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HANDS in Autism


July 1, 2016
Topics: Riley Staff Profiles



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Dr. Naomi Swiezy working with a patient

Did you know that donors have helped Riley Hospital for Children become a critical statewide resource for children with autism? In today’s Riley Blog, we introduce you to Naomi Swiezy, Ph.D., the Director of the HANDS in Autism Interdisciplinary Training and Resource Center, and Alan H. Cohen Family Professor of Psychiatry.

Dr. Swiezy’s background is in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Her training included the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland, where she further trained in the field of disabilities with individuals with the most severe behaviors. After she and her husband had children, they decided to return to Indiana to be closer to family. Her mentor at the IU School of Medicine, Dr. Christopher McDougle, had just begun an autism clinic, and Dr. Swiezy was grateful for a chance to provide direct service and provide parent education and training, as well as a broader opportunity to train and educate internally and in the community.

As Dr. Swiezy says, “I have never looked back.” We are grateful to her for answering some questions to help us understand her team’s work:

Q: What does your daily work entail? 

A: My work today continues to involve a mixture of direct work with individuals with ASD, education and training of a number of specialists and trainees within the University system, and consultative and joint partnerships with school, medical, mental health, family, advocacy and a range of other groups and Universities within communities across the state. Whereas my previous work focused more on the direct work with individual children and families, the work has now broadened to include direct work with individuals across the lifespan, inclusive of adults, as well as in training, coaching and mentoring those who serve these folks in the wide array of settings all across Indiana.  

As such, our work includes collaborating within school districts, residential facilities, family homes, medical practices and hospitals, jobsites and campuses to most effectively train and foster effective programming that is practical and incorporates the evidence-based practices, most emerging from the field of ABA, to assist the individuals, families and providers in achieving successful outcomes.

Q: Approximately how many patients does your program serve annually? 

A: In the work that we do at HANDS, our emphasis is less so on the development of our internal practice.  That is, most of our work is to demonstrate evidence based practices such that folks can come to Riley to see what these practices can look like in our setting but to foster the use of knowledge and skills gained within their own communities.  We have developed a number of training models from basic workshops and online learning to week-long trainings at our site in which participants can both shadow and learn interactively with students with ASD present in our demonstration classroom and jobsite settings.  

Further, our staff, trained practitioners from school, medical and community settings continually practice, develop stories and grow as practitioners in the field to enhance their roles as trainers of others by maintaining a small subset of consumers in their practice. However, the larger number that we serve are in 90 of the 92 counties across the state. We disseminate information, provide online and live educational opportunities and train directly in their local communities. Each of the individuals receiving education and training then serves a number of other individuals and families within their local communities. Our primary goal of all of our efforts is to build supports in such a way that folks are building local capacity and have less need to seek us at Riley unless the foundational practices are not effective and the individual has greater needs that must be addressed by a specialist.

Q: The HANDS in Autism program is seeing some exciting successes in its collaboration with schools in Indiana. Can you share an example or two?

A: We are fortunate to work with so many amazing school districts and corporations across the state in a variety of capacities. However, within the Seymour Community School Corporation, the teaming, investment and partnership of the district and school teams has fostered a number of wonderful stories.  The investment of time and resources to embark on the development of demonstration programming that serves as hubs for training within the district has provided a catalyst for full systems change across all levels, preschool through high school and inclusive and engaging of administration, school staff and support personnel (e.g., bus drivers, cafeteria personnel) and families. 

To share just a couple of stories, at the elementary level last year we had two kindergartners. One young man had not been able to attend school due to severe tantrums and aggression towards staff and students—biting, kicking, spitting, and screaming in class, hallways, bus—this was dangerous and disruptive to his and all others’ education.  He was essentially nonverbal and testing indicated that he had severe delays. Our team partnered with the school teacher as well as with the district to program effectively for the student. Throughout the year, the teacher as well as the school and district team was coached and mentored while working with the student and not only did the student’s problem behaviors lessen, but in so doing he became more receptive to learning and began speaking, pointing to pictures to communicate as needed, taking breaks when frustrated and not only meeting but surpassing some previously set educational goals. The teacher and the rest of the school team developed strategies that they found beneficial in their work with ALL students, not just the one identified.  

Later in the year, another kindergartner with similar behaviors grew of increasing concern. This student was coming to school for only one hour a day due to his misbehaviors. His father, a single parent, was unable to hold a job given this schedule. The school team working with the other young man recognized that similar strategies could be effective and embraced the tough work on this case as well-- his school day was increased, he was incorporated with the other young man and the father spent three days in Indianapolis with HANDS and his child learning how to effectively apply the methods being used at school.  

In the end, it took the full community—the school community, family, and others to help both of these young men start on a new trajectory and to be set up for success.

Q: What would you like the public to know about how Riley is helping children with autism? 

A: Riley is a welcoming atmosphere for children, families, and for the professionals working within. The sense of teaming and pride is noted not only internally but by patients and families who proudly announce that they are a “Riley kid/family.” In addition, Riley has always been welcoming to a wide diversity of people and those with disabilities. Currently, a new partnership is underway in which the Riley Administration (championed by COO Russ Williams) and its managers are collaborating closely with HANDS in Autism® and our HANDSMade™ supported employment interns to develop an increasing number of job shadow, training and employment possibilities for those with ASD and related disorders.  Together Riley staff and HANDSMade™ interns will learn to work effectively together and foster growing opportunities for the adults working in this program to develop further job interests and skills as well as to effectively educate employers and staff of the contributions and successful outcomes that these individuals can have when given the training and opportunity.  

Q: What is your message to donors who have supported your program through Riley Children’s Foundation?  

A: The work we all do is essential—it takes all of us to effectively serve the children and families statewide. We do so by doing what we know how to do well—provide support as a resource for information, service and training to the individuals and families as well as to those serving them within communities. With your support we are able to concentrate on services vs. raising funds to support this.  You all engage your communities and resources to provide in a way that is different but equally essential to the process. Together we make the impact.  From all of us at HANDS and the individuals with autism, their families, families and communities—I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Q: Any fun facts about yourself that you would like to share?  

A: I would be remiss to leave out the joy of my own family. I have a supportive and loving family with a daughter, son and husband. I am grateful every day for their love, support and sacrifices as they have learned that, beyond the focus on my own family, that the work I do is my passion and interest—whereas others have other hobbies and interests beyond the family, mine is supporting our amazing individuals, their families, and their providers to help all in enhancing their experiences and reaching their potentials.

Q: Anything else you would like to highlight? 

A: A couple of my favorite quotes in autism:

“I am different, not less.” —Temple Grandin 

“If they can’t learn the way we teach, we teach the way they learn.” ―Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas 


Naomi Swiezy, Ph. D.

Naomi Swiezy, Ph.D., is the Director of the HANDS in Autism Interdisciplinary Training and Resource Center and Alan H. Cohen Family Professor of Psychiatry.


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