My Global Autism Project Experience: Reflections in ABA Therapy, Personal Growth, and Diversity

My work at ABS Kids and in ABA therapy led me to a life-changing journey to Kenya with the Global Autism Project 

My name is Milena Suarez, and I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. I completed my studies in psychology at the Universidad Católica de Colombia in my home city. During my training, I worked in legal and forensic psychology in the prosecutor's office, a government institution in which I provided care to victims of domestic violence. At that time, I never thought I’d be working with autistic children or in ABA (applied behavior analysis) therapy.  

In 2020, I moved to the United States and began my search for psychology work. During that time, I came across a position that I had never heard of but found incredibly interesting – registered behavior technician (RBT). That’s when I started researching ABA (applied behavior analysis).  

Although I was familiar with behaviorism as a philosophical branch in psychology, I did not know that ABA therapy existed. I also did not know how services aimed at children with autism worked. In Colombia, the care and service for people diagnosed with autism is limited, as it is a mostly unexplored field. 

My interest in applied behavior analysis increased when I considered how it could benefit people in Colombia, and the great impact it would have on services for the autistic community in my home country. In my research, I did not limit myself in what I wanted to learn about ABA. I also wanted to identify companies that supported their employees and provided opportunities and encouragement for personal and professional growth in applied behavior analysis. That is when I found ABS Kids.  

I decided to apply to ABS Kids, and without a doubt, it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Working at ABS Kids, I have not only had the opportunity to pursue a master's degree in ABA, but I have also been able to attend different conferences to keep up to date with the new interventions, learn, and discuss with other colleagues about ABA. 

A Journey to Africa with the Global Autism Project 

Due to the love and passion, I feel for my work at my center in Tennessee, I wanted to take my process as a therapist to the next level. So, I decided to apply to volunteer with the Global Autism Project, which would take me to Africa.  

Once I was accepted into the program, I organized a fundraiser to raise $10,000 for the trip. It was stressful, but I reached my goal and was able to volunteer in Nairobi, Kenya in October 2023. I volunteered for a week, with the main objective being to visit the Kaizora Center, a place that provides care services to children with developmental disabilities. During the volunteering, I received training in leadership, cultural competence, and many other skills that prepared us to face all the challenges and new experiences we had in Nairobi. 

During our time there, we carried out a series of different activities such as interviews and observations to get to know the Kaizora Center team and determine what information they would like to receive from us. Based on that, the Global Autism Project team created a training plan that was presented to the Kaizora therapists, which was formed by occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, behavior technicians, and special education teachers, among others. 

Fortunately, the group I traveled with was made up of diverse and highly qualified professionals who came from education and health, such as special education teachers, child life specialists, RBTs (registered behavior technicians), and BCBAs (board-certified behavior analysts). Professionals who worked in different contexts and with autistic adults. This allowed us to establish a common language and devise an ABA training strategy, accessible to different professions without using jargon or limiting access. 

We also worked with a company called Grounded, which after a meeting with people from Global Autism Project and Kaizora Center decided to offer jobs to young autistic adults from the center who were ready to start their working life. This experience was undoubtedly one of the most impactful in my career, being able to be part of the first day of work for three young, non-vocal autistic people, and seeing how the rest of the employees welcomed them. Those people also had many questions about how to provide better support for these young people, which filled my heart and gave me many more reasons to want to continue working in this area. 

A truly rewarding experience 

As part of the trip, we participated in dinners with autistic adult advocates of autism, cultural activities, and continued daily training on soft skills, leadership, communication, and active listening, among others. 

This experience has been one of the most rewarding both professionally and personally, I am immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to travel and be part of a group of such passionate professionals who love what they do. Also, the welcome we received from the Kaizora Center was always very warm, and their incredible willingness to teach us about their culture allowed for a close and strong relationship. 

This trip left me with so many reflections and thoughts, including many about ABA. I realized that Nairobi is more similar to Colombia than I imagined. Things like food and social behaviors. I managed to feel at home when I visited this incredible city, and I hope to be able to return soon and continue learning and contributing. 

Professionally, I think about my trip to Kenya almost every day – about the importance of active listening and thinking about cultural differences. It made me more aware of my beliefs and biases. I learned that volunteering is much more about what we bring with us than what we can physically give.  

“Doing with” & a passion for DEI 

One of my favorite phrases from the Global Autism Project is, “Do with and not for.” Understanding that phrase was a learning moment for me because sometimes we believe that we are “helping,” but without knowing or asking if someone needs our help. We did not go to Kenya to help. We went to work with a wonderful group of professionals in Nairobi, who taught us so many lessons as well. They opened the doors of their space so that we could also grow as professionals and learn from them, working together to improve services for the autistic community. 

Being involved with the Global Autism Project, along with getting out of my comfort zone to conduct a fundraiser, showed me how many people there are in this world who want to know about autism. This process also led me to participate in an interview for a Spanish-speaking radio station in Miami. I was able to discuss autism awareness, the challenges Spanish-speaking families face when trying to access ABA treatment, some myths about autism, and the importance of appropriate diagnosis and treatment during the early years of life. This experience has shown me what I can accomplish when I push myself out of my comfort zone. It wasn't the easiest process, but it was an experience full of learning opportunities. 

After this whole process, I decided to be part of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee at ABS Kids. My focus, and that of many of the members, is to work on providing equitable services for all our clients and families, providing high-quality care and services to all of those who need it, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, color, or country of origin. 

Being part of the DEIB committee at ABS Kids allows me to work on improving equal access for non-English-speaking families and clients. Also, it keeps me working on my professional development as I strive to become a more inclusive professional.  

This entire journey has truly changed my life. It’s opened my eyes to new worlds, different career paths, and goals, and given me a new passion – helping autistic children and their families and advocating on their behalf. I can’t wait to see what is next, and while I have learned that this can be a challenging career, I love it and am excited for what it will bring.

Be sure to check out Milena's What's Your Wow video interview here!