A Serendipitous Meeting

limLast week, I had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Boon Hock Lim and his colleague Joseph Lee through our mutual connection, the Richter family.  Years ago, Dr. Lim was a foreign exchange student in Erie and stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Richter.

Although he returned to his native Malaysia after graduating, he maintained his relationship with the Richters. After the birth of his son, who has autism and ID, he became increasingly involved with the special needs population. This drive had a large influence in his eventual founding of the Wings Melaka Early Intervention Center in 1998. So, when he shared of his plans to visit Erie this summer, the Richters immediately suggested that he might be interested in a tour of the Barber National Institute.

They began their visit with a tour led by our training department. We had arranged for approximately an hour-long tour… but they were so engaged that they were gone nearly two hours! Needless to say, he was very impressed with the scope and breadth of our programs.

wingsLikewise, I was very anxious to learn about special education programs in Malaysia and in particular, the story of how he founded Wings Melaka. He and a group of parents of children with special needs wanted to secure services for their children… one year later, Wings Melaka was established.  A school-aged program began in 2007 and their next aim is to offer adult services.

Sound familiar??? Even their mission statement mirrors ours!

Some of their key principles include:

  • Family centered model
  • Effective early intervention practice
  • Positive behavior management focus
  • Optimal use of minimal resources

As was true for Dr. Barber in the United States, advocacy by parents was a critical component in securing services for children in need. Today, although there is much regulation about disabilities, there remain limited services available in Malaysia. Dr. Lim’s own son is now 24 and opportunities for him are few. He is hopeful that the parents of the students now graduating will once again lead the charge for more and better services. The similarities between his story and my own with Ryan were again striking.

We said our good-bye with a promise to stay in touch and continue to share resources.

It is only an 18 hour plane trip. Who knows… next stop: Malaysia?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s New This Year? Part 2

Read Part 1 here

As you might expect, the changes in these numbers and in the number of classrooms required the expansion of our staff. With the addition of new classrooms, we now have 89 classroom staff and 30 therapists, including speech, OT, PT, and behavior. Three quarters of all our staff have at the minimum an associate’s degree – one quarter of these have a master’s degree! This speaks to the consistent trend we have seen is the need to recruit staff who are better educated than generations prior.

We also have several new – or newly renovated – programs for this school year. Our renovations include a “spruced up” cafeteria as well as newly renovated high school restrooms. These restrooms were constructed in 1987 – over 30 years ago! It is safe to say it was time for an update.


Norix table & chairs

The behavior department is introducing behavioral healthcare furniture, Norix, as an increased safety measure. The furniture is built with a soft, rounded plastic and is then filled with sand so it is weighted down and unable to be moved. This is particularly important in classrooms where behavioral issues are a concern.


During our August inservice, percussion artist Jim Donovan held a training session for teachers and therapists for “Drumming Therapy.” Research shows that using musical strategies and rhythms increases attention to tasks, reduces stress, and improves socialization and non-verbal expressions. After our first experience with Jim a year ago, we saw such positive results with our students that we decided to implement the training school-wide.


Now, we already plan to have Jim return to train the paraeducators – this is one of the most requested training sessions we’ve ever had!

We are also continuing our three-year implementation of PBIS – Positive Interventions & Supports. This year begins Year 2, in which we will implement the student matrix. We continue to follow the three main matrix topics of: Be Kind, Be Safe, Be Independent; however, students will achieve these goals differently than staff. We will continue to reinforce the staff matrix simultaneously.

School year 18-19 looks to be even more successful than 17-18!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What’s New This Year? Part 1

Welcome to the 2018-2019 School Year! It is hard to believe we are approaching 2019, yet before we know it the leaves will drop and a new season will be upon us. At the start of each school year, I enjoy sharing with our board of directors the changes we’ve seen in the past year, from statistics of our staff and student populations to the new or improved components of our programming. Hearing how much our board enjoys learning of this, I thought perhaps my readers would find it equally as interesting!Happy-New-School-Year

As of this year, we currently serve 24 school districts in the region – the largest number we have seen to-date. Our most recent addition was Valley Grove from Franklin, PA. It is always extraordinary to me to consider how far some of our students travel to be able to receive the educational services at the Barber National Institute. It is also a great reminder to be grateful for what resources we have so easily accessible.

By far one of the most interesting statistics I’ve reviewed over the years is the change in our student population by disability. stud pop_001As current conventional research would indicate, the most prominent change we have seen is the rise in students with an autism diagnosis. The age range of our students also continues to expand; we have a much larger population of middle and secondary students compared to a decade ago. We also currently have 17 early intervention students; 17 inclusive preschoolers; 33 specialized preschoolers; and 18 Happy Hearts students.

Tune in next week when I share some of the exciting developments we’re introducing into our programs this Fall!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to Have a Great Start to the School Year

DOC043015-04302015100234_003I recently heard a Back-to-School ad play on the TV and immediately thought, “Can it be time for this already?” I can still recall how I felt as July turned into August and we began the back-to-school countdown. Ryan was always very anxious (and I was, too) so I learned over the years how I could help the both of us control our worry. Perhaps some of my ideas might help you and your child.

  • If your child is entering a new school, it is helpful to set up times prior to the start of school for your child to walk through the school building and locate his or her classroom. When Ryan was transitioning to Walnut Creek Middle School, we walked through the school and located his classroom, locker, restrooms, etc. to allay his anxiety about being in a new school. We even had an album of photos of the staff with whom he would interact.
  • Schedule an appointment with the principal to allow all of you to meet and informally talk about the upcoming year. The Principal and the Walnut Creek Middle School team went to great lengths to assure a successful start for Ryan. I credit the outstanding staff for the success Ryan experienced at Walnut Creek.
  • Similarly, request a team meeting prior to the start of school. I would suggest that all the teachers who would interact with your child attend. I felt it important that not only Ryan’s classroom teacher but the ancillary staff were acquainted with Ryan and the work he was capable of doing. I provided a packet of information about autism and how it might impact his school performance.
  • However, the most important component was creating a handout describing what teaching methods and behavioral strategies were most successful with him. I made sure that the team understood the importance of setting the bar high by including a sample of his best work as well as his efforts when he lacked interest in the work he was doing. I wanted to make sure they knew that he would work to the level that was expected of him. school
  • Count down the days to the start of school so that your child is prepared for the transition from summer fun to school days. If you changed his or her bedtime and morning routines for the summer, readjust them a week ahead of time so that your child gets used to getting up early and starting the day in a structured way.
  • Remember, it’s also important for you to remain positive and calm. Ryan could always sense my anxiety, which in turn made him become more anxious.

I always welcome additional input from parents on what’s worked for your family as well.

On another note, as some of you may know I particularly enjoy Maria Shriver’s concept of taking the month of August to step away from social media, blogging, and the digital world (as much as possible). I will resume my blogging in September! May you have a smooth and blessed start to the school year!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Power of One: Remembering Eunice & Gertrude

Today, as I read Maria Shriver’s Sunday essay50.png on unity, inclusion, and the Special Olympics turning 50, I could not help but think about my aunt, Gertrude Barber.

Her life has so many parallels to Eunice Kennedy and her endeavor to begin the Special Olympics.  Maria writes, “the Special Olympics are about family, the respect of the individual, the power of voluntarism, and the strength of the community.”

Sound familiar?

Dr. Barber began her mission in 1952 because she was unwilling to tell parents that their child could not go to school because of their disability. At that time, their only recourse was to send the child to an institution or keep the child home.


But Dr. Barber had a vision of what these children needed in order for them to reach their potential. So, she and her volunteers began the first classes in Erie County and from that point on, there was no stopping her. The Erie community quickly fell into step behind this mission. Next came Adult Services, Residential services, Family Support; locations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh… and the list continues to grow.

As a child, I remember going to a “day camp” that she offered at Turnwald. Although I did not know it as a 10 year old, she wanted children with special needs to have an inclusive opportunity. Only later did I realize the strong similarity to Eunice Kennedy’s humble beginning of the Special Olympics: a summer camp at her home for children with special needs, at which she engaged her children to participate as well.

Thinking about where we are today, I am pleased to see the many areas where our commitment to provide each child and adult with every opportunity to be the best they can be remains as strong as it did nearly 70 years ago. Although our dreams and visions evolve with time, the heart of our mission remains strong with these core beliefs…and continues forward!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Should Autism Funding go towards Research or Services?

So often we hear about that funding is being directed toward research. Some of us wonder, should some of this funding be directed toward programs that benefit our children and adults? While I certainly wish for there to be funding to provide services for all children and adults who need it, I can see how connected these two areas actually are.

researchWe know that there is no single cause of autism; in fact, the common consensus among researchers now is that there are several possible influences and genetic factors that come in to play, some of which may even interact. Certainly, we all agree with the adage: “If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism.” This saying illustrates the extreme variation within autism the autism spectrum, not only of outward expressions but also in the bio markers that can be observed.

When I think back to Ryan’s school career, I remember the numerous methods and strategies we used until we realized that with ABA, Ryan was the most successful. I truly think he is who he is today because we so intensely engaged him 60 hours a week or more in discreet trial instruction.

autism key

Throughout the research articles I am constantly sifting through, I have extracted a common sentiment: we are closer than ever to understanding how personalized treatments, some may even say a “cure,” could be developed.

Imagine a future where this would be not only possible, but commonplace. Personalized autism care and treatment as a result of the deep understanding of that individual’s biological disposition, and associated physical and mental health conditions. This would drastically change the way that we provide services across the industry. I would like to think that by providing such specialized care, it would only increase the overall efficiency of our nation’s service providers… perhaps even reducing costs!

I still hope for a future where all of this is possible. I have deep admiration for the numerous service providers and coordinators, including our own, and I know how tirelessly they work on behalf of our children and adults. And yes, funding can be tricky at times. But we must always attempt to grow and learn, to provide the best possible future for our world!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Golfing & Autism: The Perfect Pair?

Ryan experienced two huge accomplishments this week.  Unlike his Mom who can’t read enough, reading is not one of his “favorites.”  However, he did have a book (thanks to a gift from his Godfather, Joe Mehl) The Feeling of Greatness, The Moe Norman Story which I thought might pique his interest. I knew only a little about Moe until Ryan read the story.

golf.jpgMoe, (1929-2004) was a Canadian professional golfer who had won the Canadian amateur championship (1955) the Canadian PGA Championship (1974) as well as many other golf tournaments throughout his golfing career. He attempted USA tournaments but found that his shyness and the fact that he was bullied by some pros led him to choose to only play in Canada. He had a reputation as the “best ball striker” in golf. Even Tiger Woods described him as one of two golfers who owned their own swing…the other being Sam Snead. Moe was unconventional in both his dress and his play. He played extremely fast and would not even slow down to line up his puts. Moe’s one and only topic of conversation was golf. He had limited understanding of the social context and seldom looked people in the eye. But, his ability to hit shot after shot perfectly straight was undeniable. Knowing what we know today, we would think that Moe had Asperger Syndrome. Ryan finished the book yesterday!

Ryan’s second accomplishment was that he and I played 9 holes of golf, his first ever! Ryan started taking golf lessons about 3 years ago. He really enjoys going to the golf range and hitting balls with his driver. He thinks nothing of hitting an entire bucket in 30 minutes. I have to smile as I remember the short distance the balls went when he started compared to how very far they go today. However, I knew that playing a round of golf is quite different from the range.  We tried a few times last year but by the end of 3 holes he was bored. Nothing like hitting 100 balls! So, a new summer, time for another try…and we were successful this time!

golf-course.pngRyan and Moe have golf in common. It is something Ryan enjoys doing and more importantly provides him with an outlet for the repetitive behaviors that brings him comfort and lessens his anxieties. I can’t help but feel Moe would share those sentiments! I recognized that Ryan’s athletic skills, his interest in a one-man sport and his desire for structure and repetition might be best suited for golf and I am thankful that he has found such enjoyment from it.

I believe that each of us has a unique set of strengths and challenges.  What we all strive for is to find the areas in life that help us maximize our gifts and skills while accepting us as we are. While Ryan will never play professional golf, he has a leisure skill for the rest of his life. Ryan and I are looking forward to playing another 9 holes tonight!


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment