Any Direct Support Professional will tell you that the most important thing you need to be a DSP is patience…lots of patience. The second is compassion. In essence though, the two go hand in hand in a field that is both simultaneously challenging and rewarding, but hampered by low wages and high turnover. For Penn-Mar DSP and Day Program Community Activity Instructor Elena Leonard the challenges and rewards have come quickly in the three short years she’s been with the nonprofit.
Elena joined Penn-Mar shortly after graduating from American University in Washington D.C. with a bachelor’s in psychology. She started out as a residential Awake Overnight DSP, but in no time moved on to the Day Program, where she felt she could make a more active and positive contribution helping individuals through their day. A year into her new position she met Sean, and took on the biggest challenge of her young career.
Sean, 26, has severe autism and has been participating in Penn-Mar’s Day Program since he graduated from school five years ago. Imposingly tall, yet lanky, Sean is a big presence in the Day Program, but his presence is even more pronounced by his behavior, which up until the past year would regularly be very loud, often aggressive, and generally anti-social. It was not uncommon to find Sean on the floor of one of the Day Program offices, where he sometimes locked himself in to seek solace from noise or groups of peers. Group outings could be particularly problematic.
“Sean would have a lot of bad days where he would act out or refuse to participate in activities,” said Vanessa Whitman, Penn-Mar’s PA Community Day Service Administrator. “He could physically move you out of his way if you tried to redirect him from what he wanted to do. He also had very limited communication and would shout out a single word to answer a question or make a request, often repeatedly.”
According to Beth Harrison, Community Activity Program Manager, these behaviors were triggered mostly by noise and large groups of people. “Sean used to wear noise-blocking headphones that he never took off. If anyone tried to remove them to talk to him, he would get very agitated,” she said.
“As a team we decided to bring in a behavior specialist to see how we could help Sean overcome some of these behaviors and get the most out of his experience at the Day Program,” said Vanessa. “It was determined that one-on-one support was the best course for him, something Elena advocated for.”
Eligible for funding, Sean began his one-on-one support with Elena a little more than a year ago, and as the team pointed out, “he’s done a 180.”
“The progress Sean has made in the past year with Elena’s help has been dramatic,” said Vanessa. “It’s not a job for everyone, but because of her calm, soft-spoken nature, her patience and compassion, Sean has more of a quality of life than he did last year. ”
The first thing Elena set up was a visual schedule made up of pictures of different activities that he does throughout the day. Through various tools – pictures, flashcards, verbal prompting and coaching, a sensory swing (his quiet space), and the introduction of the iPad with various apps to help improve his communication and social skills, she very consistently and unflaggingly redirects him when his agitation level rises.
“As a visual person, Sean understands the pictures better than any verbal instruction,” said Elena. “He likes routine and because the visual schedule is self-directed, he feels accomplished when he can check off different activities. You can tell that he wants to learn and communicate, and express himself. When he can’t, he gets frustrated.”
Sean’s parents Lynn and Jon David of Stewartstown, Pa., have been very supportive of the work Elena has done and she consults with them regularly. They noted that her compassion and keenness to learn everything she can about Sean, about his autism, which he was diagnosed with at age three, has made all the difference in Sean’s dramatic turnaround at the Day Program.
Today, Sean’s headphones are gone and he hasn’t locked himself in an office since the one-on-one began. He’s more likely to tell you in full sentences what he wants now which might be to play basketball or go for a walk or short outing.
“There are still challenges some days,” said Elena, “but the rewards have been greater and can include a hug from Sean every now and then.”