Black History Month: LEARN Continues to Push Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan Forward

Creating a more diverse workplace, raising awareness about unconscious biases, providing advancement opportunities for everyone—these initiatives have long been part of LEARN’s DNA. But in 2020, with heightened awareness around social disparities in our country, the company’s employees, supported by leadership, decided to formalize and flesh out these goals with the launch of LEARN’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Plan. While DEI committees formed and started working in the summer of 2020, LEARN chose February to announce the plan publicly in honor of Black History Month and the United Nation’s World Day of Social Justice on February 20.

“We’re in a unique moment in this country,” says Justin Funches, the president of LEARN Autism Services and chair of the DEI Leadership Committee. “As a black man and as a leader in an organization with incredible diversity, I recognize the great opportunity and responsibility our initiative presents. And I know that better outcomes—for both our clients and our teams—come when we include more voices and better understand each other’s experiences.”

As a first item of business, LEARN’s DEI committee drafted an official statement and established five priorities:

The Sum of All Parts:
LEARN knows we’re not all the same. Recognizing differences and tailoring our approach is at the core of what we do. That’s why we’re committed to fostering a culture that embraces what makes us each unique—be it race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disability/ability, and socioeconomic background. LEARN aims to acknowledge the lived experiences and diversity of perspectives among our staff and the children and families we serve. We pledge to create a community centered around trust, respect, tolerance, and empathy. Together, we’re better.

Our priorities on this journey include:

    1. Positioning LEARN as a diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization.

    2. Creating policies and practices that are culturally sensitive to differences in our staff and clients.

    3. Equipping teams with the tools they need to navigate the myriad inequities in our society.

    4. Actively embracing the diversity of the communities we serve.

    5. Building leadership teams that are diverse and provide opportunities for typically underrepresented populations.

LEARN also created internal communications—a monthly digital newsletter and web portal—for employees to share news related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. With systems and priorities in place, the real work began. Teams of staff from across the country solicited feedback, brainstormed ideas, and asked the hard questions.

One activity involved a series of forums that brought together Black behavior technicians from across the country to “speak with candor as they shared their stories and experiences of being Black in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA),” says Brandon Whitfield, Clinical Director of AST’s Learning Center in Beach Cities, California. “Their stories were heartfelt, gut-wrenching, and awe-inspiring.” The next steps, says Whitfield, who serves on a DEI committee and co-hosted the forum, are to analyze the data collected and use it to shape future leadership practices and inform new programs and policies.

One such program was announced to employees last month—a partnership with National University to fully support tuition Black or African American staff members to complete National’s ABA master’s program. In addition to tuition support, LEARN will designate a mentor to help each recipient with coursework, career planning, and the behavior analyst certification process. Once certified, recipients can oversee applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to children with autism.

“Right now, the percent of Black behavior analysts working in the ABA field does not reflect the percentage of African Americans in the population of the United States,” says Whitfield, who spearheaded the partnership with National University. “Our new program is a step to change that.”

As LEARN’s DEI committees continue to push forward their goals, employees say they’re thrilled to join the effort and see the organization back these critical initiatives. “As a woman of color, I’ve always been acutely aware and passionate about the ways in which barriers affect education access in minority and low-income communities,” shares Margarita Mesa, Director of Program Quality and Operations for LEARN It System’s Academic Services and a member of a DEI committee. “I’m confident that this committee of intelligent, forward-thinking colleagues will offer creative strategies and purposeful ideas to make strides in this ever-important arena, and I look forward to the thoughtful dialogue as we collectively work to better understand and support the diverse communities in which we work.”

Stay tuned for LEARN’s series of blog posts and podcasts to raise awareness about ABA as a social justice issue and to highlight Black professionals working to make a difference in the lives of children with autism.

Plan 2021 with Intention and a Positive Mindset

For many of us, the past year didn’t allow for much planning ahead. Most, if not all, of us, had no idea what the next month would hold. Could we visit with family or friends, eat in restaurants, or shop in-person in a grocery store? Would our loved ones even be safe?

In a year where time both flew by and stood still, it’s easy to continue the pattern of simply getting through whatever the next months bring. However, 2021 offers a unique opportunity to do far more. After all, 2020 forced us to think differently, adapt, and reprioritize our lives—all things that can help us create our most intentional path yet in the year ahead.

How can we embrace 2021 with intention? These tips can help.

Cultivate your inner development
Think back to the biggest challenges you faced last year. Was it managing your child’s change in routine? Did you have to do your job, on top of the job of an impromptu teacher? Did you find yourself putting your own goals and those of your children on pause?

In addition to acknowledging everything you navigated, take time to look inward as you plan ahead. With the absence of many external events in our lives, now is the perfect time to create goals that focus on inner development, or the parts of ourselves the outward world may not see but we can feel and experience internally, such as our awareness and sense of well-being.

While “inner development” may sound like a wishy-washy endeavor, you can actually take concrete steps to nurture your inner self. Try, for example, taking part in a hobby you enjoy, learning something new (just for the fun of it), taking a leisurely stroll, or spending quiet time reflecting on, or even jotting down, your thoughts and feelings. This sort of development differs from the outer development that tends to consume us in normal times—acing a test, reaching the next level of a fitness program, landing a promotion. While outer development is important, it can overshadow our inner development—and leave us harried, stressed, and overwhelmed by our day-to-day obligations.

As you look inward, help your child cultivate his or her inner self, too. Children are naturally curious—and love things like looking up at the stars at night and inspecting an acorn or leaf. Follow your child’s curiosity, and see where it takes you. It may be more difficult, during the pandemic, to monitor your child’s progress or test new skills outside of home, but you can still work on personal development objectives—and even track them. These incremental steps can go a long way in helping us stay positive and move forward, when things seem to be standing still.

Create new routines and traditions
Another way to make use of the irregular year is to develop new traditions, especially ones that relate to personal goals—or to your child’s specific objectives. To work on teamwork and social skills, for instance, try planning a movie night with a discussion afterward or a regular fort-making session, indoors or out. Likewise, to get more exercise, try learning a new dance skill (like Salsa!) and designating an evening each week to practice. (YouTube, by the way, is a great source for free dance videos.)

To expand your child’s palette, add international cooking days to your weekly or monthly routine. If possible, involve your child in selecting the country or culture, preparing the food, and even creating culturally-themed decorations. While your kids may not be ready to eat the new cuisine you make, creating an international cooking day is a great way to expose them to new foods, textures, and smells—and to diverse cultures and lifestyles.

Creating regular virtual events with friends and family you can’t see in-person gives your child a chance to practice social and communication objectives. You can simply chit-chat and catch up—or plan something special like sharing a picture book, singing a song, or playing a game on a platform like Kahoot. For ideas on games to play virtually with friends, see this list from USA Today. And remember: even if you child can’t play the game independently, he or she can team up with you or another family member—and contribute in some way.

Heed your needs and limitations
It’s easy to play the parental martyr by doing everything for your children, especially when they require more accommodations than others. But if you stop managing your own boundaries, you can reach a point where you begin to model behavior based on the emotions of stress, anger, frustration, and fatigue. And that doesn’t benefit anyone.

To all parents and caregivers: consider creating your own goals for 2021. How are you going to prioritize yourself so you can be a supportive, loving parent? Often, this requires incorporating self-care, like a morning routine just for you or time for something as simple as reading a good book, reaching out to friends on a more regular basis, or getting more involved in a parental support group. Arranging play dates for parental time off may not be possible during COVID, making it more crucial than ever to carve out time for yourself.

Whatever you decide to incorporate, keep these three things in mind to help you succeed: don’t overlook inner development as a worthwhile use of time; heed and accommodate your own limitations; and involve your child in the creation of new goals. Keeping your children involved in the planning process gives them autonomy, while enabling you to create a realistic plan that you can sustain over time—and that prevents your own burnout.

Although we don’t know what next year will bring, we do know we’ve already been tested and have shown immense strength and resilience. We now have the experience and tools to handle what comes our way—and move into 2021 with intention and a positive mindset for a nourishing, growth-oriented year ahead.

Make Holiday Baking with Your Child a Success

The changing of routine, new decorations in the home, the influx of visitors, whether in-person or online—all of this makes the holidays a particularly challenging time for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Add COVID-19 to the mix, and the complexity rises, with families everywhere navigating how to celebrate the holidays with new restrictions in place.

While it’s important to give your child a separate and quiet space to take time away from the noise and commotion, it’s also a good time to think of creative ways to include your child in preparing for and celebrating the holidays. Involving your child in cooking or baking is a great way to do this because you can customize the experience to target his or her specific interests, in addition to the specific skills on which you’re working. Likewise, you can adjust their participation to meet their abilities, without pushing too far.

 

Preparation

When planning what dish to make, simplicity is key. Use a recipe with manageable steps—and integrate your child’s interests in the process. You can do this both in content and appearance. For example, you can use recipes with their favorite ingredients or create a cookie that takes the shape of one of their interests, such as dinosaurs or flowers. Whether or not you have a cookie cutter in the form of a dinosaur or flower, you can use your hands and a dull knife to shape the dough into the overall form.

Preparing ahead to avoid your child’s aversions can go a long way, too. If a particular texture, smell, color, or sound distresses your child, choose a recipe that avoids them altogether, or provide items to help them cope—for instance, use gloves to avoid certain textures or headphones to soften the sound of the blender.

To break down challenges and find helpful adjustments, take a look at Cooking with Autism by Penny Gill, which is recommended and used by the Autism Awareness Center, Inc.

 

Finding the Right Approach for Your Child

The needs and preferences of each child with autism are unique, so make sure you consider these factors when deciding which tasks to assign your child in the kitchen. Below are two approaches you can choose from or adapt to best match your child’s abilities.

Maximizing ease, minimizing frustration
For children who generally require more accommodations, try to reduce complicated steps and the chance of overwhelm. Consider starting by showing your child a sample of what they’re making, like a batch or cookies already prepared so they can see the final product—and ultimately show more engagement in the cooking process. Instead of asking your child to find or measure ingredients, you can pre-measure all ingredients, and your child can simply add them into the recipe as you go. Alternatively, start with a batter you premix and have your child help set the recipe on its tray or pour it into the pan. That way, your child remains part of the cooking process, without having to go through the entire arduous experience.

Increasing participation and learning opportunities
Children who require less support can assist in more of the process. With guidance, they may be able to gather the ingredients themselves, measure the appropriate portions, and do the mixing. Start by walking your child through each step and reviewing the next step—this will help alleviate pressure so your child doesn’t become distressed or discouraged. Keep in mind that mistakes happen and provide an opportunity to show support and acceptance, while using creativity and problem-solving to find a solution.

 

With the right preparation, cooking and baking can be a fun and rewarding activity that allows you to bond with your child. In addition, cooking and baking introduce your child to basic and essential kitchen, math, and organizational skills, while providing a chance to work through sensory experiences in a safe (and hopefully tasty) way. As you embark on a cooking or baking project, don’t worry about the mess. Just savor the one-on-one time together—and the chance to taste and commemorate your hard work, as you ring in the holidays.