What inspired me to pursue working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

I often get asked how I got into the field of Psychology and working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Oftentimes, people working in the field of autism have ASD or have a family member or relative with ASD.  I actually don’t have a personal connection to ASD, in fact I kind of feel like I found ASD as a passion by chance.  I didn’t even know what ASD was when I started graduate school and I would have never predicted that would become an area of expertise for me.

I have always been passionate about helping people and knew I wanted to have a career focused on helping people in some capacity.  I went to Westminster College for my undergraduate studies and received a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.  When I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to go to graduate school for, so I decided to take some time off before continuing school.  I knew it would be social work, psychology, or something similar, but I couldn’t quite decide.

I worked at a number of great organizations that provided various social services to people.  I worked at a substance abuse treatment center where I had a fabulous mentor who was an LCSW, I worked at some community centers, the last of which my mentor was a psychologist.  She encouraged me to go back to graduate school and inspired me to apply to get my Ph.D. in Psychology.  I was so excited when I was accepted to the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Utah.

From the time you start your doctorate, there is pressure to decide on a research topic for your thesis and dissertation research.  I had no idea what I wanted to do and I really had no idea what ASD was.  One of the professors, Dr. Jenson, sent regular emails to students about research projects he would be interested in doing with students.  One of his emails was about creating a socials skills program for kids with ASD.  I replied that I was interested and was fortunate to be chosen to participate along with three other graduate students.  Later, a fourth student was added to produce the artwork for the program.

I showed up to the first research meeting where we all received a large stack of articles about social skills and ASD.  We were given the assignment to read them and return to the next meeting with ideas to start the creation of an effective social skills program.  We met together regularly for over a year to create, edit, and refine our program.  We worked closely with the Utah State Board of Education who provided some funding for the creation of this project.  We eventually produced the Superheroes Social Skills Program that is now used internationally to teach social skills to all kids, not just kids with ASD.  We then used the program to conduct multiple research studies.

My thesis research was conducted with kids with ASD and their peer buddies at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI).  The groups ran for a number of weeks and I saw the positive effect our program had on the kids with ASD.  I still vividly remember the kids in that research group.  One of the requirements for participation was that the child brings a peer buddy with them.  I was discussing this requirement when one of the parents said, “but my son has no friends, does that mean he can’t participate?”  My heart broke for this child who has no friends and for his parents who desperately wanted him to get help.  We were able to get creative and find a buddy for him and he benefitted so much from participating.  I immediately knew this would become an area of passion and focus for me.

I completed my doctoral internship in Granite School District and I knew I wanted to be involved with autism in some way.  Before I started my internship, I paid to go to Texas for a two day training on the Autism Diagnostic Observation System (ADOS) so that I could help with district-wide autism testing.  In addition to the autism testing, I had multiple schools I served that included general education students, resource students of all disability classifications, and various self-contained classes that focused on behavior, intellectual disabilities, and autism.  In addition, I ended up getting assigned to district-wide autism work groups to help improve autism identification and services throughout the district.  We were able to start parent groups and provide sibling groups for kids who had a sibling with autism.  It was during my internship and then employment in the schools that I realized working with kids with autism, severe behavior, and intellectual disabilities would become my passion.  I was so happy as a school psychologist and thought my career would continue there and I would eventually retire from the district, having had a fulfilling and rewarding career.

While working in the district, I was contacted to see if I would have any interest in applying for the Director position at the Pingree Center.  I was, of course, interested but thought it was a long shot as I was still early in my career.  I ended up getting hired and began my career with Valley Behavioral Health.  The Pingree Center enhanced my passion for autism, behavior, and intellectual disabilities even more.  I got there and loved all of the classes and clients, but found myself gravitating toward the oldest group who were soon to age into adulthood.  While my passion for working with kids has remained, I developed a new passion for also working with adults with autism, behavior, and intellectual disabilities.

I have been able to help create an Adult Autism Center for our clients who still require our level of support but have turned 22 years old.  It has been such a rewarding project to work on, but has also challenged me professionally to tap into new skill sets and learn many new things.  I have also been able to work with teams across Valley to enhance the treatment of individuals with Severe Mental Illness and a co-occurring diagnosis of ASD or an intellectual and developmental disability.  By making minor changes to the treatment team’s approach, we have been able to make significant improvements to the clients’ outcomes.

I am so fortunate to have a job and career that I love.  I am so fulfilled by helping the clients I serve, and working with the amazing staff.  I consider myself very lucky to have found what I am passionate about and the means to pursue it in the ways that I have.