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From Artist to Behavior Technician

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If someone had asked me ten years ago what I would be doing today, managing a center for children with Autism would not have been my answer!

AUTUMN KOSTKA: Artist, Mother and Lead Behavior Technician for CDC’s Autism and Behavioral Services program.

I always had dreams of being an art professor. From the time I was four, I’ve taken every art class possible. I’ve worked in all mediums I can think of, except maybe metal and glass… Art was my life and passion, but it became just a hobby as my world was about to change dramatically.

I was 24 with two beautiful little boys, flying by the seat of my pants and taking life as it came. Then, I began to notice there was something different about my youngest. At age two he was still speaking only gibberish. He also had repetitive behaviors, and was interested in things most of us overlook every day. Even as a tiny tot, he was obsessed with presidents and refused to respond to any name but George Washington. (For years he was fondly known as Mr. President by the Thompson Falls, MT locals!)

We saw multiple specialists trying to find some answers, but I was starting to feel alone with my questions.

COMFORT IN KNOWING

Autumn with her two amazing sons, the younger of whom has autism.

In 2007, I found the Child Development Center (CDC). They saved my sanity! Finally, someone acknowledged my feelings and validated my concerns. My baby boy was diagnosed with Autism. We had no idea what to do, but, we had an answer. Better yet, we had a team at CDC to support us on our journey.

One of the first things our Family Support Specialist (FSS) from CDC did was give me the 100 Day Kit. It was my saving grace! If you are newly processing an autism diagnosis, I highly recommend this resource. We were lucky to have an amazing FSS who helped me gain the knowledge and tools my son would need to succeed. The world was not going to adapt to my son, so I would need to teach him to adapt to the world.

As a spontaneous creative, I had been on the no-plan plan. That changed after my son’s diagnosis. Now, my life was a schedule of schedules! We planned everything as far out as could be foreseen. Head first, I dove into the world of Autism. I wanted into his world, to know what he was thinking. Reading all the books I could find, going to conferences and researching endlessly, I learned as much as possible. I refused to accept that he would not lead a normal life.

A NEW CALLING

Unfortunately, because I lived in a rural area (Sanders County, MT), there were no Direct Support Professionals or Behavior Technicians to come into my home and work with my son. It was up to me—with guidance from CDC—to provide the early intervention he needed. I didn’t know it yet, but I was preparing for my new career.

Autumn as a substitute teacher with her students in Thompson Falls, MT. Ever the artist, she painted the classroom’s cupboards.

In 2013, CDC offered me a position as a Direct Support Professional. It was my job to support families, like mine, in Sanders County. At the time, I was working as a substitute teacher on top of four other part-time positions. It was a lot, but I was excited about the opportunity!

Soon after, I heard CDC had a Learning Center devoted to early intervention for children with Autism. I immediately knew this was my calling.

Following my intuition—and not, for the first time in a while, a detailed plan—I packed up my boys and moved to Missoula on hope. My hope: that a position would open at the Learning Center, and that I would fill it. The CDC made it happen when they hired me as a Behavior Technician shortly after I arrived in Missoula. I was thrilled! Then, in August of 2016, I was promoted to Lead Behavior Technician. I now manage the CDC’s Learning Center in Missoula.

MEANINGFUL WORK

My fear when my son was younger was that he would never be able to live on his own or adapt to society. He is now eleven, and there is no doubt in my mind that he will thrive. I give myself to this job because I know early intervention works: I see proof every time I look at my son.

Working at the Child Development Center lets me give back. I’ve heard so many times “It takes a village to raise a child.” These words have rung true more than I would have ever expected. I love my job and am proud to work with such an outstanding team!

We put the child first, and base programs on the parent’s wants and needs. I wish people could see the amount of dedication, the endless conversations, the late-night planning and early-morning prep: the LOVE that we put into custom programs for each and every one of the kids.

There is a saying, “If you have met one child with Autism, then you have met one child with Autism.” Each child that comes into the Learning Center is as unique as a fingerprint. I make it a goal to learn something new each day, and those kids make sure that I do!

 THE LITTLE THINGS

Autumn reading with a child at the CDC’s Learning Center in Missoula.

I’ve seen little boys and girls come into the center with parents struggling to find answers. Thanks to the hard work of the team, even in a short period of time, children make huge breakthroughs whether in communication, socialization or the simple tasks we take for granted in our daily lives.

I never expected that seeing growth and progress in the children I work with would be as exciting as seeing it in my own son, but it is! Not only do I love to see the kids succeed, but when their parents see it, all the tough days are worth while.

Parenting is a 24-hour job. When you have a child with a disability, it feels there are never enough hours in the day. I think that’s why it is so easy to celebrate the small steps as much as the big ones: they are all great achievements.

My son was almost five years old when he first called me “mama.” If I am able to help even one parent capture the feeling I had in that moment, I consider my work a success.

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