As a school psychologist and someone who is on the “inside” of the autism community looking out, it is often easy to forget that some of my fellow Clevelanders may be unaware of the impressive autism network we have here, at our fingertips in Northeast Ohio.
Over the years, I have gained insight to the local autism community thanks to my professional and personal involvement with Milestones Autism Resources, an agency close to my heart, that helps individuals with autism reach their potential. I have been able to experience the generosity and passion within this system firsthand, a passion that reminds me so much of the close-knit altruism within our local community.
I initially became involved with Milestones after seeing the critical need to provide autism resources to my “kids” at school and to their families. Milestones connected me with the vetted local resources I needed. This evolved into becoming an active volunteer, a participant in the Milestones conference, and most recently, into serving as co-chair for Strike It Big, one of their biggest fundraising events of the year.
Strike It Big for Milestones provides inclusion and support for individuals on the spectrum, two things the larger Northeast Ohio autism community is constantly working together to provide. Along with an afternoon of fun, bowling and other activities, this family-friendly bowling event provides a “no-judgment zone” in which children can be themselves. Through fundraising and attending the event on March 11th at Spins Bowl in Independence, the local community can come together to support Milestones’ free Autism Helpdesk, a service that allows families to contact professional staff for personal guidance and individualized information at each and every stage of their child’s development.
Being Strike It Big co-chair has enabled me to grow closer to the organization and to form deeper connections within this robust autism community that exists in Cleveland. My involvement has certainly enriched my professional knowledge but more importantly, it has enriched my life, period. I have met some incredible people through committees, meetings, school resources, and through Milestones’ annual autism conferences. I’ve been inspired by some amazing speakers over the years, the most impressive being on the autism spectrum.
Milestones has provided me with the valuable opportunity to serve the area in which I live. Through my work, I hope to introduce other individuals within the community to new ways that they can work in tandem with organizations like Milestones. There are many opportunities to support our special needs population here at home, and it is so important that we continue educating one another about the resources available.
If you told me five years ago that I would be a practicing social worker, I wouldn’t have believed it. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a social worker. Rather, I felt that it would be something that I couldn’t do because of my Autism. To be entirely honest, I took to heart some of the negative stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Autism. I felt like I could never support others because my eye contact is fleeting. From a young age, most kids learn that good eye contact is one of the most important skills for social interaction. My interests can also be rather specific, and I really enjoy sharing about them, but sometimes I have a difficult time telling when others want to change the subject. In all my years receiving Autism-related services, I had not once met a clinician with Autism. Since there were no models, I worried that people must not want a social worker who has Autism. It was during my time in undergrad that I met someone who had similar differences who was pursuing a career in social work. With that person’s support, I came to the realization that I would take a chance on my dreams and become a model for others who might wish to follow suit. I earned my undergraduate degree and applied for a master’s level social work program.
My early career assumption was that I would pursue employment in the realm of immigration or refugee services, but my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to interview at one Autism-related agency. That agency was Milestones Autism Resources. “Milestones serves clients with Autism and I have Autism, maybe this could be a good fit,” is what I told myself. I called Beth Thompson and within a week I had an interview. I arrived far too early than what might be considered professionally appropriate, the dress shirt (that my mother encouraged me to tuck in) was untucked because I found it to be too uncomfortable, and my interview consisted of an abundant amount of oversharing. Yet from the moment I walked through the door to the moment I left, I felt welcomed. I knew then that Milestones was where I wanted to complete my first year internship. I celebrated with my family when Milestones offered me a position as their Graduate Social Work Intern.
Working with Beth and the Milestones team, I learned that I didn’t need to feel disadvantaged in social work – in fact, it was a valuable asset in that my Autism, as well as my treatment history, offered me a unique insight into the experiences that my clients may have. Milestones also gave me a platform to take pride in my story. At the Milestones 2015 Annual Benefit Dinner, I shared my experiences as a person with Autism to an audience far larger than I could have imagined. My mother cried tears of joy and the crowd gifted me a standing ovation while I walked off stage – only to be redirected by my colleagues at Milestones to “get back up there and take it in!” From then on, I moderated panels at the Milestones conference, shared my experiences with audiences, and hopefully inspired others to share their own stories.
Milestones instilled me with the confidence to seek opportunities as a Direct Practice Social Worker, providing clinical mental health services to clients. Recently, when Milestones offered me a full-time position, I knew it would be difficult to say goodbye to my clients, but that it was an excellent opportunity to advocate, teach, and provide quality service to others. Whether or not my clients found me to be “weird” as I had feared, is something I never quite found out. However, I did find out that I could support families in reaching their goals, that I am capable, that I have a voice, and most importantly that I can use my voice to inspire and empower others. Milestones taught me that I can become a great Social Worker. We should not let our fears that others will not embrace our differences hold us back. I am happy to be a member of the team at Milestones Autism Resources and perhaps more importantly, I am honored to have the opportunity to use the skills that I have developed to support others in reaching their goals.
Hear from Nathan and other self-advocates in the video above.
As I consider making goals, whether for the whole year of 2018 or just for upcoming situations I know will be challenging, I utilize a pattern I learned in my first semester of college. This strategy may be familiar to you too. It’s called making “SMART” goals, which is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
Using this strategy has helped me find success in areas where I truly want to make changes or grow personally. In the past when I was not realistic, I would make goals that were far too grandiose which resulted in my giving up easily, and being unable to actually see any progress. Now I concentrate on smaller but attainable changes, and once I reach them I push the goals out further. I also set only one or two goals at a time in order to keep my focus.
For example, I struggle with asking repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions of others. Instead of setting a goal like, “I will stop asking repetitive questions,” I set a SMART goal. Applying the SMART strategy to the goal would look like this:
S (specific): I will reduce my repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions at home. I will enlist the help of a family member to give me cues when needed and keep me accountable to my goal. I will reduce the questions to two times each.
M (measurable): Because I am using a family member to keep me gently accountable, it will be easy to see if I am actually restricting my repetitive questions to two times each. This means “check-ins” are automatically built into this particular goal.
A (attainable): This goal should be attainable for me because I have set it up for success. As long as I continue to be open to my accountability partner’s cues and respond appropriately, I will find success in reducing the number of times I repeat a question, even when I am anxious.
R (realistic): My goal is realistic because I have been working on this particular behavior for some time. Engaging another person to work on it with me will also keep me on task.
T (timely): I will set this goal to be accomplished in 30 days. I review the results of my strategies with my accountability partner at that time. If I am consistently reducing my repetitive, anxiety-provoked questions to two times each or less I will consider the goal achieved, and set a new goal. If I have not achieved the goal as set, then I will modify the goal at that time or lengthen the time frame in which to attain it.
Each person knows what works best for him or her. This is the kind of goal setting that works for me. One thing to keep in mind is that goals can always be modified to ensure success. I stay positive knowing that I can modify a goal as necessary rather than give in to defeat.
Grace Blatt is a Good Life Ambassador for the Cuyahoga County Board of Development Disabilities where she presents to schools, legislators, families, and provider agencies advocating for those with special needs. She is also a past Milestones Trailblazer Award recipient and is currently pursuing a degree in music therapy.
The New Year is here and with it comes those New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are the goals we set for ourselves for the upcoming year – try to eat healthier, save more money, make time to get to the gym.
This might also be a good time for families to reflect on what goals they may have for their children with autism. I frequently get asked the question, “Do you see this as something my child can do within one year?” Your child’s educational team also has to make this determination when writing goals for the Individualized Education Program.
In thinking about setting goals, take a page from the IEP guidelines and try to make them SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and time-bound. Instead of, “I want my child to communicate more with me,” think about what is the most important thing they learn to communicate. Instead of “I want my child to read”, maybe “I want my child to read 10 words, or 20 words,” or whatever makes the most sense.
As with any goal, in order to get somewhere, you have to know where you are at. It’s difficult to measure progress if you don’t have a baseline measurement to know what you are comparing to. Additionally, it’s hard to know whether the teaching you are doing is having the impact you want, without occasionally measuring the progress. That’s why data-driven decisions are so crucial. If you have an idea in your mind about what kind of goal you want to work towards achieving with your son or daughter, stop and take a measurement of what their current skill is in this area.
Moreover, in determining what goal you want to achieve, you likely need to think about the environment and what changes are going to need to be made. Who is going to be involved – the daycare, the school, the rest of the family? Collaboration with others is going to be very important, because consistency is key. Teaching a new skill to anyone, requires the environment, including the people in it who will be reinforcing the behavior, to be consistent and to provide opportunities for your child to engage in the new skill.
If you realize months in that progress toward the goal set for your child is slower than you thought, call a team meeting! In other words, touch base with everyone involved in your child’s goal and see if you can figure out the potential barriers. Perhaps your child needs more instruction on a prerequisite skill, or he or she isn’t getting enough repeated practice of the skill. You can always recalibrate that goal into something that is going to be more achievable, and if you blow past it – even better!
For the rest of us, when thinking about those New Year’s resolutions that we made last year? How many of them did we achieve? Meeting even the goals we set for ourselves entails constant work and almost always the support of family and friends. Your goals for your children will most likely entail the same. But the feeling that comes after a lot of hard work and visible progress? That can’t be measured.
Monica Fisher, M.Ed., BCBA, COBA has over 14 years of experience working with children on the autism spectrum in home, school, and residential settings. A former Intervention Specialist, she is now a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and the Director of the Behavior Department at Monarch Center for Autism, where she is responsible for managing a team of behavior specialists and BCBAs. Monica also works for ABA Outreach, providing in-home consultative services for families in the Cleveland area.
Wondering how to get through the holidays? You’re not alone. Many families with a loved one on the spectrum feel overwhelmed this time of year and contact Milestones for some extra support. Below, Program Director Beth Thompson answers some of the most common questions we hear during the holiday season.
What can I do to make traveling easier for my loved one?
Milestones has compiled tips for you to ensure that your travel for a vacation or family gathering starts and ends on a positive note. Read the Milestones Travel Tips Toolkit for ways to make your flights successful! When possible, have your loved one visit the airport and go through a “mock run”. Also, check to see if there are school groups or organizations like Wings for Autism in your area who can help your family with this.
How do I make my home welcoming for loved ones with autism?
Reference our “How to Make a Place Welcoming” quick tips! Don’t be afraid to the teen or adult or their parent how to make gatherings better for them. They will be grateful you asked instead of assumed.
How do I encourage my child to come out of their room to spend time with family?
Make a contract with them and negotiate when and how long you would like them to participate with the family. Assure them you are not trying to take away all their downtime or screen time. The pleasantries and increased social expectations of the holidays may be lost to our loved one or may not matter to them at all. That’s okay – use what does matter to them (another ten minutes on their video game) to motivate them to join you at the dinner table.
There is so much to do this month – how will my family juggle it all?
Take time to prioritize what’s really important to you and your family during the holiday season. If getting a picture with Santa is important enough to struggle through a possible meltdown, make that the goal and support your child with visual supports, reinforcements, and social stories to help them reach that goal. If having your child sit down as part of the family meal or service is the top priority, make a plan to help your child understand the schedule and provide their favorite reinforcers through the activity.
How do I ensure my child’s caregiver enjoys their holiday season?
Make sure you are planning a break for everyone, including YOU! Your child’s teacher and therapist get a winter break – do you or your child’s other supports, like your partner or their siblings, get a break too? Even if it’s 20 minutes of secluded ice cream time after dinner, make sure you are taking breaks for yourself. If you need more in-home support to get your break, reach out to Milestones to get referrals for respite providers or aides. Remember, you do not have to go it alone.
I am worried my child will get restless during downtime. How do I help my child enjoy their winter break? Make a plan to keep your loved one engaged while on break. Schedule a few specific activities that they will enjoy – a trip to see sensory-friendly Santa, a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley train, a trip to the zoo – these activities will help your child remain excited and motivated to work towards their desired activities (find autism friendly events here).
How should I deal with friends or relatives who don’t know my loved one is on the spectrum?
People may have questions about how to best interact with them. Relieve their concerns and give them this Milestones cheat-sheet on how to be a friend or relative to someone on the spectrum.
As always, you can email, message our team through Facebook, or call Milestones’ free Helpdesk at (216) 464-7600 if you need further guidance.
On the forefront of transition and adult services, Beth Thompson is Milestones’ Program Director. Beth has a Master’s degree coupled with extensive hands-on experience working with high school students with autism. Whether students are college or career bound, Beth is instrumental in helping teens successfully transition to adulthood.
This website was made possible by the generosity of Lois Joan Davis and grants from the William J. & Dorothy K. O'Neill Foundation and the David and Robert Stein Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.