SAAAC Alumni Volunteer: Shalini Siva
One of the first experiences I have had working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was as a volunteer at SAAAC in 2013. I had just completed my master’s degree in psychology in New York, at which point I realized I wanted to work with young people with mental health and/or developmental disabilities, and was looking to gain additional experience working with children with ASD and their families. Upon returning to Toronto, I’d heard about SAAAC being an organization where individuals with ASD could come with their families to receive services and respite, and I immediately thought this was a place I would want to get involved, given that stigma and a lack of awareness about ASD and the services and supports that are available is high in various ethnic minority groups, including the South Asian community.
I was unsure what to expect in terms of the number of families utilizing SAAAC’s free services, and was overwhelmed by seeing the number of children and young adults and their families – on the one hand, it was a surprise to see so many South Asian families, for the reasons mentioned above, but it was also so comforting to see that there was a place that these families could come together and feel safe and supported, and to not feel alone in their experiences of raising a child with ASD.
I was immediately drawn toward volunteering with SAAAC, and spent the next two years volunteering on a weekly basis. I began as a one-to-one volunteer in the after-school program, working with children of various ages on academic (e.g., math) or adaptive (e.g., hand washing) skill development based on their individual needs. I was fortunate to learn applied behaviour analysis (ABA) techniques through volunteer training workshops offered by SAAAC. Eventually, when I felt comfortable with the skills I had learned, I was able to train new volunteers as well. I also learned to work with individuals with behavioural challenges, with the appropriate use of positive reinforcements and specific intervention techniques, and to learn to take note of why difficult behaviours occurred, in order to support the individuals’ needs in a better way.
I had the opportunity to work with children on their social skills development through song and play, help implement a program-wide method for tracking progress toward each individual’s unique goals, assist with program wide events and outings, and learn about different types of technology that can be used to support communication. I also gained a great deal of insight into the challenges faced by families simply by speaking with them about their experiences, many of whom face additional difficulties being recent immigrants or refugees to Canada.
Through my experiences at SAAAC I knew I wanted to be able to work with children with ASD and their families in some way in my career. In 2015, I began my PhD in School/Applied Child Psychology at McGill University, and am now finishing up my second year in the Behaviour, Autism, and NeuroDevelopment (BAND) Research Group, under the supervision of Dr. Eve-Marie Quintin, and the McGill Youth Study Team, under the supervision of Dr. Jacob Burack. Our research looks at how children with ASD are able to perceive emotion through music, an activity that many children with ASD enjoy and have an affinity for. Ultimately, the long-term goal of this research is to be able to inform strengths-based approaches to intervention, for example, by potentially using music education to teach emotional awareness and social skills in school or through music therapy.
There is a great need for increased awareness of and access to culturally-sensitive services for children with ASD. As a future psychologist, my goal is to be able to provide assessment and intervention services to children with ASD, as well as continue to do scientific research towards finding the best evidence-based practices and policies which will support these families. I would not on my way to becoming a psychologist and pursing research towards benefiting individuals with ASD, without having had such important learning opportunities as a volunteer at SAAAC, and I hope to be able to help be involved in the SAAAC community again in the future.
For more information about Shalini’s research, visit: www.mcgill.ca/researchband