ABA GRADS MEETING THE NEEDS OF PEOPLE WITH AUTISM IN NEW JERSEY
ASHLEY KEMMERER: PROVIDING EXCELLENT SERVICES WITH COMPASSION
Ashley Kemmerer recalls how when she and her husband first met, she told him she wanted to be a director in an organization serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This past year she reached that milestone when she was selected for the position of director of training and clinic operations at Graham Behavior Services based in West Long Branch, New Jersey, which serves people of all ages with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
Kemmerer appreciates working with clients at all stages of development, but an area of particular interest to her is the adult population. “There is such a need for high-quality services for adults when a person turns 21. Many parents are not prepared,” said Kemmerer, who is in the dissertation phase of doctoral studies in applied behavior analysis at Caldwell University. She is proud to be working at Graham, a program funded by the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities that addresses the needs of adults with ASD—a place that offers “high-quality services from a place of compassion.” The agency provides clients with vocational and job skills, helps them maintain employment and build skills, and operates an adult clinic that partners with businesses to give clients work experiences.
Kemmerer’s journey into the ABA profession started when she was a preteen. Her mother was a special education teacher, and in the summers as a teen, Kemmerer worked at a camp for children with special needs. “I always felt comfortable with people with special needs.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northeastern University—and a master’s in applied behavior analysis from Sage University, Kemmerer worked at schools and private companies that provided home-based or residential services for individuals with ASD; she also earned her board-certified BCBA credential.
“I knew that if I was going to be considered most knowledgeable in my field, I needed to learn and grow for my clients,” said Kemmerer of her journey to Caldwell’s ABA doctoral program.
She worked in the Center for Autism and ABA with clients and closely with faculty and attended conferences and was introduced to professionals in the field, “people who wrote our textbooks.” Professor of ABA Jason Vladescu, Ph.D., BCBA-D, was assigned as her doctoral advisor. That, she said, was “an amazing experience,” especially “with all that happened in the last two years. He always reached out, always checked in on me.” He is currently helping her navigate her research project for which she has completed the literature review.
Ask Kemmerer what her passion is and she says it is split “50-50.” She enjoys working with clients and families and seeing the positive impact she can have “in whatever way is meaningful to them,” from learning to wash their hands to helping decrease stress so they can attend family events. She also gets gratification out of seeing the difference she is making in those who are newer to the field so they can become leaders too.
SANDRA GOMES: HELPING FAMILIES BE MORE CONNECTED
Sandra Gomes remembers the joy a student’s parents had when their son started eating foods other than bacon. It was a big step. The child, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), was a learner of Gomes’s at Somerset Hills Learning Institute where she is an assistant director and supervision coordinator.
To help the child, and as a part of her supervision requirement to become a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), Gomes worked with her former Caldwell professor Dr. Sharon Reeve. Gomes had multiple conversations with Reeve, applied interventions and drew on what she had learned in the “Feeding Interventions” course she had taken as a graduate student in the University’s applied behavior analysis (ABA) program. By the time that boy left the school, he had an “extensive repertoire” of new foods, said Gomes. These kinds of successes make her work worthwhile. A long-time employee at the institute, she worked for several years with the students she affectionately refers to as the “little guys” and with their parents. Now her attention is mostly with the 13- to 15-year-olds, training staff on how to implement strategies and working with teachers, instructional aides and parents.
Gomes got into the field right after college, having earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Kean University. She worked for a few years and then enrolled in Caldwell’s master’s program in ABA. Once Caldwell began its doctoral program, Reeve encouraged Gomes to enroll.
Thanks to the supervision of Reeve, Gomes developed a love for research and presented at conferences where she had the chance to network with internationally known professionals. Reeve advised Gomes on her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation on “joint attending” in which two people share attention to an object or event in the environment and monitor each other’s attention to that object or event.
“Caldwell was the cherry on the top that propelled me forward in my career in an exceptional way,” Gomes said. “Caldwell gave me the formal education that helped me understand the science I was already implementing and made me a much more effective clinician.”
She sees how Caldwell is ahead of other academic programs. “You can’t compare how Caldwell prepares students to be leaders in ABA,” said Gomes. “It was never just about ensuring that we passed the class or the test. It was so much more than that. It was about applying what we learned to our day-to-day lives and work, forming relationships with colleagues in our field and disseminating what we learned so others can replicate it.”
Gomes has stayed at Somerset Hills Learning Institute for nearly 20 years because she sees the difference the institute is making. “It comes back to helping families be more connected.” When children with ASD can go on a family outing, eat dinner with the family and watch a movie together on the couch, it is transformative, said Gomes. “The change we make for students affects the entire family.”