hofstra about special education. I do not envy my friends who went into business or accounting, I know that I chose the perfect career for me and that I would choose it a hundred times over. I can honestly say that I have never worked a day in my life, because when you truly love what you do then it is not work… it is a life’s passion.
If you are trying to decide on your path to autism and would like to talk about it- feel free to click the contact button on this page and we can find some time to chat.