My first experience in the field…

I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1995.  I used to watch a lot of tv, and thought with a BA in psychology, I would end up living the life on the beach, making great money. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I quickly realized there wasn’t much I could do with this degree except therapeutic support staff (TSS) with Pennsylvania BHRS (behavioral health rehabilitation services ie, wrap around). This was a new service in the state, just starting in 1994, so I was entering into a fairly new field as a young 20-something, with my new degree. Needless to say, I had no clue what I was doing, but I was excited.

My prior supervisor from my college internship warned me against BHRS, because it was so new in the state, not well regulated, and involved a significant amount of independent work (Ie, very little guidance and supervision).  As a headstrong young woman, this sounded great. A chance to learn in the field, figure things out on my own, and get some experience.

I was one of the first TSS in State College PA.  I was assigned to a client in school and a client in home. My home client had a diagnosis of ADHD and my school age client had a diagnosis of Autism. I had a treatment plan for each, basic orientation which really didn’t cover much, and off I went into this new field to provide 1:1 therapy to these young children.

Walking into the elementary special education classroom, I scanned around. The teacher was at the front of the room instructing a handful of children, an elderly aid was at a back table doing 1:1 instruction with a little boy. They paused, and I introduced myself. The teacher pointed to the side of the room and said, “she’s yours” and returned to instruction.

Still carrying my bags, I walked to the opposite side of the room.  There, crawling along the floor, was this beautiful, dark-haired child with the most amazing blue eyes. She was crawling along the ground pulling books off the shelves. Not receiving any instruction. Not receiving any guidance. Just pulling books off the shelves and making a mess. She did not look at me or indicate she knew I was there.

I paused.

I put my stuff down in a corner of the room.

I took a deep breath, looked at the teacher and the aid… neither of whom made eye contact.

I realized my training and orientation did NOT prepare me for anything like this.

And I fell immediately in love with autism.

This was my introduction to autism, my first client. Over the next two years we worked together in the school. I was not trained in ABA or anything at that point, but my approach mimicked ABA… I used a lot of repetition and praise, physical guidance and visuals, and broke tasks down into little steps for her. Slowly, she started to respond to me. Eventually, she began to make sounds, words, and short sentences. She would call me Wendy, as Peter Pan was her favorite cartoon. One day while in line in the hallway, I excused myself to go use the restroom. She clearly said “Wendy, where you going?”  The teacher and I were almost in tears we were so happy to see this interaction and to hear this amazing sentence. Of course, I answered her, and told her I’d be right back.

By the time I moved on to another company, this child had a voice output device to supplement her emerging language, was integrated into a kindergarten (she repeated kindergarten for the experience), and though she continued to need supports, she no longer needed the level of support I was providing.

Needless to say, on my last day, I got into my car and cried…. She had touched my soul, she had touched my heart, and I hope she went on to do wonderful things with her life. I drove off to my new company to learn more about ABA, autism, and how to better provide services to these children. I was hooked. I wanted more, I wanted to learn more and do more for these amazing children and their families. Suddenly, my life path had opened up wide before me.

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