Caldwell, N.J., April 1, 2019 – Ben Tepper enjoys taking rides on the elevators at Caldwell University. He also likes visiting a professor who has sound effects on his computer. And he is happy when he goes to the mailroom accompanied by graduate students to pick up the mail, which he sorts by himself and delivers on the mail cart to faculty members in the Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis at Caldwell. “His strength in reading and phonics helps him with that job,” says Ben’s mom, Pam Tepper.
The center has been an essential part of Ben’s life on weekdays for the past five years. The 19-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, has been learning from graduate students who are aiming to be the future educators of people with autism spectrum disorder. In a state with the highest prevalence of ASD in the nation, the master’s students learn hands-on with the guidance of faculty nationally known in the field of applied behavior analysis. ABA is a science-based approach to learning proven to be highly effective in treating people with ASD.
Several years ago, Caldwell faculty saw that there were not enough trained educators in ABA to teach those with ASD in New Jersey and began offering the first master’s and the only doctoral program in ABA in the state. The Center for Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis was founded in 2011 to provide exceptional assessment and intervention services for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities. “Our goal is to teach socially significant skills through the use of evidence-based practices based on the principles of applied behavior analysis,” says Dr. Sharon Reeve, professor of ABA and a founder of the center. Over the years, the center has had learners ranging in age from one through 20 years old on various levels of the spectrum. It is open to learners of any age.
Using evidence-based practices, faculty members and graduate students have helped Ben through many teenage transitions, including learning how to go to work, as they assisted him in his first days at his places of employment. Today Ben works at Calabria’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Livingston, where he sets up tables, takes down chairs and puts out spices, and at a print center, where he shreds and sorts mail. He is also learning skills at Antonio’s Salon and Spa in Livingston. There he organizes towels when they come out of the dryer and sweeps the hair, “which has proved to be more difficult,” says his mom, because when “you are in people’s space and you have to learn the social etiquette” and when you are doing the work, you have to learn that “we stick with staying on topic.”
A focus on employment is very important to the faculty at the ABA center considering upwards of 90 percent of individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities reportedly may remain unemployed after high school. “As individuals move into their teenage years, a major focus of our efforts is on teaching job skills and job sampling. Our goal is to help put individuals in the best position to obtain real jobs for real pay,” says Dr. Jason Vladescu, associate professor of ABA.
For Pam and her husband, Rich, the journey to get to where they are today was a tough one. Pam remembers when she first brought Ben to the center. They had been struggling for some time to find a program with professionals who could meet Ben’s specific needs. “We were stuck.” Meeting with Dr. Reeve was a turning point for the Teppers. “That cautious optimism turned into hope,” Pam says.
The ABA faculty created a behavior intervention plan for Ben based on the results of a functional analysis. With the “data-driven protocol in ABA, they were able to show my district, even after three months, a lesser amount of aggression,” Pam says. “Outsiders might not have noticed, but they knew from the data that the curve was going down. We took their lead on every little thing,” says Pam of the advice she received from the professors.
Pam began going to the center for the weekly training provided for the parents of learners. There she could see Ben’s behavior “as good as it could be.” The Teppers did not make changes at home until the graduate students and faculty made home visits to help the Teppers implement the same behavior plan to manage Ben’s disruptive behavior.
Along the way there were a number of goals, says Pam, such as learning about showering and brushing teeth and not throwing food or stepping on the dog on purpose. “All of these little things, that weren’t so little, have improved,” she says.
As Ben made progress, he and the graduate students visited neighborhood restaurants and stores where he learned how to interact in the community. Then he was ready to move on to employment.
Chris Colasurdo is a doctoral student in ABA who received his master’s in ABA at Caldwell. Working with Ben and seeing his “amazing progress” have reinforced why he wants to go into the field. “His attitude is infectious. It is impossible to have a bad day,” Colasurdo says. “He brightens everyone up, on campus and anytime we go out … it transfers over to everyone he spends time with.”
Employees on campus say they have grown from their interactions with Ben. Don O’Hagan, chief information officer for Caldwell, says Ben visited his office almost every afternoon for four years. “With no fear, he was loaded with a series of questions as he scanned my messy desk.” It was the little details that were important to Ben, O’Hagan says. “He helped me give thanks for my blessings and made me realize I have to be myself at all times.”
The Caldwell program has enriched the Teppers’ family life. Ben says Caldwell is “great.” His family agrees. “I can’t even tell you how supported we feel,” Pam says. It is the “the outside-of-the-box thinking and the very individualized approach that have made this so successful. I can’t imagine that wouldn’t happen for any student that is in crisis.” Each person with an autism spectrum disorder needs individualized attention, contends Pam, and she points to a saying in the autism community that “If you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism.”
Pam gets gratification out of knowing that the master’s students experience firsthand how they can make a difference in the lives of students—“because Ben is not the only one who suffers from aggression,” she says. “Faculty members Sharon Reeve and Jason Vladescu and the graduate students at Caldwell’s Center for Autism and ABA have undoubtedly changed the trajectory of Ben’s future.”
Pam is passionate about sharing her journey with others. A former kindergarten teacher (she decided to stay home after having Ben), she is president of a Livingston-based nonprofit, Parents and Professionals for Exceptional Children, which educates and empowers parents so they can advocate for their children.
She shares her family’s story in creative videos she produces for her vlog called “the Education of BT.” The episodes feature Ben, Pam, Rich and Ben’s brother, Matt. They show the milestones and challenges of Ben’s life, from trips to the dentist and Disneyworld, to when Ben learned to count to five, to his ride on the merry-go-round at the Turtle Back Zoo, to job training at Calabria’s. “My hope is that somebody else can benefit,” Pam says.
She has concerns about what happens when Ben turns 21 since there is a lack of services for adults with ASD, but she says, “You have to be thankful in life and thankful for what is today. There was a time that we didn’t have that. And now we do. And I want to share that with people.” And her family’s journey continues. “I don’t know where it is going to end, but I know that the program at Caldwell has paved a different path for him, a positive, hopeful path.”
To see Pam’s vlog, “Autism and the Education of BT,” go to https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiXWzpXp_LxLEJAD3cFKqEw.
To find out more about Caldwell University’s Department of Autism and ABA, go to https://www.caldwell.edu/graduate/academic-department/applied-behavior-analysis.
For information on Caldwell University’s Center for Autism and ABA, visit http://www.caldwelluniversityautismcenter.org/.