Applied behavior analysis offers solution for autism

Sometimes all it takes is someone believing in you. When others have given up and said you can go no further, those special people may just save you.

Such is the case with Devin, his parents and advocate Debora Speyer. Debora, then serving as a respite care provider, first met Devin when he was seven. Diagnosed with autism, unable to communicate verbally and filled with boundless energy, they were told Devin lacked potential and skills.


Devin pictured with his guardian and advocate, Debora Speyer.

“I so love this guy… his courage,” Debora said. “For years I battled with educators who believed Devin could not learn. They gave up on him, and learning became very negative for him.”

But with Debora and his parents’ encouragement and Devin’s desire, the now 20-year-old has not only graduated from high school, he is gainfully employed!

Working with a speech therapist and his high school teacher, Devin learned to communicate using an iPad. Although Devin does not carry on conversations, he can communicate wants and needs. This opened up a whole new world for him. It also proved Devin was able to learn and capable of more.

Devin spent his last year of high school preparing to transition into the working world. Using a treatment called applied behavior analysis (ABA), Devin’s teachers and caregivers took complex vocational tasks and broke them down into teachable, measurable steps.

ABA is an evidence-based treatment for autism, involving repetition and consistency. The goal is to bring all individualized steps together to complete a task as a whole.

While Devin still requires assistance, he has made great strides.

“This is critical for Devin,” Debora said. “These things he is learning – simple things we may all take for granted – will mean the difference between a fulfilling future and one with no hope.”

Devin, along with an AWARE Inc.-trained job coach, visited various businesses to see if they would hire him. After a few months of phone calls and research, Owen House Ace Hardware in Bozeman, Mont., offered Devin an employment trial within the store.

Devin’s team of AWARE caregivers developed a program with the store so that both Devin and his coworkers knew what tasks he would be responsible for each day.

Eventually, the hardware store offered Devin a paying job – and a vest with his name embroidered on it. For the first time, Devin was truly part of the team.

And that’s important to Devin.

Unlike most children with autism, Devin forms bonds and shows emotion when he recognizes someone.

“For instance, Devin gets excited when his parents and siblings visit or video chat with him. The recognition and joy he feels is very evident. Forming relationships is a skill Devin has developed because he has been loved,” Debora said.

“Devin loves going to work where he can give to others and others can get something special from Devin. My love for this child has changed my life, and I hope I have changed his. He deserved a chance to be successful…and happy.”

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