April is Autism Awareness Month, and Tom Flis, senior behavior specialist, works with adults with autism on our Intellectual Disabilities and Autism Unit. We sat down with Tom to learn more about what a behavior specialist does, and why he loves his job at Sheppard Pratt.
Q: What is a behavior specialist?
A: Behavior specialists look at behavior to determine why a person does what they are doing. There’s a reason behind every behavior, and we look at environmental influences to figure out the causes of negative behaviors. We look at how to break the cycle of negative behaviors and how to reinforce new, positive behaviors. For example, someone who is unable to communicate verbally may be hitting his head against the wall because he’s learned that every time he wants or needs something, hitting himself in the head has gotten the attention he wanted. Our goal is to try to manage problem behaviors and to teach better, adaptive behaviors.
Q: What types of patients do you work with?
A: I work with adults with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), genetic disorders, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and intellectual disabilities. The adult population is different than the child population, because sometimes these adults have had problem behaviors for a long time, so it’s much harder to break those behaviors.
Q: How do you work with patients once they discharge from the unit to ensure they continue practicing the positive behaviors you have taught them?
A: We’re definitely challenged by time limitations – patients are on the unit for about two weeks, so we try to accomplish a lot in a short time. And, modifying behavior is a long-term process. We perform numerous assessments, work to create intensive behavior plans, and determine what works and what doesn’t for our patients. It takes continuous reinforcement to make behavior stick, so we try to connect our patients’ caretakers with outside resources when they’re ready to discharge.
Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: Many of our patients want to be able to express themselves, but because of their illness, they’re not able to. It’s amazingly rewarding when we’re able to manage a problem behavior and then teach a new, adaptive behavior that allows them to be more independent and express their feelings.
Thank you to Tom for sharing with us, and for helping to change lives every day!