Sharing the Message: Never Underestimate Individuals With Autism

Katie has a goal to become a public speaker. Her biggest fan has been there since the beginning. They both have a story to share about autism acceptance.

It’s been about a quarter of a century since Katie Zarnowitz and Jamie McGillivary first met. As a college student preparing herself for a career of teaching and supporting kids with autism, McGillivary was learning the fundamentals of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) when Zarnowitz, a preschooler with pigtails and a new diagnosis of autism, became her first-ever client.

They worked together daily to build the little girl’s communication and social skills until Zarnowitz was about 6 years old. They remained in touch for years thereafter.

It’s been about a quarter of a century since Katie Zarnowitz and Jamie McGillivary first met. As a college student preparing herself for a career of teaching and supporting kids with autism, McGillivary was learning the fundamentals of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) when Zarnowitz, a preschooler with pigtails and a new diagnosis of autism, became her first-ever client.

They worked together daily to build the little girl’s communication and social skills until Zarnowitz was about 6 years old. They remained in touch for years thereafter.

Twenty-five years, and thousands of life experiences later, Zarnowitz and McGillivary began working together again, this time as colleagues, as Zarnowitz, now a young woman of 29, joined the team at Healing Haven, the ABA therapy center with supportive services for individuals with autism and other developmental needs in Madison Heights.

Zarnowitz brings many skills to the workplace and is an inspiration to those around her, says McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Owner and Executive Director at Healing Haven. “I asked her to do some research for a recent project about creating assessment systems for work placements. I gave her a deadline of one week, but didn’t know what to expect,” McGillivary says. “She sent me 15 pages of research. I was blown away.”

Meaningful contributions in work and in life

While COVID has imposed recent challenges for working in the office at Healing Haven, Zarnowitz does small projects from home. Prior to this, she helped with cataloging systems, entering data into the computer and organizing client resources, like toys and books. In fact, working at Healing Haven is just one of her jobs; she also works at her local library in Genesee County, close to where she lives.

“I work at the library three times a week, shelving books, helping with book deliveries and mailing out books to other branches,” Zarnowitz says. “Sometimes I work with other people and sometimes I work on my own. I prefer when it’s quiet.”

During the interview process at the Healing Haven, every employee is asked to consider how their goals and passions could contribute to their work at the clinic.

“For Katie, it was no different. We asked her the same questions, and she shared with us that she would like to be a public speaker,” McGillivary says. Zarnowitz, who says she studied public speaking at community college, got an opportunity to practice her skills at an open house to share the mission of Healing Haven with the community.

Before a crowd of families and members of the autism community, Zarnowitz delivered an articulate, well-written speech with full eye contact around the room. Her message was clear: Never underestimate individuals with autism.

“I want people to know my story,” Zarnowitz says. “That I went to school and graduated and went to community college and have had lots of jobs. It’s been a pretty good life for me and now I’m trying to live independently. I’m very capable and a great friend.”

That moment took McGillivary right back to the very first time she met Zarnowitz, who was a shy, verbally challenged 3-year-old with autism. It impressed upon her just how much Zarnowitz achieved when she took command of the room with her presence.

“Next to my own children being born, it was the best day of my life,” McGillivary says. “It was like seeing the purpose and the mission in perfect clarity when Katie stood in front of parents to tell them there is hope for their own children.”

Autism acceptance

At a time when people are urged to open their minds to those with autism and other special needs, McGillivary urges everyone to look beyond autism awareness to true acceptance — and recognition of the valuable contributions individuals with autism can make to the workplace and the wider community.

“Katie is a really neat presence in our clinic. What better way is there to integrate into the workforce than in a place that fully supports autism acceptance?” McGillivary says. “We’re reaching past autism awareness because what good does it do to be aware? Acceptance makes it an active experience. Acceptance means talking to someone with autism, asking them to lunch, or simply taking the time to learn about them.”

As she reflects on her experiences, McGillivary recognizes that for all the support and ABA therapies she provides to the kids and families at Healing Haven, not one of them would be there if it wasn’t for Zarnowitz. “Not a single one would be there if it wasn’t for her — and for the fact that she has autism,” she says. “Katie has profoundly impacted me and countless others because she came into our lives.”

That inherent value exists because — and not in spite of — Zarnowitz’s autism, and it’s a story McGillivary says can be applied again and again to other young people with autism who have productive futures ahead.

“How do we teach the world that these kids have a ton of value that is so often missed?” McGillivary says. “Katie is wonderful and she has a kind heart. She wants to help others. It’s so wonderful seeing her live out her purpose in life and knowing from start to finish what she needed to get to that point. In no small part, Katie was my motivation for building my clinics.”

Katie Zarnowitz lives in a separate apartment in her parents’ home. When she’s not working, she enjoys reading and spending time with her dogs. She’s currently working on a book review website to share the joy of reading with reluctant readers with autism. Learn more about Healing Haven at thehealinghaven.net.

Twenty-five years, and thousands of life experiences later, Zarnowitz and McGillivary began working together again, this time as colleagues, as Zarnowitz, now a young woman of 29, joined the team at Healing Haven, the ABA therapy center with supportive services for individuals with autism and other developmental needs in Madison Heights.

Zarnowitz brings many skills to the workplace and is an inspiration to those around her, says McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Owner and Executive Director at Healing Haven. “I asked her to do some research for a recent project about creating assessment systems for work placements. I gave her a deadline of one week, but didn’t know what to expect,” McGillivary says. “She sent me 15 pages of research. I was blown away.”

Meaningful contributions in work and in life

While COVID has imposed recent challenges for working in the office at Healing Haven, Zarnowitz does small projects from home. Prior to this, she helped with cataloging systems, entering data into the computer and organizing client resources, like toys and books. In fact, working at Healing Haven is just one of her jobs; she also works at her local library in Genesee County, close to where she lives.

“I work at the library three times a week, shelving books, helping with book deliveries and mailing out books to other branches,” Zarnowitz says. “Sometimes I work with other people and sometimes I work on my own. I prefer when it’s quiet.”

During the interview process at the Healing Haven, every employee is asked to consider how their goals and passions could contribute to their work at the clinic.

“For Katie, it was no different. We asked her the same questions, and she shared with us that she would like to be a public speaker,” McGillivary says. Zarnowitz, who says she studied public speaking at community college, got an opportunity to practice her skills at an open house to share the mission of Healing Haven with the community.

Before a crowd of families and members of the autism community, Zarnowitz delivered an articulate, well-written speech with full eye contact around the room. Her message was clear: Never underestimate individuals with autism.

“I want people to know my story,” Zarnowitz says. “That I went to school and graduated and went to community college and have had lots of jobs. It’s been a pretty good life for me and now I’m trying to live independently. I’m very capable and a great friend.”

That moment took McGillivary right back to the very first time she met Zarnowitz, who was a shy, verbally challenged 3-year-old with autism. It impressed upon her just how much Zarnowitz achieved when she took command of the room with her presence.

“Next to my own children being born, it was the best day of my life,” McGillivary says. “It was like seeing the purpose and the mission in perfect clarity when Katie stood in front of parents to tell them there is hope for their own children.”

Autism acceptance

At a time when people are urged to open their minds to those with autism and other special needs, McGillivary urges everyone to look beyond autism awareness to true acceptance — and recognition of the valuable contributions individuals with autism can make to the workplace and the wider community.

“Katie is a really neat presence in our clinic. What better way is there to integrate into the workforce than in a place that fully supports autism acceptance?” McGillivary says. “We’re reaching past autism awareness because what good does it do to be aware? Acceptance makes it an active experience. Acceptance means talking to someone with autism, asking them to lunch, or simply taking the time to learn about them.”

As she reflects on her experiences, McGillivary recognizes that for all the support and ABA therapies she provides to the kids and families at Healing Haven, not one of them would be there if it wasn’t for Zarnowitz. “Not a single one would be there if it wasn’t for her — and for the fact that she has autism,” she says. “Katie has profoundly impacted me and countless others because she came into our lives.”

That inherent value exists because — and not in spite of — Zarnowitz’s autism, and it’s a story McGillivary says can be applied again and again to other young people with autism who have productive futures ahead.

“How do we teach the world that these kids have a ton of value that is so often missed?” McGillivary says. “Katie is wonderful and she has a kind heart. She wants to help others. It’s so wonderful seeing her live out her purpose in life and knowing from start to finish what she needed to get to that point. In no small part, Katie was my motivation for building my clinics.”

Katie Zarnowitz lives in a separate apartment in her parents’ home. When she’s not working, she enjoys reading and spending time with her dogs. She’s currently working on a book review website to share the joy of reading with reluctant readers with autism. Learn more about Healing Haven at thehealinghaven.net.

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