A Day In The Life
June 25, 2014
An official work day at Emerald Coast Autism Center (ECAC) starts with Director Staci Berryman turning a dial right then left and right again. A heavy-weight door swings open, and behavior therapists file into ECAC’s vault to retrieve student data and clipboards.
Therapists bustle around the large building finding toys, cutting edibles into bite-size pieces and preparing student tables. At 8:30 AM, the cheery voice of Beth Leeper, office manager at ECAC, fills the halls with the sound of students’ names over the intercom system. Each day, one therapist is assigned to one student, so when a student’s name is called, the therapist meets the student and parent at the front entrance with a bright smile and a good-morning greeting but never a demand to hang up his or her backpack because no demands are placed on a student until they are paired.
Ashley Falcon, behavior therapist at ECAC, pairs with her student by pretending to be a dragon and giving enjoyable tickles. Staci explains pairing as delivering preferred items or activities to a child non-contingently before placing task demands.
Once a student and therapist are paired, the behavior therapist holds toys in the air just out of reach from a student’s hand or withholds a favorite activity all in hopes to get the student to ask—a process behavior therapists call manding. This task is required of the student through the entire day whether they verbally ask for items and activities or use Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).
Natural Environment Training (NET) is at the heart of a therapist’s session. Zanna Martin, behavior therapist at ECAC, asks her student to “dial seven” and “say hello” while playing with a toy telephone. As mentioned by Mark L. Sundberg, author of the Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP), NET uses the child’s natural environment to facilitate language learning moments by using the child’s interests to guide the session.
At 9:20 AM, everyone in the building hears good morning songs kicking off group sessions. Students sit in bright colored square-shaped chairs in a semi-circle around a peppy group teacher who sings songs with students, reads a book and teaches the days of the week. Then students and therapists transition to the second part of group—table activities. Therapists assist students with activities including coloring, cutting and basic academics.
Abby Kaldahl, behavior therapist and group teacher at ECAC, sings “Look who’s leaving group today,” and all students walk outside to recess with therapists. Recess is a time for some therapists to prompt functional-play skills while other therapists use this opportunity to catch up on notes and data.
As students master skills, therapists continue to work on skills long after they’ve been mastered to avoid regression. After recess, Taylor Munley, behavior therapist at ECAC, works on maintenance skills with her student before saying “it’s time for lunch.”
At lunch, Munley says “first eat your ravioli then you can have a drink of juice, which is based on Premack’s Principle—a notion of first doing an undesired activity then a desired one only after the first activity is completed. Lunchtime offers a new opportunity for therapists to switch students.
Along with NET and maintenance activities, group also is revisited in the afternoon with songs, a story and art project.
Around 2:30 PM, Beth’s voice floods the halls again with the sound of students’ names. Therapists prompt students to clean up, get backpacks and meet their parents. Each therapist delivers a hand-written note about the student’s day to parents.
Once students have left with parents, therapists dash back to therapy rooms to clean up final items and take end-of-the-day data, which is crucial to track student progress.
Some of ECAC’s dedicated staff stay and work from 3:00 to 5:00 PM with part-time students, working on talking, walking and even social skills. When these students’ sessions are completed, therapists take end-of-the-session data. And, once all therapists have exited the building, a loyal supervisor closes the heavy-weight door to the vault and locks up.