Founder’s Day: In Dr. Barber’s Own Words

Today is a special day at the Barber National Institute. We are celebrating Founder’s Day to commemorate the legacy of our founder, Dr. Gertrude A. Barber, and our enduring mission.

Dr. Barber’s dream in 1952 was that children and adults with disabilities would be able to learn and grow in their own community, in which they would find acceptance and opportunity. This vision has positively changed the lives of thousands of children and adults over the last 64 years and has opened doors and minds by promoting these ideals.

GAB I recently found a memo written by Dr. Barber in the early 90s that reflects her commitment to these principles.  I wanted to share some excerpts here; who better to tell you of our mission than Dr. Barber herself?

“I believe a leader’s role is one needing to work with legislators, schools, local, state, and federal governments. In doing so, we were able to expand community programs in Erie County, beginning a Franklin Terrace, YMCA, Boy’s Club, Hamilton School, and finally, at Lakeview Hospital.

We recognized the need and importance of establishing a linkage with media to inform the community about the growth and development of the Center. By personally working with the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Education, we were able to show them our innovative and creative programs, which were on the cutting edge of technology.

These accomplishments were the result of acquiring an excellent staff, seizing the needs of the moment, and being prepared and knowledgeable in finance, programming, etc. I believe a good leader has the ability to foresee the needs of the present and future as it relates to the past.

Our focus has continued to be a mission of faith, hope, and love – to open the doors where they were closed – to bring sunlight where there was darkness – faith where there was despair.

Let’s always lead with a mission to open doors.”

Dr. Gertrude A. Barber, 1995

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It’s Time to Have a Chat…

DOC043015-04302015100234_003As we enter our second week of school, I find myself a bit nostalgic as I think back to Ryan’s time in school. It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since he graduated high school! I truly believe that one of the reasons he was successful in his school career was my willingness to commit to working with his teachers.

What do I mean by that? We began each new school year by scheduling a meeting with the principal to walk through his new school and/or new classroom. We took pictures of the various rooms in the building so that he would have a frame of reference when he imagined what the first days of school would be like. This was helpful because Ryan was always very anxious about change. During the first week of inservice, I would meet with Ryan’s entire team. When he was in elementary school, few children with autism were enrolled in the “typical” classroom. I saw this meeting as an opportunity to educate staff; not only about Ryan, but about autism as well.

I provided a fact sheet, “Tips about Ryan,” which identified the essential information that each teacher would want to know. For instance, very loud noises are troublesome to Ryan. He would pay attention to the sound, place his hands on his ears, and be oblivious to everything else going on in the room. In addition, I was always sure to emphasize that because Ryan’s brain functions differently than the teacher’s or mine, this impacts how Ryan would respond to classroom instructions. It’s my belief that these tips helped to make the day much smoother for both the teacher and Ryan.

clip-artSuccessI also believed it was important to meet weekly with the teacher(s) to discuss his progress and challenges. This assured consistency between home and school – a critical variable for Ryan. Looking back, I drove to his school in blizzards as well as frightening early morning meetings at 7:00 AM! I was fortunate that my best friend, Jeanne, attended as Ryan’s advocate. She was great support. I would encourage all parents to take a friend to team meetings. So much is being discussed and it’s helpful to have someone taking notes.

Whether you wish to hold weekly meetings, write letters, or any other strategy, I can’t stress enough how important it is to maintain open lines of communication with your child’s team. Because you know your child best, you are the most important member of that team.

I wish you all a great school year!

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New (School) Year, New You

It’s hard to believe that another school year is already here. Where does the time go? Last week was a sort of “soft start” to the year, as all our staff return for a week of inservices. We were excited to introduce to them a new program for this year, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Designed to be school-wide, this system of support applies to both students and staff and works by helping individuals to use proactive strategies for defining, teaching, and supporting appropriate student behaviors to create positive school environments. As we begin to implement this with our staff, we are focusing on a trifold matrix: Be Kind, Be Safe, Be Independent. We are excited to see what impact this focus will bring, and I wanted to share with you the thoughts I read to our staff on their first day back.


back to school_1Welcome back to the start of this 17-18 school year! Judging by the smiles on your faces, I’m sure that you all had a great summer. I’m really looking forward to the positive changes that our PBIS team will bring about this year, and I wanted to share a few thoughts of my own.

Some of you may have heard the story of how the Elizabeth Lee Black School began, but for those of you that haven’t, it began in 1952. My aunt, Gertrude A. Barber, was a psychologist for the Erie School District. It was her job to tell parents that their children could not come to the public school – their options at that time were either institutionalization or to keep their child at home. As you can imagine, neither Dr. Barber nor the parents were satisfied with these being their only choices. So, they started a single classroom for children with special needs. The teacher was a volunteer – no funding was available to pay anyone. Over the course of the next decade and beyond, this one room has expanded dramatically into many classrooms serving dozens of children.

You may not know that I began my career here in the school as a classroom aide; so I truly understand each of your roles. It is because of these first-hand experiences that I know how valued each of you are to our team.


Whether you are a therapist, a teacher, a paraeducator, or support staff, you make a significant contribution to the vision and success of our school. I hope that you believe this and feel this each day as you walk through the doors. You should be proud of your work here with us.

It was my aunt’s mission then as it is my mission today to provide the highest quality services available to these individuals. You are an integral part of that high standard – our work together ensures that we will be successful in making dreams come true for our children and their families. I encourage you to always come to me with your successes as well as your challenges. I know we are already off to a great start of the year!

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Guest Blog: Putting Autistic People in the Driver’s Seat, by Lu Randall

Today’s blog was written by friend and colleague Luciana Randall, Executive Director of Autism Connection of PA in Pittsburgh. Lu started her career as an art education major and found many students with disabilities were included in her classrooms. Wanting to know more about how to help them, she went on to get her Master’s in rehabilitation counseling and has remained in the field ever since. She has been teaching and training professionals about autism, the brain, behavior, and communication since 2002. 

I hope you find her blog as insightful and enjoyable as I did!


New TV series about autistic characters are all the rage. My autistic friends and autism parents are so “over it” already. “Who is going to make a show about my son who is 11 years old, still in pull-ups, not talking, and stimming?” or “Where am I – an autistic, female, degreed professional?” Current shows tend to feature talking, white, heterosexual, young adult males – leaving out a huge chunk of our population who then feel further marginalized and unrepresented. To help prevent this, we can try every day to put autistic people in the driver’s seat, or in this case, the writer’s or director’s seat, in showing and telling their own narrative.


Lu teaches about autism as part of her role as Executive Director

Recently I’ve been given a soapbox (idiom alert! – a location from which to speak about what’s on my mind to a large group of people*) at the Barber National Institute, to talk about autistic culture and help workers do their best with this population. I always feel a lot of pressure to do right by autistic people. Instead of searching Google for articles to prepare my talk, my very first request was to my autistic colleagues – “I want to represent you correctly. Please send me your favorite videos about autistic culture.” Everything they sent me was first-person video. Nothing came from popular media! You can see these on the links below. But to summarize:

Autistic people** want to convey some important aspects of their culture. They are:

  1. Autism is a natural occurrence, not a disease, and not always causing disorder
  2. Society creates disabling conditions when it cannot or will not accommodate differences. “Disabled person” can be one acceptable term, because it tells that people are disabled by outside forces; they are not inherently flawed.
  3. Autistic people manage their bodies and their stress in unique ways. Some cover their ears if things get too loud, other flap their hands to express excitement or nervousness, others type or sleep or hum or talk to themselves, or hang out with their cats or stuffed animals – self regulation and self-soothing take many forms. Neurology and brain part shapes and sizes vary widely in autistic brains, which result in behaviors that may look unusual but are perfectly normal. As long as the behavior is not hurting anyone, allowing expression is the most respectful thing in the world. Imagine being home in your pajamas with one leg thrown over a chair, watching TV. What if someone constantly said “BOTH FEET ON THE FLOOR” “STOP TWIRLING YOUR HAIR” “STOP CHEWING GUM!” all day and night? That would be so offensive and belittling. So let’s try to let autistic people “be” in their own homes, for starters.
  4. If we are non-autistic, our inability to understand autistic body language or sounds could easily be seen as our disability! Not understanding an autistic person’s thinking can be a theory of mind deficit on the part of non-autistics. But we always make it the other way around. Is that really fair? I don’t think so.

Let’s try to meet in the middle, putting autistic people** in charge of teaching and telling, not relying on a TV network or a scientist’s article, and learn awesome new things about others, and ourselves. Here are the recommended videos to get you started: (yes, popcorn may be required for your viewing pleasure). Enjoy!


*When communicating with autistic people, be aware of your use of confusing figures of speech like this one. It’s okay to use them, but give the definition.

** The use of the term “autistic person” may seem different to you especially if you were trained in helping professions or journalism and were forced to use “person first” language. For most autistic adults, this is their preferred term. So I tend to use that.

Links referenced above:


How to be an ally to autistic people:

What is stimming? Autism as a language, no words until translation and captions are at 3:14.

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Making Way for Friendship

buddiesAs this past Sunday was Friendship Day in the US, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts about friendship. Friendship can be a challenge for children on the spectrum. From my personal experience, Ryan sadly had no friends during his years at school. I often thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone would invite him to their birthday party?” Unfortunately, that never happened. Ryan preferred the company of adults. I think that was because the adults would take the time to listen to him when he would speak in a rapid manner and would wait patiently for him to him to formulate his thoughts. I think that these adults recognized the importance of kindness more so than Ryan’s peers.

In a perfect world, parents and teachers would emphasize the importance of being kind, particularly to peers who may seem “different.” Truth be known, children are more alike than they are different, regardless of their disability. Since Ryan graduated, I do think there is much greater emphasis in the schools and in the community on acceptance of children with disabilities. We have come a long way, but I know the journey continues!

If you are the parent, educator, or even an acquaintance of someone with disabilities, you can support that person in their quest for friendship in a number of ways.

  • Be patient when the person speaks. It may take him/her longer to express a complete thought. Auditory processing difficulties are present in many children.
  • If you are the parent of a typical child, it’s essential to have conversations about some of the specific characteristics of a child with a disability and that there’s no reason to be fearful of him or her.
  • Communicate clearly, in short sentences, with a reasonable pace and volume. If the child is non-verbal, you may want to use a picture or a communication board.
  • Try to create social opportunities for your child by inviting others to his or her preferred activities
  • Investigate the Best Buddies program. ebuddiesIf there is not a chapter at your school, consider working with administration to start one. Ryan participates in ebuddies, and thoroughly enjoys emailing his buddy. In fact, emailing is his preferred method of communication with others, and he has quite a few “conversations” going at any time!


Any tried and true tips you’d like to share? Send them my way!

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Remembering ADA

It was July 26, 1990: At the invitation of President George H. Bush, Dr. Getrude Barber had traveled to Washington, DC to witness the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was a momentous occasion for her because she remembered well the year 1952 when no services were available for people with disabilities and they were relegated to institutions across the country. That year, when she started the first program, she served 15 students. As of today, the Barber National Institute serves 5,300 children, adults and families with special needs!


President Bush signs the historic ADA.

Over the years, she was a strong advocate for inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community, in schools, and in all aspects of life. She shattered numerous “glass ceilings” in her lifetime, but July 26th was the pinnacle of her efforts. Little did she know, her great nephew would be born in 1993 with autism. He would become the beneficiary of many programs and services that were developed as a result of her advocacy.  I can’t imagine what Ryan’s life would have been like without these supports.

For me, the anniversary of the ADA signing is also a day that I reminisce about the many outstanding accomplishments of my Aunt Gertrude. I’m continually awed by how much she was able to achieve in a very short period of time. She would be pleased to see Ryan’s many successes as well as the on-going growth and progress of the Barber National Institute!

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An Unexpected Conversation

I recently read an article in which a young man with autism discussed what he’d like other people to know about autism. I wondered if I posed that question to Ryan, what would he say? What surprised me were his responses. It started in a manner that I expected; his first comments were about stimming. Children with autism like to stim, and Ryan is certainly no different. He described how he waves his fingers as a stim that allows him to relax and feel calm. He could even recall that he began this stim at three years old, which I thought was remarkable.


From there, he turned to school – admittedly, this was a difficult time for us both. He did remember a principal from middle school who was exceptionally kind to him. However, I did not expect him to focus on many of the challenges he’s faced. Some were so long ago, even I had forgotten them! Yet he remembered the date, the location, and exactly what occurred. Frankly, I have always thought he’s had many, many more accomplishments than difficulties.

I am first and foremost a believer in the power of positivity. I strive, both at work and at home, to create a positive atmosphere and deal with challenges in a positive manner. This conversation reinforced my belief that each of us should strive to make every interaction, when possible, a positive one. We never know how strongly, or how lasting, an experience can be for a person emotionally, whether they are typical or not.

I am grateful for this (unexpected) lesson from Ryan… and amazed at how much he teaches me every day!


Ryan, at a Notre Dame game in Sept. 2016

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