Working to Improve the Lives of Children with Autism – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Working to Improve the Lives of Children with Autism

Armed with a passion for providing children with autism and special needs the individualized attention they need to improve their cognitive and behavioral abilities, Sarah Friedman ’16, Ellen Grenen ’15 and Kathryn Yochim ’16 each interned over the summer at various organizations that help children with autism spectrum disorders build skills to lead more successful lives.

The students worked in different capacities and with a range of children, some who were highly independent and others who needed more assistance developing their communication and behavioral skills. Despite the differences between their responsibilities and the individual needs of the children they worked with, the students believe the experiences reaffirmed their plans to pursue a career working with and advocating for children with special needs, a passion that has been fostered throughout their time at the Colleges.

Friedman credits the opportunity to work in Geneva area schools through the HWS Education Program for increasing her interest in the education field and working with special needs students. As a camp counselor at the Eden School for Autism Summer Camp in Port Murray, N.J., Friedman lived onsite with campers and assisted them with everything from personal hygiene to domestic skills, and group activities ranging from arts and crafts to writing.

“Getting to know the kids and seeing them learn from what you’ve been able to teach them is one of the most rewarding parts,” says Friedman, a sociology major and child advocacy minor. “The students have connected with me as much as I’ve been able to connect with them, to the point where I know exactly what they’re saying just by sharing a look.”

Grenen, who graduated from William Smith in May with a degree in Latin American studies, served as a mental health worker aide for the Merck Summer Intensive Treatment Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). She says the hands-on experience allowed her to establish a personal relationship with each of her students: “I am not simply teaching them, but working to better understand their strengths and improve their behaviors,” she says.

Working in a classroom alongside three other staff members and six children and adolescents with autism and at least one other disorder, Grenen created and implemented lesson plans, daily activities and treatment plans that helped each student work on their individualized goals. Because her students had such a range of needs, she explains that assisting them with daily tasks consisted of everything from putting together 100-piece puzzles to learning to use a fork. Through the experience, she says she has learned to be more patient and understanding, and realized that every person has “something to share in the world.”

Grenen now works full time with adolescents experiencing an acute mental illness or chronic mental illness in UPMC’s Adolescent Acute Partial Hospitalization program. She credits her time at HWS for instilling the skills needed to help her through the more challenging aspects of her summer job as well as in her current position. After participating in an Alternative Spring Break trip to Jamaica and studying abroad in Ecuador and Peru, both of which were led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Brien Ashdown. Grenen says she learned the value of a mentor.

“Professor Ashdown pushed me to be a strong and more independent person,” Grenen says. “His support and interest in my growth throughout my four years at HWS challenged me to improve my strengths and showed me how supporting others can impact them in many ways.”

Yochim, a child development and disability individual major, provided support to children with autism through a psychology-based approach as an intern with All Children’s Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine in St. Petersburg, Fla. The center, she says, is comprised of a “multidisciplinary team involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children with autism.” Yochim worked primarily with a psychometrist, observing and assisting with the administration and scoring of a variety of different cognitive and behavioral tests in order to identify and diagnose developmental disabilities. Yochim also participated in several ongoing research projects, and has been asked to write a chapter for a book that several of the center’s specialists are writing on different autism interventions.

“I came into the internship hoping to get a clearer idea of which direction I wanted to go in as I pursue a career in child development and I got that and so much more,” she says. “I enjoyed every bit of it, but my favorite part was definitely working directly with the kids. I loved getting a chance to interact with them and help identify their abilities as well as their needs moving forward.”

As an individual major, Yochim says the opportunity to take a variety of classes specifically tailored to her interests has provided her with a “great foundation to embark on real-world experiences” in which she can apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to a real-life setting. In particular, Yochim credits Associate Professor of Education Mary Kelly with providing a “constant support” throughout her HWS academic career and prompting the creation of her individual major.

While Friedman, Grenen, and Yochim all came away from their experiences more confident in their decision to pursue a career working with children with special needs, they also garnered a heightened sense of the individualized attention needed within schools to help children succeed. 

“There needs to be more knowledge and awareness on autism,” Grenen says.

Friedman agrees. “Even if someone is non-verbal and if they have trouble walking, you know that you can make a difference in their lives and they’re so much better off because of that,” she says. “Autism isn’t something that has to inhibit these kids, they can excel in many ways.”