Looking to the Future

This past Monday, the sun was shining on our students who graduated from the Elizabeth Lee Black School. Some of these children, such as Eric, I have known since they began as infants in our Early Intervention program. Others came to us by elementary or middle school. I feel that I have had the opportunity to watch these children blossom into the individuals they are today.

Our graduation event is always a special night. Whether our students are entering Kindergarten or they are beginning a new phase in our Adult Services division, I enjoy looking back and reflecting upon each journey he or she has gone through. Children who did not talk when they started with us are now having conversations; children who did not walk are now running across the playground. Their confidence and self-esteem has blossomed over the years through the unwavering support of staff and new friends made along the way.

Barber National Institute deeply believes that we have a responsibility to each of our students to provide them and their families with every opportunity to grow and develop to their fullest potential. That is what I saw as I watched these children – individuals whose “dreams have come true.”

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Below the Surface: Exploring Trauma & Mental Health

Each May as we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, I pause to consider the many ways that mental health can be influenced and impacted, starting in childhood and continuing through adulthood.

iceberg.jpgOf course, one of the areas that has received a lot of focus from educational professionals and medical professionals is the lasting impact that trauma has on an individual throughout his/her development.

The statistics that have surfaced out of this research are startling, to say the least. At least 5 million children experience trauma each year; that is 1 out of every 4 students in the classroom. What defines trauma, however, may come as even more of a surprise: in addition to accidents and illness, traumatic experiences can arise out of living in poverty.

With an estimated 20% of all children in the United States living in poverty, the outgrowth of this could be profound. Worse, the effects of trauma are deep and lasting: it has been directly correlated to lower GPAs, decreased reading ability, attention/memory/cognition challenges and increased behavior problems.

In response, schools, child-care facilities and even community support organizations are coming together to bring informed teaching methods into these settings. Some of these tactics include:

  • Establishing safety
  • Expressing feelings and coping
  • Behavior management
  • Connecting to social supports

With 70% of mental disorders onset prior to the age of 25, the childhood and adolescent years are a critical window in which mental health can be addressed, and overall mental wellness can be promoted.

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Honoring Memorial Day

Last night, Ryan and I were talking about our plans for the upcoming three-day weekend of Memorial Day. Ryan asked, “Why do we celebrate Memorial Day?” so naturally, I turned to Google for some information!

Of course, I knew that the day commemorates soldiers who lost their lives fighting for Americans to be free.  But further research taught us that initially, this was a day designated to honor those lost specifically during the Civil War. It wasn’t until after World War I that the intention of the day was modified to include all who lost their lives in any conflict the US faced. And it was not until 1970 that the last Monday of May was selected to be Memorial Day!

mem day history

A vintage memorial day ad from 1917.

After our search, we talked about why those soldiers were willing to go into battle even if it meant that they would lose their lives. They wanted to make sure that the US was free, whether it was from the tyranny of slavery or from the dictator Hitler. We discussed how important it is for us to be grateful to all of those who lost their lives, and decided that when we go to the cemetery this weekend, we’ll visit the graves of some soldiers and say a special prayer.

I share this story with you as it is an example of how “teachable” moments can come throughout the day. I try to take advantage of as many of them as possible and Ryan likes these opportunities as much as I do. He is focused and is always eager to learn about the topic.

Certainly, this desire to learn about everything can backfire: I will never forget the time that Ryan was overly focused on “electric chairs” and I found him watching an execution during the middle of the night!  Still, there have been far more positive learning experiences than incidents like this!

I wish everyone a safe and happy Memorial Day!


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Honoring School Nurses

Recently, we celebrated School Nurse Day. Naturally, as this day came about I paused to reflect on the ways nurses have played and continue to play an important role in my life. Nursing, in my family, was considered a noble profession. When I and my siblings turned 13 years of age, we were expected to volunteer either as a candy striper at St Vincent’s Hospital or as an aide at the Barber Center.


JoAnne Barber McCormick

Hospitals were not my favorite, so I immediately chose the Barber Center. My sister JoAnne, selected St. Vincent’s Hospital.  She was beginning her journey following in the footsteps of my Aunt Marion, who was the Director of Nursing at the time.  Aunt Marion and JoAnne were “born nurses.” Aunt Marion was the neighborhood nurse. Whether it was a child’s scrape or as a mother’s midwife, she was the first responder to the East side families in need. No matter what the hour of the day, Aunt Marion was there to help. Likewise was JoAnne. Many times when Ryan was sick, I’d give JoAnne a call to make sure I was doing the “right thing.”

Nursing is one of the oldest professions in history, although for many years it was not held in high esteem as it is today. The word nursing itself is derived from the Latin nutrire “to nourish.” Nurses are essential in helping to identify and solve many public health problems in the course of providing individual care to their patients and families.


Our diverse student population includes many with complex medical needs. Our nursing staff enable children, who otherwise would be forced to remain at home, to attend school. They play a key role in assuring that a continuum of educational services is available for all. For last week’s National Nurses Week, we focused on the theme of “Nurses: Inspire, Innovate, Influence.”

When you see a nurse, be sure to thank them for all they do – they are irreplaceable!

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Why I Celebrated All of the Women at BNI on Sunday

Yesterday, we celebrated Mother’s Day. Traditionally, we spend this day celebrating our mom, but I believe that it’s a day we can celebrate all of the women in our lives. Whether she is an aunt or a sister, a friend or a coworker, many women can influence and enrich our lives as mothering figures.

In particular, I think of all of the women at the Barber National Institute, who spend their days caring for our students as if they were their own children. Whether or not these ladies have chosen to have children of their own does not lessen the positive and lasting impact they have had upon their students’ lives.


I do not believe there is a single definition of success or happiness for any individual. Not all women want careers, just as not all women want to have children. And some women want both! I would never advocate that each of us should strive for the same goal – we each need to chart our own unique course to find which pursuits fit our values and our dreams.

So take a minute to call, text, email, or take a walk with the fabulous women in your life to tell them how amazing they are and thank them for being part of your life. I know I will be!

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Making a Meaningful Life

I recently spoke at a dinner on the theme “Meeting Life’s Challenges” and I wanted to share a few of my thoughts. Seeking a meaningful life is the challenge each of us faces.

Figuring this out takes time, thought and reflection on what makes life meaningful…and yes, it will be different for each of us.

Gertrude Barber began the Barber Center with a desire to enable persons with disabilities to lead meaningful lives. As institutionalization was the outcome for most individuals with disabilities born prior to 1950, they had no opportunity to lead a meaningful life. But, she and a group of parents wanted so much more. Fast forward to today and 66 years later, we are serving 5,300 children and adults in Erie, Warren, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. A meaningful life is what each of these individuals seek; so, how do we help them achieve that goal?

First, I recommend that we encourage both our children and our adults to begin their day by considering what they are grateful for. In doing so, they will start the day with a positive mindset which I believe is critical in our quest for a meaningful life.

Second, we should encourage them to focus on the present and not worry about the future or on the past. Then they will be able to enjoy and celebrate each day.

At the breakfast table each morning, Ryan and I discuss what he is grateful for. His comments often bring a smile to my face! Focusing on the present and not worrying about the past or the future has always been a challenge for him. Whenever he begins to digress and start worrying, I immediately prompt him by saying, “Today is a new day. Let’s not worry about the past, stay focused.” I may prompt him numerous times during the day, as he struggles with anxiety about so many issues. Life can be surprising, stressful, and unpredictable, but I truly do see the benefits of this practice in our daily lives.

Ryan and most children and adults with disabilities lead meaningful lives because of involvement and commitment of the community to our mission. The dream that Dr. Barber and the parents hoped for 66 years ago has come true.


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Monthly Research Updates

Scientists and researchers are constantly uncovering more information related to autism, offering insights into the origins, possible causes and even at times potential cures. I come across dozens of articles on a weekly basis, some of which seem more important than others. I thought I would share on a monthly basis stories that caught my eye.

~ Maureen

researchWeighing up autism’s obesity crisis

A 2014 study of more than 6,000 children and teenagers on the spectrum found that they are more than twice as likely to be overweight and nearly five times as likely to be obese as their typical peers. Those statistics translate to higher rates of a host of associated health issues. A 2016 analysis of Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Research Database revealed that teens with autism are nearly three times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than their typical peers.

Read the full article here.


Roche wins FDA’s breakthrough therapy label for autism drug

Swiss drugmaker Roche said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted its breakthrough therapy designation for Balovaptan to treat autism spectrum disorder (ASD), potentially accelerating its development and approval. Balovaptan, which may improve social interaction and communication in people with ASD, is being developed by Roche’s Swiss-based pRED research unit and has an expected filing date of after 2020, according to the company’s website.

Read the full article here.


Gene responsible for autism identified

Scientists have identified a gene that is responsible for neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, an advance that may pave the way for developing treatments. The findings showed that alterations of the gene thousand and one amino-acid kinase 2, known as TAOK2, plays a direct role in these disorders.

Read the full article here.


Autism’s social deficits are reversed by an anti-cancer drug

New research at the University at Buffalo reveals the first evidence that it may be possible to use a single compound to alleviate the behavioral symptoms by targeting sets of genes involved in the disease. The research, published today in Nature Neuroscience, demonstrated that brief treatment with a very low dose of romidepsin, a Food and Drug Administration-approved anti-cancer drug, restored social deficits in animal models of autism in a sustained fashion.

Read the full article here.


Tune in next month for an update on autism research!

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