What do you want to be when you grow up?
Whenever I was asked this question, seven, 10 and then 16 year old me always answered, “Marine Biologist!” After all, I grew up by the beach, so I was familiar with my future office; and I swam a lot, so I’d be able to keep up with those dolphins I’d be researching. It was the logical career option. However, after some work experience at Manly Oceanarium, reality set in…there were a lot of fish guts involved, and I resolved to find a drier occupation.
What I enjoyed, as much as the water, was people – watching people of all ages, from all walks of life go about their lives, and thinking about what motivated their thoughts and behaviours. Psychologist it would be then! In 1994, when I was a first year at UNSW, I came across a position as an ABA Therapist. The post called for energetic individuals who love kids (✔), students studying psychology (✔), and who were keen to learn about autism and ABA (I had no idea what either was, so this was the biggest ✔ for me). Tearing off that little tag with a mobile number on it was a game changer for me.
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA)
Over the next few months, I learnt what autism meant to one family. I learnt how to teach communication, play, and listening skills to a cheeky three year old. I learnt how to record his progress and how to support him at preschool. I was excited to see him grasp new ideas and know that I contributed in some small part to his development. It was a steep learning curve; I had so much to learn, and at times I was confused by terminology or procedures, but I was most definitely hooked!
My first “family” (because they weren’t just clients) introduced me to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a scientifically validated approach to understanding behaviour. Using the principles of behaviour analysis, we were making very real changes to this little boy’s life. Like falling dominoes, small gains led to bigger and more complex skills. Personal gains, such as looking at people that you’re talking to, led to more social experiences, like making new friends at the playground. It wasn’t just this little boy who was benefitting from therapy either. I could see that with every word he attempted, every new skill demonstrated, the whole family celebrated these achievements together, and I was always invited to celebrate with them.
Sydney’s first ABA clinic
With this first amazing experience, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Over the next three years, I worked with more and more families. Every new child I met showed me another side of autism, and as interest in ABA therapy grew, the Australian branch of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) was established, the first ABA clinic in NSW. That was way back in 1997 (cue the release of Titanic, Ally McBeal and her dancing baby, the magical Harry Potter and for you young ones, the boppy Hanson brothers!). I became CARD Australia’s first Senior Therapist, and soon after, stepped into the role of Program Supervisor. I learnt new and innovative techniques for teaching complex language, executive functioning and theory of mind skills! In 2002, under some wonderful mentors (thank you Doreen, Marla, Vince and Tiffany!), I became the Senior Managing Supervisor, entrusted to manage the clinical and administrative operations of CARD Australia, which I enjoyed for over a decade.
The Learning Clinic
Since those early days, I have seen ABA in Australia grow and develop, and I am proud to serve this community! So, in 2013, it was a no brainer to take my biggest professional step with Aarathy Kumar (also a brilliant CARDian!). Together, we embarked on a new path when we took over the reins and rebranded CARD Australia into The Learning Clinic (TLC). Our small team continued to provide quality ABA services to families, while focusing solely on Australian issues, like funding, supports and standards. Over the last four and half years, our TLC family has grown; we are now more than 20 strong, and they mean as much to me as my own little family of four! Together, we create joy during every home and school session, we teach with respect and dignity using evidence based practices and embrace a growth mindset for our clients and ourselves. Aarathy and I wanted to cultivate a culture of inclusiveness and collaboration, and we feel so blessed to work with some of the brightest and most compassionate individuals in the field! As a group, we learn of new research in the field of behaviour analysis, we review the basics and together, we keep aiming to do the best we can for all our charges! We’ll keep talking to our families to see what they want us to develop and investigate how we can establish the new initiatives. We still have much to achieve on our professional bucket list, so watch this space!
Celebrating 20 years of Service
This stroll down memory lane leads us here, to 2017! It marks 20 years since the organisation I call my “work family” was born. A company which has weathered the changing face of ABA in Australia, the maturation of our team (we’re still bright eyed and bushy-tailed, even with a few kids of our own – read ‘sleepless nights’ to show for it!!), and the flow of families who took those first tentative steps into their child’s ABA program, and walked out empowered and confident. We’re celebrating twenty years of families who can go shopping together, share a meal at a restaurant, and kids who are enjoying pre-school, school, high school, university, and the workforce! We’ve given 20 years of high fives, spins, piggy back rides, computer (and now iPad) passes, blowing bubbles, tokens and good old-fashion encouragement to some pretty awe-inspiring children; they’re the superheroes who allow us to be their trusty sidekicks! Over the years, some families have kept in touch with me. I love receiving photos of kids on their first day at school, their high school formals and graduations and even attending the occasional 21st birthday celebration! I’ve kept the letters and drawings that kids have created themselves and marvel at how they’ve expressed themselves so beautifully – please, keep them coming!
I am so very proud of the students I’ve worked with over the years. I am proud of their parents and carers who trusted me to guide them, the siblings who saw these kids for who they were, their brothers and sisters. I am proud of the people I get to work with everyday, some of my best friends, getting up each morning to make a difference. I am thankful to countless teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists and other professionals who offer open minded collaboration. I am proud of 18 year old me for taking the step to learn something new, for having the courage to ask questions and building a career that I am most definitely proud of.
To the families who started this movement – this milestone is yours, too. Thank you for having the courage to choose ABA when it was new, unheard of and controversial. Thank for showing other families, teachers, doctors and other professionals what is possible with behaviour analysis. Thank you for paving the path that so many families walk on today.
So, my childhood dream of becoming the Jane Goodall of the sea didn’t eventuate, but I’m more than OK with that. I was meant to play tag with kids rather than tagging dolphins anyway!