Clinical Director, Autism Learning Partners; Age 35
To hear Erin Zwisler tell it, working with autistic children every day is challenging and, at the same time, very satisfying.
“Every day is different,” she said. “The children are teaching us just like we are teaching them.”
She joined Autism Learning Partners in 2018 and has been credited with growing its clinician team and client base, as well as expanding the group’s locations into Connecticut, with offices in Hartford and New Haven.
Within the Western Mass. autism community, Zwisler is known as an ally and an advocate for families. In that role, she has forged dynamic and diverse partnerships in the larger community.
As a board-certified behavior analyst, she was drawn to her career choice by a fascination with applied behavior analysis (ABA), a scientific approach to behavior proven to work well with autistic individuals. Unlike other approaches, she noted, ABA helps those with autism to achieve at higher levels.
“Let’s say we want to encourage a particular behavior from a child,” Zwisler said. “We look at the environment to understand what barriers they are facing, then change one thing in the environment, and we begin to see progress.”
As an example, if a child sees a toy on a shelf and expresses they want it by crying, a clinician will help the child communicate what they want and model how to say it.
“So, the next time the toy is out of reach, the environment you’ve set up and the prompts you’ve exposed the child to make it possible for them to request it on their own,” she said.
COVID-19 presented a challenge to Zwisler and her staff because so much of their services are provided in the home. In addition to nervous parents who feared letting outsiders in, the children suddenly saw clinicians wearing masks and could no longer give high-fives or hugs.
But she said her team treated living with COVID like any new skill they teach their clients. “We meet them where they are, then slowly and surely increase the demands and provide positive reinforcement as they achieve each step in what they’ve learned.”
Zwisler remains passionate about her work because every small success helps build behaviors to promote independent living in the long run.
“A child’s progress can be amazing,” she said. “From holding a fork to speaking their first words, we see big accomplishments from them.”