Meet Our Team: Valeria Hinojosa ABA therapist

Give a little background information about yourself:   I was born in Rio Grande City, Texas, and moved to Mission, Texas, where I attended school at the University of Texas – Pan American. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Rehabilitation Services and started volunteering for CASA of Hidalgo County as a Court Appointed Special Advocate. I also volunteered with special needs kids in college by assisting them with attending class and tutoring after class time. I plan on going back to school for my Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Special Education and becoming a BCBA.

What brought you to this field? When my brother was in kinder I remember seeing a boy in his class who stood out to me, at the time I was only eight, so I didn’t understand why he did things differently than others. However, this little boy has always stayed on my mind. Then when I started third grade a saw another little girl who reminded me of him they both didn’t socialize with the rest of the class, at times they would get really frustrated, and I remember going home and wondering how someone, or I, could help these kids out. It wasn’t until high school where I saw that some kids still struggling with situations in the same way that I had seen when I was younger, that I decided to ask and research what this all meant. Also, being raised in the valley I now realize that a lot of people either didn’t know how to explain this to me or weren’t properly educated on the subject. Finally, entering college I started my core classes not really knowing what I wanted to do for my bachelor’s until I took an elective on Childhood Development and got to talking to the professor about children who are diagnosed with autism. It felt like everything I had seen when I was growing up came together like a puzzle piece and I just had too know more. So, the next day I talked to my guidance counselor about moving over to the Rehab Department and I loved every minute of it. I realized that by educating myself on this diagnosis I could help my community by educating families, so they are able to provide better opportunities for their children. Now realizing there is still so much more to learn, has been my motivation to go back to school to further my education.

What are some of your favorite parts about this job? One of my favorite parts of this job has been interacting with the kids and having the chance to be silly with them! In the time that I’ve been here I’ve also seen a lot of children grow and its very exciting to be a part of that. I can’t put into words the rush of emotions you get, as a therapist, when the kids say their first words or make progress in any way possible. It’s a great feeling and it helps you realize that, at the end of the day, you are making a difference somewhere.

What are a couple interesting facts about yourself? I enjoy refurbishing furniture and going to the flea market and seeing what others have refurbished. I also love to watch Fixer Upper to get ideas on how to decorate a home, I’ve gone to the Magnolia Farm a couple times now just to steal Joanna’s designs! I’ve done some traveling where I went to visit Paris, Amsterdam, and London. I am planning to do more of that as well since it’s a fun way to experience different cultures. Lastly, I love spending time with my family so I try to make as many trips over to them as possible and sometimes I ask them not make me do the drive so I beg that they come see me!

Meet Our Team: Cara Franke, M.Ed., BCBA

Give a little background information about yourself: I grew up on the east coast and got my undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  I began working as an ABA therapist in college and spent a couple years gaining experience in the field after I graduated.  I moved to Austin in 2013 to attend grad school and became a BCBA after finishing my M.Ed. in Special Education (with a concentration in Autism and Developmental Disabilities).  I had initially planned to move back to Maryland after completing grad school, but fell in love with Austin and have been here ever since!

What brought you in to this field?  I actually found myself in this field very unexpectedly!  As an undergraduate student, I needed an internship and the career counselor for my department put my resume into a system.  One of the first places to contact me was a clinic that provided ABA therapy.  Though I admittedly had no experience with ABA or individuals with ASD, they provided an extensive training program.  I began working with my first client and was amazed at the differences I saw in her from ABA therapy!  I felt that I was making an important difference and knew that this was the field I wanted to be in.

What are some favorite parts about your job?  I love seeing a client make breakthroughs in communication.  It is so rewarding to see clients learn to communicate what they want and need, feel that they have been heard, and overcome the frustration of not being understood.  I love that Building BLOCS also places an emphasis on parent training and that families are so actively involved in the child’s therapy.  I want parents to feel empowered and confident in their ability to bond with and teach their child.  And I love that this job is fun!

What are a couple interesting facts about yourself?  My husband and I had our first child, a baby girl, 4 months ago and we are loving life as new parents!  We also have 2 dogs, our first “babies”.  I don’t have much spare time these days, but when I do I love exploring Austin, yoga, and reading.

Meet Our Team: Laura Rodriguez, MA, CCC/SLP

Give a little background information about yourself:
I grew up in El Paso, TX and got my undergrad degree at the University of Texas at El Paso in secondary education. I moved to Austin for grad school in 2012 and got my graduate degree in Speech Language Pathology at UT Austin. I completely fell in love with Austin so after I graduated I decided to stay a while. After grad school, I provided speech therapy services for children with a variety of speech and language disorders in the school districts. A year ago I came here to Building BLOCS and it has been such an amazing experience. I currently live in Austin with my fiancé and our two dogs.

What brought you in to this field?
I’ve always loved working with children and being able to help them overcome obstacles and make progress has been amazing. It is so rewarding to see how much my clients grow from year to year and helping them connect and communicate with those around them has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.

What are some favorite parts about your job?
I love the collaboration we have here between all the therapists. It allows us to constantly come up with new approaches and it has really helped me grow as a therapist. Since we all do the same theme for a month it really allows us to fully explore all the concepts and vocabulary that relate to a theme. We just wrapped up a community helpers theme and we spent the month talking about all the things community helpers use for their jobs, we made fire truck cookies, and played out going to the doctor. We even put out fake fires in the gym. This job is the best!

What are a couple interesting facts about yourself?
I love to make things, whether its crafts, sewing Halloween costumes, painting, or cooking. Being able to put hard work into something and then seeing the results of that labor is super satisfying. I can play the piano and the clarinet and I love playing retro video games with my fiancé. I love sloths and Harry Potter and I’ve reread the books a dozen times.

Meet Our Team: Katia Gonzalez Quiroga

 

Give a little background information about yourself: I was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, and came to the U.S. for school. I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at the University of San Diego, as well as my California Multiple-Subject Teaching Credential (elementary school). Obviously, I love kids! I am currently working on getting my Master’s Degree at the University of Texas at Austin in Early Childhood Special Education and will be graduating this coming August. My hope is to become a BCBA within a year, and to open my own clinic in Mexico in the future.

What brought you in to this field? It all started out when I was in different elementary school placements as a requirement to obtain my teaching credential. There was a child with autism in my class and I fell in love! Scribbles instead of numbers on math worksheets, behavior tantrums, looking out the window during lessons, and constant motor stereotypy were a reality for this young boy. As I got to know him, I discovered an amazing and intelligent individual who led me to want to learn more about children who, for reasons yet unknown, live with this diagnosis. I was fascinated by the strength shown not only by the child, but by his parents. Having this little boy in class made me want to understand him, learn about his thought process and the way he was able to learn, while at the same time trying to control himself and be able to interact with other children in a school environment. I watched his growths, his setbacks, and became so enthused with his development that I decided to look for a job in behavior analysis.

What are some of your favorite parts about this job? My favorite part about my job is getting to see how beneficial ABA is to children with autism. Hearing a child’s first word, seeing them point in order to request, or waiting rather than having a tantrum, are all reasons for me to get up every morning. I also love our team. Never have I felt more at home and supported as an employee.

What are a couple interesting facts about yourself? I LOVE to travel! I have had the opportunity to visit over 30 countries. If I could do something every day, it would be just that. I love learning about different cultures and experiencing new things. I also love reading, knitting, baking, and skiing. Interestingly enough, my best friend taught me an original song on the piano which I can play really well. People would assume I’ve taken piano lessons for years, but, unfortunately, I cannot play anything else. Maybe one day I will.

Meet our Team: Dania Prieto


1. Give a little background information about yourself: 

I was born in Havana, Cuba and raised in Austin, Texas. I received a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016. Recently, I was accepted into the University of North Texas where I will be working towards a Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology.

2. What brought you in to this field? 

After graduating from UT, I decided to take a year off school and focus on gaining more work experience. Through an extensive google search for potential jobs in speech therapy, I stumbled into the field of ABA therapy. Upon further research, I felt convinced that ABA and speech therapy form an interdependent relationship. For example, by way of decreasing challenging behaviors through appropriate reinforcements, a child can concentrate their attention on more suitable ways to communicate. I’m so excited to be able to use what I have learned as an ABA therapist and apply it throughout my future career as a Speech-Language Pathologist.

3. What are some favorite parts about your job? 

I love my job because it doesn’t feel like a job. It’s a privilege to be able to play, or “work”, with some of the most intelligent children I’ve ever met. At the same time, I get to help them meet their receptive and expressive language, cognitive, and social goals. I’m always in awe at how quickly the kids accomplish certain goals and acquire new skills. I may be a lot more excited than they are when they finally master a matching/sorting goal, for example, but any kind of success is always worth celebrating!

4. What are a couple interesting facts about yourself?

I love to cook as a way to relieve stress. I tried yoga but it didn’t stick.
I lived in Madrid, Spain for six months and got to travel to 11 countries, including Morocco. I have a ton of Disney original films in VHS. I also once dedicated a full 24 hours to watching all 8 Harry Potter films!

Meet our Team: Jennifer Swinbank M.Ed., BCBA, CTRS

 

Give a little background information about yourself:

I grew up in Buda and never left the Austin area! Why would you leave this amazing city?!
I went to Texas State University for my undergraduate studies, graduating with a degree in Recreational Administration with an emphasis in therapeutic recreation in 2005. After graduating, I provided recreational therapy services for the CLASS program for about 7 years, assisting individuals with disabilities with accessing their community to participate in recreation and leisure activities. In 2011 I went back to Texas State University to obtain my masters in Special Education with a specialization in applied behavior analysis and autism.
I currently live in Austin with my husband and 3 year old daughter.

What brought you in to this field?

While working as a recreational therapist, I attended a workshop on applied behavior analysis. I found the concepts of ABA to be applicable to my job as a recreational therapist. I started to apply some of the concepts to challenging behaviors I would sometimes encounter. It was amazing to see an almost immediate response from some of my clients, so I decided to further pursue ABA.

What are some favorite parts about your job?

Each month Building BLOCS presents a theme around which stories, art, and games are focused. My favorite theme recently was our “pretend” theme. Our group spent the entire month learning about and working on pretending! We had so much fun and the kids were so creative! Watching the kids learn and apply their knowledge to the world around them, you feel a lot of pride when this happens.
I also enjoy that in this job, you never stop learning. I learn all the time from the kids, from the families, and from my co-workers.

What are a couple interesting facts about yourself?

I am a registered massage therapist, though I currently only provide services for individuals on the CLASS program. I have been providing massage therapy services to individuals on the CLASS program for about 15 years.

I love llamas and hope to someday own several llamas with which I can provide “animal-assisted” therapy services to nursing homes, schools, children’s shelters, etc.

March Featured Research

If you have been following us on social media you know that our BCBAs and a few of our ABA therapists attended the TxABA conference and are so excited to share some of the new and exciting research presentations that we were able to sit in on while there. A team favorite was Francesca degli Espinosa’s presentation on verbal behavior: Teaching verbal conditional discrimination: a framework for organizing language curricula to establish generalized question-answering in children with autism. Francesca degli Espinosa also presented her research on verbal behavior at the National Autism Conference in 2015 and more recently across the globe before making it to TxABA. If you are at all interested in expanding verbal repertoire or even learning more about verbal behavior in general, take a look at Espinosa’s presentation linked below.

verbal discrimination presentation francesca degli espinosa

Meet our team: Hala Nasser M.Ed., BCBA

Hala is currently one of our BCBAs at BLOCS, we wanted to give you all a better idea of why we love having her around so much!

Give us a little background information about yourself…“I am originally from Houston and moved to Austin in 2002 for school. I graduated from the University of Texas Austin with a degree in Special Education in 2006 and immediately worked afterwards as a teacher for children with Autism in Pflugerville ISD.  There I was able to implement an infusion of ABA strategies to help children learn functional skills, access their curriculum, and promote inclusion. My teaching experience fueled my desire to further my knowledge in the field and I entered into the Special Education Graduate program specializing in Autism and Developmental Disabilities. I graduated in 2011 and became a BCBA.”

What brought you into this field? “Two experiences pulled me like a magnet to the field of autism.  This first was my experience working with a child with autism at a summer camp when I was 15 years old.  I did not know much about the disability. The second was as an undergraduate during my teaching practicum.  I had decided to pursue becoming a resource teacher until I worked in a classroom designed for children with autism.  The program facilitated small group and 1:1 time to teach social and communication skills for part of the day and provided inclusion support for the children to generalize their skills into the mainstream classroom.  IT was my first experience seeing ABA in action and I immediately fell in love with the children and implementing the program.”

What are some favorite parts about your job? “One of my favorite parts of this job is not only providing children with the tools they need to communicate and utilize language effectively but also learning each child’s unique talent and skill.  I love being able to capitalize on a child’s unique abilities to help them shine. Another part of this job I adore is working directly with families.  This was something I was not able to spend enough time doing.”

What are a couple interesting facts about yourself? “My second passion is fitness.  I teach fitness classes on the side and participate in CrossFit inspired classes.  I can also speak a little Arabic due to my Lebanese background and I am planning to learn how to play the guitar.”

Meet our team: Briana Joy Pallares M.Ed.

Briana is currently one of our ABA therapists at BLOCS and we wanted to give you all a better picture of who Briana is and why we love having her at BLOCS so much!

Give us a little background information about yourself 

“I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. I moved to Austin, Texas, after graduating high school when I got accepted into the University of Texas at Austin; my Bachelor’s degree is in Special Education, and my Master’s degree is in Autism and Developmental Disorders. My short term goal is to pass the BCBA exam and my long term goal is to operate my own clinic one day.”

What brought you in to this field?

“As a special education teacher, I constantly found myself asking questions in regards to how to better support and understand my students who displayed challenging behaviors. It was this curiosity, as well as my interest in working with individuals diagnosed with Autism, that motivated me to pursue a career in ABA.”

What are some of your favorite parts of this job?

“I enjoy watching my clients learn new skills and accomplish new goals. I love working with families and supporting them as well.”

Name two interesting facts about yourself:

“I am super obsessed with Thor (the Avengers superhero): I enjoy collecting random Thor items. I am also a percussionist. I have been playing the drums since I was 10-years-old.”

What is a support group and is it right for me?

What is a support group and is it right for me?

Recently at Building BLOCS we have begun offering a support group for parents of special needs kiddos, specifically for parents of children with ASD. A question that was frequently posed to me was, “what is the purpose of a support group and how would it benefit me?” I thought this was a great topic for our blog.

Support groups offer a group therapy environment where all the members are tackling similar issues in their lives and give the opportunity for members to share their stories and experiences in the hopes of creating a cathartic experience for themselves as well as helping others on a similar path. Support groups may meet anywhere from once to several times a month and can be specified to an ever-increasing array of topics such as depression, anxiety, and survivors of various serious illnesses.

Parents of children with special needs often find they have similar struggles and successes with their journeys despite whatever differences in diagnoses and family life may exist. It is a space where parents can feel validated and heard as well as hear feedback from their group and facilitator. Often parents will discuss and share resources, normalize the experiences of other parents, and share uplifting successes. Support groups are a beautiful opportunity to expand your world view, heal, empower others and be empowered, be a part of a community, and participate in self-care!

While all of this may sound wonderful to some parents, others may not quite be ready for the process and the overall group experience. How will you know if it is right for you? I would recommend contacting the therapist facilitating the group to discuss if group is appropriate for your needs. There can be dozens of factors contributing to why a person isn’t ready for the group experience just yet.

  • You may be an incredibly empathetic person and hearing about the struggles of others puts more weight on your shoulders and may cause you additional distress. You may find that hearing about the problems of others does not relieve your distress but adds to it. This may be a fluctuating experience. There may be some discomfort with mental health counseling as we are discussing situations that are causing issues in your life, however ultimately, we want the group experience to create empowerment, catharsis, acceptance, and healing.  
  • You may have additional presenting concerns affecting your mental health that require more individual attention. Or you may simply prefer the individual attention provided by individual counseling. If you’ve never experienced a support group, I would either research what to possibly expect, or again, reach out to the facilitator. If you’re considering our BLOCS parent support group I am more than happy to have a consultation with anyone considering the support group or individual therapy to discuss your options and which would be a better fit for your mental health needs.
  • One of the biggest reasons anyone avoids a support group of any kind is the hesitancy to accept there is an issue. Sometimes we find that parents struggle with accepting the reality of the diagnosis or it is still “too fresh” and they haven’t had time to come to terms with it yet, let alone join a group with people sharing the same issue. This is perfectly normal and to be expected! Just because you’re not quite ready for a support group does not mean you’re not necessarily ready for therapy. This is a scenario where individual or even couples counseling would be a great beginning opportunity to promote healing.

I could look for jokes, quotes, or any cute little platitude to summarize these thoughts, but as a parent of special needs kiddos, you’ve likely heard them all! So, I’ll save you an eye roll at whatever horrible joke I would have come up with by again stating the utmost importance of self-care. Regardless of if you’re even a parent or not, self-care is vital to good mental health and we want to ensure our BLOCS parents (and all other parents) are taking care of themselves in addition to their kiddos. Please feel free to contact me at maggie@blocsaustin.com with any questions regarding our counseling services.

 

Maggie Hammer, M.A., LPC-Intern, RBT

Supervised by Wanda Montemayor, LPC-S