In January, Department Chair Kristie Patten Koenig and adjunct professor Stephen Shore took OT students to London for the Steinhardt Global course United Kingdom: Comparative Perspectives on Autism and Well-Being. The course examined literature and research findings for evidence that supports the treatment of children and youth with autism in a variety of settings. Students’ clinical and educational experiences were used as a basis to examine the efficacy and effectiveness of intervention through a strength-based lens. Advances in strength-based approaches including health and education were examined and comparative analyses conducted.
We spoke with Francine Cacciola (MS '19) about her experience during the London class, what brought her to NYU Steinhardt OT, and how she sees herself as a future practitioner.
What made you want to participate in this global class, and what was your favorite part about the experience?
One of my greatest academic interests has always been working with children with autism. I have taken many courses and worked with many children on the spectrum, so when I learned about the course being offered in London I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about autism from a new perspective.
Aside from the opportunity to explore the beautiful city of London, the course offered so many diverse opportunities to learn from Kristie Koenig, Chair of NYU Steinhardt’s OT department, and Stephen Shore, professor at Adelphi University and autism self-advocate, as well as other self-advocates, researchers, and professionals in the field. Unlike classes that rely heavily on reading and lectures, this course was interactive and provided first-hand experiences from those living with autism and working with autistic individuals. I especially loved the interdisciplinary approach that the course encompassed. The students represented over 10 different programs from NYU and learning alongside students from other related programs fostered collaboration of ideas, experiences, and perspectives.
How did your time in London influence your view of the US?
I have always had an interest in working in the school system, so it was inspiring to see the ways in which London is advanced in focusing on strengths in autistic individuals, a focus that I will incorporate into my practice and encourage others to do as well. We had the opportunity to visit the SPA School, a specialized school for autistic children. The school was equipped with full-size trampolines in the gymnasium to provide the children with vestibular input, a greenhouse for children participate in horticulture, and art, music, and drama programs to foster creativity and promote expression and socialization. The school also had a coffee shop next door in which all of the students worked shifts during school hours to learn life skills. The SPA school was an encompassment of what I feel all schools should be offering to students on the spectrum or not. As a future occupational therapist, I plan to incorporate aspects of the SPA School and what I have learned through the course in London into my practice working with children in schools.
Why do you think viewing autism through a strength-based lens is the most effective form of intervention?
One theme that Kristie and Stephen strongly emphasized throughout the course is the fact that we don’t build a life doing things we are bad at. So why should we, as professionals, push for working on things that autistic individuals are bad at, especially when they have so many strengths to focus on. Instead of working solely on remediating weaknesses, we should be working with autistic individuals on creating a life based on their strengths.
Which activity during the time in London opened your eyes most?
It is hard to pick one experience that impacted me the most during the course in London because each day was so memorable. One particular experience that truly resonated with me was the morning that we had the producers, cast, and writers of children’s show called Pablo speak to us.
Pablo is a children’s show featuring an autistic child as the main character who creates animal friends with his magic crayons, which represent different characteristics of autism. It was so amazing to hear from the autistic writers and actors themselves about their process of creating the episodes and generating ideas based off of their own life experiences. Most of the media portrayals of autism in the US are written and acted by individuals who are not autistic, so hearing the raw, honest process that goes into creating Pablo opened my eyes to how the US should be portraying autism.