How Student Strengths Can Help Close the Autism Employment Gap

Twelve years ago, Stephen Shore was visiting Urakawa, a small town in Japan, where he met the mother of a teenage boy with autism. The boy had limited verbal skills, and his mother was worried about what kind of work he might find as an adult.

Shore, an adjunct professor in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, asked her the same question he always asks parents of children with autism: What is it your child likes to do?

The mother said her son liked to spend time in the basement sticking his finger under the faucet and spraying water at high pressure. There could be a number of sensory reasons why the boy enjoyed this, Shore said, including the feeling of pressure on his thumb, the joy of watching water arc across the room, or the sound of water splashing against the wall.

“And that is a gift because it tells us, ‘OK, now we know what he’s interested in: spraying water at high pressure,’” he said. “So that means considering jobs that might involve spraying water at high pressure.”

Focusing on a young person’s interests as a clue to career happiness seems like a given. When a girl shows an interest in animals, she might be encouraged to consider a future career in veterinary sciences. When a boy exhibits an interest in drawing, he may be invited to sign up for art classes. And yet, when children with autism show an interest in a subject, there can be a stigma – many times leading to their interest being labeled “restrictive” or “obsessive.”

“It’s important not to pathologize these strengths,” said Kristie Patten Koenig, an associate professor and department chair for NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy.

As an example, Koenig said her son, who does not have autism, used to talk a lot about baseball statistics and history, “but we don’t ascribe any weakness to that. We don’t say he’s obsessed or has a ‘restricted interest.’ But for kids who are on the autism spectrum, many people view it as more of a pathology or a deficit versus seeing the potential there, because of the depth of the interest.”

She said removing the pathology from these interests not only eliminates a negative stigma but allows members of the autism community to thrive in situations that capitalize on their strengths. They can be helped mentally and socially, but also occupationally.

Read the full article on our online program OT@NYU‘s blog.

OT Students Explore Disability in a Global Context in Shanghai

This summer students and faculty from NYU Steinhardt’s Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy programs traveled to Shanghai for the course China: Disability in a Global Context. The class was led by Wen K. Ling, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy and Sally Poole, Clinical Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy. This interdisciplinary course brought students together from Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Teaching and Learning, and other programs at NYU Steinhardt. The students explored and identified factors, including cultural factors and health beliefs, which may influence a community’s view of disability.

Students spent two weeks in Shanghai, touring around the city with their home base as NYU Shanghai’s campus. During their free time they took part in traditional exercise classes, toured local homes, ate traditional meals together, and took in the culture of the region. They also learned about education, traditional Chinese health beliefs and practices, current health care, access and public transportation, and social welfare for individuals with disabilities in China.

We spoke with Joy Sarraf, a current OT student, about her experiences in the course. Read on to learn more!

Tell us more about yourself and what brought you to NYU Steinhardt.

I’m from Long Island and I am currently in the NYU Occupational Therapy Masters Program. I went to NYU for my undergrad degree as well and had the best most fulfilling four years here. In addition to the unbeatable location and many other factors, the fact that NYU offers global courses definitely added to the appeal of staying at my alma mater. 

Why did you want to participate in this global class?

For one thing, it was a wonderful excuse to travel to China! The Occupational Therapy Framework always stresses the importance of altering treatment plans based on your environment; being in an unfamiliar foreign country gave me a chance to really see how OT transforms with the culture and environment of the patients at hand. It was an engaging learning experience and also so much fun! Eating authentic Chinese cuisine and seeing the famous beautiful light up Bund, when the skyline of Shanghai lights up, excited me as well.

What was your favorite part of the Steinhardt global experience?

Although there were short lectures in the morning, a big bulk of the course consisted of field trips to hospitals, orphanages, living facilities, etc. Every afternoon we had another opportunity to take a peek into the health care system and daily life of China in a very hands-on way.

In some institutions we even got to see treatments as they were being performed. We all really appreciated these immersive field trips, and it was incredible to view OT through the lens of another culture.

Do you think having students from other disciplines in the class made the experience richer or more well-rounded?

Definitely! In the field, Occupational Therapists work so closely with other health care professionals, especially Physical Therapists, that it feels only natural to learn with them as well and to practice the inter-professional skills that we will utilize throughout our careers. Also, it was nice to get to know some new NYU faces and broaden my network. We all made some awesome friends during this trip and still keep in touch– we’re even planning a dumpling dinner reunion soon! 

What parts of the class did you find most interesting and/or surprising from an OT perspective?

To our surprise, in China there isn’t much of distinction between Occupational, Physical and Speech Therapists; they are all referred to as Rehab therapists and receive no specialized training. 

How do you think seeing how OT’s and other medical professionals from other cultures interact with their patients /clients will help you in your future practice?

I think this experience pushed me to think outside the box and use critical thinking to alter treatment plans appropriately. More and more occupational therapists are traveling abroad to live or to aid in natural disasters. I feel more prepared to be flexible with my treatment in the event that I end up working outside of NYC. I also believe I may be better able to understand the values and relate to my future international patients because of this experience. 

How has Steinhardt helped you to achieve your personal and professional goals? 

Because Steinhardt and NYU in general value the importance of inter-professionalism I have had multiple opportunities to learn from students with different backgrounds and gain a deeper understanding of the health care system that I will eventually be a part of. In addition to my interpersonal experience in China’s global class, I have been working with future health care professionals in my role as Inter-Professional Education Group leader for my OT class. IPEG brings students from all health care departments together, the board consists of NYU leaders from 11 different health care programs. Our goal is it to create events where all NYU health care graduate students can engage with each-other. Some of our events are social mixers to help students network, while others are more academic like our Grand Rounds where mixed teams work together and race to figure out the diagnoses of a case study – all of them help us better understand and appreciate one another and therefore better work together. Working with IPEG has truly been one of my most enriching experiences at NYU.

Faculty Spotlight: Judy Grossman

Judy Grossman, DrPH, OTR, FAOTA, has worked in the Department of Occupational Therapy in a number of different roles, including special projects, grant writing, program development, and teaching. Her interest in interdisciplinary research and practice culminated in a multidepartment university grant that included graduate student internships and course work. In the following Q&A, Professor Grossman discusses her research specialties, the field of occupational therapy, and the OT@NYU program.

You’ve done a lot of research in the areas of early intervention and special education policy. How do you think these areas affect the clients whom clinicians serve?

I worked for a decade doing policy research for the New York State Education Department and the New York City Department of Education. This experience included principal investigator responsibilities for research proposals, advisory groups, and data collection that helped me understand the needs of families who have children in special education programs throughout the state. I understand both the macro-systems perspective and the micro-individual concerns of families.

You’ve worked extensively with at-risk populations. How do you think that has contributed to your personal and professional growth as a clinician and as a professor? What are the unique challenges or needs that these populations face?

I have always been interested in community-based prevention work, but I have expanded my activities outside the profession. Throughout my career, I have brought my OT knowledge and perspective to many positions in mental health, early intervention, and special education. At the same time, I remain committed to teaching OT students about emerging practice areas. My doctoral degree in public health and post-professional training as a family therapist have supported my professional interests, which I share as a professor.

Through your work with the Ackerman Institute for the Family External link , you support the growth and development of children and families and provide services for children with special needs. How has that shaped your outlook on that specific population, and what do you think it enables you to bring to the classroom to prepare OTs for advanced roles?

At Ackerman, I developed a team of professionals to provide services to families that have children with special needs. The services include clinical work, family therapy, group work, and interdisciplinary staff development workshops. This combination provides clinical evidence to share with students as well as issues of concern to all professionals working in the field. My team is interested in best practices in early intervention, special education, medical practice, and family support programs.

What do you think are the most prevalent challenges in the occupational therapy field today? How can clinicians address these?

The most prevalent challenges are developing evidence-based practices that are family-centered as well as an appreciation for our contribution to population health and community-based prevention services. I have long been a preventionist; thus, I have been able to track changes in the field and the emerging opportunities in health, education, and social systems. I think it’s important for OTs to widen their lens so they can think outside of the box about the unique and meaningful work we can do with at-risk populations.

From your viewpoint, how does OT@NYU prepare its students for advanced practice and leadership roles?

OT@NYU is in the unique position to promote student scholarship and refine the clinical and administrative skills that are necessary for leadership roles. Students can tailor the program to their area of interest and learn from some of the most qualified faculty in the field. My course – Promoting Family Resilience and Family-Centered Services – is offered as an elective, which speaks to the Department of Occupational Therapy’s intention to educate progressive thinkers who are well-grounded in theory, research, and practice.

 

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