Photos by Christina S. Murrey
Two College of Education Alumni Collaborate to Help Children with Autism Succeed
When 2-year-old Marie* (a pseudonym for the child) came to Building BLOCS, the only word she could say was ‘pop.’ After five years, Marie, who was born with autism, now attends a typical second-grade classroom and doesn’t need extra support. Her remarkable success is due in large part to of the therapies provided at Building BLOCS (behavior and language opportunities for communication and social skills), an early intervention and speech therapy program for children with autism in Austin.
In 2010, when Texas College of Education Special Education alumni Christie Layton Petersen, B.S. ’05, M.Ed. ‘08, and Brandy Windham, M.Ed. ’14, opened Building BLOCS, they had no idea how successful they would become.
The two met while working in special education for the Pflugerville Independent School District, which, like many districts in Texas and across the country, was experiencing budget cuts that affected services for students. Though they had no previous thoughts about becoming entrepreneurs, “we could see what was coming,” says Windham, “and it was discouraging. So we would dream about what we would do if we had our own center and could do things for children the way we thought they should be done. For example, in the school system we had up to 12 students on our caseloads. Here, we cap it at five per therapist.”
Today, their interdisciplinary approach helps children with autism learn the communication, behavioral, and social skills necessary to reach their full potential and has helped Building BLOCS grow to 45 clients and 17 employees. Petersen earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education at UT, with a focus on autism and developmental disabilities, and became a behavior analyst in 2009. Windham majored in English and earned a master’s in communication sciences and disorders at UT before returning to earn a master’s in autism and developmental disabilities in 2012, which allowed her to work as both a speech pathologist and as a behavior analyst. The combination of their backgrounds helps them provide a unique approach to helping their young clients.
Parents of children with autism often seek both applied behavior analysis (ABA) and speech therapy for their children because behavior issues and language issues commonly coexist in those with the neurodevelopmental disorder. Most times, these therapies are sepa
rate and distinct. But Windham and Petersen combined the two. “They complement each other,” says Windham. She and Petersen collaborate on goals and methods that address challenging behaviors, which often arise because of children’s struggles to communicate. That interdisciplinary approach makes Building BLOCS unique.
“Our aim is for independent living—the ability for the kids to attend daycare and school settings without extra support,” says Petersen. Clients typically spend about three to four years with them and receive 10-20 hours of therapy a week, whereas kids in schools may receive 30 minutes of speech therapy a week, with direct instruction for about 15-30 minutes a day in the classroom.
“We knew we wanted to create a group-based, play-based system, so the kids could be with their peers. What we did was, effectively, a randomized control. We got to control the environment, number of assistants, and so on as compared to other therapy. Ours is naturalistic and that makes it more effective.”
The Value of Early Intervention
Building BLOCS specializes in early intervention. Children arrive as young as 18 months. “We follow the Early Start Denver Model for young children with autism,” says Petersen.
“We’d read about early intervention,” says Windham, “but the speed of learning in this controlled environment, in this ideal setting, was surprising. These kids made a lot of progress. Typically within the school system we’d create goals for students that we believed were achievable in a year. Here, we can give them goals they can reach within three months because they can do so much in a shorter period of time in this setting.”
Therapy at Building BLOCS isn’t just highly effective—it’s fun. “You have to be really understanding of the kids’ behavior,” says Petersen. “You have to be fun and grab the child’s attention.”
Adds Petersen, “You’re competing with objects that kids with autism are more focused on, so you have to be engaging and flexible because days change on a dime. We do lots of social, creative, fun stuff. One of our favorite things to do is Soul Train dance line moves because they are imitative of others’ movements. The kids are having a really fun childhood. We haven’t robbed them of that.”
Continued Ties with Special Education Department
Windham and Petersen say that Department Chair Mark O’Reilly was helpful in offering support for their endeavor. “We met with him frequently and he encouraged us,” says Windham. And they continue a relationship with the department. “Associate Professor Terry Falcomata has done research with us, and his Ph.D. students come to our facility as well,” she says.
Building BLOCS also offers a practicum placement to special education master’s students specializing in early childhood and autism or developmental or high-incidence disabilities.
“That’s been great for us,” says Windham. “We get smart and skilled people. We give them experience, and they keep us up on the research, which keeps our business in line with the field and best practices. We’ve hired most of our therapists from the programs. They bring us new energy and it re-sparks our desire to learn and enthusiasm for the rest of our employees.”
Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and Their Families
Earlier this year, the mother of ‘Marie,’ who happens to be Building BLOCS’ first client, published a book about her family’s experience, No Map to This Country: One Family’s Journey through Autism. Several children in the family have autism, and the book highlights the therapies used at Building BLOCS. “When ‘Marie’ came in” says Petersen, “she blew bubbles, scattered toys, cried when asked to do something, and didn’t take turns. Now she’s in 2nd grade in a charter school, in a typical classroom, not needing additional support.”
Petersen and Windham smile broadly when recounting Marie’s story. It’s exactly the kind of success they hope for all of the children they serve.