Meet Mark Jackson, the CEO of The Autism Therapy Group

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Meet Mark Jackson, the CEO of The Autism Therapy Group

Posted on: July 2nd, 2019 by Autism Therapy Group

 

Mark Jackson

Meet Mark Jackson, the CEO for The Autism Therapy Group. We sat down with Mark to find out more about him and how he and his team are working to create one of the best places to work through setting a higher standard for care.

 

This is our conversation.

 

Q: Let’s start by talking a bit about your background, Mark. What were some of the key events and accomplishments that led you to your work with The Autism Therapy Group?

 

Mark: I received my undergrad in business at Indiana University before spending over 2 years in the Peace Corps where I was assigned to serve an underprivileged community in Bulgaria. One of the things they say about the Peace Corps is that it’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love”, and I found that to be absolutely true.

 

After that experience, I wanted to find a way to use my business degree while fulfilling my passion for helping people. Healthcare felt like the right place to land because it’s a business-oriented industry with ample opportunity to help people. So, prior to coming to The Autism Therapy Group, I spent about 15 years working in growing healthcare companies, including service providers, and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago.

 

Ultimately, while the work I do today looks quite a bit different from the work I did in the Peace Corps 15 years ago, my career has come full circle. Just like then, today I wake up every morning and do as much as I can to really help people.

 

Q: What was it about The Autism Therapy Group that made you want to join the team?

 

Mark: I came onboard in December of last year, 2018, after talking with the former CEO for over a year and a half, working with her to understand the business, and making sure that it was a good fit from every angle. It was a long courtship and at the end of the day, I really felt that it was where I needed to be.

 

ATG is part of a solution to a huge problem – access to quality care for children with autism. As a husband and father of three young children, my wife and I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s best for our family. I know how important it is to feel that we have the resources to offer our children everything they need to grow into happy, healthy adults. This, I believe, is true for nearly every parent. We just want to do right by our children.

 

When you’re the parent of a child with autism, this can be even more complicated, and so we’ve made client and family support our primary focus – ATG wants to offer parents of children with autism the best possible resources so that their child can thrive.

 

Mark Jackson in the Peace Corps

 

Q: What are the challenges that parents face when seeking care for a child with autism and how is The Autism Therapy Group addressing those challenges?

 

Mark: Unfortunately, parents seeking ABA Therapy for their child can end up on a super long wait list with no guarantee that they’ll receive high-quality care. The best thing that parents of a child with autism can do is to get them into therapy early with a high-quality provider.

 

In fact, early intervention is proven to be a critical element for the success of ABA therapy, second only to quality. One of the most frustrating things that a parent can hear is that they must sit on a waitlist for a year.

 

So, our focus at ATG is to understand how we can bring high quality, thoughtful care to each of our clients in a way that allows us to reach some of the kids who need help now, but are having trouble finding it.

 

We also want to provide the highest standard of care. A big step forward in that direction is our recent BHCOE preliminary accreditation. Pursuing this certification is a way for us to impose on ourselves a high standard of care that’s been nationally set by a third party. I was so happy to see that our entire team embraced the pursuit of this accreditation because it proved to me that they are all committed to working harder to deliver high quality care.

 

Q: What about the therapist side of the industry? How are you creating an organization for which people want to work?

 

Mark: Working as an ABA therapist is a hard job, and unfortunately, it’s common for therapists to be overworked and burned out. This results in a high turnover rate within many organizations, and as a parent, you don’t want a new therapist every few months. Changing therapists on a regular basis is difficult and detrimental to the progress of the child.

 

To address this, we’ve drawn a hard line and determined to be respectful of our employees’ time, making sure that they have a sustainable work-life balance. This is the right thing to do for our people, but also the right thing to do for our parents because we can deliver a higher level of consistency. Also, by creating an organization that works hard to not overload our therapists, we are able to attract the best clinical talent.

 

One of the things that we talk about in meetings with our clinicians frequently is this: If, at any time, you feel that you wouldn’t put a child you care about  into our program, we need to immediately identify the problem and fix it.

 

This philosophy applies to the kind of workplace we are creating as well. I want our staff to love working here so much that they won’t hesitate to recommend us to a friend looking for a job in the field. I want our organization to be a place where people look forward to coming to work every day.

 

Creating that kind of an organization requires a high level of authentic communication and transparency. I also think that it’s key to our being able to offer high quality services.

 

Q: Would you share some more examples of what those standards look like on an operational level?

 

Mark: One of the biggest ways we’re different is in the level of training we provide to our therapists. We require that all our newly hired therapists to attain their RBT certification within 90 days of their start date. ATG provides the training and resources for these new hires to achieve this nationally recognized certification at no cost to make sure each clinician has the right skills to consistently provided high quality sessions.

 

We made the decision to institute this requirement because all of us felt that if we were the parent of a child with autism, we would absolutely want the therapist assigned to work with our child to have this certification. So, from that perspective, it was an easy decision.

 

We’ve also fine-tuned our hiring process to identify applicants who have a deep passion for this work. This is so that we can provide better care for the children we work with, but also as a way of building a team of people who will stay with us for the long term. We really want to create a culture in which our BCBA’s and therapists want to stay with ATG for a very long time.

 

Q: I know from past interviews with your Clinical Director and one of your Regional Directors, that the therapists at The Autism Therapy Group really feel that they can act in the best interest of the child at all times. As an organization, what are you doing to promote that kind of a culture?

 

Mark: One of the first things we did when I came on board was promote Brooke Belling to Clinical Director because we wanted her to be in a position where she could have a voice for our clinicians and for our clients.

 

I trust her judgement, her ability to understand difficult situations, and be able to make a decision to support our therapists in doing something that’s outside the playbook or adaptive to a unique set of circumstances. We don’t want to be a sterile, 100% process driven organization that can’t adapt to situations that are outside the norm.

 

She’s created a system so that every staff member has a mentor. Mentorship is focused on maintaining the highest standard of care in all situations and supporting our clinicians chosen career path. It has nothing to do with marketing or the organization’s bottom line. It’s all about supporting the passion of the therapist to do their best work. This Director role also means that every decision the leadership team makes has a clinical fingerprint on it.

 

Our therapists generally know, in every situation, what the right thing to do is. Our job as an organization is to empower them to do it.

 

We also go to great lengths to ensure that our therapists feel heard. It’s empowering to voice an idea and then see it implemented across the organization. Our leadership team wants our therapists to know that we not only wantfeedback and ideas, we crave it.

 

Q: What does it mean that The Autism Therapy Group takes “a concierge approach”?


Mark: 
It simply means that we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution.  From the moment we first talk to a parent, through the full course of therapy, and into discharge planning, we are focused on taking a thoughtful, personalized approach to each child.

 

We’re willing to look at cases that fall outside the “norm” because we’re ok with out-of-the-box thinking. These kids need help, but they don’t live in a vacuum. We do what we can to understand the reality of their circumstances and create a solution to serve their specific situation. We are also prepared to say that we are not the right mode of therapy for a child if we believe that they need something different. In those cases, we’ll spend a significant amount of time helping the family to get that child in the right hands.

 

I have such a passion to see The Autism Therapy Group succeed. This means maintaining a deep commitment to always doing the right thing, growing responsibly, and creating a great place for people to work.

 

Mark Jackson with his children.

 

Meet Brooke Belling MS, BCBA, and Clinical Director for The Autism Therapy Group

Posted on: June 5th, 2019 by Autism Therapy Group

Brooke Belling

 

Meet Brooke Belling, MS, BCBA, and the Clinical Director for The Autism Therapy Group. We sat down with Brooke to ask her about her background, her work with ATG, and the remarkable power of ABA therapy in the lives of children with autism.

 

This is our conversation.

 

Q: Tell me a bit about your background, Brooke. What led you to become an BCBA?

 

Brooke: My undergrad is from St. Ambrose University in Iowa, and I had originally planned to remain at that school through grad school, focusing on speech therapy. After a year in grad school at St. Ambrose, I decided to transfer home to the western suburbs of Chicago and finish up my degree here.

 

I was teaching full time and going to school part time, and I had a student who was in ABA therapy. Often, a BCBA would attend class and oversee the student’s sessions in school and that’s what sparked my interest in ABA therapy. Soon after that experience, I transferred to the Chicago School of Professional Psychology where I received a Master of Science in ABA.

 

Q: What was it about that initial introduction to ABA therapy that sparked your interest and drew you to this work?

 

Brooke: I’ve always had an interest in working with children with special needs, and my undergrad is in Special Education. But, with ABA therapy, I immediately saw the advantage of being able to work one-on-one with each child. One-to-one support can create impressive progress and it’s incredibly rewarding to witness that so directly.

 

When I was working in a special needs classroom, several of the kids in my class had autism. I was trying to work with them on speech problems, but it was frustrating because I knew that in order to be effective, I needed to somehow deal with their behavior first. So, when I saw how ABA therapy is so effective in modifying behavior, I knew that was the path towards setting these kids up for real learning.

 

When you can help a child control their behavior and navigate through social relationships, that’s when then they are in a position to learn.

 

Q: Why do you think ABA therapy is so effective in helping children with autism successfully move through the world?

 

Brooke: It’s so individualized. If you’re an atypical learner, fitting into a classroom situation can be extremely difficult. With ABA, we structure individualized programs to how the learner learns. We work in ways that each child will understand. It’s a very adaptable method and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so effective.

 

For example, one of my very first clients was a three year old little boy. Wherever this little boy’s family went, he would spend all of his time sitting in the parking lot memorizing the license plate numbers of all the cars parked there. He also had an extremely difficult time dealing with a multitude of normal daily events. If someone knocked over a water glass, for example, he just couldn’t handle it. He was also very literal. If someone said,“Hey silly!” He would respond, “My name isn’t silly.” His entire approach to life was very ridged and he had an impossible time adapting to new situation.

 

After just three years of intensive ABA therapy, he was able to be mainstreamed into the general education classroom and could successfully navigate a wide range of social situations. It’s such a great example of what can happen when the therapist, family, school, and anyone else the child is working with, comes together and works collaboratively on behalf of the child. This is the power of ABA.

 

Q: Is it experiences like that that makes this work so rewarding for you?

 

Brooke: Absolutely. There’s nothing better than a parent who looks at you with hope and optimism after watching their child reach a major milestone. I also love the variety that this work gives me. Every single day and every single client is different. No two situations are the same.

 

Because treatment is so individualized, it’s really important that the therapist is a good fit for the client. Unfortunately, we get a lot of parents who feel that ABA therapy is not an effective method because they’ve had an experience with a therapist who was not a good fit.

 

As a therapist, one of the most important things to consider is the capacity of the family to devote time to reinforcing behaviors outside of therapy. Behavior only maintains when it’s reinforced. ABA therapy is not as effective if the therapist works on skills that the family simply doesn’t have the time or resources to reinforce with consistency. The therapist must align their work with the family’s priorities, schedule, and other commitments.

 

It’s so important for the child’s therapist and caretakers to be on the same page because otherwise, the caretakers can unintentionally maintain a lot of the behaviors that the therapist is working to undo. ABA involves is a lot of thoughtful planning. We never ignore the child, but we do ignore behaviors that we want to see decrease – and that approach has to be consistent in every area of the child’s life.

 

Q: How did you come to work with ATG?

 

Brooke: I had been working for a large organization since graduate school and was really looking for a tighter knit group that felt more personal and less corporate. I wanted to be in a position to really advocate for the needs of each individual child and have the space to do what’s best for them without dealing with so many restrictions. I thought that ATG would give me that, and they have.

 

Q: I know you work with a lot of higher functioning learners. Tell me a bit about how you design programming to fit their needs.

 

Brooke: Severe learners have more severe needs and most require long-term therapy. This might not be true for a child with a lesser severity. Mostly this difference will be reflected in long-term goals. Higher functioning children will be able to accomplish more in a shorter period of time, and that should be reflected in the programing goals.

 

Another major difference is that for children with less severe needs, there can be a goal of complete integration into a regular classroom and other social situations. It is possible to get them to a place where they are independent. With more severe learners, those goals will look differently.

 

In both cases, the goal of ABA therapy is to work with the child on specific skills and ensure that, once learned, those skills are maintained. But, the type of skills worked on and the length of time it takes to learn those skills will vary from child to child.

 

With higher functioning children who are introduced to therapy at a very young age, it’s very possible to get them to a place where they no longer require intensive therapy in just a couple of years.

 

Q: Let’s talk about insurance. As a Clinical Director, what does the process of gaining insurance approval for your clients look like?

 

Brooke: As therapists, I believe that our primary responsibility is to advocate for what we feel is best for the child. We are the experts. So, it’s vital that we not make our recommendations based solely on what Insurance standards are.

 

One of the biggest challenges right now is that many insurance companies believe that ABA therapy should not occur outside the home even though it’s been shown to be extremely effective in shaping social behavior. This presents a challenge because there is no way to create social situations in the home.

 

So, at ATG, one of the things we’ve done is form community requests for insurance companies with comprehensive goals for the children we’re working with, the justification for those goals, and timelines that show how many community hours it will take. Then, we advocate hard for approval. In some cases, it’s unlikely that these requests will be approved. But we still try because our priority is the highest good for the child.

 

At ATG, our moto in every situation is to do the right thing for the child and their family. And so, we spend a lot of time advocating for that child. This is one of the things that sets us apart.

 

Q: Tell me a bit about your role as a Clinical Director. What are some of your responsibilities and priorities?

 

Brooke: It’s fantastic to work for a company that gives their therapists the room to do what’s right for the child without being driven by billable hours. The child-first philosophy at ATG allows me to be a good supervisor because I don’t have to operate under the pressure to constantly increase billable hours.

 

Part of my job is to advocate for my team so they can advocate for their clients. Our CEO is always encouraging us to “find the story”, which is simply a way of telling us to do what we can to understand the truth of every individual situation.

 

In many cases, when parents first come to us, they are stretched too thin and trying to do a lot of different things. Our goal is to wrap all of the child’s needs into the overall ABA therapy plan, getting everything working together and alleviating some of the pressure on the parents. So, a large part of my role is meeting with each of our therapists on a regular basis to ensure that the highest standard of care is being maintained in every situation.

 

As an in-home therapist, it’s really easy to feel like you’re on an island because you spend nearly all of your time in the field. We don’t go to the office every day and see all our co-workers. So, I try really hard to create opportunities for team support – situations where the therapists on my team can talk with one another, bounce ideas off each other, and feel supported.

 

Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

 

Brooke: With my crazy, huge Italian family! I have tons of nieces and nephews that I adore and spend a lot of time with. Between my family and my dog, there is never a dull moment. I also love to travel and am fortunate that ATG encourages all of us to have a good work-life balance.

 

 

Meet Matt Nordman, Regional Director for The Autism Therapy Group

Posted on: May 3rd, 2019 by Autism Therapy Group

Meet Matt Nordman, MA, BCBA, for The Autism Therapy Group

Meet Matt Nordman, MA, BCBA, and the Regional Director for The Autism Therapy Group. We sat down with Matt to ask him about his background, work as an ABA therapist, and what he finds most rewarding about working with children with autism.

 

This is our conversation.

 

Q: Tell me a bit about your background, Matt. What led you to become an BCBA?

 

Matt: I was pre-law in at the University of Illinois when I first heard about ABA. It grabbed my attention right away and I began doing research to find out more. Soon, I was shadowing other therapists as they worked with clients and fell in love with the kids and ABA therapy. So, I completely changed my career path and went to grad school with the intention of becoming a BCBA.

 

While in grad school, I worked at a day school in Illinois, mainly with High School age kids and also took on some in-home ABA clients. After graduation, I began working as a supervisor of an adult behavior program. I really enjoyed working with adults, but also missed working with kids. So, during that time I took on some part time contractual work with an ABA therapy group that focused on kids. That’s where I met Crystal, who now serves as the Director of Operations at The Autism Therapy Group.

 

I came on board here, at The Autism Therapy Group last November, and it’s been a wonderful experience so far.

 

Q: Changing from law to ABA is a huge shift. What was it about ABA therapy that made you realize it would be a better career choice for you?

 

Matt: My friends and family were pretty surprised, when I made that change, that’s for sure! At the time, I didn’t even have any experience beyond some volunteer work with kids with special needs.

 

In this field, you’ll often find therapists that are drawn to the work because they’ve been touched personally by it. They might have a family member with autism, for example. That’s not my story. I was just really drawn to working with special needs population.

 

While I knew I wanted to work with the special needs population, I also knew I didn’t want to teach in a classroom. I was much more interested in working with clients one-on-one. Besides being fascinated with ABA therapy, this was one of the other factors that drew me to become a therapist.

 

I also realized that there’s a huge need for therapists. There simply aren’t enough ABA Therapists in the world right now. I knew that if I went into this field, I could jump in and fill a need right away. That appealed to me.

 

But, ultimately, I wanted to go into a field that I felt would give me more job satisfaction then I suspected I would get from working in law. As a therapist, no two days are the same. Even working with the same client several days a week, each day is different from the next. I really enjoy that. Another thing I love about this field is the people I work with. You don’t go into a field like this for the money or power. You go into it because you love the work and want to make a difference. I have the pleasure every day of working with truly remarkable people. I think I definitely made the right choice.

 

Q: What is it about this work that you find personally rewarding?

 

Matt: No matter who you ask in this field, the number one answer to that question is probably going to be the same: it’s about seeing progress in the kids you work with. Nothing beats seeing the progress that kids make because of the work you’re doing with them.

 

ABA therapy is very data driven and this helps therapist see the progress their clients are making. When you’re working with the same child for a long period of time, it can be harder to see the progress that’s happening. But then you look at the data and see that a child who could barely speak a year ago is now speaking in full sentences and realize how much of a difference therapy is making for them.

 

Working with parents is also very rewarding. In grad school, the focus is so much on the child and on programming, that this was a pleasant surprise for me. But working with parents is a hugely rewarding part of being a therapist, especially when you have parents that want to be deeply involved.

 

Q: Could you share a story with us about a client that’s made an impact on you recently?

 

Matt: Oh man. There’s so many. You know, parents tell me all the time that their child is brushing their teeth or completing their morning routine on their own. And, that’s great, but not a surprise. We specifically program for things like that. It’s what we expect to happen. But, when the child does something that’s really out of the box, that’s particularly satisfying.

 

About 6 months ago, a parent came to me and told me that for the first time in her 7-year-old daughter’s young life, she spontaneously sparked a conversation by asking how her mom’s day was. When I first started working with this child, she was talking very infrequently and never initiated a conversation. So, to go from not talking at all to initiating a conversation that demonstrates care and interest in her mother’s life is amazing. That’s what makes ABA special.

 

Q: What do you enjoy about working at The Autism Therapy Group?

 

 

Matt: One of the things I love about The Autism Therapy Group is that they don’t believe in working their therapists into the ground. They believe more in quality than quantity and encourage us to take time to really get involved with families we work with.

 

But, I think the two things that I love the most about this company is that they are small enough for all of us to get to know the leadership team really well and open to our involvement in the company’s operations and overall direction.

 

My direct supervisor is our clinical director, Brooke. She’s amazing. In some companies, the people in executive positions aren’t BCBA’s themselves, so they don’t always understand the plight of supervisors and therapists. Everyone in this company is on a first name basis, and they encourage me to contribute to the organization’s success in ways that go beyond my work as a therapist. We’re undergoing some changes right now, and I’ve been given the opportunity to put together projects that contribute to the future of the company in a meaningful way. That’s something you don’t get everywhere.

 

Q: What does your life look like outside of work?

 

Matt: I just moved to Naperville because I got a new puppy, a blood hound named Watson, who needs plenty of room. He’s quite a handful! I love playing basketball whenever I can. And, two weeks ago I went on a trip to Iceland and proposed to my girlfriend. So, right now, I’m just taking care of my puppy and planning a wedding.

 

Meet Matt Nordman, MA, BCBA, for The Autism Therapy Group

Currently accepting new clients

 

Matt Nordman is currently accepting new clients. Click here to find out more about Matt, and our other therapists and executive team. As always, if you are a parent or caretaker of a child with autism and want to know if ABA therapy is right for your situation, give us a call. We always love talking with you.