A guide to developing leaders with special needs
By LOUISA DEVADASON
“It is never too late to expand the mind of a person on the autism spectrum.” —Dr. Temple Grandin, Professor of animal science, and autism spokesperson.
Charlene Marie Samuel has been an Applied Behaviour analysis (ABA) therapist for over eight years now. 2012, however, was the year Charlene spread her wings and flew solo. She took her first step to create her own firm in Bangsar.
She had a vision for a centre that was affordable and accessible to more people as early intervention for children with autism wasn’t very affordable.
Besides being armed with a Psychology Degree, Charlene is a certified Play Therapy Practitioner and has a certificate in Special Education Needs and Learning Difficulties. She is putting her formal education and all the years of experience of being a therapist into good use as she takes greater leadership roles in this arena.
I had the privilege of speaking with Charlene, in conjunction with Autism Awareness Month to discuss her leadership journey, and how members of the autism community can be supported to take charge of their lives and develop the leader within them.
Q: You’ve begun an exciting new chapter; what does this entail?
A: When I started a few years back, we were doing home-based therapy which we tried our best to streamline. We grew by training therapists and then, those therapists were training other therapists. I have been fortunate to have investors and partners now.
They came in with a slightly different vision but also wanted to provide the best quality therapy possible. We’ve adapted, and have become the first centre with fully separated spaces so each client can have the most distraction-free 1:1 therapy possible.
We do still run socialisation programmes but now every therapist can have their own space. This makes managing behaviours and tasks much more efficient.
We maintained our old practice of in-house trainings and working closely with parents – supporting and training them as well. We can now provide a holistic environment for everyone – parents, children and therapists – at our new centre.
I have been so lucky to have been able to work alongside great people with great ideas that resulted in this centre. This has enabled us to help more kids and work more closely together although we are facing challenges in coordinating and streamlining this process.
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Q: Transitions, even good ones, can be hard. What was it like managing that?
A: To be honest, I have such an amazing, strong team that the transition was smooth. I think the hardest part for me was the adminisrative work involved in moving from home-based therapy to centre-based – licenses, cleaners, taxes and really streamlining what we do.
I had to learn a lot in terms of company cooperation. Being a sole proprietor was quite simple but once you move to private limited, things become a bit more tedious.
I learnt that having a strong foundation was so important in achieving and managing all these. From the get-go, we established our ‘hierarchy’ of therapists, trainers, consultants-in-training and consultants who made delegating work simpler.
I could trust that the work was going to be done. Being able to have faith in that meant I could effectively multi-task also – seeing clients, admin work and everything else. I wouldn’t be anywhere without my team.
Q: How did you build such a strong team?
A: It was trial-and-error at first but as someone who worked on the ground as a therapist, I think I learned what works and doesn’t. That’s how it is for my team, they start off as therapists and I try my best to ensure that they know everything that I know about this field. That way, the knowledge and experience is shared equally.
Secondly, it’s important to give credit to your team and trust them. We obviously only hire who we think are the best for the job – and micromanaging them is so counterproductive to their skills. You just get bogged down on small details.
I remembered my experiences and what worked best when I was in training and I apply that now.
I am fortunate to have formed a close bond with my trainers and consultants that we can speak openly about anything, not just work. I think it’s important to have that friendship but also have a line for how things should be at work.
I see a lot of myself in my trainers and therapists – the assertiveness to learn etc.
They are the ones always looking to grow and improve. It’s great to see them so passionate and looking to do this long term. So, I would simply say, mould people the way you would’ve have liked to have been moulded.
Q: Would it be fair to say having shared values is key?
A: Our objective is shared – we all want to support individuals with autism or special needs – but I think it’s ultimately how you go about it. You can have a lot of visions and missions on paper but there must be a conscious effort to cultivate it in real life – within the company.
Drawing on my experience, I know there are days you try so hard but no one recognises it, and there are days you feel totally unsupported. These are things I am very conscious about cultivating through group sharing over a meal and providing adequate training.
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Q: How does your training programme enable kids with autism become leaders in their own right?
A: It varies, depending on the age but I think it really comes down to developing self-reliance and independence. Give them a sense of accomplishment where they’re really proud of doing something all by themselves. It must start with boosting their confidence as well as their sense of independence.
It’s good to draw joy from the intrinsic reward of doing something independently rather than focusing on external reinforcements. We definitely encourage kids (who are able to) to lead the way and make choices. But this depends on a few factors including where children lie on the spectrum – how verbal they are etc.
I am working with a couple of individuals who have leadership potentials and set a good example of what people with autism can do (taking the focus away from what they ‘can’t’ do). We have someone on board with us who has autism who struggles with taking instruction and attention-based tasks.
He helps around and is eager to work. He is proof that autism has no limits. He needs some support but can still produce high quality work. He makes a lot of our materials and I hope people can see that individuals with autism can hold jobs and be an asset in the workplace.
He is eager to work and wants to be out doing something but of course, opportunities can be limited here.
As a centre dealing with autism, we have been privileged to give him this stepping stone and maybe in six months or so I can see him out-growing us, which I think is wonderful.
Companies can support people with autism – it’s just about adopting a new system that is more inclusive in nature.