Hopebridge's TJ Larum Bridges Gaps in Access to Autism Care with Global Autism Project
November 29, 2022
November 29, 2022
Working in autism therapy is incredible because each day is different than the last. Each individual we work with brings new challenges, wins and perspectives. Even within one center, we get to see so much. For some of our clinicians, those valuable experiences are multiplied when they have the opportunity to grow into new locations with new children and families to serve.
… But have you ever wanted to take your work on a global scale? Or broaden your own knowledge with other worldly views and adventures?
Hopebridge Regional Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) TJ Larum did. After spending time working as BCBA and joining the clinical leadership team in our autism therapy centers in Collierville and Bartlett, Tennessee, he took his knowledge on the road (or should we say, “across the ocean”?) to Rwanda with the Global Autism Project (GAP).
For those not familiar with GAP, the organization coordinates international trips for teams of people who are eager to bridge global gaps in access to autism care. It has 14 partner sites around the world, and these trips support, train and mentor those in these areas to deliver better treatment for individuals who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
We had the chance to catch up with TJ before and after his trip to give you a peek into what it’s like to volunteer time through GAP and take part in the journey of a lifetime.
TJ fancies himself as somewhat of a world traveler and aims to travel out of the country annually, so when he came across GAP while listening to a podcast, it piqued his interest.
“I’m highly motivated by what I do, so I want to experience it elsewhere and give the work I feel so strongly about to areas that desperately need these sorts of services. I look forward to the getting this new professional and cultural experience, then bringing it back to improve my work at Hopebridge,” TJ told us before he left for Rwanda.
GAP has a number of partner sites around the world, including Ecuador, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. TJ had never been to any of these countries, so he was open to the various options during the selection process (though GAP does take preferences into account, for those interested).
Before his trip, TJ told us he was most excited about working alongside individuals on the spectrum to practice ABA in a culturally responsive environment. GAP is not just for behavior analysts; the opportunities are also open to self-advocates, Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT), special education teachers and more, so TJ looked forward to learning from others with other perspectives during the project.
“I want to get their feel on how to deliver services even more compassionately. Autism care has changed a lot over the years, and that’s a good thing. In this field, we’re more akin to where the world is going with acceptance, awareness, and training to be more understanding and welcoming to neurodivergent people,” said TJ.
Outside of the professional experience, TJ had food and culture on the mind.
“Personally, I can’t wait to try the food. I can’t understate that, as I’m a big foodie,” said TJ. “I also want to soak up whatever I can, culturally speaking. I want to learn about the genocide from the 90s. I know it will be tough to hear about, but I’m sure it still echoes through the communities.”
TJ had an exciting and meaningful trip with GAP. In one month, he lived out of carryon luggage and landed on four different continents – which included an orientation in New York – in order to make it to and from his destination.
GAP’s Rwanda team consisted of TJ and four others, who dove right in at a school that teaches mainstream and special education populations in Kigali. The Silver Bells school provides speech-language pathology, occupational therapy and physical therapy in conjunction with a special education curriculum. Silver Bells partners with GAP to embed ABA into all aspects of the educative package.
TJ told us that access to clinicians who provide diagnostic services is rare in Rwanda, so anyone who presents with symptoms is assumed on the spectrum. His team worked with individuals ages 2 to 23 years during the trip.
Rwanda is the newest partner for GAP, and the school’s teachers were not familiar with them yet, so a big part of their work was building report with them and the people they serve.
“The tallest order was trying to create sustainable change within two weeks in a place where ASD is not a common topic,” said TJ. “It’s intentionally not saviorism. It’s like the saying—we’re not giving them the fish; we’re teaching them how to fish.”
Since they had limited time, they ran an assessment from GAP to learn the needs, but in the first week, the bulk of their work focused on reinforcement and prompting with the teachers rather than more technical concepts.
“Reinforcement can be a tough sell. It’s assumed that tickles will do the job, but that doesn’t work for everyone. So it was exciting when it would click,” said TJ. “I found a ball, rolled it back and forth, then would pause and provide instruction. I built up to it and showed how simple it was to use to a boy who struggled to engage. That’s the power of contingent reinforcement.
“Someone else used the bottom of a table. We found things in their environment that could work for them. These are the things I’ll always remember.”
The following week, they spent more time getting to know the children and adults at the school, with working on vocational skills with some, and pre-learning and pre-academic with others. They held a Q&A session with parents that TJ says brought up a lot of great questions.
“Since coming back to the United States, I have extreme appreciation for what we have available to us here, but I also recognize and appreciate being able to work alongside people who are operating with the limited resources available to them,” said TJ. “They really care about their students’ development and well-being. As a clinical director and BCBA, we know a lot about what can be done, but it is essential to be compassionate.”
Besides this appreciation, TJ absorbed certain concepts and approaches from his time with GAP, like the essential framework, which breaks down “preferable to me,” “preferable” and “essential.”
“Don’t be afraid to get out there. There are a lot of opportunities to do good work elsewhere, but it doesn’t need to be in a ‘savior’ context. People are needed here, of course, but there are other places where our services are desperately needed. I believe it’s important for professional and personal development, and that it’s a disservice to never leave beyond your 25 miles around home, if you have the means. Go see your world,” said TJ.
TJ is not the first Hopebridge clinician to travel and serve alongside GAP, and we certainly hope he’s not the last. We love supporting our team members as they develop and grow their knowledge and careers, and GAP is especially close to our hearts as its mission to expand access to autism care for those who need it most hits close to home here at Hopebridge.
Do opportunities like this excite you? If you’re looking for a company that wants to support you in taking your work nationally or globally, or one that wants to see your repertoire broaden just as much as those of the children we serve, we hope you’ll join us on the Hopebridge mission by applying for a position in one of our locations across the country.
Best Food from the Trip: “Surprisingly, the food was pretty Western. The best thing I ate was lamb brochette, which is like meat on a stick. I also enjoyed the banana stew that had potatoes, meat and banana—they put bananas in everything! I did not, however, care for the mashed yuca, which was pretty tasteless, in my opinion.”
On Sightseeing in Rwanda: “I had the chance to do some tourist-type activities on weekends. I went on a safari and spent the day in Akagera National Park. A hippo charged our boat at one point! We stayed in a lodge – complete with bug nets – and toured the Akagera traditional cultural town. We saw where they maintained some of the huts and took part in some blacksmithing and made banana wine.”
Most Memorable Moment: “Besides spending time at the school, the most impactful moment was when I visited the genocide memorial. We hear about these atrocities, but this was heavy. I was 4 years old when it happened. I saw what humanity is unfortunately capable of sometimes, but I also saw where they’ve come from it and how they know they can’t ever go back to that.”
Where He Plans to Visit Next: “Next time I go abroad, it will be in the same time zone. Jetlag was rough. I’m thinking of visiting South America next. Beyond that, I’d like to someday walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage from France to Spain. It’s a rite of passage from the old world.”
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