We sat down with Brooke to ask her about her background, her work with ATG, and the remarkable power of ABA therapy in the lives of children with autism.
This is our conversation.
Q: TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND, BROOKE. WHAT LED YOU TO BECOME AN BCBA?
Brooke: My undergrad is from St. Ambrose University in Iowa, and I had originally planned to remain at that school through grad school, focusing on speech therapy. After a year in grad school at St. Ambrose, I decided to transfer home to the western suburbs of Chicago and finish up my degree here.
I was teaching full time and going to school part-time, and I had a student who was in ABA therapy. Often, a BCBA would attend class and oversee the student’s sessions in school and that’s what sparked my interest in ABA therapy. Soon after that experience, I transferred to the Chicago School of Professional Psychology where I received a Master of Science in ABA.
Q: WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THAT INITIAL INTRODUCTION TO ABA THERAPY THAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST AND DREW YOU TO THIS WORK?
Brooke: I’ve always had an interest in working with children with special needs, and my undergrad is in Special Education. But, with ABA therapy, I immediately saw the advantage of being able to work one-on-one with each child. One-to-one support can create impressive progress and it’s incredibly rewarding to witness that so directly.
When I was working in a special needs classroom, several of the kids in my class had autism. I was trying to work with them on speech problems, but it was frustrating because I knew that in order to be effective, I needed to somehow deal with their behavior first. So, when I saw how ABA therapy is so effective in modifying behavior, I knew that was the path towards setting these kids up for real learning.
When you can help a child control their behavior and navigate through social relationships, that’s when then they are in a position to learn.
Q: WHY DO YOU THINK ABA THERAPY IS SO EFFECTIVE IN HELPING CHILDREN WITH AUTISM SUCCESSFULLY MOVE THROUGH THE WORLD?
Brooke: It’s so individualized. If you’re an atypical learner, fitting into a classroom situation can be extremely difficult. With ABA, we structure individualized programs to how the learner learns. We work in ways that each child will understand. It’s a very adaptable method and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so effective.
For example, one of my very first clients was a three-year-old little boy. Wherever this little boy’s family went, he would spend all of his time sitting in the parking lot memorizing the license plate numbers of all the cars parked there. He also had an extremely difficult time dealing with a multitude of normal daily events. If someone knocked over a water glass, for example, he just couldn’t handle it. He was also very literal. If someone said,“Hey silly!” He would respond, “My name isn’t silly.” His entire approach to life was very ridged and he had an impossible time adapting to a new situation.
After just three years of intensive ABA therapy, he was able to be mainstreamed into the general education classroom and could successfully navigate a wide range of social situations. It’s such a great example of what can happen when the therapist, family, school, and anyone else the child is working with, comes together and works collaboratively on behalf of the child. This is the power of ABA.
Q: IS IT EXPERIENCES LIKE THAT THAT MAKES THIS WORK SO REWARDING FOR YOU?
Brooke: Absolutely. There’s nothing better than a parent who looks at you with hope and optimism after watching their child reach a major milestone. I also love the variety that this work gives me. Every single day and every single client is different. No two situations are the same.
Because treatment is so individualized, it’s really important that the therapist is a good fit for the client. Unfortunately, we get a lot of parents who feel that ABA therapy is not an effective method because they’ve had an experience with a therapist who was not a good fit.
As a therapist, one of the most important things to consider is the capacity of the family to devote time to reinforcing behaviors outside of therapy. Behavior only maintains when it’s reinforced. ABA therapy is not as effective if the therapist works on skills that the family simply doesn’t have the time or resources to reinforce with consistency. The therapist must align their work with the family’s priorities, schedule, and other commitments.
It’s so important for the child’s therapist and caretakers to be on the same page because otherwise, the caretakers can unintentionally maintain a lot of the behaviors that the therapist is working to undo. ABA involves is a lot of thoughtful planning. We never ignore the child, but we do ignore behaviors that we want to see decrease – and that approach has to be consistent in every area of the child’s life.
Q: HOW DID YOU COME TO WORK WITH ATG?
Brooke: I had been working for a large organization since graduate school and was really looking for a tighter knit group that felt more personal and less corporate. I wanted to be in a position to really advocate for the needs of each individual child and have the space to do what’s best for them without dealing with so many restrictions. I thought that ATG would give me that, and they have.
Q: I KNOW YOU WORK WITH A LOT OF HIGHER FUNCTIONING LEARNERS. TELL ME A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU DESIGN PROGRAMMING TO FIT THEIR NEEDS.
Brooke: Severe learners have more severe needs and most require long-term therapy. This might not be true for a child with a lesser severity. Mostly this difference will be reflected in long-term goals. Higher functioning children will be able to accomplish more in a shorter period of time, and that should be reflected in the programming goals.
Another major difference is that for children with less severe needs, there can be a goal of complete integration into a regular classroom and other social situations. It is possible to get them to a place where they are independent. With more severe learners, those goals will look differently.
In both cases, the goal of ABA therapy is to work with the child on specific skills and ensure that, once learned, those skills are maintained. But, the type of skills worked on and the length of time it takes to learn those skills will vary from child to child.
With higher functioning children who are introduced to therapy at a very young age, it’s very possible to get them to a place where they no longer require intensive therapy in just a couple of years.
Q: LET’S TALK ABOUT INSURANCE. AS A CLINICAL DIRECTOR, WHAT DOES THE PROCESS OF GAINING INSURANCE APPROVAL FOR YOUR CLIENTS LOOK LIKE?
Brooke: As therapists, I believe that our primary responsibility is to advocate for what we feel is best for the child. We are the experts. So, it’s vital that we not make our recommendations based solely on what Insurance standards are.
One of the biggest challenges right now is that many insurance companies believe that ABA therapy should not occur outside the home even though it’s been shown to be extremely effective in shaping social behavior. This presents a challenge because there is no way to create social situations in the home.
So, at ATG, one of the things we’ve done is form community requests for insurance companies with comprehensive goals for the children we’re working with, the justification for those goals, and timelines that show how many community hours it will take. Then, we advocate hard for approval. In some cases, it’s unlikely that these requests will be approved. But we still try because our priority is the highest good for the child.
At ATG, our motto in every situation is to do the right thing for the child and their family. And so, we spend a lot of time advocating for that child. This is one of the things that sets us apart.
Q: TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR ROLE AS A CLINICAL DIRECTOR. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AND PRIORITIES?
Brooke: It’s fantastic to work for a company that gives their therapists the room to do what’s right for the child without being driven by billable hours. The child-first philosophy at ATG allows me to be a good supervisor because I don’t have to operate under the pressure to constantly increase billable hours.
Part of my job is to advocate for my team so they can advocate for their clients. Our CEO is always encouraging us to “find the story”, which is simply a way of telling us to do what we can to understand the truth of every individual situation.
In many cases, when parents first come to us, they are stretched too thin and trying to do a lot of different things. Our goal is to wrap all of the child’s needs into the overall ABA therapy plan, getting everything working together and alleviating some of the pressure on the parents. So, a large part of my role is meeting with each of our therapists on a regular basis to ensure that the highest standard of care is being maintained in every situation.
As an in-home therapist, it’s really easy to feel like you’re on an island because you spend nearly all of your time in the field. We don’t go to the office every day and see all our co-workers. So, I try really hard to create opportunities for team support – situations where the therapists on my team can talk with one another, bounce ideas off each other, and feel supported.
Q: HOW DO YOU SPEND YOUR TIME OUTSIDE OF WORK?
Brooke: With my crazy, huge Italian family! I have tons of nieces and nephews that I adore and spend a lot of time with. Between my family and my dog, there is never a dull moment. I also love to travel and am fortunate that ATG encourages all of us to have a good work-life balance.