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

Meet Our Team: Emma Henson

This week, we’re proud to introduce you to Emma Henson! Emma is one of our BCBAs, which means that she works with our behavior therapists to provide therapy to children. As a BCBA, she designs, implements, and supervises children’s individual programming, provides supervision for the early intervention groups, and also provides direct therapy. In other words, she’s kept quite busy making sure children get the best care possible!

Emma’s interest in ABA started as an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas. She found herself interested in the brain and human behavior, and after observing a BCBA leading an early-intervention classroom, she knew that she wanted to pursue a Master’s in ABA. This led her to Austin, where she attended the University of Texas, earning her Master’s in Special Education with an emphasis in Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Since joining Building BLOCS in June 2016, Emma has enjoyed watching everyone as a team succeed in reaching a child’s goal. “The best part about this job is the moment when the whole team (the child, the therapist, the supervisor, the family)…has been working so hard on one goal (for example, potty training) and the child starts to achieve success,” remarks Emma. “[I]t’s a huge milestone!” In addition to achieving success in big goals, she also gets to witness small goals getting reached daily in her favorite activity, pretend play. Emma notes that children with ASD often need more prompting and modeling in arranging props and choosing roles, but once they catch on, their creativity is “magical.” It’s so much fun to watch their sometimes hilarious spins on traditional stories and play activities!

Generating creativity in adults, on the other hand, can be a bit more challenging. “After you’ve re-enacted the three little pigs a million times, you can’t always find a way to make it new and exciting,” Emma notes. “But just when my creativity fails me, the kids come up with some out of this world idea.” Sometimes the most challenging moments are those that prove the most rewarding, and seeing children’s creativity shine is truly wonderful.

Meet our Team: Maggie Hammer

Meet Maggie Hammer, our multi-talented ABA Therapist! Maggie, a registered behavior technician (RBT), also facilitates our Parent Support Group. She is currently completing a license as a professional counselor. We are thrilled to have had her as a part of our team since September 2016.

Maggie’s interest in ABA began in Chicago, where she attended graduate school. Initially, she worked with adults, but she wanted more experience working with children, and when she heard about ABA, she was “hooked immediately.” Although challenging, she finds the work rewarding. “I love going to work every day because I know there will be challenges but there is always reward,” says Maggie. “There are always successes to be celebrated. ABA is wonderful because it provides solutions to any challenge.”

Another interesting fact about Maggie is that she loves to work with picky eaters! She attributes this to the first child she ever worked with, who initially was so picky that he wouldn’t eat much. Over two years, Maggie turned trying new foods into a game, and he began to try everything, even if he eventually decided he didn’t like it. Plus, Maggie says, she relates to being a picky eater: “I also have very picky eater tendencies and lots of weird texture issues so I feel like I understand where they’re coming from.” A little understanding can go a long way.

All in all, the best part of the job is when she makes a breakthrough during therapy with a child. “There is a moment when you gain a deeper understanding of their thought processes and the best way to approach therapy with them,” she says. “Those are the absolute best moments.”

Storytime and Pretend Play with the Little Red Hen

Old stories and folk tales have been used to educate children for thousands of years, and we are still finding fun and creative ways to incorporate them into learning. This week at Building BLOCS, some of our groups have been reading the story of the Little Red Hen. This story is integrated into various parts of the day, from storytime to pretend play.

During storytime, everyone sits in a circle and listens to the story of the Little Red Hen. This sets the groundwork for the other activities–it’s important to know the story we’re talking about! We like to make it interactive, so we pause the story to ask each child a question that corresponds with his or her learning objectives. For example, someone might be asked to “point to the bread,” while someone else might be asked, “Who is cooking?”. Sometimes, we pass around toys that relate to the story to practice sharing and other important skills as well.

Pretend play is when everyone gets a chance to let their creativity shine. The therapists lead an activity in the gym in which the children get to pick their own wheat, roll out their dough, and bake their bread–all in their imagination, of course! We all get a chance to process our grain and seeds in the kitchen at the first station by pouring rice through a small plastic play set. Next, we pretend we’re all giant rolling pins and roll the “dough”–four extra squishy bean bags on the floor. Then, with a slide down our slide, we put the bread in the oven to bake. Then, with a quick run back to our chairs, we’ve all baked bread, and it’s time to eat! Once everyone has had a chance to bake and “eat” their bread, we all head back to the other room for more activities.

For children with ASD, pretend play can often be difficult. However, by finding a unifying theme, like the story of the Little Red Hen, and creating a fun group activity, makes it easier and more enjoyable for learning all kinds of new skills.

Meet our Team: Laura Gillingham

This week, we’re proud to feature Laura Gillingham, one of our talented Speech-Language Pathologists. She started working at Building Blocs in July of 2015 and has been changing lives and brightening our days ever since.

Laura was inspired to become an SLP when a family member discovered that their baby would be born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. She shadowed a number of speech pathologists and was further impressed by their wide knowledge base of different specialties. But what was most powerful was the ability to change lives. Laura comments that “the ability to communicate and experience the world is central to the human experience, and I knew that as a speech pathologist, I would be directly involved in helping others achieve this.” For Laura, speech pathology serves as a way of helping people both to improve their communication skills and enrich their lives as a whole.

At Building Blocs, Laura’s favorite activity is story time, since it is an enjoyable way to work on multiple goals at once. Not only is it fun and engaging for the kids, but it is also a great time to work on targets like pointing, labeling, answering questions, and following directions. While stories are obviously great for speech activities, they are also an excellent way to get to know each child and what they enjoy most.

One of Laura’s favorite aspects of her job is working with families. “Family involvement is essential to each client’s success,” says Laura. She recognizes that families have to be advocates for their children and support them in speech development at home as well. Providing the guidance to help families do that is incredibly rewarding.

Finally, there are no better words to describe the challenges and rewards of her job than Laura’s own. “Working in early intervention,” she says, “I am in a unique position to hear children talk, respond to their name, and engage with others for the first time. The days and weeks leading up to these special moments can be full of ups and downs, and can be both exciting and discouraging for everyone involved. In spite of the hard work, nothing is more rewarding than seeing the joy on a child’s face during the moment when they finally realize their words mean something.”