Julie Miller is the clinical director and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Insight Behavior Partnership in Denver, Colorado, a group that provides Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services for people with autism and other developmental disorders. Insight Behavior is part of Proof Positive’s Autism Wellbeing Alliance, a community dedicated to enhancing wellbeing outcomes for autistic people, providers, families, and caregivers.

Julie also attended Proof Positive’s Learning Institute, a professional development workshop for a select group of leaders in autism services. At the Learning Institute, she enhanced her knowledge of the science and skills of wellbeing and learned how these skills can be adapted for autism intervention, including ABA. But you’ll want to hear it from her perspective:

In the short seven months I’ve been implementing Character Strengths, the transformative power of the science and skills of positive psychology has unfolded before my eyes with my clients and the Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) on my team. 

I’ve had the privilege of watching one of my clients, Summit, master the “Learn” and “Practice” sections of Character Strengths. Despite just turning six, Summit wowed us all by moving to the next level—teaching and modeling Character Strengths for his peers. 

Summit uses video game references to help him make sense of life experiences. He now tracks the use of his Character  Strengths during daily challenges or quests he must complete throughout the day.

He sees himself as a small person with big strengths—a superhero of sorts. He uses language such as  Protector of the Peace when he must focus on staying centered and giving his brain and body what they need to feel healthy and make safe choices. Using his Guardian of the Magic card, he can choose easy activities and maintain the status quo in his classroom. The Monster Slayer card requires him to choose two tasks he has already mastered and challenges him with one boring, complex, or annoying task.  

And when he’s not feeling up for the Monster Slayer card? He knows there’s no shame in stepping back and choosing a different quest. 

Just seven months ago, Summit was too overwhelmed with expectations to be in a regular classroom. His parents found hope after finding a school placement willing to work outside the box. Once I taught Summit about his Character Strengths of Humor, Love, Love of Learning, Curiosity, and Honesty, he realized he already uses these strengths to help him throughout the day. He can now be in his classroom 100 percent of his day, deal with conflict, perform easy and challenging tasks, and even model them for his peers. Summit no longer asks which is a stay-home day or a school day. He knows he can attend school and wants to be with his peers and teachers. The providers on his team, including myself, have shifted the focus from his deficits to shining a light on what makes his life better. 

Gone are the days of external rewards because Summit knows and values his worth as a human being. His reward is happiness and fulfillment, knowing he can capitalize on his strengths (superpowers) to feel good. Keeping with his beloved video theme, he “unlocks achievements” like walking through the hallways at school independently and being at recess without a 1:1 support staff. 

I believe when we focus on the negative, our students are afraid of failing. They think, “Will I not be able to return to my classroom, my teachers, and my peers?” They experience anxiety around that. The surmounting pressure of not knowing how to turn their day around and not knowing what will happen next is too overwhelming.

But that’s not how Summit thinks anymore. He taught us that we should learn and notice our “superpowers” because then we can approach every situation confidently and fearlessly. He is working hard to feel confident about being with his peers and not fearing being sent home or kicked out. His skills won’t fail him.

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