A Mother and her Passion

Sangeeta has an energy that is contagious. She is our partner in India – the person who runs the training for staff at SOREM. But while Sangeeta is able to waltz around the center with the poise and professionalism of a tenured staff, she is simply a volunteer following her heart. I know my sentiments are echoed by all SkillCorps team members when I say that I am astounded by her commitment to the cause for autism in India.


Sangeeta’s journey with autism began after her own son’s diagnosis, who attends SOREM. She has been a crusader in her community. Upon arriving in India, she enthusiastically announced the government will host us for a workshop! Sangeeta, Liz, and myself presented to teachers from Sectors 20-50 about the signs and symptoms of autism, as well as how to include the children into a typical classroom. For many teachers, it was the first time they had heard of autism. For others, it was the first time they considered the possibility of teaching a child with autism. We declared as a team that even if one walks away with the hope of inclusion, it was an afternoon well spent.

I have watched Liz and Sangeeta develop a special bond – both mothers of sons with autism on the brim of adulthood; Sangeeta soaking up Liz’s own hopes for her son and possibilities for his future. Watching a credentialed expert and an enthusiastic volunteer trade knowledge, accomplishments, and cultural understandings of autism has fostered a devotion and eagerness for the vision of the Global Autism Project to come to fruition.

We’ve spent ample time being cared for by Sangeeta and her family. Home cooked meals, trips for Mendhi, rides to SOREM, and an empathetic heart have made this trip especially meaningful. We’ve listened to fears of the future overshadowed by wreckless optimism. India will accept individuals with autism. The children of SOREM will have a place inside their community.

Photo Credit: Caroline White

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Why this Giving Tuesday Matters So Much

Every day I ask myself the same question: Am I closer to getting services for Vivian?

I began my journey with autism in 2009 as a volunteer in Cusco, Peru. I had an open mind and open hands, ready to do whatever. I told the school director to put me wherever needed me most. He chuckled and led me to the multiple and severe disabilities classroom.


Not sure what to anticipate, I opened the door and found a classroom full of lively kiddos. My students for the next 3 months, they taught me about communication: They showed me that biting is not aggression, but an eagerness to tell a need. The seeming dysfunction of the classroom was fostered by a brilliant teacher, often chastised for her refusal to use corporal punishment. Many instructors, parents, and community members believed that these children were possessed, a token of Black Magic, or simply insane. They relied on instinct alone to keep the behaviors at bay.

Who is Vivian? Vivian captured my heart. Described as anxious, unwilling, combative, and aggressive – she was a 9-year old child in need. Vivian taught me about functional behavior assessments – while dressing her one day, I noticed her shoes were three sizes too small. Sure enough, when her shoes were removed, the ‘aggression’ lessened. She wasn’t quite as ‘anxious’, not so ‘combative’.  We became so intertwined during the school day, staff began calling her my “hijita” (daughter). I visited Vivian’s home many times – washed clothing with her mother, listened to her fears, and watched Vivian cling to her.


Five years later, I am working the job of my dreams. As the Director of International Partnerships for the Global Autism Project, I have the unique opportunity to meet children like those who enchanted me during my introduction to autism in Cusco. What I found through my work though, was both enlightening and disheartening. I deeply desired to change the world for the kids in Cusco, Peru who first stole my heart. However, not only was this time and resource-consuming – it wasn’t the most culturally effective way to make a difference. While I developed intense and beautiful friendships with the instructors at my first placement, instruction coming from me would not be most effective. What we needed was a local champion with skills, language, and background to reach out to the school in Cusco. As I asked myself – am I closer to getting services for Vivian – I found that often the answer was “no.” We were making progress for many children around the world – I saw firsthand the evidence-based services implemented through our training and gains made by both students and staff. How, though, could I reach this rural community?


I wrote up plans for dissemination, plans for outreach, and plans for expansion. I studied the culture more than ever before, contacted local individuals, and kept track of my first students to the best of my ability. Now – for the first time, we have a plan in place. We have more than 10 years under our belt training local professionals, and we believe that there is hope for the Vivians and Arturos of Cusco and their parents. Global Giving has approved our program for rural outreach, the project that has commanded my senses for years. We’re finally closer to getting those children in Cusco the services they so need. We are finally closer to instilling hope in a community that has forfeited the notion.

Our vision at the Global Autism Project is of a world where people with autism worldwide have access to services that enable them to reach their potential. My personal vision is a world where my Vivian has access to services that will lighten her burden and struggles – and access to services so that the hopeless notions her mom first spoke to me five years ago can be lifted. Am I getting closer? YES. Finally, yes.


Get involved. Share, join the movement. Tell your friends. We’re going to change the world, and you get to be a part of it. They can too.


Sara Costello is the Director of International Partnerships at the Global Autism Project.

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Wrapping up in Indonesia

Greetings from Indonesia! We are wrapping up our trip here at YCHI in Jakarta and it has been nothing short of amazing. Although there is a huge language barrier we have managed to laugh a lot while share teaching techniques and ABA strategies with the staff here. Everyone including the children, parents and staff greeted us with open arms and were all anxious to learn and share new ideas.

For the first week here, I was unable to hear out of one ear after 24 hours of flying. Although this was uncomfortable, it really forced me to actively listen to the staff and children here and reminded me how lucky I am to have the ability to hear. Although we do not understand the native language of Indonesia we are all able to see the smiles on everyone’s faces during therapy sessions as well as share sessions. The staff has also been wonderful with trying to teach us Bahasa.

Our days are structured such that we are able to observe one on one therapy in the morning with the staff and parents and then meet with the entire staff in the afternoons. I love that we refer to this as “sharing time” as that it what is it. We are sharing our feedback and really want to create dialog among the staff. Our second week here the share sessions were extremely productive and the staff is all learning new terminology regarding data collection and functions of behavior.

This has been one of the most unique challenges of my ten year career. I am used to being challenged by a non compliant child or frustrated parents in my day to day job in America. The new challenge of a language barrier and lack of resources reminded me why I love to teach. Global Autism Project and YCHI renewed my passion and determination to teach those who need it most. YCHI has given me a new appreciation for patience, simplicity and love. It has continue to make me feel empathy for those who cannot speak or understand what people are trying to tell them. We will leave here knowing that the YCHI staff still continue to love and teach the children who attend their centers. I am so lucky to have traveled with Global Autism Project and look forward to more trips in the future.

Teresa Day is a current SkillCorps Member and just returned from a SkillCorps trip to Indonesia.

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“Yes, and…”

For exactly one year, I have been writing letters, selling cookies and dancing on soap boxes to spread the news about Global Autism Project. I see a beautiful sunrise and feel a sudden inclination to post it on viral social media, proclaiming hashtag-SkillCorps! And now that I’ve had the opportunity to work with partners, both in India and now Indonesia, I find myself planning out my year of world exploration around the ever-expanding schedule of SkillCorps trips. When I was recently explaining my pseudo-plan to navigate the globe while volunteering regularly for SkillCorps, a friend of mine said, “You must really hate going to these amazing places just to work the whole time.”

So, here’s the thing about SkillCorps.

We work. We work really hard. Sometimes it feels like we’re chipping away at concrete language barriers with plastic spoons, good intentions and Google Translate. We spend hours discussing the Functions of Behavior, data collection and Plus/Delta daily reviews. Our minds are in autopilot as we fight off the demons of jet lag that inevitably cling to our eyelids until day three.

wpid-img_20141014_190419And the therapists we’re training are pouring just as much sweat and passion into these work weeks. But just when we start to develop an eye-twitch from unyielding prompt counting, something magical always happens…

The weekend sweeps in and marks the beginning of the SkillCorps EXCURSION!!!

We woke up early Friday to catch a short flight to Yogyakarta. We were led directly to Budi, our lovely driver/guide for the weekend. We drove straight to a local dive where we devoured plates of fried chicken so fast that the only picture I have is that of a blurred bone pile; a hasty attempt at food photography that even Instagram couldn’t fix.

So in lieu of chicken, I’ll give you Prambanan.

wpid-img_20141018_204845As we wandered through the 9th century Hindu temples, we posed for stairwell photo shoots and embraced the superstitions of a beautiful culture as we whispered wishes into the ear of a famous stone ox. The structures reminded me of drip castles I used to make in the damp sand of Georgia beaches. It’s amazing how home can still find you, even in Southeast Asia.

Exhausted from flying and temple perusing, we decided to settle for a night in at our hotel in Borobodur. That was, until Budi suggested this little gem of a restaurant.

wpid-img_20141018_204150Budi explained that he “knew a little place,” and we agreed to stop for a bite as soon as he mentioned the word “hut.” The restaurant was a small building positioned on a piece of land used for Carp farming. The four huts, designed for crossed-leg seated dining, were placed on top of the Carp ponds, laced together by narrow pathways leading to the kitchen. The staff welcomed us with bottles of water before asking how many poles we would need…

to catch our dinner, of course.

wpid-20141018_173832To say we were ecstatic about this would be a vast understatement. The celebratory dances performed after each fish was caught most nearly resembled the fist-pumping, victory chants a bit more appropriate for an NFL Endzone. But at least the employees and Budi were entertained by our enthusiasm. And after a few hours, we were filled with fresh fried Carp and undeniable triumph.

wpid-img_20141020_084850The next morning, we rose before the sun and walked with flashlights through damp grass and geckos toward the Buddhist temple of Borobodur. After a nearly daunting stair climb, we caught our breath and circled the top to find a seat amongst enormous Stupas and intricate relief sculptures. Seeing the sun rise in the eyes of Buddha, enveloped in the powerful shadows of towering Stupas was an experience that placed Borobodur on my personal World Wonders list.

And that vision was the opening act in a day that proved to be my favorite day of world travel thus far.

As our motto for the day became “yes, and…” we found ourselves accepting any opportunity thrown at us. When Budi asked if we would be interested in a bike ride we answered, “Yes, and… we’d like to go right now!”

wpid-20141018_100041Should we ride through a tobacco farm?

wpid-20141018_095826“Yes, and… we’d like to stop and smell the drying leaves as we pass.”

Stop to watch the creation of local pottery?

wpid-img_20141021_213950“Yes, and… we would like to learn how to throw our own pot.”

wpid-20141018_103027Cycling down narrow dirt roads, through fields of tobacco and water pastures lined with rows of rice set the pace for the day. Smiles became permanent features on our faces for the rest of the afternoon.

wpid-img_20141019_094035It took a few moments to paint on these serious faces, but we felt it necessary to wear our best “extreme sport” expressions, as we were about to ride a Jeep through the active volcano, Mount Merapi. Sara’s lovely dimples and my gaping grin didn’t seem suitable for a setting so obviously intense.

wpid-img_20141019_093639Though whiplash and white-knuckling adventure may not be on everyone’s bucket list, the view from the bunker is worth the dust on your sunglasses.

Should we take a Jeep up an active volcano?

“Yes, and… we’d like to stand at the edge of the lava’s cratered foot-print.”

wpid-img_20141020_085246Since joining SkillCorps last October, I’ve been continuously challenged in ways I never imagined I would accept. We fundraise for months, attempt to apply our clinical experiences and education to settings we’ve never seen. We dive head first into cultures we know very little of, and form friendships across the world. And in traveling to these countries, meeting these beautiful people and always answering “Yes, and…” to the opportunity to truly experience a culture, we become citizens of the world and defy the existence of borders.

Cassie Harden is a current SkillCorps member and has traveled on two SkillCorps trips this year, one to India and one to Indonesia.

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The Function of Behavior – SkillCorps Indonesia Finishes up Week 1!

In our first week at YCHI, our hearts were captivated by young learners and a dynamic staff thirsty for effective behavioral intervention. The smiles and gratitude of the staff, children, and parents of YCHI have been more than motivating to make the quick walk to work each morning. We’ve been spending 8 hours a day at YCHI, the first three working with the children and therapists directly to trouble shoot programs and intervene on troubling behavior. In the afternoons, we’ve been able to train staff through the use of role-play, video modeling, and direct instruction. The topic of focus for our trip is the function of behavior and how to teach alternative behavior. The training has been effective, but as most connoisseurs of ABA are aware, four days of training is barely enough to scratch the surface on this complex and important topic. We are looking forward to continue training next week!
Another point that has been brought up during training though is how to create a program for a learner. What goals are important? What should the focus be? We quickly responded that it is important to consider the learner not just today or tomorrow, but meeting their full potential down the road. Where will the learner be in 10 years? What floored me about this staff and their parents is their ability to foresee a future where their children can meet their potential. When asked this important question about one child, a staff member replied that they would be in University. Another thought this student could hold gainful employment. Such a challenging concept across the world – it is clear that the staff at YCHI has made progress towards their biggest mission – instilling hope!

Our team is thrilled to regroup this weekend at Borobudor and Mt. Merapi. Be on the lookout for excursion pictures coming soon!

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If you’ve been a part of the autism community for any length of time, there is a very good chance that you’ve come under attack for what you think, the decisions you’ve made, what you believe or very simply, for who you are. This is, sadly, a fact of being a part of this great community.

I say “great” because I’ve seen some amazing things such as great new friendships, new programs being born, wonderful learning opportunities and of course, mutual support. Just being there for each other can make all the difference in the world sometimes.

Unfortunately, this community, for all its strengths, requires a certain amount of armour. If not armour, then strength and conviction. At some point, inevitably, you will be attacked and that attack will come from within the very community that is supposed to be so “great.”

For most people, this happens early on as your child is diagnosed with autism and you struggle to understand and even worse, struggle to accept it. The words you choose to use in this time, no matter how carefully chosen, will be turned back on you and made to cut you like a knife. Wrong decisions, grim outlooks, uncertainty, fear, pain… these are things that nearly every parent ever has gone through when their child is born to be anything but perfect healthy and diagnosis free and yet, very quickly, we forget these things and turn to judge harshly the parents that fallow behind us.

From there, just about anything you can say or do will be cause for attack. C-sections or natural birth, cloth diapers or not, breast feeding or not, vaccines or not, acceptance or cure, medication or not, therapy or not, special education or not and so on… the list does not end. And don’t think that you’re safe by not having an opinion one way or the other on any particular topic because then you’ll just be attacked for that.

The trick to overcoming this mentality is in recognizing its source, passion. When people are talking about children, especially their own children, they get extremely passionate. We become so protective that we don’t even realize that we’re slowly becoming monsters as we try to protect every child over the entire planet from anyone that might not think or do what we would, even if it’s their own parents.


We must recognize this passion in ourselves and monitor it so that we don’t let it consume us but we also must recognize it in each other so that when we see someone lash out, we can understand where it comes from and that it’s not personal.

Our passion is one of our greatest strengths as it leads us into battle against the governments, the education systems, the medical systems and anyone else that would try to get in the way of the services that our children need but it can also become one of our greatest weaknesses if we let it divide and even hate each other.

We must pledge to ourselves and to each other, all together, that our story is our own, our beliefs are our own, our decisions are our own and our lives are our own too. We won’t all travel the same path and that is ok. We might end up at the same destination and we might not and either way, that’s ok too. Every single person with autism, whether ourselves, our children or anyone else is different. That’s not just ok, that’s wonderful.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” and that’s what makes each story so valuable. How can anyone ever hope to understand autism or its level of diversity without being willing to listen to each person’s story and each person’s thoughts on it? No one should ever bully you into feeling like you can’t share or be who you are and conversely, you should never attempt to bully someone else into feeling bad about sharing or being who they are.

We can guide each other, lead each other and support each other without having to hate each other. We can educate each other without attacking each other. We can be a great community without the need for armour.

Harness your passion and focus it where it needs to be and learn to let it go when you need to. We all grow stronger when we work together. Our differing ideas and beliefs can lead to new ideas and to new beliefs. We can accomplish so much if only we stop trying to hurt each other.

I’ve seen a lot in this autism community over the years and the best and the worst of it were both powered by the same energy source, passion.

How will you use your passion?

Stuart Duncan is a man with Aspergers, 2 children (1 with autism, 1 without), an autism blogger, and creator of Autcraft, the first Minecraft server for children with autism.

Posted in All Posts, Autism, Guest Blog, Inspirational

Greetings From Kenya


First and foremost, we are alive and well, maybe sick here and there, but alive.   I wasn’t too sure what to expect when I got here, but it has not been too different as far as daily tasks that I would do back home.  I guess the biggest difference is the culture, food, and the time change.   What are we doing out here?  Let’s get to it.   We’re currently providing assistance to the workers at Kaizora Consultants in Karen, Nairobi, which is being operated extremely well.   I was so shocked to see the number of males working here in comparison to the number of males I come into contact with back at home working with the same population of individuals.    And honestly, I thought I brought excitement to my sessions, but never mind.  These men here are full of energy and they really enjoy what they’re doing.  It’s great to hear that some of them, or maybe all of them, are pursuing a masters degree in a related field and are constantly asking questions trying to understand applied behavior analysis.

So it has been quite the adventure thus far and we’re all excited for what’s in store for us in the several days here.  All in all, the kiddos are great to work with and they sure do make us laugh here and there.  We’ve been learning Swahili from generous and patient people who hear our attempts at speaking their language.   Our team has gone on our own adventures outside of work, which has been delight due to the abundance of animals we see out here.  Side bar, there are baboon crossing signs here!

Anyway, I can’t thank my supporters enough because without you, I simply wouldn’t be here.   Thank you mentors who have taught me so much about applied behavior analysis and my colleagues out there who share our love for this field.   Thank you familia!  I hope you’re all doing well back in the states.  I sure hope to see most of you when I return for some In-N-Out and AYCE KBBQ.   Until next time, lala salama.


Posted in All Posts, Autism, Autism Research, Kenya, Stories from the Field, Travel

Sucess with EI and the ABLLS in India

During my time at SOREM, I was able to work closely with the two wonderful early intervention teachers. I didn’t know much about the program before arrival because it is only a few months old. After sitting in a few sessions, it was clear that both teachers have developed a strong understanding of Applied Behavior Analysis and I was thrilled to see the teachers putting the principles of ABA to practice!

A primary focus of our trip was to provide additional training and support in assessment and graphing using the ABLLS. We met with both EI teachers to review data and choose one student to assess together. They were already familiar with the ABLLS process but were not yet experienced in graphing the results. We scheduled a Saturday workshop open to any teachers interested in learning to score and record ABLLS results. We ran a mock assessment and asked teachers to follow along in the ABLLS books and record the data on their own grids. After about six tries, one of the EI teachers asked if we could leave the workshop to graph her student’s data because she felt so comfortable with the process. Before the workshop was over she was finished graphing the data from a student’s first assessment, and before the week was over we completed and graphed his second assessment together! That week, both EI teachers completed the ABLLS grids for one student’s first and second assessments and felt confident administering and graphing the second assessment for their other students after we left.


SOREM is full of dedicated and talented teachers. It is so encouraging to know that two of those teachers have a thorough understanding of the ABLLS  and feel confident administering the assessment and explaining it to others. I’d say that definitely passes a fly away test!
After two weeks at SOREM, I feel like I was truly able to experience what makes The Global Autism Project and Skillcorps so unique. It’s not just a two week intensive training in ABA. It’s an ongoing collaboration of dedicated and passionate professionals around the world working to improve the lives of individuals with autism. What an exciting thing to be a part of!

Cailey Rodgers traveled with a Global Autism Project SkillCorps team to Chandigarh, India in July 2014.

Posted in All Posts, Autism, Autism Research, India, Stories from the Field, Travel

A Common Language

Sweet dish, laning in progress, tiffin, milk sweets, use dipper at night.  Blow horn.  Uninflected verbs and a lack of auxiliary verbs. Changes in syllable stress and vowel shifts. I have spent the past two weeks utterly fascinated by Indian English. As a speech pathologist, I am, perhaps, more aware than the average person of what makes Indian English different from standard American English. And I love it.


Some differences appear to be due to the level of English proficiency, and others appear to reflect a real dialect, though mine is a very informal observation based on only a few weeks in the country!


Diversion ahead. I am never hearing this before.  Highly in-flammable.  Kingfisher Strong. Adjectives are often placed after the noun.  


Other words, such as dhaba, haveli, lakh, krore, acha, tikke, and danyevad have re-entered my lexicon (spelling highly questionable). I assume they come from Hindi, but I know that I have also heard lots of punjabi over the last two weeks.


How do you manage in a country with dozens of native languages?  How do you function as a single national unit?  What does a country keep, or choose to discard, from its colonial history?  English is part of the answer in India, depending on your access to education, socioeconomic status, or trade.


While I have spent the last two weeks soaking up all the differences between India and home, I am also very aware of the similarities. Especially at SOREM. A clichéd segue?  For sure. I see such similarities in the caring of the teachers, the playfulness of the children, and the challenges faced by the students with autism.


Autism presents with the same symptoms in India as back at home. Societal reactions, and available treatments differ vastly.

English helps to facilitate the ebb and flow of people and commerce in India. As schools, such as SOREM, embrace the tenets of Applied Behavioral Analysis and functional communication, we can hope to achieve a common language of autism treatment in this amazing country. Having spent the last two weeks with the children and staff at SOREM, I find it easy to be an optimist.


Kathryn Helland is the trip leader for India 2014

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A Day in the Life at SOREM…

Do you remember being eleven years old, sitting in your Life Science classroom with twenty of your peers, watching the Magic School Bus and School House Rocks videos? I can see my prepubescent, freckled face staring wide-eyed at the TV positioned above the dry-erase board thinking, “Gee, if only my teacher could drive us through the nostrils and blood veins of one of my classmates, then I could really learn.”

I realize now, in my budding career in an Autism classroom, just how unreasonable it was to compare my teacher to Ms. Frizzle, and that a field trip to the moon could be a bit pricey for the public school system. The reality of our education system and its limits has become increasingly apparent to me over the past two years, but in 5 short days at SOREM School for Special Children in Chandigarh, my current reality has been drastically altered. In the life I know, teachers in America are cursing those full moon Mondays when the overhead projectors simply refuse to cooperate, the laminator decided to spontaneously combust, and the coveted color copier is all the way on the second floor of the eighth grade wing of the school… and that particular copy room doesn’t offer baked Cheetos in their vending machine, of course.

A day in the life at SOREM is slightly different…


The existence of the school lies in the loving hands of Miss Promila, a beautiful woman who has been blessed with over eight decades of life and continues to care for these special children and their families every single day.


When we entered the school last Tuesday, we walked in equipped with bulleted lists of ideas and proposals and walked out in an honest state of awe. Not only were these teachers managing to run fully functional classrooms in a world with limited resources, they were thriving. There were no rooms of shelves housing stacks of printer paper or boxes of back-up staplers. No cellophane packaged textbooks or iPads charging in a library.

Teachers were using ruled notebooks with hand-drawn activities like matching identical objects or connect the dots. And these weren’t created months ago; each workbook is filled with completed tasks while the remaining pages are blank, awaiting the impromptu moment at which the Ma’am will create a new lesson.


Glancing at my jottings of “innovative” ideas for creating functional learning in an environment with limited resources I realized that, while our help is certainly needed at SOREM, our role would not be needed in the field of creativity.

These incredible teachers have created homemade workbooks with corresponding activities, counting and sorting stations with shoeboxes, water bottles and rocks wrapped in aluminum foil. I never imagined an exacto-knife could turn a piece of cardboard into so many independent work stations, but I’ll certainly be thinking twice next time I thumb through the pages of a school supplies catalog.


The use of positive reinforcement is continuing to spread and resonate throughout the school, which was incredible to see in the classrooms that have been a part of the Global Autism Project training programs for a few years. And yet again, the amazing teachers make the lack of resources an impossibly minute obstacle. Rather than computer breaks and cartoons, the students take time between lessons to dance with each other, jump in the air and laugh with “the Ma’am.” There’s an independence that’s not always present in American special needs classrooms, as the older students help walk in the younger and every student is taught to praise and clap for each and every accomplishment. With a higher student-to-teacher ratio, these kids are learning to not only take care of themselves, but help each other.


Our team is working diligently in the classrooms, working one-on-one with teachers as well as parents, leading workshops and discussing functional communication over Masala Chai at Tiffin (tea time). We are making suggestions when needed, praising endlessly and encouraging the incredible work that is already taking place at SOREM. The school is collecting data, running assessments and building on the research based foundation which will continue to expand with every SkillCorps team that walks through its doors.


And in my first five days at SOREM, I have learned far more than I can write in one sitting. When I return to America after my time abroad, I will likely feel a strong inclination to create my classroom bulletin boards with crayons rather than perfectly designed WordArt printed on laminated cardstock. My desk drawers will be filled with bottle caps and paper towel rolls saved for penniless activity stations. And I will always thank the teachers at SOREM for teaching me a lesson in innovation, the power of creativity, and the genuine laughter that can come from a casual, foot-stamping dance.

Posted in All Posts, Autism, Stories from the Field, Travel