Rondalyn Whitney: Sharing New Approaches to Autism
Rondalyn Whitney, PhD (Cand.), MOT, OT/L
Although Rondalyn is a researcher at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, she does not toil away in isolation. In fact many of her OT Champion points were based on presenting to professionals and families on the role of OT in addressing autism. She views the therapeutic use of self not just as essential for client interaction, but as the basis for everything she does. “I remember finding OT and being very moved and humbled that a group of people had thought up [therapeutic use of self] and put science, rigor, and fun behind it,” she says. “Living Life To Its Fullest is what it’s all about.” From this perspective, volunteering and presenting are extensions of her core beliefs. She asks herself, “What can I offer?” and goes from there.
Rondalyn says that when someone asks her, “can you tell us how to solve a problem?” it’s “the coolest thing” that she can use her knowledge to do that. “I feel so grateful to the profession. It is an honor and obligation to share what I know with others.”
But before you’re asked to share your knowledge, people have to know that you have it. Rondalyn says that conducting presentations started simply by talking about how the occupational therapy tools and information she had could help others. For example, she once let the cashier at the grocery store know that the way she was scanning would make her arm hurt, then showed her a better way, which inevitably led to an explanation of OT. When her son was in kindergarten she mentioned to the teacher her focus on sensory activities, so the teacher asked her to talk to the other parents. Initially they all said their children didn’t have any problems. But as Rondalyn started sharing fun OT activities in the classroom, soon the parents would say to her, “how come when you come my kids don’t have problems, but when you aren’t here they do?” That opened the door for Rondalyn to share tips and techniques they could use themselves, like where to find seamless socks.
Recently, Rondalyn was talking with someone at Kennedy Krieger, who suggested a Head Start teacher who might benefit from her perspectives. “That really pulled on my heart, as I was one of the first kids in America to attend Head Start,” she says. The classroom was in a low socioeconomic area, and although the teacher was willing to try new things, there was no funding for materials. Rondalyn approached the OT students at nearby Towson University in Maryland and asked if they would be willing to help create fine motor kits. Rondalyn’s family purchased low-cost materials, then the students came to their house for dinner and cookies, and to assemble the kits. When they brought them to the school, the teachers, parents, and principal were overwhelmed not only by the generosity, but by how useful the kits would be. More importantly, the children were immediately engaged as they opened and played with the simple toys, and there was one kit for every child to take home. Rondalyn visited several more times to provide guidance. In one visit, she noticed the children had trouble staying in their “space” during circle time and suggested they sit on cushions, but the teacher only had enough for half the children. Rondalyn told her mom, who promptly made some for Rondalyn to donate, shipping them from West Virginia.
Another time Rondalyn was doing a talk for teachers at Halloween, for which she wanted to make 60 small bags of goodies with things like Tootsie Rolls to demonstrate a pinch grip, and boxes of Junior Mints to facilitate a three-jaw chuck position. She realized that stuffing the bags would take a long time, so she asked the mom next door if her two young children would want to help. They joined Rondalyn and her children, and everyone had a great time (she admits that some of the candy had to be sampled). Of course during this activity the kids wanted to know what OT was, and they left with awareness of the profession.
The emphasis on “fun” is strong in Rondalyn’s work. “If you make OT a job you’ve missed the point,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest professions, and it’s actually too hard if you don’t connect with others and share the joy of occupation.” She feels asking the client, “What do you need to do?” and figuring out how to help them achieve that is what makes occupational therapy challenging and satisfying. “A lot of times, therapy needs a lighter touch, and clients need us to bring some levity to their situation,” she says. For example, Rondalyn developed social skills camps for children with autism-related disorders while working hard to make them kid friendly, engaging, and fun. One camp that was especially popular was the humor camp.
Rondalyn became interested in therapeutic humor through Marti Southam, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA. Before becoming an OT, Marti had been involved in business for social responsibility, and she already knew about the importance of humor and the role of spirit in accomplishment. “Humor is a relationship builder and an icebreaker” Rondalyn says. “More importantly, when you’re laughing it is physiologically impossible to be angry and stressed.” Yet humor is exactly what many kids on the autism spectrum seem to be missing. Rondalyn researched developmental humor and discovered what problems children with an autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other disorders experience when they try to be funny or understand humor. She found that once they learn the rules they are much more successful in translating humor and, in fact, they can be very funny—even when they mean to be. She then ran a week-long camp on humor for kids with autism. The campers learned how to tell a joke, what type of humor is funny and in what context, the rules of humor (e.g., mean humor is never funny), and other guidelines. After this experience the kids were able to tell a joke at school—and get a laugh—which was a huge step for them.
Because of the camp’s success Rondalyn put her research into a presentation and was invited to shared it at a lunch and learn at Kennedy Krieger, at the Maryland state conference for speech pathologists, and most recently at the Maryland Occupational Therapy Association’s annual conference.
Many people are daunted by the thought of presenting to others. Rondalyn encourages practitioners to focus on what they’re good at, but she also emphasizes that one just needs to be willing to share. Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on being a conduit and on what others need. She says her ultimate purpose is to have people open their eyes and be more connected to the parts of life that make them feel whole and in relationship with others. “OT gives me a platform from which I can to do that,” she says. “It offers the evidence to give me the credibility, the historic standing to give me strength, mentors to help me find my voice, and the courage to stand up and share all those gifts with others.”