Disability Work Gives Occupational Therapy International Exposure

Disability Work Gives Occupational Therapy International Exposure

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Kerrin O'Leary '12

When Kerrin O’Leary ’12 boarded a September flight to Denmark to present her Theo-Steelman Public Fellowship work at an international symposium, it was her first time ever on an airplane. It was also just about the last place she would have imagined herself when occupational therapy professor Lou Ann Griswold called her into her office in spring 2011 to suggest she apply for the fellowship.

At the time, O’Leary’s fellow OT major Natalie Gatlin was designing a project to evaluate social interaction skills in adolescents and young adults with autism and needed another student to develop and implement some social interventions for her study. Griswold had thought immediately of O’Leary for the project and suggested that the Steelman fellowship could fund her work.

Established in 1999 by David C. Steelman ’67, ’70G and Virginia Theo-Steelman ’62, ‘69G, the Theo-Steelman fellowship supports undergraduate students in the College of Health and Human Services who are interested in undertaking full-time summer service work in the public sector but might be daunted by the prospect of taking an unpaid internship. For O’Leary, the most daunting part of the fellowship was the work itself, which she conducted at the residential Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, N.H. Her experience working with individuals with autism was limited, and many of the students with whom she would be working were nonverbal.

“From designing the interventions to seeing students make real improvements to presenting to an international audience in Denmark, the entire experience has been amazing,” says O’Leary. “I owe so much of what I’ve learned in the past year and a half to the Theo-Steelman fellowship.”

“My first question was, ‘How do you design social interactions for students whose ability to communicate is profoundly impaired’?” she says.

O’Leary spent two weeks observing her students, who ranged in age from 13 to 21, then designed a range of game-based group activities that could be played using vocalizations and gestures and required varying degrees of interaction. The group met for 45 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks across the summer of 2011. Participants were evaluated at the beginning and end of the process on a range of social skills. Ultimately, Gatlin’s study proved inconclusive, but O’Leary’s interventions were deemed highly successful – so successful, in fact, that they continue to be used with students at the Spaulding center, where O’Leary still works part-time as a residential substitute teacher while completing her master’s degree at UNH.

The Theo-Steelman fellowship has always required that any project it funds be a “win-win,” benefiting the student who undertakes the project and the organization for which she or he works alike. Presenting her research at the September international AMPS occupational therapy symposium in Denmark took O’Leary’s fellowship work —and the definition of a win-win project—to a whole new level.

“From designing the interventions to seeing students make real improvements to presenting to an international audience in Denmark, the entire experience has been amazing,” says O’Leary. “I owe so much of what I’ve learned in the past year and a half to the Theo-Steelman fellowship.”

O’Leary’s sentiments about the fellowship program are shared with fellow past recipient Amanda Baum ’10, who presented her work on a separate Steelman-funded project at the September conference, as well.

Baum completed her Theo-Steelman fellowship in the summer of 2009, working with Community Partners in Dover, N.H., to support adults with developmental disabilities employed by a lawn care service called Yard Keepers. Working five days a week, Baum used lawn-care-related activities to help members of the Yard Keepers crew improve their social skills both on the job and elsewhere.

“Over the summer, some of the clients I worked with underwent a genuine transformation to become more social, which was immensely satisfying,” she recalls. “The experience also made me more confident about my own knowledge and skills, which I’ve carried with me into the work I do today.”

Now a pediatric occupational therapist with the Center for Pediatric Therapy in Wallingford, Conn., Baum works with children with sensory integration issues. And while she thought after her Steelman fellowship experience that she would work with adults, she sees a great deal of relevance in her current setting to the skills she gained at Community Partners.

“The fellowship work gave me a lot of practice talking with clients and their families,” she says. “It also showed me that I could take on any new challenge and be successful.”

Baum was able to share her fellowship research at the 2010 UNH Undergraduate Research Conference (URC), the College’s Grimes Competition, and a national American Occupational Therapy Association conference before taking her research poster to Copenhagen in September. O’Leary and Gatlin delivered a formal presentation of their 2011 study at the September symposium – and were the only students to present at the four-day event.

“I couldn’t be prouder of these young women for the work they did and the poise they showed on a very public stage,” Griswold says. “They are wonderful representatives of the work being done by the OT department here at UNH and the great things that can come from the Theo-Steelman Public Service Fellowship.”

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UNH Today