Meet Dr. Jennie
As a Maryland native, I'll admit that it was the allure of sunny skies and palm trees as well as the broad education curriculum offered by University of Miami (UM) that drew me South. It has been the development of an entirely different landscape – that of a rapidly growing autism community – that has kept me here.
After completing my bachelor's degree at UM, majoring in Special Education and Creative Writing, I obtained a master's degree in Exceptional Student Education and Reading, with a focus in ESOL. At the time I had been teaching special education in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for three years, teaching both resource room and inclusion classes in an elementary setting.
It was in the classroom where I began to see beyond the outward attributes of my students with autism and to understand the fascinating and misunderstood worlds of often brilliance, genius and frustration locked inside. I met a six year old able to work through multiplication faster than I could muster on my calculator. Another could identify (and would loudly announce) local news helicopters by the pitch of their blades as they crossed above the classroom. Another was non-verbal, yet I had no doubt that he understood every word I was saying to him. I was fascinated. I was also aware that to foster the extraordinary talents I was observing, I needed more supports, knowledge, and strategies.
In 2008, I was introduced to the DIR/Floortime approach to teaching individuals with autism and related disorders, a developmental and relationship based approach that focuses on fostering passions and strengths over deficits. This model views each child as an individual and uses a child's strengths to promote development. Understanding that autism is a neuro-developmental disorder, a developmental approach made sense. Here, the focus was not on memorization or compliance, but rather on true comprehension of concepts through hands-on activities, and building on each child's ability to be an independent thinker and problem solver. This approach made sense to me, and implementation of DIR/Floortime was taking my students to new heights.
This model was put into practice at CasaBlanca Academy, a non-profit school for students with autism and the only one in the state based on the DIR/Floortime approach of teaching. As Lead Teacher, Director of Education and later the President of the Board of Directors, I established the school's educational curricula, oversaw the therapeutic program, led all staff training experiences, coordinated school-based services, community events, and related programing. Most significantly, I saw some of the greatest advancements in students that I had seen, or even learned about, throughout my career.
Committed to remaining on the leading edge, I sought out the most progressive organizations and experts in the field. I attended conferences, visited schools and met with teams of researchers. I traveled, networked and held conference calls late into the evening, eager to find and apply specific strategies from around the globe that were proving to unlock this hidden potential. But mostly, I learned from my students. I came to discover that the exceptional skills and hidden talents of many individuals diagnosed with autism were far greater than I had imagined.
In 2013, I graduated with a Ph.D. from Barry University, where my research included a collaboration with Dr. Rick Solomon, the Medical Director of the P.L.A.Y Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I left the school in 2014 with the intention of spreading this model to others who would benefit from it. I started working with individual families, children, schools, businesses, and other professionals. Presently, I am an autism educator, consultant, and DIR/Floortime provider in South Florida. I am an adjunct Professor in the master's program at Lynn University and recently finished the online certification process for both the PLAY Project and Teaching PLAY. I also work with a professional development organization where I developed and present full day autism-based workshop ‘tours’ across the country, training other professionals in the field.
Most recently I started a new initiative, ‘Autism Family Field Trips’ with the intention of providing fun enrichment activities that are not only fun for the whole family, include meaningful social interactions, and hands-on experiences, but they also work to unite the local autism community. My goal is to unite the the autism community through fun and meaningful activities for parents and their children alike. I believe in the importance of connecting and playing- - at home, at school, and in the community!