KOKOMO, Ind. — “Mom.”
It’s a simple word, one mothers may take for granted.
But for the mother of a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), hearing that name is a hard-fought victory, and a treasured moment.
Those breakthroughs are what fulfill Jacqueline Schick in her career as a registered behavior technician, working with children with ASD. The disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges, including communicating, interacting, behaving, and learning in ways that are different from most other people.
“When a parent comes in and says her daughter looked at her and called her ‘Mom,’ I know they’re learning something and I’m making a difference,” she said. “What I do is to help the children. But when their families benefit from it, too, that’s huge.”
Jacqueline, B.S. ’15, is among seven Indiana University Kokomo alumnae working one-on-one each day with children with ASD at Engaging Minds Autism Services in Kokomo. There is no cure, but early intervention and therapy provides these children with the potential for a better life, equipped with the social skills needed to succeed in a world that may not understand them.
“I like to think I’m preparing them for their futures,” said Jacqueline. “I’m teaching skills that will allow them to have a better quality of life than they would without it.”
They also give hope to parents that their behaviors can be improved, and their child can have a positive future.
There is a great need for people like Jacqueline, who have the skills and desire to work with children on the autism spectrum, according to Clinton Paul, who co-founded Engaging Minds with his wife, Angela, because of their own experiences seeking treatment for their sons.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have been identified with ASD, and it occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups
“The rate of autism is pretty mind-boggling,” Clinton said. “It’s a growing industry. It’s not a community that is going away anytime soon.”
The Indiana Resource Center for Autism reports that 1 in 72 children ages 3-21 statewide were identified with ASD in 2016, with a total of 15,815 receiving special education services for ASD through the state’s public schools. In 2010, that number was 11,514.
Howard County is in alignment with the national average, Clinton said, noting that even with those numbers, experience tells him parents often feel isolated by their child’s diagnosis. The people who work with their children also make a difference for those families.
With the younger children, the work looks like play.
Three-year-old Kennedy kneels by a table, her hands deep in the center well, scooping out a pile of green kinetic sand, rolling it into a snake, and then cutting it into tiny slices with a wooden tongue depressor.
As far as she knows, the preschooler is just having fun with a favorite toy — but Amanda Branch, B.S. ’10, knows she’s learning how to play appropriately with other children, make eye contact, use an appropriate volume of voice, and get positive attention.
“I love to see the progress the children make, especially with social skills, and even just vocalizations and speech,” she said. “Talking to the parents and hearing the positive feedback is awesome. It’s fulfilling to know we are making a difference in these children’s lives.”
After a minute of play, Amanda redirected Kennedy to sit “criss cross” on the floor, and asked “What do you want to earn?”
“Sand!” Kennedy called.
Amanda reached into her princess bag and took out a pile of cards. She laid them out, face up, and said, “Ready, match!” prompting Kennedy to find two pictures each of items including soap and cookies.
After successfully matching all the cards, she goes back to the sand, while Amanda grabbed her tablet and quickly jotted a few notes about Kennedy’s progress. The matching exercise teaches her about items that are not exactly the same, but similar, which will help her follow verbal instructions.
Amanda earned a psychology degree, and worked in other jobs after graduating. She began working as an RBT about a year ago, intrigued by what she heard about ABA therapy, and “I’ve just fallen in love with it.”
She’s currently in graduate school to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.
For older children, like six-year-old Jeremiah, therapy more closely resembles school, as they prepare for possible integration into a classroom. He painstakingly sounded out words using the long ‘e’ sound, while Jacqueline sat next to him, offering “Great job!” and “That’s awesome!”
He used a pencil to trace over a letter written in yellow highlighter, and then counted out 10 long blue blocks into Jacqueline’s hands, which earned him playtime with another child. This also teaches him another skill difficult for children with ASD — how to recognize that others are in the room, and play with them.
Jacqueline’s inspiration for her career is a cousin who is autistic. After he was diagnosed, she started researching ASD on her own, and volunteered as a coach with Special Olympics. She chose a degree in health sciences from IU Kokomo to prepare her to work with children.
“ABA therapy involves a lot of the public health principles I learned in my classes,” she said. “You’re identifying the problem, you’re creating a solution, and you’re implementing it, just like the public health model.”
She is gratified when she can take one of the children she works with out into the community and see them successfully use the skills she’s taught them, like talking to someone and making eye contact while at a craft fair.
The play looks like fun, but it’s also work — Clinton describes the therapists as “data ninjas,” for their ability to quickly make notes in each child’s tablet between sessions.
Amber Howell, B.S. ‘14, previously worked at a counseling center, and enjoys working with children, because she can see progress being made every day.
“Those days you see progress, when they finally get it and start doing it, all the hard work paid off,” Amber said. “I was just working on a six-month assessment, and some of the stuff my student didn’t know before, she has those skills now.”
She will complete her BCBA this summer, which allows her to mentor other team members and coordinate some of the educational programs.
Many of the skills are learned on the job, Amber noted.
“We always need people who love working with children,” she said. “It take a lot of learning and understanding. You ask questions and learn on the job. Once you get out there with the kids, you learn so much more. There is so much support among us.”
Kelley Collins B.S. ‘12, trains therapists and oversees programs. Graduates with any major can succeed in this career, she said, if they are willing to learn, and are patient and calm.
RBT Sarah Brown, B.S. ‘15, and current students Leah Hoback, behavior therapist; and RBT Lauren Michael, also work at Engaging Minds.
“As a clinical supervisor, I’m not directly working in therapy, but I help with programming, train the therapists, and help them with what they need,” Kelley said. “If there is a skill one of the therapists is struggling to teach, I feel like I am making a difference when I teach a therapist how to teach a child.
“We all have an impact in our work. It’s fulfilling to see the results.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.