UMass Amherst, Department of Special Education
My Work Begins
I began my work in autism while studying for my Bachelor’s degree in Special Education at University of Las Vegas in 2000. I had quit a construction job to return to college and the decision was taking a financial toll on me and my new wife.
There were many fliers in the hallways of the College of Education requesting candidates to help with early intensive behavior intervention in home-based programs for children with autism. I figured it would be a great way to get some experience and make a little money.
Soon I was working for and with three families which included sons with autism. It was a decision that would come to define me as a professional.
Perhaps the most influential moment was my experience with Alex and his family. Alex had recently been diagnosed with autism when his parents contacted me about starting up an intervention program.
A couple of weeks later, I arrived at their home with a few other behavior therapists and an experienced consultant. The family was desperate for help and needed support.
For several months prior to our arrival, Alex struggled to communicate with his parents and relied primarily on inappropriate behavior to get his needs met. I could tell they were a loving family, but they were also unsure of what to do to improve the situation.
Beginning Our Treatment
I was eager to begin our effort and over the next couple of days we began teaching play, communication, and other behaviors. Initially I found it very challenging as Alex refused hand over hand prompting.
The other children I had been working with had established these skills before my arrival. I was unsure what to do and so were Alex’s parents.
The consultant, however, continued with the procedures and by the morning of the second day things had changed dramatically.
Making A Breakthrough
There were six of us in a small bedroom when Alex began to respond to our spoken directions. We spread around the room and took turns asking him to “come here.” We cheered every time he went to the person who called him and he loved our cheering.
A few minutes later he completed a puzzle, played with some blocks, and said “buh” to request bubbles. Alex’s parents were overcome with tears of joy as they felt they were witnessing nothing short of a miracle.
Just two days before their son was unable to answer to his name, had never “asked” for anything, and couldn’t follow simple directions. I was amazed at the quick transformation and still get emotional whenever I think about it.
Committing To Help
I was immediately convinced that day that I would base my career around autism and began planning accordingly. I continued to teach Alex for 9 months and documented his progress before leaving to start a job as a special education teacher.
During those months, Alex began speaking to communicate, drawing and writing, playing appropriately, and went to the movies and other places in the community with his family.
Goals for the Future
This experience was a defining moment in my life and has fueled my career. While working as a special educator for students with autism, I earned my Master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on autism and developmental disabilities. Eventually I earned a PhD in special education. I now conduct research and teach courses related to behavior analysis and autism at UMass Amherst.
After 13 years, the memory of those first days with Alex remains vivid and powerful. Alex and many other children like him have inspired my professional goal: to help all families affected by autism gain access to quality services that will allow their child to achieve their full potential.
Early identification and early intensive behavior intervention is critical to this goal and the reason why I am involved with Massachusetts Act Early.
The blog post above was first published on April 10, 2013 at the New England INDEX Disability Info Blog at www.disabilityinfo.org/blog. We are happy to republish it here for our readers.