From our Director: My Journey
- Posted on 2nd May 2018
- in Autism, Early Childhood Intervention, Early Identification, special needs children
- by Michelle McFarlin
Recently, I was honored to be asked by Voyage Dallas to share my journey with their readership. As I’m sure you can relate, in our daily lives, it’s so easy to get focused on the destination, on the next benchmark of progress, or on “the big dream.” I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity t0 sit down and really reflect on the journey, the path that has brought me to this point. In the event, that I’m not technologically savvy enough to make the jump to Voyage Dallas work, here’s an excerpt from the interview below. Thanks for listening!
Michelle, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My story is a long one–meaning it’s probably too long to print–but I’ll tell you the whole story anyway and you can take what you will.
It all began with my lifelong love of young children. I began my college career pre-med with the goal of becoming a pediatrician. However, very quickly into the game, I had the revelation that what I really desired was to be able to truly know a child and family and have the honor and joy of watching them grow and develop within the context of the kind of relationship that can’t be built during routine check-ups and sick visits. I changed my major from biology to a double major of psychology and math (of all things) and set out to find a career that would allow me the kind of relationship with my clients that I desired.
During the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I took a tour of the UTD-Callier Center for Communication Disorders to investigate speech-language pathology as a career, since early childhood developmental disorders had been particularly interesting to me in my psychology classes. I took a tour with the associate dean of the graduate school, Dr. Robert Stillman, who walked me into the Preverbal Program, a program for young children with autism. I still remember the moment like it was yesterday. There was a little girl having a meltdown, crying and banging her head on the floor, and sitting across from her on the floor was a graduate student in speech-language pathology. I couldn’t hear what that student said, but the result of it was that the little girl stopped crying and banging her head, sat up, took the graduate student’s face in her hands and really LOOKED at her—and I was hooked. That was it. That was the moment that I knew I wanted to serve young children with autism as my career. BUT, since that moment, it has been more than a career. It’s a mission; it’s a passion; it’s a calling. I believe ABSOLUTELY that serving these children and their families is what I am here to do on Earth; that and raising the two young men that I’m proud to call my sons. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I was very lucky to have met my first mentor on the grad school tour that day. Dr. Stillman invited me to come and do research with him and his graduate students from that point on. When I graduated SMU, I began graduate school at the University of Texas at Dallas-Callier Center the following week. While they didn’t let us specialize at the time, I did my best to do it on the sly, taking as many early childhood language and autism courses as I could. Upon graduation, I chose the job offer that allowed me to serve as many young special needs children as possible with a variety of communication challenges. I was offered a position at the Callier Clinic, where I was able to continue early childhood autism research, as well as see clients with a variety of challenges. I was blessed to be surrounded by the best in the business, and I’m forever grateful to them for all they taught me about differential diagnosis, augmentative communication, and service to families. I would not be who I am today without the patience and generosity of my colleagues at Callier. At Callier, I had the opportunity to evaluate and treat children and adults with challenges ranging from ALS to Cerebral Palsy to Down Syndrome to hearing loss to Autism to a standard articulation disorder. I learned how to do parent education, lead group programs, “fit” the right augmentative communication device to the right person, and how to best facilitate the individual child to his or her personal best. I learned how to work as a team member and learned from the best how to lead through service and by example.
After a few years, I reached the point in my young single life that I was searching for more, and I was ready to pursue my dream of starting a preschool program for highly verbal children with autism-like characteristics. In pursuit of this dream, I applied for a doctoral program at Florida State University working with the renowned early childhood autism/early identification researcher, Dr. Amy Wetherby, and was granted admission, and a full ride plus a stipend. Having never even visited the campus or been anywhere in Florida besides Disney World, I decided a little trip was in order. Once there, sitting across the table from my idol, Amy Wetherby, I had a sinking feeling…completely inexplicable…that this was not the path I was meant to take. For absolutely no reason whatsoever to reference, I knew I needed to turn this opportunity down. I cried the ENTIRE FLIGHT back to Dallas, confused and lost about what I wanted. But thank goodness, I followed my gut. I turned down the spot at Florida State, the scholarship, the stipend…and what I thought was the dream. The week after that, I met my husband, Jim. And the week after that, I was offered the opportunity to work with Dr. Pam Rollins, one of Callier’s autism experts, to help her run her brand-new preschool program for children with high functioning autism, The Early CLASS (still in operation at Callier). Boom. And there was the divine plan in action. I lived the dream for several years: I worked with the preschoolers and their families and taught graduate students in the morning; and I wrote curriculum with Dr. Rollins and did research with Dr. Stillman in the afternoon. Two of the best mentors I could ever have asked for. I was also blessed to learn from Jan Lougeay there about how to train graduate students to be the next generation of speech pathologists.
Upon the birth of our first son, I decided to take a little break and be a stay-at-home mom. That break didn’t last long though. During that time, Dr. Rollins invited me to help her write her book, now published as “Facilitating Early Social Communication Skills: From Theory to Practice,” in which we published part of the curriculum we had written together. Following completion of that project, Dr. Rollins was approached by a brand-new start-up company based in Dallas called RoboKind to write a social skills program for a new 2-foot-tall humanoid robot to deliver to individuals with autism. Dr. Rollins invited me to be her co-writer and we set out into uncharted territory to see if we could find an innovative way to reach students with autism who had possibly never before had access to quality social skills program. This robot, now named Milo, is currently in service in 3 countries working with the clients I love most; he is our little ambassador. Words can’t express the humbling and the total gratitude that I feel when I first heard my voice being played on video to a child sitting in a clinic in Australia. Talk about an out-of-body experience! How did I ever get so lucky to have the opportunities I have to serve?!?
With all of this though, I missed directly working with the kiddos. And since having had my own children, my mom heart called me to serve these fellow mamas who were worried for their babies and didn’t know what was wrong or what to do. I founded my first company, White Rock Autism, to meet parents on their journey at the point of their child’s diagnosis of autism and hold their hands through the early days of the new diagnosis, educating, encouraging, and guiding them until their child was on the right path with the variety of therapists required for an autism team. My goal was to educate and empower parents in their early days of their autism journey, and to help them to make the best individualized plan for their child. I did this for a couple of years and loved every moment of it, but then one spring day, one of “my mom’s” called me asking for help finding a summer program for her son. She said he was doing beautifully, but that there was a huge long stretch of summer during which time she could find nothing for her child. I, of course, told her it would be no problem and I’d find them something. I proceeded to spend the next week and a half calling around all over town….and she was right. There was literally nothing. This couldn’t be. This child had worked SO hard for the gains he made during the school year, and he would certainly lose ground if services weren’t maintained through the summer. And this family couldn’t have that. Moms, can any of you imagine a long summer with a young child and NO RESPITE? These children aren’t ones who you will be able to drop off happily at art camp. So, what was there to do?
I remember sitting there in my home office, wracking my brain for what to do, when it hit me–I knew how to run a preschool program for children with autism! I could do this! Leveraging relationships with speech-language pathologists and teachers at Oak Hill Academy, my former colleagues at the Callier Center, and the kindness and generosity of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, the first Building Blocks Camp was born. I set out to serve 3 children that summer; I served 15. I also set out to just do a summer camp, but it was clear more was required. Parents came to me saying that their child had made more progress in the 4 weeks of camp than the entire spring semester of school; they asked me to continue. During this time, it had also become clear that many of the children I love to work with actually don’t have diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (some will later, and many others never will), but they still need the same or similar services. White Rock Autism didn’t seem to be the right name anymore…and so The Social Communication Connection was born.
That was in 2016. Thanks to the constant support of Highland Park Presbyterian Day School, Highland Park Presbyterian Church, and The Callier Center, in the past 1 1/2 years, the company has grown from just little old me to me plus 2 full time speech-language pathologists, 4 part-time speech-language pathologists, and 2 speech-language pathology assistants. In addition to summer camps, we now do spring break camps, consulting services, comprehensive speech-language evaluations, individual speech/language/social communication therapy, and run 3 group social communication and social skills programs. We have relationships now with almost every major preschool in Dallas to help in early identification of the right services for the individual child. We have partnerships with 3 of the best clinical psychologists in the business to facilitate accurate diagnoses and therapy and educational planning. We also have a brand spankin’ new office near Preston Center so we can serve more families better than ever! And on a personal note, I’ve recently been invited to work with Highland Park Presbyterian Church on the development of special needs ministry. I can’t wait to watch it grow.
So that’s my journey in long form. I can look back from this point and see every little step along the way that brought me here and be thankful for all of it. The blessings and gifts that I have received from working with these children and their families far surpass any gifts I ever could’ve given to them. I am so grateful for this journey and the opportunity to serve.