Ali Heidebrecht works every day to help southeast Kansas students overcome profound challenges related to autism. This summer she hopes to travel to the Czech Republic to help establish the first autism clinic of its kind in the country.
Heidebrecht joined the team at Greenbush - The Southeast Kansas Education Service Center one year ago as a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Each day she works with residents of Parsons State Hospital, as well as students at Project Alternative and the Special Day School in McCune, to identify ways they can build resilience and develop skills to become self-sufficient.
"My main focus is to figure out why they’re struggling and determine what kind of skills we can teach them to replace some of those (negative behaviors). So I do some different assessments to see where they’re at, and I work with their paras and teachers and administration and come up with behavior plans that get added to their IEPs to hopefully be able to transition to a less restrictive environment."
As a practitioner of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the foremost research-based autism treatment, Heidebrecht says she examines each student's environment, identifies factors contributing to problematic behavior, and works to change aspects of the environment to help teach the students "socially significant behaviors."
"I don’t pick random things," Heidebrecht said. "Being able to do their coursework, being able to play board games with other kids … I teach things that will help students be more successful as adults going into various settings."
The work is not easy. Between the three Greenbush programs in Parsons and McCune, Heidebrecht helps students with developmental, intellectual, and behavioral problems -- students that struggle to succeed in the traditional classroom environment.
"It’s a pretty wide gamut," Heidebrecht said. "I have kids who can’t talk or eat, all the way to kids who are very intelligent, but have a tough time, and have learned some negative skills."
But Heidebrecht says the struggle is worthwhile.
"My biggest thing is quality of life," Heidebrecht said. "If you’ve got a student who’s so antsy and engages in problem behaviors because they can’t communicate, they have a very low quality of life because they can’t even communicate their wants and needs. One of the things I’m working with some of our students on is just being able to communicate. They have no language."
She continued: "It’s good for society as a whole, because if we don’t intervene when they’re young, we have adults who are still struggling with these issues. We can make it less likely that they’re going to need substantial supports as adults."
Heidebrecht became aware of the Global Autism Project through online networking with other mental health professionals. The organization's mission -- to help people with autism worldwide by providing intensive training on Applied Behavior Analysis at newly established clinics -- was immensely appealing, and she quickly applied to join the SkillCorps program.
The program sends ABA experts overseas for intensive two-week sessions.
"It's building that sustainability," Heidebrecht said. "They don’t just come in like a big rescue mission. They teach them how to work with what they have, so when materials get broken, used up, or just torn up from everyday use, they can replace them themselves."
Heidebrecht was selected as a SkillCorps member and assigned to provide training at the first-ever ABA clinic in the Czech Republic. The trip is scheduled for July of this year, but first she needs to raise roughly $3,300 of the $5,000 required for the trip.
I feel really passionate about the work I do here with our kids, and I want to be part of that on a larger scale," Heidebrecht said. "But I also feel like being able to go overseas, and work with these people who are just starting the first program of the entire kind in the country, will give me some perspective on how to make some things work back here. I have an ultimate goal of opening an autism center here in southeast Kansas, and I think this will be a good experience to help me work toward that."
To contribute to Heidebrecht's fundraising goal, visit her CrowdRise page here: https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/skillcorps-czech-republic-july-2019/alimichelle