Podcast — 36 Minutes

Episode 21: Social Motion Skills

Podcast — 36 Minutes

Episode 21: Social Motion Skills

Dr. Gwynette and ANN staffer Josh Miller host Wendy Dawson, the Executive Director of Social Motion Skills, and Social Motion Education Director Brandi Timmons. Social Motion Skills is based in Houston, TX and works to inspire and empower individuals with autism and similar special needs to achieve their full potential.

You can follow Dr. Gwynette on Twitter and Instagram.

Music by @MrBobbyKalman

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Dr. Gwynette: Welcome to the Autism News Network podcast. My name is Dr. Frampton Gwynette. You can follow me @drgwynette on Twitter and Instagram. Also, please check us out on theautismnewsnetwork.com for all kinds of great content. We are joined today by two very special guests, we’re going to learn about social motion skills. From Houston, Texas, we have the Executive Director of Social Emotion Skills, Wendy Dawson. Hi, Wendy.

Wendy Dawson: Good morning Frampton. Nice to see you Dr. Gwynette.

Dr. Gwynette: Nice to see you. And we also have the Education Director for Social Emotion Skills, Ms. Brandy Timmons.

Brandi Timmons: Good morning.

Dr. Gwynette: Thank you so much for joining us today. This is a very successful and meaningful program for individuals with autism across the lifespan, so we’re excited to learn so much about it. And leading the charge today in terms of our interview, is an Autism News Network participant named, Josh Miller. Good morning, Josh.

Josh Miller: Good morning.

Dr. Gwynette: All right. And without further ado, I’m going to let Josh take it away with our first questions for our guests.

Josh Miller: All right. Thank you, Dr. Gwynette. Good morning, Ms. Dawson, Ms. Timmons.

Wendy Dawson: Good morning, Josh.

Brandi Timmons: Good morning, Josh.

Josh Miller: I guess my first question would be for you all, would be, what is your all history or personal experience with autism?

Wendy Dawson: Well, my experience is very close, my now 24-year-old stepson was diagnosed with autism when he was two, and he came into my life when he was about four years old. So his dad and I really didn’t have any prior experience with autism, this was 20 plus years ago, and the communities and the research and the therapies and the information in communities and the medical world have really grown a lot since then. So, we have embraced this child, and his life intermingled with our lives is a huge reason why we started Social Motion.

Josh Miller: All right, and what about you Ms. Timmons? I mean, what is your history or personal experience with autism?

Brandi Timmons: Well, I am a Special Education Teacher, so I started working with individuals with autism about 17 years ago. And when I started teaching in a self-contained classroom, I fell in love with the kiddos on the spectrum and realized what potential they had. And the more I taught, I came to find out about applied behavior analysis and how the strategies work. And so, about six years ago, I went back and became a board certified behavior analyst, now a licensed behavior analyst. And after I moved to Houston, met a friend who knew Wendy, knew Social Motion, and three years ago went to work there as Education Director.

Josh Miller: That is really awesome. Now for our viewers and listeners who may not already know, can you explain to them what is Social Motion, Ms. Dawson, and what do you all do and where are you all located?

Wendy Dawson: Absolutely. It’s exciting to think how many people outside of Houston, outside of Texas will watch this podcast today. So, we are a local nonprofit based in Houston, Texas, we have an approximately 8,000 square foot center where we run social skills, classes, assessments, and a training program for individuals with autism and similar special needs, for ages 4 to 54. We are a community resource, so we actually offer afterschool social skills classes for school aged children, a full day program for individuals with autism over 18, and a big part of our program is also community outreach, advocacy, and parent training. So our mission at Social Motion, just to kind of sum it up, is to inspire and empower individuals with autism and similar special needs to achieve their full potential. So I hope that’s what we’re doing.

Josh Miller: That is really awesome. And I feel like we need more of that in this country, more support for the autistic community. What led you to start Social Motion?

Wendy Dawson: Social Motion was created out of need really, need for my family and need for so many families like ours that we knew in the community. When my son, my stepson, was in about sixth grade, we really realized how he was diverging from his peers in terms of activities in daily living, interactions with peers, understanding social norms, he wasn’t really joining teams, participating in kind of that active teenage life. And so, after thinking about his diagnosis, we had participated in all the therapies, we’d done PT, we’d done OT, we’ve done speech, and what he really needed was some social skill training. So, trying to be a good mom, I looked around the city in search of social skills classes, social skills tutoring, where could I find the type of instruction that he needed his diagnosis and to help launch him in life? And I couldn’t find it, and it’s because it didn’t exist.
So, luckily going back to that very personal answer, that is why we created Social Motion, was to bring these types of classes to the community as a supplement and a compliment to special schools and special therapy programs that are out there. So, definitely out of need for our own family and hoping that now we will be a window to the world and will have left a legacy of service for all those who follow us.

Josh Miller: I mean, I’m sorry if the question was too personal.

Wendy Dawson: Not at all, we’re always happy to share our story because we know it helps so many more.

Josh Miller: How long ago had you all started Social Motion?

Wendy Dawson: We’re actually celebrating our 10th anniversary this year. And Josh, to answer your question, it was kind of like jumping off the deep end. So, I had this idea in my head of what I needed, but I am not a special educator, I am actually a banker by background, and so my first step was to find a brilliant education director who could bring all of the talents that I didn’t have to our program, and so Brandi really exemplifies that. So the first step was basically just start small, We started with one classroom in a local church. We had six kids in that class, it was at the tween, early teen level. And, we tested out our curriculum, we kind of knew what we wanted to teach. We started with communication, with self-awareness, with self-esteem, with perspective taking, with having the kids understand personal responsibility. Basically you just got to start somewhere and that’s what we did

Josh Miller: That is really cool. And I know that Dr. Gwynette was telling me a few days ago that you all had recently partnered with FedEx. So, can you tell us more about that big step?

Wendy Dawson: Absolutely. So, our kids grow up, right?

Josh Miller: Right.

Wendy Dawson: At start of this program we had six kids in the tween, young teen age level, and then before you know it, they are graduating high school and trying to figure out what’s next. So, a lot of our kids aren’t necessarily ready for college, the four year degree is not what they need, however, they constantly need continual training and they really need a path forward in life. So, one of the biggest hurdles that we try to serve is, “What will happen to my child when I’m no longer here to care for them?” And such an important piece of that question is, how are they going to make a living? How are they going to provide for themselves? How are they going to hopefully achieve as much independence as possible? Where are they going to work? I mean, the pride of having a job and feeling meaningful in the community we have found is of such importance to help these young adults avoid the spiral of depression and failure and lack of connectivity to the community.

So, we’re fortunate here in Houston that we have many large employers, and we have a friend who worked at FedEx, and so we started talking to them because we felt like their package handling jobs were the type of work and the place that we could really have an impact. So, kind of an employment pathway program was created, and now we actually place groups of young adults at the FedEx location, FedEx ground location, with a dedicated job coach. The job coach stays with them for approximately 12 weeks and has really proven that with training and support, these individuals can be successful.

Josh Miller: That is really cool. And I feel like, like I said before, I feel like that’s something that really needs to be expanded on in other communities by other groups because I feel like there’s a lot of… I mean personally, I thought there was a lot of autistic people that are getting left behind and could really… Not living up to their full potential, as I’m sure Dr. Gwynette would agree with me.

Wendy Dawson: We have talked to FedEx, we’ve kind of proven our theory here, and there are several other locations that are interested in kind of our tutelage and understanding what we’ve done here. So, to your point of more communities needing these services, we’re working on the best way to continue those relationships. Brandi, why don’t you tell them the metrics and some of the ways that we know what we’re doing is working.

Brandi Timmons: So, and I joined Social Mission three years ago, of course as a BCBA, data is my thing. I like to know all the data behind everything that we do and whether or not what we say we do, are we actually doing that? And so, worked to really put some data collection methods around all of our social skills programs, and now also around some of our transition. So one of the things that we found with transition aged kids, a lot of the time, they don’t have any experience with work activities, so a lot of our kids have missed out on… They don’t mow yards during the summer, they don’t work the snow cone stands or babysit, so they’ve missed out on those really basic, just job experiences that a lot of typical peers have. Many, many different reasons, so they don’t get to really experiment and try to figure out what they like to do and what they’re interested in.

And so, I happened to work with a program for many years in the public school systems that was a hands-on vocational assessment. And so we had the opportunity in December through a large grant, through the M.D. Anderson Foundation to actually add 1600 square feet to our existing facilities, to buy the assessment kit and to create what we now call the [inaudible 00:13:05] and Employability Center. So now our 13 plus young adults can come in and they can work through this hands-on assessment, they get to try different jobs in five different areas, computer, business marketing, consumer service, construction, industrial. And they get to tell us and give us data on, do I like doing that job? Is that something I’m interested in? Is it something I’m good at?

And then when they finish with the assessment, they walk out with a report that they could either hand to an employer or they can take to the workforce commission, or they can even take back to their high school for transition planning and say, “These are the skills that I have right now, and this where I’d like to be when I graduate, so what do I need to do to get there?” So we’re really excited. We have our first group of kids this summer that are working through the program. We have our first young adult that just finished and got her report back, so a lot of really good data, but a lot of very useful data for our kids and our families.

Josh Miller: That is really exciting to hear. You all are located in the Houston area, I mean, how are you all expanding beyond that area?

Wendy Dawson: We have found that it’s really hard just to go out to kind of a random community and start a program. Frankly, it is really hard to do what we do, it is really hard to run a nonprofit in today’s age and time, and it’s really hard to raise the amount of funds that we need to support this program. So, we’ve had a lot better luck working through collaborative partners, for example we have a strong partnership with Texas Children’s Hospital here in Houston. So TCH, as they’re known, obviously has many locations around the city, and so by partnering with them and looking to have our center kind of as corporate headquarters, but then offering our social skills classes at their site, on their campus, at their clinical facility, has given us a way to operate a very strong satellite system. So, Dr. Gwynette knows about those two.

So rather than really trying to be too broad and too wide, we’re really sticking to working with near and dear partners who understand what we’re trying to do, where children who have been diagnosed are already coming, where there are clinicians and therapists and educators who are working with the same types of children that we are, so that we can kind of embed our program in existing programs.

Josh Miller: That’s understandable.

Dr. Gwynette: Brilliant, what it is.

Wendy Dawson: We figured it out. It didn’t start out that way, but [crosstalk 00:16:04].

Dr. Gwynette: It is a lot of hard work. I’m so glad that you said that because some of the qualities that I see in Wendy Dawson and Brandi Timmons are not only the incredible talent and the entrepreneurship, the business background, the BCBA background, but also the passion, and also you all never quit, you never give up and you just keep going forward. It’s so amazing. It’s very inspiring.

Wendy Dawson: Well thank you.

Brandi Timmons: It really is.

Wendy Dawson: It’s a labor of love and we love what we do, and we have fun every day and nothing fills our hearts more than seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces and hearing their success stories, and even working through the hard times with families. I mean, obviously in the population we deal with, there are difficult times, but establishing relationships with the families and understanding where they’re coming from and helping them get to that end goal, it’s just why we do what we do every day.

Josh Miller: How important would you say that social media is for the growth of your nonprofit?

Wendy Dawson: It’s highly important. It is the way that we reach families today, and frankly, it’s a very economical way to reach families. Print materials are hugely costly and they tend to… Once you print them, they have a date on them or that program name changes or something changes about it, and then they become obsolete. So, in today’s world, social media is the way we like to communicate with our families. It’s finding our voice, it’s finding our audience, it’s understanding how do we communicate with the families who need our services? And we do a lot on Facebook because our typical audience is moms. We typically reach out to the families and it’s the moms who are out there looking for information, and we kind of know the age range, probably late twenties to fifties, and so that is the prime audience that we hit on Facebook.

We also have some private groups on Facebook that we run to encourage chats and communication between like-minded parents. Instagram has really taken over, we love posting those pictures of what our kids are actually doing. So, social media is huge. We are very active, Brandi particularly maybe can speak to this, the mommy boards, we call them, where are the moms talking about what they need? Where are the local moms support groups? We’re active on that. We actually have a summer intern who is making videos for us so that we can boost up our YouTube channel, but that social media presence has been huge for us.

Brandi Timmons: I think it’s important to note as well in the autism community, parents now are well versed enough to be looking for evidence-based practices. They know that word, and basically what that means is they’re looking for something that works because there’s so many things out there that are thrown at them, and so they go to social media to talk to each other. So that’s why the mommy groups are so important, that’s why the Facebook groups are so important because they’re out there and they’re talking about, “My child went to this program and this is what happened,” or, “My child did this and this is what happened,” or the opposite of that, “My child’s went here and this is not good.” So it’s really important for us to have a presence there and to really have our parents talking about the experience that they’ve had at Social Motion.

Wendy Dawson: I think it’s interesting too, Brandi is very plugged into the community where the young adults on the spectrum actually talk themselves. Tell them a little bit about your thoughts and what you find on those boards, Brandi.

Brandi Timmons: Yeah, there’s a lot of young adults. It’s very interesting for me that 20 to 25 age range of kiddos that are able to talk about their emotions and their feelings and their experiences as young adults on the spectrum. And so, there’s a lot of social media out there where they have their groups that they get on and they talk about what they want and what they need. So it’s important to me to follow those groups, and we try to be real careful about providing to our kiddos on the spectrum what they are asking for. There’s nobody that can tell us better than they can what they need to help them be successful, so it’s really important to us to understand and to know, and to ask. We try to survey our kids and our young adults at Social Motion often as well, what do they like about the program? What could we improve? What could we do differently? What do they want? And what’s going to help them and give them the most support? So-

Wendy Dawson: We’re giving them a voice in our program, so our favorite slogan is, not about us without us. And so we actually have a young adult kind of little committee council of these young adults who are able to express themselves. And it helps us so much to understand what would have been beneficial for you in elementary school, in middle school? We don’t know. We can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to live their life, so for them to be able to express those memories and those feelings and those concerns and help us understand what will help them going forward, is a big driving factor in how we continually strive to improve our program.

Josh Miller: What advice would you give to parents who feel like their growing child or full grown child is struggling to become independent?

Brandi Timmons: Don’t give up. Don’t stop. We work on independence from day one, as soon as someone steps foot in our program, whether they’re four or they’re 54. We have an amazing story right now of a man that’s working with one of our teachers and he is 54, and in the last, what, three months, parents have just raved about the progress that he’s made. So, you don’t stop learning, you don’t stop growing, you don’t stop improving. So it doesn’t matter where they are. They can still learn and they can become independent. So, I think to me that would probably be the biggest thing to tell them.

Wendy Dawson: We actually have kind of one of our seminars that we do, and it’s called, Independence is a Process, because just like Brandi said, it’s not something that you learn overnight. And even as educators, it is impossible for us to teach every scenario that these kids are going to encounter in their life. So, we really like to focus on coping and problem-solving, and we know as the educators that it’s quite often the behavior that is the barrier to their success not necessarily the skills that they have or don’t have. We can teach the skills all day long, but they’re really going to have to grow and mature and accept these behaviors and accept the coaching that we provide. And the flip side of why we’ve also been successful in the program is that it’s not just a one side coin, right? We could train our kids all day long and they’re all dressed up and nowhere to go, so we also work with the employers and the community to help them understand, these kids are not liabilities.

A lot of people think, “Oh, it takes longer to train them,” or, “They’re going to be a liability or a safety hazard,” or, “They’re not going to understand,” or, “They’re going to cause consternation in my working place,” and frankly that’s not true. We see these kids as assets because they are like… They might, diamonds that need to be polished, but we can help them understand workplace behaviors, and we actually teach a class on that too, Social Skills for the Workplace, so that they can be loyal employees, that they master the tasks at hand. And when the employers are able to embrace these individuals and show the community that they understand diversity and inclusion and they employee kids on the spectrum, families want to do business with these companies. So it’s really a nice 360 of leading from independence from early ages, having them do chores, having them understand that they are part of the operation of the family, that they can take responsibility, up to the extent possible with their skills.

Brandi Timmons: Yeah, and just creating a climate of high expectations. Our kids, that was what I fell in love with when I first started education. So many of our kids have so much potential, with just the right support it’s going to come out. And so, you set the expectations high and they’re going to rise to meet them regardless. So, whether it’s accommodating a little here or there or teaching the social skills to be successful in the workplace, there’s so many things that our kids are capable of doing and it’s important for parents to believe that, and it’s important, that’s one reason why we do so much parent training, especially with our younger kids. The school system doesn’t always support to the highest expectations, so parents need to stand up for their kids and expect that from everyone and let their kids know that you’re capable of anything, just like anyone else.

Josh Miller: In terms of future plans, what can people expect from Social Motion in the future?

Wendy Dawson: That’s a good question. We are trying to figure what is the best growth plan. Again, I’m going to come back to collaborative partnerships. I really think that is the best way that we’re going to be able to seek funding kind of in this new world that is coming after COVID, and the future landscape of philanthropy is really collaborative-based and working on the core competencies of the group. So, I think we have a big opportunity to embed our program with collaborative partners where there’s already a nexus of families who need our services and where partnerships can strengthen the resources for families from both sides.

Josh Miller: Because I just thought of one more question real quick.

Wendy Dawson: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Josh Miller: And now that you’ve brought it up, how has COVID-19 affected you all?

Brandi Timmons: For our classes, we had actually piloted running some classes virtually for awhile. So, we ended up with a stay-at-home order I think on a Friday, and by the following Tuesday, we had all of our classes running virtually. So, our kids never had to miss a class, so we had almost 100% attendance during most of the stay-at-home. I think we ran classes virtually for 11 weeks I believe, we came back to in-person classes about three weeks ago. And so now we’re kind of… We have some families that weren’t quite ready to come back in-person, so we’re kind of doing a hybrid. Those that were ready are back in-person and those that aren’t, we just Zoom them into the class. So in that aspect, we did well, families were very appreciative of the continuation of services. Many of our kids were not receiving services through schools or speech or any of their other typical therapies, so they were very appreciative of that. They were very appreciative of coming back in-person about three weeks ago, our young adults especially were really excited to be back.

Josh Miller: I mean, what do you find that was better, the in-person or the virtual?

Brandi Timmons: In-person is always better when it’s available.

Josh Miller: Right.

Brandi Timmons: Just the nature of what we do is teaching social skills, and so the in-person will always be the best case scenario, but there is a place for the virtual. And so, it worked for the time being and it served its purpose, so.

Wendy Dawson: It’s interesting, Josh, it’s actually on our YouTube channel right now, I think it’s our young adult group talking about coming back and you will see them all social distancing, wearing masks. And I think the question was, “What did you miss the most about not being able to come to your young adult social group?” And you’ll hear the myriad of answers that you would expect is the interaction and the communication. For our kids, reading emotions and facial expressions, they’re all trying to pick up on this and learn this and it’s one of the things that Zoom takes away. So like Brandi said, it was a great interoom fix, it’s absolutely what we had to do to keep our classes and our communities together, but we’re glad it’s hopefully over and we’re doing all the right things to keep everybody safe and healthy. But it’s what we had to do, but we’re glad to be back in-person.

Josh Miller: I’m going to toss it over to Dr. Gwynette. I didn’t mean to take more of your time, but those questions just popped in my mind when she mentioned it, so I thought I would ask.

Wendy Dawson: It was a great question.

Brandi Timmons: Great questions, Josh.

Dr. Gwynette: He’s an awesome host. Yeah, I just wanted to pick up on one of the, I think great creations that Social Motion has developed. Wendy Dawson came to a conference in February, 2018 here in Charleston, the conference was called, Power of the Parents, and she did an awesome presentation about Social Motion skills and the origins of the program. And I think the centerpiece of that presentation was what she calls, the life path, and it’s, if you haven’t seen it, it’s available on socia motionskills.org. You can see it there, it’s a beautiful graphic. And Wendy, can you take us through that graphic and how you came up with it, and what it means?

Wendy Dawson: Thank you. I can’t believe it was 2018 already. So, if you’ve been with us over this hour, you probably have heard about the expansive programs that we do. We do a lot with a lot of different age levels, and what we found was we needed a way to communicate to parents and to partners and to funders, really the scope of what we do and why that is important. So again, going back to being a parent, one of the things I needed was a program that would grow and morph and change and continue with my child. And so, Dr. Gwynette you asked, “How did we start?” We started with that one class at the tween, teem age level, and then obviously we had to expand to an earlier age group and an older age group. So, the timeline really represents all of the ages and the life path journey that we travel with these families.

From diagnosis, as early as about two to three to four, they’re coming to us in Houston because they’ve gotten this message from their diagnostician, and so they now know that their life and their child’s life has changed. And so what does that mean? Sometimes they’re grieving, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re just curious. So from the primary level, when we’re helping them understand that life is complicated, but walk in the path that we’ve walked, and we’re going to show you this is basically what you can expect. In the elementary years we need to work with the teachers, we need to start building friendships. What does that mean? How does your child act? How do we start getting early intervention in. Working to the tween years, where that self esteem is so important so that we can head off anxiety and depression that we know is so often related to these diagnoses.

We work very closely with teachers and with therapists, that partnership is very beneficial. We start transition really early, like Brandi said, about 13 years old, getting them into the transition center, understanding, what are they like? Where are their natural talents? Do they like space? Do they like geology? Do they like art? Do they like writing? Do they like computer activities? Because we found that those natural talents are going to help them find like-minded friends, find hobbies, and the hobbies become the jobs. So how can we support them and what they’re already good at so we can celebrate those successes. Volunteering is huge, we start building resumes, that they have to learn how to take feedback and instruction from others. So you can see as we walk along this timeline, the skills really build upon each other, placing them in work so they can have an independent life, obviously with the goal at the end being fulfilled, independence, that they can live as happily in the community as possible in an independent life.

Dr. Gwynette: So exciting. We’re going to put the life path graphic on our YouTube video of this podcast. So if you’re listening on iTunes or on Spotify, and you want to see the Social Motion skills life path, you can certainly go to their site, but we’ll also have it overlaid on our video podcast, which will be up on our YouTube page. So, just amazing work by Wendy Dawson and Brandi Timmons. Before I forget, I want to give you their, where you can check them out, socialmotionskills.org, and then of course you can also follow them on Facebook. You can also follow them on Instagram, it’s social_motion. And then on Twitter, it’s @socialmotion_. So, they’re very active on social media, they’re a great follow, so check them out. And we wanted to thank you guys so much for your time. I’ve had conversations with you guys offline that I’m a believer, and I believe that you guys are being called to do the tremendous work that you’re doing. Do you guys feel like faith plays a part in your success?

Wendy Dawson: We say that every day, don’t we Brandi?

Brandi Timmons: Every day. Every day.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, I’m definitely giving a shout out to God for all the amazing things that He’s doing through you guys in Houston, throughout Texas, and I think throughout the country, and hopefully the world. So thank you all for your time. Give it up for Josh for doing a great job on the interview.

Brandi Timmons: Good job Josh.

Wendy Dawson: Go Josh.

Dr. Gwynette: [crosstalk 00:36:06] You can, again, follow us on the Autism News Network, you can go to theautismnewsnetwork.com, and we are of course on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We look forward to having you join us on our next podcast. Thank you so much for joining us, have a great day.

Dr. Gwynette: Welcome to the Autism News Network podcast. My name is Dr. Frampton Gwynette. You can follow me @drgwynette on Twitter and Instagram. Also, please check us out on theautismnewsnetwork.com for all kinds of great content. We are joined today by two very special guests, we’re going to learn about social motion skills. From Houston, Texas, we have the Executive Director of Social Emotion Skills, Wendy Dawson. Hi, Wendy.

Wendy Dawson: Good morning Frampton. Nice to see you Dr. Gwynette.

Dr. Gwynette: Nice to see you. And we also have the Education Director for Social Emotion Skills, Ms. Brandy Timmons.

Brandi Timmons: Good morning.

Dr. Gwynette: Thank you so much for joining us today. This is a very successful and meaningful program for individuals with autism across the lifespan, so we’re excited to learn so much about it. And leading the charge today in terms of our interview, is an Autism News Network participant named, Josh Miller. Good morning, Josh.

Josh Miller: Good morning.

Dr. Gwynette: All right. And without further ado, I’m going to let Josh take it away with our first questions for our guests.

Josh Miller: All right. Thank you, Dr. Gwynette. Good morning, Ms. Dawson, Ms. Timmons.

Wendy Dawson: Good morning, Josh.

Brandi Timmons: Good morning, Josh.

Josh Miller: I guess my first question would be for you all, would be, what is your all history or personal experience with autism?

Wendy Dawson: Well, my experience is very close, my now 24-year-old stepson was diagnosed with autism when he was two, and he came into my life when he was about four years old. So his dad and I really didn’t have any prior experience with autism, this was 20 plus years ago, and the communities and the research and the therapies and the information in communities and the medical world have really grown a lot since then. So, we have embraced this child, and his life intermingled with our lives is a huge reason why we started Social Motion.

Josh Miller: All right, and what about you Ms. Timmons? I mean, what is your history or personal experience with autism?

Brandi Timmons: Well, I am a Special Education Teacher, so I started working with individuals with autism about 17 years ago. And when I started teaching in a self-contained classroom, I fell in love with the kiddos on the spectrum and realized what potential they had. And the more I taught, I came to find out about applied behavior analysis and how the strategies work. And so, about six years ago, I went back and became a board certified behavior analyst, now a licensed behavior analyst. And after I moved to Houston, met a friend who knew Wendy, knew Social Motion, and three years ago went to work there as Education Director.

Josh Miller: That is really awesome. Now for our viewers and listeners who may not already know, can you explain to them what is Social Motion, Ms. Dawson, and what do you all do and where are you all located?

Wendy Dawson: Absolutely. It’s exciting to think how many people outside of Houston, outside of Texas will watch this podcast today. So, we are a local nonprofit based in Houston, Texas, we have an approximately 8,000 square foot center where we run social skills, classes, assessments, and a training program for individuals with autism and similar special needs, for ages 4 to 54. We are a community resource, so we actually offer afterschool social skills classes for school aged children, a full day program for individuals with autism over 18, and a big part of our program is also community outreach, advocacy, and parent training. So our mission at Social Motion, just to kind of sum it up, is to inspire and empower individuals with autism and similar special needs to achieve their full potential. So I hope that’s what we’re doing.

Josh Miller: That is really awesome. And I feel like we need more of that in this country, more support for the autistic community. What led you to start Social Motion?

Wendy Dawson: Social Motion was created out of need really, need for my family and need for so many families like ours that we knew in the community. When my son, my stepson, was in about sixth grade, we really realized how he was diverging from his peers in terms of activities in daily living, interactions with peers, understanding social norms, he wasn’t really joining teams, participating in kind of that active teenage life. And so, after thinking about his diagnosis, we had participated in all the therapies, we’d done PT, we’d done OT, we’ve done speech, and what he really needed was some social skill training. So, trying to be a good mom, I looked around the city in search of social skills classes, social skills tutoring, where could I find the type of instruction that he needed his diagnosis and to help launch him in life? And I couldn’t find it, and it’s because it didn’t exist.
So, luckily going back to that very personal answer, that is why we created Social Motion, was to bring these types of classes to the community as a supplement and a compliment to special schools and special therapy programs that are out there. So, definitely out of need for our own family and hoping that now we will be a window to the world and will have left a legacy of service for all those who follow us.

Josh Miller: I mean, I’m sorry if the question was too personal.

Wendy Dawson: Not at all, we’re always happy to share our story because we know it helps so many more.

Josh Miller: How long ago had you all started Social Motion?

Wendy Dawson: We’re actually celebrating our 10th anniversary this year. And Josh, to answer your question, it was kind of like jumping off the deep end. So, I had this idea in my head of what I needed, but I am not a special educator, I am actually a banker by background, and so my first step was to find a brilliant education director who could bring all of the talents that I didn’t have to our program, and so Brandi really exemplifies that. So the first step was basically just start small, We started with one classroom in a local church. We had six kids in that class, it was at the tween, early teen level. And, we tested out our curriculum, we kind of knew what we wanted to teach. We started with communication, with self-awareness, with self-esteem, with perspective taking, with having the kids understand personal responsibility. Basically you just got to start somewhere and that’s what we did

Josh Miller: That is really cool. And I know that Dr. Gwynette was telling me a few days ago that you all had recently partnered with FedEx. So, can you tell us more about that big step?

Wendy Dawson: Absolutely. So, our kids grow up, right?

Josh Miller: Right.

Wendy Dawson: At start of this program we had six kids in the tween, young teen age level, and then before you know it, they are graduating high school and trying to figure out what’s next. So, a lot of our kids aren’t necessarily ready for college, the four year degree is not what they need, however, they constantly need continual training and they really need a path forward in life. So, one of the biggest hurdles that we try to serve is, “What will happen to my child when I’m no longer here to care for them?” And such an important piece of that question is, how are they going to make a living? How are they going to provide for themselves? How are they going to hopefully achieve as much independence as possible? Where are they going to work? I mean, the pride of having a job and feeling meaningful in the community we have found is of such importance to help these young adults avoid the spiral of depression and failure and lack of connectivity to the community.

So, we’re fortunate here in Houston that we have many large employers, and we have a friend who worked at FedEx, and so we started talking to them because we felt like their package handling jobs were the type of work and the place that we could really have an impact. So, kind of an employment pathway program was created, and now we actually place groups of young adults at the FedEx location, FedEx ground location, with a dedicated job coach. The job coach stays with them for approximately 12 weeks and has really proven that with training and support, these individuals can be successful.

Josh Miller: That is really cool. And I feel like, like I said before, I feel like that’s something that really needs to be expanded on in other communities by other groups because I feel like there’s a lot of… I mean personally, I thought there was a lot of autistic people that are getting left behind and could really… Not living up to their full potential, as I’m sure Dr. Gwynette would agree with me.

Wendy Dawson: We have talked to FedEx, we’ve kind of proven our theory here, and there are several other locations that are interested in kind of our tutelage and understanding what we’ve done here. So, to your point of more communities needing these services, we’re working on the best way to continue those relationships. Brandi, why don’t you tell them the metrics and some of the ways that we know what we’re doing is working.

Brandi Timmons: So, and I joined Social Mission three years ago, of course as a BCBA, data is my thing. I like to know all the data behind everything that we do and whether or not what we say we do, are we actually doing that? And so, worked to really put some data collection methods around all of our social skills programs, and now also around some of our transition. So one of the things that we found with transition aged kids, a lot of the time, they don’t have any experience with work activities, so a lot of our kids have missed out on… They don’t mow yards during the summer, they don’t work the snow cone stands or babysit, so they’ve missed out on those really basic, just job experiences that a lot of typical peers have. Many, many different reasons, so they don’t get to really experiment and try to figure out what they like to do and what they’re interested in.

And so, I happened to work with a program for many years in the public school systems that was a hands-on vocational assessment. And so we had the opportunity in December through a large grant, through the M.D. Anderson Foundation to actually add 1600 square feet to our existing facilities, to buy the assessment kit and to create what we now call the [inaudible 00:13:05] and Employability Center. So now our 13 plus young adults can come in and they can work through this hands-on assessment, they get to try different jobs in five different areas, computer, business marketing, consumer service, construction, industrial. And they get to tell us and give us data on, do I like doing that job? Is that something I’m interested in? Is it something I’m good at?

And then when they finish with the assessment, they walk out with a report that they could either hand to an employer or they can take to the workforce commission, or they can even take back to their high school for transition planning and say, “These are the skills that I have right now, and this where I’d like to be when I graduate, so what do I need to do to get there?” So we’re really excited. We have our first group of kids this summer that are working through the program. We have our first young adult that just finished and got her report back, so a lot of really good data, but a lot of very useful data for our kids and our families.

Josh Miller: That is really exciting to hear. You all are located in the Houston area, I mean, how are you all expanding beyond that area?

Wendy Dawson: We have found that it’s really hard just to go out to kind of a random community and start a program. Frankly, it is really hard to do what we do, it is really hard to run a nonprofit in today’s age and time, and it’s really hard to raise the amount of funds that we need to support this program. So, we’ve had a lot better luck working through collaborative partners, for example we have a strong partnership with Texas Children’s Hospital here in Houston. So TCH, as they’re known, obviously has many locations around the city, and so by partnering with them and looking to have our center kind of as corporate headquarters, but then offering our social skills classes at their site, on their campus, at their clinical facility, has given us a way to operate a very strong satellite system. So, Dr. Gwynette knows about those two.

So rather than really trying to be too broad and too wide, we’re really sticking to working with near and dear partners who understand what we’re trying to do, where children who have been diagnosed are already coming, where there are clinicians and therapists and educators who are working with the same types of children that we are, so that we can kind of embed our program in existing programs.

Josh Miller: That’s understandable.

Dr. Gwynette: Brilliant, what it is.

Wendy Dawson: We figured it out. It didn’t start out that way, but [crosstalk 00:16:04].

Dr. Gwynette: It is a lot of hard work. I’m so glad that you said that because some of the qualities that I see in Wendy Dawson and Brandi Timmons are not only the incredible talent and the entrepreneurship, the business background, the BCBA background, but also the passion, and also you all never quit, you never give up and you just keep going forward. It’s so amazing. It’s very inspiring.

Wendy Dawson: Well thank you.

Brandi Timmons: It really is.

Wendy Dawson: It’s a labor of love and we love what we do, and we have fun every day and nothing fills our hearts more than seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces and hearing their success stories, and even working through the hard times with families. I mean, obviously in the population we deal with, there are difficult times, but establishing relationships with the families and understanding where they’re coming from and helping them get to that end goal, it’s just why we do what we do every day.

Josh Miller: How important would you say that social media is for the growth of your nonprofit?

Wendy Dawson: It’s highly important. It is the way that we reach families today, and frankly, it’s a very economical way to reach families. Print materials are hugely costly and they tend to… Once you print them, they have a date on them or that program name changes or something changes about it, and then they become obsolete. So, in today’s world, social media is the way we like to communicate with our families. It’s finding our voice, it’s finding our audience, it’s understanding how do we communicate with the families who need our services? And we do a lot on Facebook because our typical audience is moms. We typically reach out to the families and it’s the moms who are out there looking for information, and we kind of know the age range, probably late twenties to fifties, and so that is the prime audience that we hit on Facebook.

We also have some private groups on Facebook that we run to encourage chats and communication between like-minded parents. Instagram has really taken over, we love posting those pictures of what our kids are actually doing. So, social media is huge. We are very active, Brandi particularly maybe can speak to this, the mommy boards, we call them, where are the moms talking about what they need? Where are the local moms support groups? We’re active on that. We actually have a summer intern who is making videos for us so that we can boost up our YouTube channel, but that social media presence has been huge for us.

Brandi Timmons: I think it’s important to note as well in the autism community, parents now are well versed enough to be looking for evidence-based practices. They know that word, and basically what that means is they’re looking for something that works because there’s so many things out there that are thrown at them, and so they go to social media to talk to each other. So that’s why the mommy groups are so important, that’s why the Facebook groups are so important because they’re out there and they’re talking about, “My child went to this program and this is what happened,” or, “My child did this and this is what happened,” or the opposite of that, “My child’s went here and this is not good.” So it’s really important for us to have a presence there and to really have our parents talking about the experience that they’ve had at Social Motion.

Wendy Dawson: I think it’s interesting too, Brandi is very plugged into the community where the young adults on the spectrum actually talk themselves. Tell them a little bit about your thoughts and what you find on those boards, Brandi.

Brandi Timmons: Yeah, there’s a lot of young adults. It’s very interesting for me that 20 to 25 age range of kiddos that are able to talk about their emotions and their feelings and their experiences as young adults on the spectrum. And so, there’s a lot of social media out there where they have their groups that they get on and they talk about what they want and what they need. So it’s important to me to follow those groups, and we try to be real careful about providing to our kiddos on the spectrum what they are asking for. There’s nobody that can tell us better than they can what they need to help them be successful, so it’s really important to us to understand and to know, and to ask. We try to survey our kids and our young adults at Social Motion often as well, what do they like about the program? What could we improve? What could we do differently? What do they want? And what’s going to help them and give them the most support? So-

Wendy Dawson: We’re giving them a voice in our program, so our favorite slogan is, not about us without us. And so we actually have a young adult kind of little committee council of these young adults who are able to express themselves. And it helps us so much to understand what would have been beneficial for you in elementary school, in middle school? We don’t know. We can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to live their life, so for them to be able to express those memories and those feelings and those concerns and help us understand what will help them going forward, is a big driving factor in how we continually strive to improve our program.

Josh Miller: What advice would you give to parents who feel like their growing child or full grown child is struggling to become independent?

Brandi Timmons: Don’t give up. Don’t stop. We work on independence from day one, as soon as someone steps foot in our program, whether they’re four or they’re 54. We have an amazing story right now of a man that’s working with one of our teachers and he is 54, and in the last, what, three months, parents have just raved about the progress that he’s made. So, you don’t stop learning, you don’t stop growing, you don’t stop improving. So it doesn’t matter where they are. They can still learn and they can become independent. So, I think to me that would probably be the biggest thing to tell them.

Wendy Dawson: We actually have kind of one of our seminars that we do, and it’s called, Independence is a Process, because just like Brandi said, it’s not something that you learn overnight. And even as educators, it is impossible for us to teach every scenario that these kids are going to encounter in their life. So, we really like to focus on coping and problem-solving, and we know as the educators that it’s quite often the behavior that is the barrier to their success not necessarily the skills that they have or don’t have. We can teach the skills all day long, but they’re really going to have to grow and mature and accept these behaviors and accept the coaching that we provide. And the flip side of why we’ve also been successful in the program is that it’s not just a one side coin, right? We could train our kids all day long and they’re all dressed up and nowhere to go, so we also work with the employers and the community to help them understand, these kids are not liabilities.

A lot of people think, “Oh, it takes longer to train them,” or, “They’re going to be a liability or a safety hazard,” or, “They’re not going to understand,” or, “They’re going to cause consternation in my working place,” and frankly that’s not true. We see these kids as assets because they are like… They might, diamonds that need to be polished, but we can help them understand workplace behaviors, and we actually teach a class on that too, Social Skills for the Workplace, so that they can be loyal employees, that they master the tasks at hand. And when the employers are able to embrace these individuals and show the community that they understand diversity and inclusion and they employee kids on the spectrum, families want to do business with these companies. So it’s really a nice 360 of leading from independence from early ages, having them do chores, having them understand that they are part of the operation of the family, that they can take responsibility, up to the extent possible with their skills.

Brandi Timmons: Yeah, and just creating a climate of high expectations. Our kids, that was what I fell in love with when I first started education. So many of our kids have so much potential, with just the right support it’s going to come out. And so, you set the expectations high and they’re going to rise to meet them regardless. So, whether it’s accommodating a little here or there or teaching the social skills to be successful in the workplace, there’s so many things that our kids are capable of doing and it’s important for parents to believe that, and it’s important, that’s one reason why we do so much parent training, especially with our younger kids. The school system doesn’t always support to the highest expectations, so parents need to stand up for their kids and expect that from everyone and let their kids know that you’re capable of anything, just like anyone else.

Josh Miller: In terms of future plans, what can people expect from Social Motion in the future?

Wendy Dawson: That’s a good question. We are trying to figure what is the best growth plan. Again, I’m going to come back to collaborative partnerships. I really think that is the best way that we’re going to be able to seek funding kind of in this new world that is coming after COVID, and the future landscape of philanthropy is really collaborative-based and working on the core competencies of the group. So, I think we have a big opportunity to embed our program with collaborative partners where there’s already a nexus of families who need our services and where partnerships can strengthen the resources for families from both sides.

Josh Miller: Because I just thought of one more question real quick.

Wendy Dawson: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Josh Miller: And now that you’ve brought it up, how has COVID-19 affected you all?

Brandi Timmons: For our classes, we had actually piloted running some classes virtually for awhile. So, we ended up with a stay-at-home order I think on a Friday, and by the following Tuesday, we had all of our classes running virtually. So, our kids never had to miss a class, so we had almost 100% attendance during most of the stay-at-home. I think we ran classes virtually for 11 weeks I believe, we came back to in-person classes about three weeks ago. And so now we’re kind of… We have some families that weren’t quite ready to come back in-person, so we’re kind of doing a hybrid. Those that were ready are back in-person and those that aren’t, we just Zoom them into the class. So in that aspect, we did well, families were very appreciative of the continuation of services. Many of our kids were not receiving services through schools or speech or any of their other typical therapies, so they were very appreciative of that. They were very appreciative of coming back in-person about three weeks ago, our young adults especially were really excited to be back.

Josh Miller: I mean, what do you find that was better, the in-person or the virtual?

Brandi Timmons: In-person is always better when it’s available.

Josh Miller: Right.

Brandi Timmons: Just the nature of what we do is teaching social skills, and so the in-person will always be the best case scenario, but there is a place for the virtual. And so, it worked for the time being and it served its purpose, so.

Wendy Dawson: It’s interesting, Josh, it’s actually on our YouTube channel right now, I think it’s our young adult group talking about coming back and you will see them all social distancing, wearing masks. And I think the question was, “What did you miss the most about not being able to come to your young adult social group?” And you’ll hear the myriad of answers that you would expect is the interaction and the communication. For our kids, reading emotions and facial expressions, they’re all trying to pick up on this and learn this and it’s one of the things that Zoom takes away. So like Brandi said, it was a great interoom fix, it’s absolutely what we had to do to keep our classes and our communities together, but we’re glad it’s hopefully over and we’re doing all the right things to keep everybody safe and healthy. But it’s what we had to do, but we’re glad to be back in-person.

Josh Miller: I’m going to toss it over to Dr. Gwynette. I didn’t mean to take more of your time, but those questions just popped in my mind when she mentioned it, so I thought I would ask.

Wendy Dawson: It was a great question.

Brandi Timmons: Great questions, Josh.

Dr. Gwynette: He’s an awesome host. Yeah, I just wanted to pick up on one of the, I think great creations that Social Motion has developed. Wendy Dawson came to a conference in February, 2018 here in Charleston, the conference was called, Power of the Parents, and she did an awesome presentation about Social Motion skills and the origins of the program. And I think the centerpiece of that presentation was what she calls, the life path, and it’s, if you haven’t seen it, it’s available on socia motionskills.org. You can see it there, it’s a beautiful graphic. And Wendy, can you take us through that graphic and how you came up with it, and what it means?

Wendy Dawson: Thank you. I can’t believe it was 2018 already. So, if you’ve been with us over this hour, you probably have heard about the expansive programs that we do. We do a lot with a lot of different age levels, and what we found was we needed a way to communicate to parents and to partners and to funders, really the scope of what we do and why that is important. So again, going back to being a parent, one of the things I needed was a program that would grow and morph and change and continue with my child. And so, Dr. Gwynette you asked, “How did we start?” We started with that one class at the tween, teem age level, and then obviously we had to expand to an earlier age group and an older age group. So, the timeline really represents all of the ages and the life path journey that we travel with these families.

From diagnosis, as early as about two to three to four, they’re coming to us in Houston because they’ve gotten this message from their diagnostician, and so they now know that their life and their child’s life has changed. And so what does that mean? Sometimes they’re grieving, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re just curious. So from the primary level, when we’re helping them understand that life is complicated, but walk in the path that we’ve walked, and we’re going to show you this is basically what you can expect. In the elementary years we need to work with the teachers, we need to start building friendships. What does that mean? How does your child act? How do we start getting early intervention in. Working to the tween years, where that self esteem is so important so that we can head off anxiety and depression that we know is so often related to these diagnoses.

We work very closely with teachers and with therapists, that partnership is very beneficial. We start transition really early, like Brandi said, about 13 years old, getting them into the transition center, understanding, what are they like? Where are their natural talents? Do they like space? Do they like geology? Do they like art? Do they like writing? Do they like computer activities? Because we found that those natural talents are going to help them find like-minded friends, find hobbies, and the hobbies become the jobs. So how can we support them and what they’re already good at so we can celebrate those successes. Volunteering is huge, we start building resumes, that they have to learn how to take feedback and instruction from others. So you can see as we walk along this timeline, the skills really build upon each other, placing them in work so they can have an independent life, obviously with the goal at the end being fulfilled, independence, that they can live as happily in the community as possible in an independent life.

Dr. Gwynette: So exciting. We’re going to put the life path graphic on our YouTube video of this podcast. So if you’re listening on iTunes or on Spotify, and you want to see the Social Motion skills life path, you can certainly go to their site, but we’ll also have it overlaid on our video podcast, which will be up on our YouTube page. So, just amazing work by Wendy Dawson and Brandi Timmons. Before I forget, I want to give you their, where you can check them out, socialmotionskills.org, and then of course you can also follow them on Facebook. You can also follow them on Instagram, it’s social_motion. And then on Twitter, it’s @socialmotion_. So, they’re very active on social media, they’re a great follow, so check them out. And we wanted to thank you guys so much for your time. I’ve had conversations with you guys offline that I’m a believer, and I believe that you guys are being called to do the tremendous work that you’re doing. Do you guys feel like faith plays a part in your success?

Wendy Dawson: We say that every day, don’t we Brandi?

Brandi Timmons: Every day. Every day.

Dr. Gwynette: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, I’m definitely giving a shout out to God for all the amazing things that He’s doing through you guys in Houston, throughout Texas, and I think throughout the country, and hopefully the world. So thank you all for your time. Give it up for Josh for doing a great job on the interview.

Brandi Timmons: Good job Josh.

Wendy Dawson: Go Josh.

Dr. Gwynette: [crosstalk 00:36:06] You can, again, follow us on the Autism News Network, you can go to theautismnewsnetwork.com, and we are of course on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We look forward to having you join us on our next podcast. Thank you so much for joining us, have a great day.

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