It’s Building Character: An OT’s Perspective

Lauren Condoleon is an excellent Occupational Therapist who runs her own private practice, Limitless Victory Therapy Services. She is a good friend of mine and I have watched her develop a special bond to my children, especially my oldest Elijah. She has a wealth of knowledge and has helped our family navigate sensory diets and other OT needs. Lauren is not only a phenomenal OT but pours her heart and soul into it. You can follow Lauren on FACEBOOK and get more information regarding her private practice HERE.

Thank you so much Megan for giving me the honor of writing for your blog for Autism Awareness Month! My name is Lauren- I am an occupational therapist and just recently opened my own private practice, Limitless Victory Therapy Services. Owning my own clinic has been a dream of mine for years now. I have been an OT for 8 years but have worked with children and people with Autism since about the age of 13. The first time I ever worked with a child with Autism, I believe I was in middle school volunteering at Vacation Bible School. The children’s pastor paired me with a boy Joshua. At the time, I had no idea he had Autism. I honestly didn’t even know what Autism was. I just knew that this boy had something different about him. I was his one-on-one aide and my main job was to watch over him and make sure he was safe and to help get him to participate in the VBS classes. Well, little did I know Joshua was a runner and he was FAST. I remember how hard it was for him to sit in the group activities and he would often jet out of the class and down the hall of the church, even running up and down the pews of the HUMONGOUS sanctuary of the church. Well, I was right behind him running alongside him. We developed a special bond quickly and often played in the hallway together or went in and out of the classroom at our leisure. It was during that week that I fell in love with children with special needs. I didn’t know at the time I fell in love with a child with Autism. My desire to work with people with Autism started that summer. 

Over the next few years I would volunteer at my church to work with kids whenever I could. I was a teacher’s assistant for Missionettes and helped with a class of pre-school girls my Junior year of high school every Wednesday night. I lived for those Wednesday nights. During my time at Missionettes, the children had a task of memorizing scripture. Well, little did I know I was also memorizing those scriptures and God was changing my heart alongside those little girls. The scripture I still remember to this day from that year is Joshua 1:9. I held onto this scripture during the years ahead as I went through graduate school and during my training of becoming an OT. It also reminded me of that boy Joshua, the spark for my passion all these years- I felt like it was a “God-wink” for sure. During my Junior year I went to a family barbecue at my Godfather, Anthony’s house. I met his niece Debra there who has Rhett’s Syndrome. For those that don’t know, Rhett’s is a degenerative neurological condition where the people who have it lose their motor function over time. Life expectancy is short and they often have cognitive disabilities and medical problems such as cardiac issues and seizure disorders. Well, I quickly established a connection with Debra. This little girl was immobile, unable to walk so I carried her around the barbecue and I remember sitting her on my lap and playing a sort of peek-a-boo game. Her mom came over to me and said “You know, Debra doesn’t connect with just anyone right?”. She told me she saw a gift in me and that I should really look into occupational therapy for a career. I had NO clue what OT was at the time, so I quickly looked it up. Well, it was the perfect mix of medical and teaching that I was looking for in a career. I wanted to be a doctor, but found out I faint at the sight of blood when my Labrador cut her foot once, so that was clearly out! I thought of being a teacher simply because I wanted to have my own classroom and play with chalk (hilarious!). Well OT was exactly this! Years later, during my first school district OT job, I had my own classroom, my own space to decorate including a whole bulletin board AND a chalkboard! My dream literally came true. 

Back up to becoming an OT. After discovering OT really was my dream profession, I observed professionals in action. I set my heart on this profession and have never looked back. Being an OT is literally a part of who I am as a person. I cannot separate it any longer from the way I think and live my life- and I love it. Once I figured out what I wanted to do, I applied to many schools and only considered dual-degree programs to avoid another round of applications and standardized tests. I decided on Seton Hall University where I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Fast-forward through the years. Over the course of my college years, during the summers I was a teachers’ assistant at a school for children with Autism, the Developmental Learning Center in Warren, NJ. Can I just say what an amazing experience? This school is tricked out! The entire school is simulated to teach kids in natural environments. The kids learn in classrooms that are completely mocked up as hardware stores, paint stores, a grocery store, a full track, swimming pool, an apartment, and MORE. Here they learn activities of daily living, real life skills and prepare them for jobs as they age out of the school system. There I met a young man David. During this summer job, I fell in love all over again! He was such a sweet kid who loved hugs and deep pressure squeezes on his arms. I remember him quoting or “scripting” lines from the Chase bank commercials. There were so many kids I met that summer that I still remember to this day. I remember wanting to make a necklace for myself with a puzzle piece or even get a tattoo because I loved those kids so much- I still haven’t done either one to this day but plan on getting to that jewelry project someday soon!  

Looking back, this school is an OT’s dream. It was then I was introduced to concepts so frequently known in the Autism community- scripting, echolalia, sensory seeking, fight-or-flight responses, a sensory “diet” including crunchy snacks in their lunches, and all the supports that come along the way in schooling.  One-on-one aides, OT, speech, behavioral intervention, along with an entire crew for restraint intervention for fight-or-flight or the not so pretty side of aggressive behaviors. In hindsight, these were just the tip of the iceberg in my learning about Autism. It is so interesting reflecting on my journey and realizing that these concepts and aspects of Autism were not explicitly explained to me from day one. I kind of just observed them and heard about them and over the years of schooling and professional work as well as my personal experiences with the kids and families I began to really work with, did it all finally come together for me. I have to remind myself that this way of learning about Autism is probably similarly experienced by the parents and families (obviously on a whole other level). You see what is in front of you, know it is there, but wonder what it is. You might get someone who finally tells you exactly what it is that you are seeing. The people who are really good and make the most impact on your understanding and learning along the way are the ones who take it a step further and actually EXPLAIN what that term or thing you’re seeing IS and what it means. The other part is the people who I’ve seen make the biggest impact on these kids’ lives and actually get them to engage and flourish are the ones who treat them with LOVE, compassion, and just as if they were any other child. I’ve seen how Autistic children know the difference. They KNOW who get them and who doesn’t. They KNOW when you take the extra time to look at them, talk to them, and really see who they are as a person, not just what they are able to show you or your preconceived notions. 

Both personally and professionally, I’ve found that the people who interact with those with Autism or taught me as a student along the way without empathy, with SO MUCH structure they lose their humanity, or lack of flexibility- well, no one learns or wants to participate that way. I went through a fieldwork experience at a well-renowned clinic. Well, the two clinical instructors I had, time and time again would say to me “we are not here to teach you but only to foster your learning”. They would constantly take my treatment plans or sessions and say “I just don’t think you get it”, “you don’t know what you’re doing”, “stop focusing on the activities”. Instead of explaining what I was seeing or “doing wrong” they would simply “slap my wrists” and tell me to figure it out. Well, did you know I almost failed?! They extended my fieldwork another two weeks to compensate for my “lack of knowledge and skill”. I was top of my graduating class, president of SOTA (Student OT Association), and KNEW I was called to work with these children and people with Autism. And yet during my training that I ASKED FOR (I literally told my fieldwork supervisor I would not take a pediatric clinical rotation anywhere else- I ASKED FOR IT Y’ALL!), I was coming home every night crying and literally praying my way through those days. 

Have you ever been through an experience that was so hard and your brain was working so hard, you had PHYSICAL PAIN?! That was one of those experiences for me. Looking back on that experience, I am thankful for it. It not only taught me so much clinically and professionally, but more importantly it taught me how I want to treat people in my life. I’ve taken that experience and whenever I meet people in their learning process of becoming an OT or parents who are learning about their children with Autism, I make sure I help teach and mentor them as best as I can. Professions are only as good as the teachers who teach those in training. I for one do not learn best from a throw-you-to-the-wind, disciplinarian, hostile environment, kind of teaching. Well, you know what else I’ve learned- Autistic children and people also do not learn best with these methods and ways. I’ve seen the best progress and most engagement from children and PEOPLE with Autism when you get on their level. Treat them like the person they are. Take the time to actually SEE them. Let go of your preconceived notions and what you THINK they need or what you THINK would work best for them and actually take the time to watch, hear, LISTEN, and do what is in the best interest for that specific person with Autism. No two are the same. Not all methods work the same for everyone. 

The biggest thing I want people to take away from this post and to help bring awareness about Autism is this: BE HUMAN. Be compassionate. Take the time to SEE the people you’re interacting with for who they really are. When we take a step back and take the time to really listen and see the needs of the individuals and the families we are working with, that is when progress can really happen. You can’t help if you don’t listen. I’ve seen so many programs, schools, and people boast about how they are the BEST, most knowledgeable, and have what it takes to be a specialized program for people with Autism. When in reality, on the inside, these people have no clue. I’ve heartbreakingly seen people use those methods I experienced as an OT student in the name of “behavioral” intervention or a specialized program with Autistic people. When really, I think they lost sight of the end goal- to HELP. Yes, there is a time and place that is 100% vital and essential for structure, “discipline”, and specific methods of learning. However, if we don’t remember to put compassion back into the equation, along with REALLY understanding this neurological condition (because that is what it is), just call it quits because you’re likely to do more harm than good. My aim as an OT, a professional, and private practice owner is to empower families and people in the Autism community to be able to actually UNDERSTAND what Autism is, what Sensory Processing and Sensory Integration is, and to be able to tailor methods to help teach and improve the quality of life and independence level as much as we possibly can. No one should have to do this journey of life alone. And no one should be left in the dust to figure it out by themselves. I for one hope to never treat my clients and their families the way that so many systems do along the way. My hope is that everyone remembers we are all individuals with specific needs and so are the children with Autism we see each day. I hope you remember that in order to see any progress, engagement or quality of life, that we are first and foremost working with PEOPLE. Children. Beautiful children who deserve the utmost respect, honor, and treatment everyday. If you are a teacher, parent, or anyone who works with Autistic people and find yourself burnt out, using methods that are just not effective, or simply don’t understand- reach out. Reach out for respite, ask for external help to relieve yourself, reach out for further education and insight into what you are actually dealing with or misunderstanding. I’ve learned over the years knowledge is power and lack of it causes us to lack confidence and effectiveness in our life. Do not do this journey alone, it was not meant to be lived that way in the first place!