Debbie Greenwald, Autism Specialist, Board Certified associate Behavior Analyst, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) Certified Consultant, is the founder of Autism Associates - a program that provides services for families affected by autism and other neurological disorders.
Her philosophy is simple: helping families affected by autism; not just children, but the entire family. Being in this field for a long time, and having done many different things, Greenwald thinks her experience puts her program ahead of the rest, hoping to touch the lives of many across the country.
Originally, Greenwald ran Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Home Programs in Pennsylvania from 1993 until 2002. Then, she moved to Washington D.C., where she had her own private practice. There, she did a combination of ABA programs to include role behavior, which is the name of the curriculum she currently employs.
"What I found was, children were learning a lot of skills, but they weren't increasing their social ability," said Greenwald, who is in the process of opening up a new office in Collegeville. "So, I then found a program called RDI and it was the missing link for all of my years of learning. It taught the foundation of how to build social skills and relationships. I've integrated that into my previous behavioral knowledge. I feel it really develops a child to reach their full potential."
The Collegeville office, which will be open very soon, is a location for all interested persons in the area to use as a physical location for consultation; however, Greenwald has added a unique spin: remote consultation.
Through the use of phone or Skype, Greenwald can help families not just in Collegeville, but all across the country, and even the world. She said she still works with the families she worked with in DC and Northern Virginia via the Skype service. She also said that even families in the area that are too busy to stop in can use the remote service.
Greenwald's passion for children with special needs came at a very young age. The third of eight children from an Irish-Catholic family, Greenwald has interacted with children all of her life. She said she always had a desire to help.
"I felt in my own experience, an injustice of the education system for friends that weren't able to learn as well," said Greenwald. "I've always had that empathy toward those students who weren't able to learn as well. Not only did I enjoy children, but I just wanted them all to succeed. I have a lot of passion because of my whole life enjoying children and paying attention to their needs."
At first, Greenwald did not see herself working with special needs children; however she said she was immediately hooked when working in an autistic support classroom at Pathway School in Norristown in 1993.
"I felt a connection with every one of my students and was amazed by the potential I saw in them," she explained. "I have always enjoyed a challenge; and I found myself very eager to figure out how to help each child. I have worked hard and very much enjoyed spending the last 18 years learning all that I can, in order to help children reach their fullest potential."
In 5 years, Greenwald hopes to have a social center that serves many families affected by autism and other neurological disorders. It would be a place for children to meet with peers in their community, having fun learning and building confidence, while feeling a sense of belonging. In addition, she'd like to form a place in which parents can meet, to learn and share with other parents, and a place for new professionals to learn and grow.
She also has an idea of a weekend half-day/full-day camp to further enhance the children's flexibility and adaptability in social situations and relationships.
"I'd love to have that fully blown and have many associates - maybe even have two different groups with one group at a private movie showing and another one learning how to brush and feed horses at a farm," she said. "It's very difficult for children who are very anxious in public situations. Increasing their adaptability and getting them out into the community is one thing I'm working on right now."
Finally, as far as schools and helping children in the classroom go, schools can sometimes not think outside of the box, according to Greenwald. She said she'd like to teach how educators can think outside of the box in the classroom and not just get children to do what they want them to do, but also understand why behaviors are there and understand why they have anxiety; essentially cross the bridge to learning and really understanding the child psychologically.