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My resume? Sorry, I thought you said memoir...

Part One

I set out, innocently enough, to create a simple outline of my professional background at a quick glance for my About page. Instead, an almost five thousand word biography fell out. Don't you hate when that happens?

To work with me, is to understand who I am and what kind of experience and knowledge I bring to the table. This is definitely not your average thirty second elevator pitch so, consider this your official heads up that you need more than the intentioned glance. The oddball humour is a side dish served free and therefore, non-refundable. I recommend cozying up with a favourite beverage and settling in for a few minutes for all three blog posts in the series. Hopefully, it will be worth it!

***Update: since my original post, I was diagnosed as autistic... which explains a LOT! Please know that I am currently still processing this (I'm in my 40's so there is a lot to process!) and it has given me a fresh perspective on many things, including my role as a consultant to special needs families. I really feel that it is a blessing to be able to provide support to families from an experiential point of view. Hopefully, it also allows me to better understand how to provide services in a way that is supportive to the needs of the caregiver, as many parents themselves are autistic, whether they are aware of it or not and sometimes find, as I did, navigating services to be an overwhelming and difficult process. This is usually because they were aimed or structured with a neurotypical framework. I have worked with both neurodiverse and neurotypical caregivers and we have journeyed together well. Now, back to the memoir!

I began working with children at age 14, as a figure skating instructor. Don't worry, I'm not going to detail my entire life with a fine-tooth comb. We'll just stick to the relevant highlights, but I'll tell you, helping cold, tired preschoolers in snowsuits learn to stay upright on ice, while their parents watched from the bleachers, was my first introduction to working through challenges with children.

The remainder of my teen years were blessed with several more opportunities to learn about the early years. I was a preschool Sunday School teacher, babysitter, and chose two high-school parenting coops with local preschool programs.

These experiences encouraged my interest and led me to pursue a diploma in Early Childhood Education. For anyone who isn't really sure what an ECE actually learns, here's a quick synopsis...

There was a focus on child development. We considered the milestones, behaviours, abilities and emergent skills of these key periods of life. Learning included interpreting behaviour from a developmental perspective, and was aimed at meeting the holistic needs of children within a particular stage and age range. I was captivated by the many ways there are to foster a love of learning, exploration and discover a sense of self, while considering their health and safety. It was very rewarding to design programs which supported the whole child that included their social, emotional, language, mental, and physical needs. These plans were based on observational data and documentation to ensure they were aimed to their specific interests and were developmentally appropriate.

While I had my first coop placement in a traditional preschool environment, my second was unique. It took place in a secured emergency residential shelter for women and children escaping violence and homelessness. My role at the shelter was to support the children living there, in transition from these difficult and traumatic situations, by creating fun community events and in-house programming that was especially sensitive to their emotional, social, and physical needs. I also created training workshops around child development for the mothers and provided any relevant resources they needed. I was humbled to receive a memorial award upon graduation (with honours), nominated by faculty, for Working Well with Families. I also enjoyed being part of the faculty's mentorship program.

On a random side note, I will be forever changed by the comedic musical stylings of one of my teachers, Paul Fralick. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he is one of three professors who made up the children's band, Turkey Rhubarb. A local talent with 3 records that had quite the following. Though retired now, he impressed upon my heart that to work with children is to be childlike in joy and silliness, with confidence. That's the reason I tend to transform our home life into musical theater with silly songs, made up on the spot to the tunes of familiar nursery rhymes. Thanks, Paul!

Around this time, I also had a part time job as a respite worker for a non-speaking woman in her 50's with a global developmental delay, who adored Mickey Mouse. We had so many lovely outings. I can still remember her lunch order, black coffee and spaghetti. I loved trying to make her laugh. I miss you, Les!

I immediately continued my education in 2006 with the Autism & Behavioural Science post-grad program, which spoke to my long-standing desire to work with children with special needs.

Ok, this is the part that needs a you read this next section, you will likely veer towards one of three immediate thoughts. Are you encouraged by someone with a background in ABA and eager for help with this because it has been deemed the gold-standard approach? Are you unfamiliar with the term ABA and wondering what all the fuss is about? Or, perhaps you may see the word ABA and run for the hills. If this is you, please don't do that, while it is my past, that's not the punch line here! There's a non-ABA headliner coming up that will steal the show!

But Sarah, what if my child doesn't have autism, suspected or diagnosed? What am I doing here if you specialize in autism and my child has ADHD? or ODD/PDA? or Down Syndrome? or anxiety? or depression? or something else? That's what is incredible about the cornerstone of my approach, no diagnosis is required and is beneficial to anyone, child or adult, neurodiverse or not! Yay! This means I can also help caregivers in a unique way, which is an area I have not seen a lot of resources over the years.

Alright, enough with the drama, back to our regularly scheduled career highlights. For those who are against ABA, please know I am simply about to outline my learning and experience below, prior to finding the current approach I use with clients. The Autism & Behavioural Science program includes curriculum on how to apply evidence-based treatments, how they are used in teaching, as well as learning how to design, implement, and evaluate treatment plans using behavioural strategies. This approach includes treating challenging behaviour (I know, don't panic, I get it). I learned how to train caregivers to implement techniques with their children and I have an understanding of the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), as well as the Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) application with children with autism. ​​I am also trained in how to research and interpret journal publications in the field of ABA and autism.

I was accepted for a coop placement at Hamilton Health Sciences/McMaster Children's Hospital, Chedoke site, two terms in a row. This opportunity helped me learn about ABA in a clinical application and gain experience with a multi-disciplinary team approach, supervised by a clinical psychologist.

Have you read this far and are happy with what you see? Great! Have you read this far and you are saying, "No way, nope, not a fan of ABA, I'm NOT going down that road!" Fantastic! That's because my approach isn't built on ABA. It doesn't mean I won't use principles when I think it can help such as breaking down a task into smaller more manageable ones like handwashing, chores, etc. I am aware that ABA has become a controversial topic since I have worked in the clinical field, and I also understand why. As a parent myself many years later, I appreciate that there is opposition, as there are always going to be a portion of providers that go about things in a way that could be harmful. I do not condone the mistreatment of anyone in the name of behavioural intervention. I do see a place for ABA in the right situations, implemented with care and the consent of the family, but never at the cost of the child's autonomy, mental health, or the family's objections. ABA does not work for everyone, and it can sometimes take a very long time to see results, with great effort. Stay tuned, as I am SO EXCITED to share with you something else that has had an epic impact, doesn't take long to work, is much less effort than ABA, is never harmful, that I didn't know existed until after all the previously mentioned training!

At the same time I was in my post-grad studies, the provincial government was in the process of significantly increasing funding for autism services to expand the capacity of the program in an attempt to support the rapidly growing number of children waiting for services (2006-2007ish). At that point, the incidence rate of autism was 1 in 165 (compared to now, 1 in 66). This funding led to Hamilton Health Services to reach out to our school, which led to hiring me... while still in my program. To be honest, at the time it was my dream job to work for them specifically, doing that job, thinking I was about to help many families find the help they were searching for, the reason I existed, and I was on top of cloud 9! (Again, it was a different time and it was not controversial).

I was deployed on a full-time contract to a regional provider location, to support that branch of autism services as an Instructor Therapist in the Intensive Behavioural Intervention program using ABA. This role is equivalent to the newer title of Registered Behaviour Technician, however, it did not exist at that time.

I worked with many different children with autism with varying, but severe challenges including toileting, being non-verbal, self-injurious behaviour, aggression towards others, intellectual delays, eloping, etc. While I thought it was a fantastic professional opportunity, it interrupted and impaired my ability to fully complete my educational requirements. In order to successfully graduate, I took an additional coop term later that year to fulfill those requirements. This took place through another regional provider in a different city, in the home of clients. It was very helpful to see children in the comfort of their own surroundings, as well as build relationships with their families.

Though I was early in my career, I had been married for several years, approaching 30, and was ready to start a family. Ok, ok, I admit it! While that previous statement is very true, I use that sentiment as a guise to conceal the fact that my dream job, the one I was extremely passionate about and had worked for years to attain.....was a bust!

Though I understood ABA concepts inside, out, and backwards, applying them in an intensive program was more challenging than I could manage. Intensive behavioural intervention (IBI) was extremely difficult for me to implement and get a handle on. I would go in extra early, before a 3-hour session with a client, work through lunch, and stay late after another 3 hour session with a different client, thinking I would get into the swing of things, but it wasn't enough. The clients I worked with would often be aggressive towards me and themselves which I wasn't feeling prepared for emotionally. We were working in small rooms and sat in child size chairs, which quickly aggravated my lower back issues. I couldn't understand why the gold standard approach was feeling so...different than I had expected. Something didn't feel right and I didn't know what to do about it. Was I helping them? Was this what I was called to do? Was I just not trying hard enough? Was this the right help for them? Everyone else seemed to be getting along just fine, leaving me to feel alone and compelled to hide my struggles. I had so many questions and no answers.

I wasn't the only one who noticed I wasn't cutting the mustard. It wasn't too long before I was required to submit recorded observations of my treatment sessions, it was standard protocol. In the dreaded HR meeting that aired my challenges, I brought attention to the fact that I had not been given the additional two week intensive training that everyone else had prior to starting. What training is this, you ask? Well, after being hired, everyone had to write a comprehensive exam about ABA. If you scored 80% or higher, you were exempt from the hands-on training. I was 1 of only 2 people in all the new hires that scored over 80%. Initially, my ego was quite pleased however, I was convinced when things had gone downhill that attending that training was the key to turning this whole fiasco around. My superiors were hesitant but agreed, and I was hopeful but felt the pressure. While the practical training I fought for helped to fill in any practical knowledge gaps I had missed out on from jumping out of my educational program, after 2 weeks, I was fired. In hind sight, rightly so.

The cold, hard fact is: knowledge without skill isn't employable. That did not console my massive broken heart. This perceived failure haunted me for well over a decade. The question that echoed in my mind like an endless cavern was, "How on earth could God have placed such a strong desire in me to work with special needs children, lead me there, and forget to pack my bag with the skills to actually do it?" It felt like an epic prank. So, I gave up. There was no where to go from there but walk away, and start the family I had always dreamed of. Little did I know, that was the beginning of another significant and relevant chapter in this journey.

Why did I share that? Sure, I could have left it out. I could have pretended to have it all together and act like I've got all the answers, but let's be honest, that's exhausting. I'm human, and so are you. We don't get the privilege of living to our 40's without having had some bumps in the road. Now that I know I'm autistic, it explains why I was knowledgeable as I had made it my special interest knowing every nook and cranny there was to know about it but couldn't apply the concepts practically. That took way too much executive functioning! Plus the burnout it caused was confusing and disappointing. I unfortunately didn't figure that out until 14 years after I was fired. Better late than never I guess! It sure made some self-esteem issues for a while though not knowing!

The point of this accidental e-book is to get to know me and what I'm bringing to the party. No, I don't have extensive practical experience in ABA. Yes, I understand ABA well. No, we won't be doing IBI together nor would I recommend it, this is a virtual consulting relationship with a focus on an alternate approach. Yes, if it is really important to you, we can discuss some ideas and incorporate plans that use ABA principles to help you in your home, like how to break down challenging tasks such as chores or data collection to understand the function of a behaviour, to provide more specific help, but I don't believe it is the primary approach.

As I said before, ABA may have its place and we can decide together if that does or doesn't work for you. You are the expert on your child and I'm just here to help you where YOU want it, the WAY you want it. I'm not offended in the least if you never want to talk about it again. I'm pretty sure though, regardless of your stance, once you discover the epic alternative, you will be excited!

Are you still with me? Awesome! You get 10,000 bonus points. If you're with me, but ready to bail because you are falling asleep, don't worry, reading this novel isn't mandatory to engage my services. I'm all about relational partnerships though, so I figured if I'm going to ask you for your life story, I should at least be willing to put mine on display to return the favour.

So far we've journeyed through my naïve twenties and covered my early professional training prior to being a parent. If you're ready for my dramatic thirties as mom to children with challenges, top up your beverage and let's head over to part two!


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